Book Review: Cooking with OSX

By Graham K. Rogers

Dornfest, Rael and Kevin Hemenway. Mac OSX Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools. O'Reilly: Sebastopol, CA. US$24.95

As a poverty-stricken student in my 30s (I was a late starter), I used to feed myself. Having been used to good food, I saw no reason to follow the beans-on-toast regime of some of my friends. I do what I think anyone should do if I do not know: I learn. The cook-book that earned my undying respect was written by a lady named Delia Smith. Delia is a director of Norwich City FC and some suggest that the teams superiority over local rivals, Ipswich, is due in part to her skills in getting the boys to eat well. The beauty of Delia's writing was that each process was explained clearly so that even a novice could succeed with relatively ambitious fare.

Recently I have been looking at a number of books on OSX. The explanations in these, particularly the Pogue, "Missing Manual" series are fine in dealing with the concepts involved. Sometimes you need a cook-book. The badly-named Mac OSX Hacks has , as its subtitle states, 100 tips for getting much more out of OSX. I do not like the title because of the negative perception many have of the word "hacker". What we have here are a great number of really fine methods to roll your sleeves up and make the Mac work hard.

When the book first arrived I was not wholly impressed. The early pages contained what to me were fairly standard tips. And that was an error on my part. I have several e-mails a week asking for suggestions and, as is the point of eXtensions, some people are new to OSX and need that type of help. Then I had a problem. Although the other reference books I have deal with setting up a webserver on the Mac, and I was fairly happy with what I had to do, it was not until I read through the sections in Mac OSX Hacks that the penny finally dropped. Then I wanted more and am now looking at installing other web functions. Not only does this book show you what you need but it walks you through the steps.

Each "Hack" is indicated with a number (1-100) and a title in mauve ink. To the left is a thermometer icon, suggesting the level of difficult. I do not agree totally with the authors' ratings, finding some with a moderate rating to be easy, while others rated easy, I thought less so. The hacks are not sorted in order of difficulty: the first few are moderate and then there are some that are easy. Those towards the end of the book, particularly those dealing with the web-server, are moderate to difficult: they need to be read carefully a few times before starting the process. To return to my cookbook analogy, one would not try to make a multi-tiered wedding cake if all you knew was how to make cup-cakes.

The figure of 100, is a touch misleading. There are many more tips and fixes in these pages as several "Hacks" include many instructions, so a process tends to build. I particularly liked the way that the "Hacks" referred to others in the book, so that it was clear that the tips were part of knowledge expansion: increasing abilities as you go.

The pages are reasonably generous with grey-scale images showing what is to be expected as you work through each of the suggestions. This use of screen images is a feature of many recent OSX books and takes advantage of "Grab" a screenshot utility that comes with OSX. The authors here have taken some of these images and ringed specific information in the shots, making perfectly clear what it is we are looking at. When coding is needed, this is also clearly written (in bold). Text sections also include printouts of code that would be reported when entering strategic commands: this is what you do, and this is what happens. All text is clear and kind to the eyes.

A fifteen-page index competes the book. This is a useful appendix that some authors forget needs as much work as the content itself. The Index pages are bordered in the same mauve that highlights titles, so is easy to access quickly.

Although two authors are credited, there are sixteen other contributors, so the writing styles (and approaches) differ. Some, such as Hack 65, Running Linux on an iBook (yes, seriously, and Windows) are somewhat anecdotal. Others, like Hack 99, Installing the MySQL Database, are considerably more business-like. The latter, for example, provides clear instructions as well as details of download sites. Of great value here was the detail of the directory structure -- work is done in Unix rather than in the GUI -- although it is not something that I would suggest for a novice.

Mac OSX Hacks is not the definitive book to show a new user the way into using OSX. However, it would be of great value to students (and some of us teachers) who are beginning to expand the ways of working with the Mac. That funny little box that sits on my desk is far more powerful (and stable) than a lot of cheaper PCs and I am constantly looking for ways to get more out of it. In many cases, as this book shows, I can increases its value without the need for buying any additional software because the Mac (and the Unix) already has it.

For further information, e-mail to Graham K. Rogers.

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