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Columns & Editorials

Dr. Mac: Rants & Raves

Hoo Neads A Speeling Chicker?
February 27th, 2004
Episode #13

As you may know, I write a column called Dr. Mac every Friday in the Houston Chronicle since 1996. The rules for that column are different from the rules for this one. The Chronicle uses little or no art; a photo might run with two columns a year, but they almost never use screen shots. So for one thing, I have to do without illustrations in the Chronicle.

The second difference is that my Chronicle column has a fixed length of precisely 650 words, and that includes product and pricing information, as well as my signature line at the end.

So in the Chronicle I get maybe 600 words each week to make my point.

Here at The Mac Observer (TMO), however, electrons are cheaper than paper, so I am allowed to include as many or as few pictures as a column needs. Better still, I can use almost any medium -- a photograph, screen shot, QuickTime movie, MP3, or .PDF (to name just a few) to illustrate my words.

They're both fun. Telling a complete story coherently in precisely 600 words is a great challenge.

QUICK ASIDE: I have two monitors on my system. The desktop of monitor 1 is white, to better make screen shots that look good. The second monitor, though, is a little desktop picture I made myself to serve as a reminder:

My monitors
(Click the thumbnail for the HUGE version of this image)

That's right. The desktop picture on my second display contains a quote from Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, reminding me to "Omit Needless Words." (Last year I had one by Wallace Stegner that read, "The hardest part of writing is keeping your ass in the chair.")

But I digress. (Which, by the way, is something I don't have the luxury of doing much in my newspaper column.)

At TMO I have no prescribed word count. Rants And Raves can be as long as they need to be, and contain as many or few pictures or illustrations as I like. It's liberating, and these are much more fun. I can spare you a needless word or two every now and then (as long as I think they might inform or entertain you, in spite of being needless). And I have the luxury of writing 1000, 2000, 3324, or 742 words, if that's what the story takes.

Why am I baring my soul to you about word counts? Today, for the first time, my Houston Chronicle and TMO columns cover the same product.

Just a little F.Y.I.: The word count on this column is 444 so far.

When I finished my Chronicle column yesterday, I felt there was still a lot more to say and things worth showing. So you, gentle reader, benefit in two ways: No word count and all the pictures I need.

Here's one last little F.Y.I. of possibly needless words before we begin in earnest: The headline I submitted to the Chronicle was: "Hoo Needz a Spellling Checquer??" Here's the fun part: The Chronicle almost always rewrites the headlines based on the number of column inches available. To see what the actual headline they ran was (I don't know yet either), check out this week's Dr. Mac column:

So now, without worrying having to stop at the 600 words mark, and throw in pictures too, here's the TMO version:

Dr. Mac: Rants & Raves
Episode #13
Hoo Neads A Speeling Chicker?

By Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus

I'm addicted to Spell Catcher X from Rainmaker Research. Spell Catcher X, as you might guess, is first and foremost a spelling checker, but it's much more than that. So why would you want to pay forty bucks for a spelling checker if Word (or AppleWorks, BBEdit, InDesign, Apple Mail, or many other wonderful programs) already have a free spelling checker built right into ‘em?

(See the Sidebar for the story of who Rainmaker Research is)

Let me count the ways:

1. Spell Catcher X works in every program.

Unlike the built-in spelling checker in (your-favorite-program's-name-here), Spell Catcher X is there in all your programs, not just your word processor or page layout program. So Spell Catcher X is available regardless of what you're doing: E-mail, iChatting, designing Web pages, programming, or laying out pages. It even works in Photoshop and iMovie -- a very good thing indeed. A typo in your movie credits is bad enough, but having to re-render the sequence makes it even worse.

Having Spell Catcher there for you improves your odds greatly.

2. The same user dictionary in every program.

You know the user dictionary tango, that little dance you have to do after adding an unusually-spelled word -- such as "fanfreakingtastic" or "iPod," or "LeVitus" -- to your user dictionary in your-favorite-program's-name-here. Soon you add it to the user dictionary of your-second-favorite-program's-name-here. And add it again to your third-favorite, and again and again for every program you like even a little but that has a spelling checker.

With Spell Catcher, it's a dream instead of a nightmare. Add a word once and Spell Catcher insures it is spelled right every time you type it, in almost every program you use.

3. The same keyboard shortcuts in every program.

Spell Catcher keyboard shortcuts work in each and every program you use. In my world, Command-Control-S checks the spelling of the selected text -- anything from a word to an entire document. And Command-Control-L tells Spell Catcher to look up the selected text in its included Webster's Concise Electronic Dictionary and Proximity/Merriam-Webster US English Thesaurus.

And here's another nice touch: Every single Spell Catcher keyboard shortcut can be customized to your liking and you can even have different shortcuts for different programs. Here's what the easy-to-use interface for it looks like:

Organize your shortcuts
(Click the thumbnail for the very large image)

That's more than just a thoughtful feature; it also insures that Spell Catcher's keyboard shortcuts never conflict with those of other programs.

I love it. Concise definitions, synonyms, related words, and alternative spellings are a keystroke away no matter what I happen to be doing. Spell Catcher rocks.

4. Corrects typing mistakes "on the fly."

Another excellent reason to consider Spell Catcher is that, unlike most spell checkers, it can correct your mistakes "on the fly." So, for example, when I type "taht" instead of "that," (something I do more often than not), Spell Catcher fixes it instantly, without interrupting my typing. That alone is worth the price of admission.

5. Glossary function saves wear and tear on fingers.

My favorite Spell Catcher feature is the Glossary, where I store short abbreviations that expand automatically into complete words, sentences, or paragraphs as soon as I type them.

So, for example, when I type the letters "vty," if I press the spacebar after the "y," those three letters are immediately replaced with:

Very truly yours,
Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus
Writer and Raconteur

I have dozens of glossary items, and use SpellCatcher's glossary 1.3 million times a day or more. In fact, I'm not convinced that my hands and fingers would still be functioning if I hadn't been using it for the past ten years.

As long as I'm raving about glossaries, you may want to check out Riccardo Ettore's most-excellent TypeIt4Me, a program that offers a glossary expansion feature at least as good as Spell Catcher's and perhaps even better. TypeIt4Me can also type special characters Spell Catcher can't, like the left, right, up, and down arrow keys, and the backspace key. And it costs a little less, too. It's a great program, especially if you are a perfect speller and know more words than Roget.

In any event, both of these fine programs offer free trial versions, so check one or both of them out. It won't cost you a dime and I'm willing to bet after a week or two, you'll be hooked like me.

There is one last thing -- before I bring this delightful ditty to its thrilling conclusion I'd like to share a few carefully chosen pictures of Spell Catcher in action.

Here's one of Spell Catcher suggestion a replacement for my mangling of the word "conclusion" in the paragraph above:

Spell Catcher at work
(Click the thumbnail for the very large image)

When I press the Return key (which is the same as clicking the Replace button, indicated by the green oval) or press the "1" key (replaces the misspelled word with first suggestion, indicated by the blue oval), the proper spelling (indicated by the red circle) replaces the mangled word in the document (indicated by the red arrow).

Here's another example of a glossary item I use every day. When I type the letters s-o-r followed by the spacebar, here's what happens:

The amazing-expanding s-o-r
(Click the thumbnail for the very large image)

If I didn't have this shortcut I would type a few thousand unneeded characters every day!

And now, last but not least, here's the Thesaurus:

The Thesaurus
(Click the thumbnail for the very large image)

I select a word (extra -- Oval #1) and use the Look up selection menu command or keyboard shortcut. The Thesaurus opens with the word highlighted (extra-Arrow #2). The synonyms are below; when I click one -- superfluous -- it replaces the word extra in the document (not shown).

Like I said, I'm totally hooked and hate to compute without my copy of Spell Catcher X. Give it a try and I'm certain you'll agree.

TypeIt4Me. Riccardo Ettore. US$27. Free 30-day trial. .

Spell Catcher X. Rainmaker Research US$39.95. Free 15-day trial. (See the sidebar for more information on Rainmaker Research)

Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus has been a Macintosh user for a long, long time and has written 49 computer books including Mac OS X Tiger For Dummies and GarageBand for Dummies. He also offers expert technical help and training to Mac users, in real time and at reasonable prices, via telephone, e-mail, and/or unique Internet-enabled remote control software. For more information on Bob and his services, visit

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