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automator (Mac OS X Tiger)


Automator is Mac OS X Tiger's drag and drop programming thingy. I've never been a fan of such things - they are almost always billed as "No programming necessary" which of course is nonsense. Any time you are telling a computer what to do, you are programming. Tell it something stupid, and you get lousy results. So you have to have some intelligence to get what you want - drag and drop doesn't change that a bit.

Right now, Automator has no if-then or loop capability, so it could be more properly classified as a low level batch language. However, it does have the ability to call Applescript or shell scripts, and since the results can be fed right back into the Automator stream, that does give you some control of what exactly happens.

As an example of that, here's a fairly useless Automator program:

view of Automator program

The first part of this just presents a dialog box that lets us select a server. It's meaningless in this context; normally you'd follow that with some more useful action like "Get Specified URL's" (which would open Safari) or "Get Link URLs from Webpages". We want to pass the selected URL to a shell script. Unfortunately. Automator is quite fussy about these things: "Ask for Servers" outputs a "URL" type and shell scripts read "Text". You'd expect an automatic conversion, but Automator just hangs if you try to do that. I bet that will be fixed later, but for now, I put a "Copy to Clipboard" in between these two, which effectively converts URL's to Text. The script doesn't do much:

while ($g=shift @ARGV) {
  print "-- $g";

exit 0;

The output of that comes back to "View Results". As I said, rather pointless, but of course our program could output different text based on its own decisions. It also has the ability to stop Automator in its tracks: if that "exit 0" were instead an "exit 1", Automator would not continue to the "View Results" step, thus giving us a little more control.

I think Automator could be a nice GUI front end for some simple shell scripts. Obviously you can't get too complex.. but it might be good for some interactions.

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What do such machines really do? They increase the number of things we can do without thinking. Things we do without thinking — there's the real danger. (Frank Herbert)

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