How to get a Mac to stop trying to play audio through an HDMI monitor that doesn’t have speakers

How has it come to this? It’s 2020, and on top of everything else (a global pandemic, an incompetent and megalomaniacal U.S. president, police in my neighborhood murdering Black people, riots in my neighborhood over police murdering Black people, climate change-induced forest fires destroying California, murder hornets), my MacBook Pro has suddenly decided that it must try to send audio output to my HDMI monitor whenever it’s plugged in, even though the monitor doesn’t have speakers, and I have a set of speakers plugged into the headphone jack.

It’s a completely asinine scenario, and the solution is even more asinine, but it does seem to work. It also maybe just fixes one annoying issue I always had with my speaker setup: I would have to turn the Mac’s volume all the way up to get adequate output to the speakers, which have their own volume control.

What’s the solution? Create an aggregate device. What’s that? I’ll show you.

First go into Applications > Utilities and open Audio MIDI Setup. Hopefully you’ve never had to open this little utility before, because I doubt anyone who works in interface design at Apple ever has. (ZING!)

You’ll see something like this… but without the last item, which is the aggregate device I already created, much like a TV chef who already has a finished dish waiting in the oven.

That “VS248” is my HDMI monitor. “External Headphones” is my speakers, plugged into the MacBook Pro’s headphone jack. Then of course there are the internal microphone and speakers of the Mac itself.

Click the little plus sign at the bottom left, and choose Create Aggregate Device. Click the checkboxes under Use for “External Headphones” and your monitor. That will make them appear in Subdevices above. When I did this, it had VS248 on the left and External Headphones on the right, which was assigning the monitor to channels 1 and 2, and the headphones to channels 3 and 4. You can drag-and-drop the names of the devices to change the order. Move your External Headphones to the left so their color is assigned to channels 1 and 2. You can also give this aggregate device a distinct name by clicking its name in the left sidebar and typing in what you want. I cleverly called mine “Headphones and VS248.”

That’s it! Now close this window, open System Preferences, and click on Sound > Output. Select your new aggregate device for sound output, and you should be all set.

One thing I noticed about this that was initially annoying, but then I realized is actually a good thing! was that now the volume control and mute “buttons” on my MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar were grayed out. Damn it! Oh, wait. That’s actually fine, because this aggregate device is automatically setting the output on the headphone jack to maximum, allowing me to easily control the volume in the speakers with the speakers’ volume knob. I no longer have to manually turn the Mac up to maximum. And, hopefully, although I haven’t tried it yet, this also means that when I take my Mac away from my desk and plug my earbuds directly into the headphone jack, I won’t have to remember to adjust the volume before blowing out my eardrums! The Mac should remember the optimal volume I already have set for when the sound output is External Headphones-only.

How to get (Mac) Safari to stop showing Favorites and Siri Suggestions panel when clicking the address bar

Not only do I never use it, I scarcely ever even noticed it before, but in recent versions of Safari on the Mac, whenever you click the address bar, a large panel pops out under it, displaying Favorites and Siri Suggestions.

Like I said, I scarcely noticed it before, but I did notice it the other day when I was doing a screen sharing session with a client. Luckily I don’t have anything embarrassing in my browsing history for it to reveal, but my recent activity did convince Siri that I would be extremely interested in links pertaining to the Minnesota Twins. Which I was not at that particular time.

But then it occurred to me… I never — I mean never — click on anything in that panel, but it does add to the visual “noise” of my daily browsing activities. So there’s got to be a way to get rid of it.

Yes, there is. I hunted around for it, so you don’t have to.

First, let’s turn off Siri Suggestions. This is an insidious pathogen that has metastasized throughout macOS, so if you’re like me and never use anything Siri-related, let’s kill it everywhere.

Open up System Preferences and click on Siri

Then in the Siri preferences, click the Siri Suggestions and Privacy button.

I went through the full list of apps and unchecked all the boxes, but at the very least you’ll want to uncheck Show Siri Suggestions in App under Safari:

Now if you go to Safari and click on the address bar, you’ll see Siri Suggestions is gone, but the panel with Favorites still shows up. You can get rid of it entirely by going to Safari > Preferences and clicking the Search tab. (Which… uh… is that really the way its icon is supposed to look???)

Uncheck Show Favorites under Smart Search Field… and maybe everything else. Then put on your tinfoil hat, sit back, and relax!

iCloud Drive: Don’t do what I did!

Being deeply immersed in the Apple ecosystem, a couple of years ago I made a decision:

I’ll move all of my work files onto iCloud Drive!

I work (as in, write code and edit image files) mainly on my Mac. But I was seduced by the possibility of accessing all of my work files in a pinch on my iPad (which I still had at the time) or even my iPhone. Plus, since my files would be in “The Cloud”, I could even access them from another computer (or from my Mac when booted into Windows) if I needed to, by logging into my iCloud account from a web browser.

It seemed… so obvious. So perfect.

Umm… maybe not.

For the past two years, I have been constantly fighting with iCloud Drive. One of its signature features is that it can manage disk use on your Mac automatically, so as your hard drive fills up, it deletes files you haven’t used in a while, keeping them safely in the cloud while freeing up disk space on your Mac. And with my MacBook Pro sporting a (meager?) 256 GB hard drive, with 40-odd GB allocated for a Windows partition, and over 60 GB occupied by Logic Pro X sound samples, my drive is filling up constantly.

While this is great in principle, it is completely unworkable in practice for three interrelated reasons:

  1. If you have a large amount of data in play here (for me, it’s in the vicinity of 100 GB), iCloud Drive may get to a point where it is constantly transferring data. If you’re not on a gigabit fiber connection, this can both use up all of your Internet bandwidth and take ages.
  2. Because #1 is taking place constantly, if you do find yourself needing to grab one of those files that has been deleted locally (as indicated in the Finder by a cloud icon with a down-pointing arrow), you may find yourself waiting several minutes for the file to become available, even if it’s small (as in, under 1 MB).
  3. In an effort to make this all appear seamless to the user, the Finder represents cloud-only files as… regular files. But they’re actually just pointers with a hidden .icloud filename extension… as you’ll find if you ever try to perform Finder actions inside another program, such as syncing files to a web server using Transmit.

All of this might be tolerable if Apple gave you any control whatsoever over which files get deleted locally. But they don’t.

It gets worse.

What’s worse than getting stuck in this situation? Trying to get out of it. It’s like quicksand… the more you struggle against it, the faster and deeper you sink into it.

I made the decision earlier this week to extricate myself from the iCloud Drive nightmare, by buying a 250 GB SanDisk external SSD. First off, a little unpaid plug for this drive… it is awesome. It’s super light and small, seemingly at least as fast as the internal SSD in my MacBook Pro (in that I am able to transfer multiple gigabytes of data in seconds), and it even looks cool. I’m going to be using it all the time, so I’m actually considering putting adhesive Velcro on both it and the top of my MacBook Pro so I can keep it permanently attached. (Which says a lot about how much my regard for Apple has fallen lately — in the past I would never have sullied the exterior of an Apple laptop with something adhesive.)

So anyway, external SSD acquired, my goal was to start transferring my files from iCloud Drive over to the SSD.

Uh… good luck with that.

Because I’m now at a point where I have more than double the amount of data stored on iCloud Drive as I have available space locally, a majority of my files are now only in “The Cloud.” Ugh. Which means waiting for all of that data transfer stuff to happen. If only I could, somehow, bypass this broken process, I thought.

There has to be a way.

tl;dr Nope.

So, here’s the thing. I’ve been using iCloud Drive for the bulk of my cloud-based file storage, but I do use other services as well. I have Google Drive. I have Dropbox. I know how they work.

Specifically, I know that you can, y’know, like, select a folder and download the entire thing as a zip file.

So I thought to myself, I’ll just go to iCloud in a web browser and do that! Download the whole friggin’ thing as a big zip file, or maybe a few zip files, and be done with it.

Nope.

For whatever reason, iCloud doesn’t let you do that. Probably because of the whole seamless “It just works” Kool-Aid drinking song everyone in Apple land has been singing. (Myself included, mostly.)

You can only download individual files, not folders, from the iCloud web interface. It does let you select multiple files at once, but only within one folder.

Check out this delightful thread full of know-it-all asshats whose response to a legitimate question — why doesn’t Apple allow this thing that every competing service does? — is to challenge the validity of the question and the intelligence of the questioner. (That thread is now closed so I’ve just opened my own new thread on the topic. Watch this space for trolls!)

There. Are. Plenty. Of. Reasons. A. Person. Might. Have. For. Needing. To. Do. Something. That. You. Have. Not. Previously. Considered. Stop challenging their premises and answer their question, or shut the hell up.

Whew.

I ended up “solving” the problem by resigning myself to the fact that it wouldn’t be completely solved. So instead I took the drastic approach of temporarily logging out of iCloud completely, just so I could strand the files I did have saved locally, and copied them to the SSD.

Then I logged back into iCloud Drive and tried to get it to stop syncing my files by unchecking the Desktop and Documents Folders option.

The only problem is, I didn’t have my work files in those folders. I had them in a separate top-level folder in the iCloud Drive that I created myself. Because, you know, you can do that and it didn’t seem like a crazy idea or anything.

It was.

I discovered this morning that even though I had done all of this and tried to purge the nightmare of constant iCloud Drive syncing from my Mac life, once I had logged back into iCloud, the Mac went right back to quietly, constantly, syncing that iCloud Drive data on my Mac. As I type this, I have a Finder window open to my iCloud Drive and in the status bar it says “downloading 120,079 items (36.14 GB of 48.66 GB)”. Fun!

So, my new plan for today is to watch that window, and as the little cloud icons next to individual folders goes away, I’m copying those folders to my SSD and then deleting them from iCloud. My assumption is that as I do this, I am freeing up more local space and iCloud will continue to download the remaining items, and eventually I’ll have everything transferred over.

But please… do yourself a favor and don’t do what I did. iCloud Drive is not suitable for professional use.

A couple of quick steps to improve the Yosemite UI on non-Retina Macs

I’m guessing most Mac users running a Mac that can handle it have already updated to Yosemite, or will soon. I’m the kind of user who always runs OS updates whenever they’re available.

I’m not a huge fan of Apple’s decision to make Helvetica Neue the new system font in Yosemite. I like Helvetica, but I don’t love it. I prefer something with a little more personality, a little less ubiquity. That said, I do prefer geometric and Grotesque-type fonts over humanist fonts… and I was really sick of Lucida Grande, which I never really liked in the first place.

My first reaction when I tried the Yosemite beta was that it looked half-assed. The final version is a bit more polished, but it still feels poorly thought out. Or, at least, it did until last weekend when I was at an Apple Store and I saw Yosemite on a Retina MacBook Pro for the first time.

Wow.

Retina is clearly what this interface was designed for, and eventually that’s how we’ll all be experiencing it. But for now, and for a while to come, most of us will probably be stuck with non-Retina Macs and the inferior presentation of Yosemite’s refined UI that they deliver.

That said, there are a couple of things you can do to improve the experience. Part of why Yosemite doesn’t look great on a non-Retina Mac is that there’s too much subtle stuff going on that just kind of gets mucked up when you don’t have that precise definition on letters and icons. You can improve this aspect of the UI immensely by reducing its use of transparency. Open up System Preferences and switch to Accessibility. Check the box labeled Reduce transparency.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.11.23 PM

Another optional change you may wish to make is to darken the menu bar and Dock. This is more of a matter of taste, but personally I like the darker look. Switching this on essentially inverts the colors, so your menu bar has a nearly black background with white text, and the Dock becomes translucent dark gray, instead of translucent white.

Once again in System Preferences go to General and check Use dark menu bar and Dock.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 12.11.16 PM

Now enjoy your new OS!

How to install Windows 8 on a MacBook Air

No longwinded backstory in this post. I’m just posting this here so I can remember it if I ever have to install again, since I seem to keep forgetting.

If you’re trying to install Windows 8 (or Windows 7) on a MacBook Air, and you boot to the Windows CD (from a SuperDrive, of course), you may find that when you try to select the BOOTCAMP partition, you get an error stating that Windows can’t be installed on this drive, because it’s in GPT format, and you need to have an NTFS partition.

Well, it doesn’t matter if you have that partition formatted as NTFS or not. The error is happening because of the way you booted up!

Quit the installer, and restart, holding down the Option key. Then when the disk selection comes up, don’t select the Windows installer, select EFI Boot instead. That’s it!