The cat's mustaches — Finder oddities

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

The problem

Since Mac OS X first saw the light of the day, some Mac users have had a love-hate relationship with the Finder. On the one hand, it's the application without which nothing would be possible — icons wouldn't be displayed, windows could be forgotten and we would be back to a weird combo between Windows 3.1 and a UNIX command line. On the other, it has some idiosyncrasies that, at times, make it harder to hug and love.

Does this mean that the Finder is a poorly written application that should be discarded and replaced? No, certainly not. Given the sheer complexity of the tasks the Finder has to perform, it actually performs very well. There are however some basic procedures and precautions that should allow you to avoid most glitches.

What is often at play

Mac OS X is, as many of you know, a UNIX system with a wonderful interface. This means that the Finder constantly needs to draw a link between what the UNIX reality of things is and what you see. For example, let's assume you perform a "rm" operation in some folder — i.e. you delete something through the command line: Finder needs to immediately realize that and get rid of the icon that corresponded to the file.

While that sounds simple enough, there can be times where it isn't. For example, a recursive "rm" command can get rid of thousands of files in a matter of seconds… The Finder obviously will have to play catch up. Also, open windows can sometimes be cached to speed up the display and, unless it is brought to the Finder's attention that something happened there behind its back, it may not immediately refresh the window.

Of course, such glitches are relatively uncommon and cosmetic. Tiger users will have without doubt noticed that the Finder is now kept informed of what's going on in a much more robust fashion and that the "cached window is out of sync" problem is almost entirely a thing of the past. Never the less, in some circumstances, it can still happen.

The solution

The solution in most cases is to force the Finder to redraw the contents of the window. A quick trick is to click on the icon or icons you think should be updated — this usually takes care of refreshing the dimensions of an image, number of elements, family or visibility status. Should an entire window be behaving strangely, try creating an empty folder in it and deleting it — Command-Shift-N-Apple-Tab will do that in one swell swoop. By forcing the Finder to rearrange icons in the window, it causes it to think about its contents, so to speak, and correct any issues.

Also surprising but entirely harmless are the ghost drives that can remain on the desktop after a CD-R is burnt. Burn your CD-R, eject it and, voilà!, a CD icon stays on the desktop. Dragging it to the trash will cause the Finder to ask you whether you want to burn or eject that non-existing disc… Simply click on "Eject" to dismiss the dialog and you're done — your optical drive shouldn't even bother to open, as it is well aware that there is nothing in it.

Finally, in one rare case, you might notice that unpacking .sit archives leads to a fully empty folder. While it is not yet clear whether that is an Expander or a Finder issue, it has been making some noise in the Mac world as some applications are still packaged in .sit format. Don't worry, the folder trick will serve you well and cause your unpacked files to magically appear, in perfect shape.

All in all, these glitches are uncommon — you really have to spend your day organizing and sorting files on your Mac to encounter them — and harmless. Nevertheless, as they can sometimes be surprising, it can be good to know a couple quick workarounds.