New command-line tools in High Sierra

Sunday October 1, 2017

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Here’s a list of the differences between the main command-line tool listings in High Sierra compared to its predecessor Sierra. What’s new? What’s gone? Here you can find out.

There are not very many new tools, and none seem vital from an everyday-usage perspective. Perhaps of most interest is the removal of the command-line ftp and telnet programs – although surely this was a long time coming considering how insecure these are.

There’s also a new yaa archive filetype that I can’t find any information about online. But take a look at the list see what you think. If you can provide more info of any of the tools then share the info in the comments below.

To get this information I simply diff’ed the file listings of /bin, /sbin, /usr/sbin and /usr/bin on Sierra and High Sierra – these being listed in the $PATH for a standard macOS user (/usr/local/bin/ is also listed, but does not exist within a default install of macOS).

To compare the contents of the paths, I used a virtual machine with a fresh Sierra installation, and then updated it to High Sierra. Notably, the Xcode command-line tools were NOT installed, and nor were any third-party command-line managers like brew. It’s possible a virtual machine installation doesn’t install certain services common to an actual bare-metal installation of macOS. Therefore some command-line tools might be missing from this list.

In each case I’ve provided the summary in the man page for that command, or the description that appears when you type the command followed by ––help.

Here’s the new tools provided within High Sierra. See later in this blog post for tools that have disappeared.

/bin & /sbin
All filenames identical.

Contents of /usr/bin

Control the macOS content cache (from AssetCache manpage: “AssetCache speeds up the download of software and content distributed by Apple by locally caching assets that were previously downloaded on your network. AssetCache is launched automatically by the system. Users should not run AssetCache manually.”) MacKungFu note: This is part of the new caching server provided with the client macOS installation, and which was formerly part of macOS Sierra Server.)

This tool generates files that permit Apple to investigate issues with the disk and storage configuration of your device and to help improve related Apple products.

Configures the Disk Mount Conditioner. The Disk Mount Conditioner is a kernel provided service that can degrade the disk I/O being issued to specific mount points, providing the illusion that the I/O is executing on a slower device.

ktrace can configure the system to trace events, or record them to a file, and print a human-readable representation of the events.

yaa creates and manipulates YAA archives. MacKungFu note: I can’t find this archive file format mentioned anywhere online. Bizarre.

Contents of /usr/sbin

The Bluetooth daemon handles SDP transactions, link key management, and incoming connection acceptance. It cannot be used directly by the user. (MacKungFu note: the older blued is no longer in High Sierra but is present in Sierra.)

Control and report on CKKS (MacKungFu note: Appears to be CloudKit-related.)

skywalkctl is a utility used to interact with the Skywalk subsystem, which provides the plumbing between various networking-related pieces of software and hardware. It should only be used in a test and debug context. Using it for any other purpose is strongly discouraged.

The wfsctl utility allows administrators to start, stop, and check the status of the WebDAV File Sharing service (WFS). It also allows administrators to create and delete WebDAV share points. It operates by configuring the Apache httpd server. The wfsctl command requires root privileges.

Tools removed from High Sierra
Here are the tools in Sierra that have been removed from High Sierra. Note that I have not included tools that have been removed but that are still actually present with updated version numbers.

/bin & /sbin
As above, all filenames are identical.

Contents of /usr/bin

Control the macOS caching server.
Utility to verify certificates. The verify command verifies certificate chains.
Internet file transfer program. ftp is the user interface to the Internet standard File Transfer Protocol. The program allows a user to transfer files to and from a remote network site.
Server and Clients for Emacs
Server and Clients for Emacs
Server and Clients for Emacs
Server and Clients for Emacs
User interface to the TELNET protocol. The telnet command is used to communicate with another host using the TELNET protocol.
No man page but it’s part of the Ruby on Rails framework.
In its first form, tethered-caching creates a tethered network, starts a caching service, and prepares all tethered iOS devices to use that network and caching service. The caching service in macOS Server is configured and started if macOS Server is installed on this computer.

Contents of /usr/sbin

apxs is a tool for building and installing extension modules for the Apache HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) server.
The Mac OS X Bluetooth daemon.
The timed utility is a time server daemon which may be invoked at boot time via launchd.
The timedc utility is used to control the operation of the timed program.

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5 things you probably haven't spotted in High Sierra

Saturday September 30, 2017

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Using High Sierra? Here’s a handful of things that you probably haven’t spotted. Discovered any more? Share them in the comments below. Remember: We’re only looking for things few people have yet seen. Headline features are easily read about on other blogs around and about.

1. Automatic GPU switching when MacBooks use mains power
Plug in a power adapter on a MacBook Pro with a GPU, and it’ll automatically activate the GPU. With previous releases of macOS/OS X, the GPU was activated on an as-needs basis, such as when you ran Adobe Photoshop.
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2. Caching server
macOS High Sierra Server edition (around $20 on the App Store) has always been able to cache updates for other devices on the network. In other words, an iOS update would automagically be cached when it became available, and then all iPhones and iPads could grab it without having to download it themselves – saving time and Internet bandwidth. Nothing needed to be done to make this happen – it just worked. Well, in High Sierra, caching comes to all Macs. Just open System Preferences, click the Sharing icon, and then put a check in Content Caching. Mac updates will be cached too. Here’s a nice techie overview of this new feature.
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3. Note pinning
Important notes within the Notes app can now be pinned to the top of the list, so you don’t miss them. Just swipe right on them, or right-click and select Pin Note. Or click File > Pin Note. This one was actually flagged by Apple in its intro to High Sierra that pops-up a day or so after you upgrade, but I’ll bet you didn’t bother to look at that, did you!?
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4. “All my files” is now “Recents”
Easily one of the most dubious feature additions of recent years, All My Files in Finder’s sidebar was supposed to present you a quick at-a-glance view of things you’ve worked on. Instead, it was just a mess of files. In High Sierra, it’s switched out and now Recents takes its place, so that you now see – well – a list of the files you’ve recently accessed. It’s arguably still not very useful because it lists pretty much everything you’ve opened recently, and it would be more useful if it could reflect files you’ve actually edited or altered. Ah well. Maybe next time, Apple?
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5. Media player keys now control YouTube (and others)
Until now the media keys on the keyboard, as well as the earpods’ in-line remote, have only controlled iTunes (and the system volume). In High Sierra, the keys control playback of HTML5 video players, such as YouTube. This works in a slightly odd although ultimately sensible way, in that it controls the last thing you started playing. For example, if you start a YouTube video playing and then start a song playing in iTunes, the media keys will control iTunes – just as they always did. But should you pause and then resume playback of the YouTube video, using the on-screen controls, the media keys will now control that YouTube video – because that was the last thing you started playing.
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See also George Gardside’s terrific summary of hidden macOS High Sierra features. iPhone Hacks also wrote an interesting summary but there’s a lot of obvious stuff in there and a lot of filler (does anybody outside of India care that there’s now a Hindi San Francisco variant?!).

Hey! Are you a YouTuber looking to put all this into a cool video? Rather than stealing it, why not provide a quick link back to this page in the comments beneath the video? You’ll feel a lot less dirty for doing so, and maybe together we can create a fairer world…? It’s got to be worth a try.

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Speed-up Word 2016

Saturday June 17, 2017

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As a professional writer I use Microsoft Word a lot but Word 2016 has always been problematically and annoyingly slow once I get beyond a few pages of text. I find that there’s a delay when I type, so what I see on screen trails behind, and sometimes scrolling down pages mean they don’t redraw instantly, leaving with me a grey screen for a second or two. Sadly, there’s no sign of a fix from Microsoft despite numerous complaints.

So, I searched to find some solutions. If you have the same problem, any or indeed all of these tips might help.

Note: If your problem is Word 2016’s slow start-up from cold, and not slowdowns during editing, see this older tip.

Make it compatible
Look at the title of the document in the Word window. Does it read immediately afterwards [Compatibility Mode]? This means the document hasn’t been updated for take advantage of all Word 2016’s new features, and it seems this also causes slowdowns. The fix is to click File > Convert Document. You’ll see a warning about how the layout of the document might be adjusted, so you might choose to save a copy of the document beforehand. Note two things. First, if the file was a .doc file then will be switched to .docx. Saving the file will create a new .docx version of the file alongside the older .doc file. Secondly, this change might cause problems if you work with people running old versions of Word. If that’s the case then the best policy might be to get them to open one of your converted documents as a test, to see what happens.

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Switch to draft mode
Do you work in Print Layout view mode? I do, and have for years because I need to see when I’m filling up pages. However, switching to Draft (click the View menu and select the option) will very likely speed-up the document if you have a lot of text. Yes, you sacrifice WYSIWYG layout, and to me the whole thing looks a lot messier and… well, draft-like. But it’s definitely faster. Don’t forget you can adjust the zoom level using the slider on the status bar at the bottom right.

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Quit Dropbox
Dropbox integrates with Word nowadays and some people report that the integration has negative effects on Word 2016. Just try quitting Dropbox – hold down Option (Alt on some keyboards) and click the Dropbox menubar icon, then select Quit Dropbox. If your problems go away then you’ve identified the cause. It’s not clear how Dropbox integrates with Word but if you just can’t work without Dropbox running then you might choose to turn off Dropbox’s Accessibility integration with macOS. To do so, open System Preferences, click the Security & Privacy icon, and then click the Privacy tab. Then click the Accessibility icon at the left of the window, and remove the check/tick alongside Dropbox (you might need to click the padlock at the bottom left first to allow this system change). Note that this might also affect Dropbox’s visual integration with Finder, but everything else will work just fine.

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Turn off grammar checking
Allegedly, grammar checking can also slow down Word 2016, so to turn it off start by clicking the Word 2016 menu bar entry, and then Preferences (or simply tap Cmd+comma). In the preferences dialog box that appears, click the Spelling & Grammar icon, and the remove the check from Check Grammar As You Type.

Use Office 2011
My version of Word is provided as part of a business subscription so I’m not sure if the following is true but it certainly used to be the case that it was possible to downgrade to Office 2011 if you have a personal Office 365 subscription. Just head over to the download section of Office 365 and make the choice, or head over to MacAdmins, which lists all the official Office for Mac downloads (this is entirely legal – the downloads won’t work until you login with your Office 365 or work-supplied account details). Although not as pretty, Word 2011 is still a damn fine word processor and speedy to boot – it starts in the blink of an eye, and I’ve never experienced any slowdowns either. I know some people will suggest switching to LibreOffice, but in my tests it’s still not as polished as Microsoft’s products and you’ll still get those annoying file compatibility glitches. However, you might like to give it a try. Of course, there’s always Apple’s own Pages but for compatibility reasons – it can only export Word documents and not natively work with them – I’ve found it to be not useful.

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Massively speed-up your Mac's public VPN

Friday May 26, 2017

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Update July 2017: I can no longer recommend the application listed below because it has serious DNS leak issues that compromise your privacy. Instead I recommend the use of Viscosity. Alas, this isn’t free, but does not have the DNS leak issues. The original article is still below, and the advice is still good for Viscosity, even if the steps are slightly different.

Recently I underwent a revelatory experience when using the public VPN service I subscribe to. I’d only ever been able to get 1Mbit speeds, at best, and typically the speed yo-yoed between that and just a few kilobits. On a whim I tried a third-party VPN client and, wow, suddenly I was getting near-native DSL speeds – up to 50Mbits, or thereabouts, and staying around that range while downloading.

I had spent a long time thinking the VPN service simply wasn’t very good, when the real story was that their client wasn’t any good (I had updated and reinstalled it several times). I understand from speaking to others that this is sadly not uncommon.

If you’re in a similar position then here are some steps that might help.

OpenVPN config files
We’re going to use the free-of-charge Tunnelblick app, but before downloading and installing it we need to go on a voyage of discovery. Visit the support/help pages of your VPN service and find out if they provide OpenVPN access points. They very likely will, and often they do so specifically for mobile devices, or Linux computers, so it might help to search for something like “Android OpenVPN” or “Linux OpenVPN”. What you’ll probably find will be ready-made OpenVPN configuration file downloads. OpenVPN configuration files come with .ovpn or .conf file extensions. Some VPN services might even offers specific readymade Tunnelblick configuration files.

You’ll probably find many OpenVPN config files available, with one for each end-point city and/or country (that is, there might be ones for California, or London, or Belgium etc). Download the ones for locations you want to use on a regular basis but, crucially, rename each as you download them to make it clear what the location is (that is, something like “California.ovpn”). Ensure you leave the file extension alone, however.

If offered a choice between UDP and TCP OpenVPN config files, select UDP, because this is usually fastest.

Here are links for readymade OpenVPN configs for some popular public VPN services:

Know of others? Add them to the comments below.

Setting up Tunnelblick
Download Tunnelblick, and then double-click its icon to start the installation procedure. It’s best to select the stable release, rather than beta, or at least until you get more experience using Tunnelblick.

When installing Tunnelblick you’ll be prompted to install OpenVPN too. This is a necessity because this open source and hugely popular app unfortunately doesn’t come preinstalled with macOS. However, you’ll have to type your macOS login password when prompted to let installation take place. During setup you’ll also be asked if you want Tunnelblick to periodically check for connection changes while you’re connected to a VPN – the choice is up to you (it’s a good idea) – and you’ll finally be asked if you already have configuration files. You do, of course, so select that option when offered.

When setup has finished, simply double-click the first of the OpenVPN configuration files you downloaded earlier. This will install it, and that file can then be deleted. Repeat for any of the other OpenVPN configuration files you downloaded earlier.

Opening/closing a VPN connection
From this point on opening a VPN connection is simple. Just click the OpenVPN icon on the menu bar (its icon is that of a train tunnel), and then select which connection you want to use. When making the initial connection you’ll be prompted for your VPN username and password, so type them when required, and then put a check in the Save In Keychain boxes so that you won’t have to enter them again in future.

To disconnect the VPN connection, again click the Tunnelblick menu bar icon, but this time select the Disconnect option from the menu. Alternatively, simply quitting Tunnelblick will kill the connection.

Hovering the mouse cursor over the Tunnelblick menubar icon will cause a pop-up window to appear showing connection speed and status.

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