Adventures in Gnucash on the Mac

Why use Gnucash?

I switched away from Quicken about seven years ago because of Intuit’s greedy annual upgrade ransom fee and its insane crashiness. The final straw came when it managed to corrupt all the backups one day while I tried to recover from an error. I had it set to maintain its maximum of 8 automatic backup copies, but I apparently restarted the application at least that many times in the process of figuring out what had happened. My data vanished, trying to re-import from backups wasn’t working properly, and I was ready for a fresh start.

So, after doing some research into the available alternatives, I switched to Gnucash and have used it ever since then. It’s free and quite powerful, doing as much as I need it to, and then some. It’s open source, and it runs on Linux and the Mac, providing a bit of security against obsolescence. That becomes very important once you build a history with an application, as will happen with a financial package.

There are a number of other reasons why I switched, but they mostly boil down to trust. I lost faith in Quicken’s ability to reliably keep me organized. Conversely, I trust that Gnucash will be around for the foreseeable future, and that my data will continue to be useable without having to keep throwing money away for upgrades that don’t bring me bug fixes or any useful new features.

How to try it for yourself

Two projects distribute Gnucash for Mac OS: MacPorts and the Fink Project. I have used both distributions, and when they work, they work equally well. During the recent transition to Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard), the Fink folks were quicker to get get Gnucash operational under the new operating system, so I also moved to Fink when upgrading to Snow Leopard. Gnucash earned a reputation in its early days as being very difficult to install, but thanks to the work of the Gnucash developers, as well as the MacPorts and Fink teams, installation is no longer difficult, only time-consuming. Set it up to run overnight, and you shouldn’t expect any hitches.

Twice I have been caught by upgrades to Mac OS causing Gnucash not to run, while its maintainers worked to support changes to the operating system. Fortunately, this was not a large problem, because I just used Gnucash on the Linux computer in the mean time.

In the the four months that passed since I started writing this post, there is now a Mac-“native” version that is can be downloaded as a regular disk image and dragged to the Applications folder. This simple installation scheme will hopefully enable easier adoption by more Mac people. As of this writing, the 2.2.9 version that is available has an apparent bug that prevents the help system from functioning. All the help documentation is present, but it is hidden. The following links should make it easier to get to the documentation after Gnucash is installed in the Applications folder.

If those links are not helpful, locate the Gnucash application. Right-click on it, and choose “Show Package Contents.” Then navigate to Contents→Resources→English.lproj. You will see folders for “GnuCash Guide” and “GnuCash help.” The main page of the Guide is index.html. The main page of the Help is help.html.

The help files actually do a pretty decent at explaining how the double-entry style of bookkeeping works, and how to help Gnucash work for you. I have picked up a lot of hints over the years, and I’ll try to share some of them in the future as they come to me.

Typinator Greek character set

typinatorI like to avoid hunting through the Character Palette whenever I want to type a, so I created a Greek set. After you import the set file into Typinator, you can quickly insert Greek characters by typing a backslash and the name of the letter. For a capital letter, capitalize the first letter of the name, like this:

\alpha converts to α

\Gamma converts to Γ

Download Christopher’s Greek letters.tyset (8 KB)

Adventures in fontconfig on the Mac

Like some in the Mac community, I have grown picky about the way text appears on the screen. Opinions on font rendering can be a very personal and deeply held. To each his own. I use a cross platform financial package called Gnucash that runs under X11. For a long time, I had tolerated the ugly way text was displayed on the screen. Now I have finally found a combination of settings that makes text look about as good as X applications in Linux, if not quite as good as “native” Mac applications.

The magic formula for me was to turn off hinting in my .fonts.conf file. Subpixel rendering is a toss-up.

Hinting messes with the shape and spacing of letter to increase contrast, and in the opinion of some, readability. However, between my vision and the high resolution of the display, it just makes text look ugly and uneven to me.

Subpixel rendering takes advantage of the construction of LCD panels to make text appear sharper. I am undecided about which setting is better for X applications, but at least now I know how to change it.

Another big help was to change the default font of GTK applications. I like the Liberation font these days, and it looks pretty nice as the application font. I simply created a .gtkrc‑2.0 file in my home directory with the contents:

gtk-font-name = "Liberation Sans 10"

The contents of the new .fonts.conf in my home directory are below. Changing the rgba section from rgb to none turns off subpixel rendering.

<!DOCTYPE fontconfig SYSTEM "fonts.dtd">
<match target="font" >
  <edit mode="assign" name="hinting" >
<match target="font" >
  <edit mode="assign" name="rgba" >
<match target="font" >
  <edit mode="assign" name="antialias" >

The pictures below show a before (left) and after (right) look at the improvement. It’s not world peace or anything, but it is more pleasant to look at than before.


Happy 25th birthday, Macintosh

mac-osHappy 25th birthday, Macintosh! I’ve driven six Macs over the years.

  1. SE
  2. Centris 650
  3. PowerMac 8500/180AV
  4. PowerBook G3 (Bronze)
  5. iMac G5 20″
  6. MacBook Pro 15″

The PowerBook from 2000 has been the workhorse of the lot so far, happily surviving daily use for nearly eight years. It’s been a fun ride.

Typinator dictionaries

typinatorI get a lot of mileage out of Typinator, a Mac utility that automatically corrects typos or inserts symbols or phrases in your text. In addition to the built-in dictionaries, I have made my own additions that others might find useful, as well. 

The first set is a bunch of common and not-so-common symbols. Rather than dig through the Character Palette to find a symbol every once in a while, I just type a little abbreviation. For example, when I type the abbreviation \star, Typinator automatically inserts “★” for me.

Christopher’s Typinator

The second set fixes a few of my common typos. Combined with the built-in typo set, Typinator makes me look like a pretty good typist!

Christopher’s Typinator