Sunday, February 10, 2013

life with Mac -- why I use it and lessons on how

Back in 2008, using a PC, I was more organized than anyone else I knew. My ability to maintain networks all across different fields of science and different nations of the earth was based in part on things I learned my brain, but having a good email organization was also crucial to keep it all straight,
current and reliable. But that all depended on using a very special email package, Eudora 7,
which has mostly vanished from the earth. Out from Eden... from Camelot. (Also vanished were great scanners, capable of state of the art image compression from scanned multipage documents. So many documents may be lost as well.)

In 2009, working for the Senate, I had to use Microsoft Outlook (for the PC) for email -- except for webmail, so I tried yahoo mail and then google mail to supplement that package, which was barely adequate for one year of work in just one stream of existence. In 2010, when I returned to work at NSF, I explored and tested things with great intensity... and ended up concluding that I had to switch to Mac. Mainly, I switched to an Imac available in my Division of NSF, because Apple Mail
was hugely superior to Outlook, even when I bought a special add-on ("Neo") said to address
many of the deficiencies of Outlook. Outlook may be great for people who use email like Twitter, keeping the last ten messages they received and deleting everything else, but it is hopeless for folks
who need to stay on top of a hundred areas of science and universities in fifty states and so on,
in areas of advanced science where papers written ten years ago or more may suddenly emerge to be of enormous current importance. (Or where certain types of lawyers "lose" records and put you in jail if you don't have your own records.) 

I discussed the PC versus Mac situation with Luda this morning. It's true that many people go
with Mac as a way of being independent of Microsoft, or even -- in the age of Ipad -- as a kind
of fashion statement. "Of course," I said,"that has nothing to do with why I switched. Fashion statements are so irrelevant."

But then, I thought twice about it. In fact, the beautiful layout of the email listings in AppleMail,
and of the file listings, as I copied files, really is pertinent. In keeping on top of one's email, the ability to  SEE everything is one of the important factors. Seeing my old Imac again yesterday,
in the repair shop, brought back the memory of just how great that aspect was. The search engine and the access to mailboxes (and ability to create new ones) is not as fast and clean as it was in Eudora 7, but the sheer layout makes up for that somewhat, and it rates higher than Outlook in any case.
Email and security were the two things which made me feel I absolutely had to switch to Mac, despite other disadvantages. (Most other folks at work being on PC, and PCs being available for a lower cost for use at home.)

But... in December 2012, my Imac died, and that was an important learning experience.
First, of course, I wish I had backed things up. My regular "my work" folder I created
I was mostly able to save -- but it would have been so easy to copy the "mail" folder in
my "library folder"! Why didn't I? (By the way, they say Apple now makes that harder to do, perhaps because they want more people to experience the disasters I have over the past few months,
to punish all sinners like me? But the web has advice for users of the new operating system, Lion,
to find and copy what they need to back up.)

Even more -- when the system started to  become suspiciously slow, much slower than before,
I wish I had reacted immediately by immediate complete backup. It seems that hard drive failures
(in my case, when the Imac was four years old) are very typical for Imacs. "That's how we generally lose them," said the helpdesk at work.   

With a failing drive, things become a bit... stochastic, I would say. It sounds weird to think that a computer would get tired after to much use, or overheating or stress (like RAM heavy demands,
especially from folks wanting it to multiprocess more than it wants to), but it does work that way.
I wish I had really focused on extracting the data I needed "when it was in a good mood" and I could.

The help desk at work said, "It's dead now, you can just forget that data, unless you want to ship it to
a special data extraction company and pay $1000, and get unpredictable results. It can't
even start any more... or rather, when we boot it up from an external drive, you can't even see the hard disk. After multiple tests, we are quite sure that the hard drive is physically, irreparably dead."

But we took it home, let it rest, and put it in a warm sunny place. At one point, Luda said..
"Don't come near it, it's a bit scared of you... come on, kitten, it's OK." It actually did
brighten up, and she was able to download the most crucial parts of my "My Work."
Including the "Library" folder which was supposed to have all my email of 20 years.
I felt so much happier after that, even when it got tired and had troubles booting again.

Then we took it to the nearest Apple Store in Clarendon. More precisely, we went to the Apple web site, and located the web page we had to use to make a (free) appointment at the "Genius bar"
at that store. (A friend told me that Clarendon is not only close but very friendly.) There, they pulled out a colorful plastic box, just like the one our helpdesk showed me, about the six of a thick paperback book, but rounded. They said: "The data really is corrupted on this hard drive...
but we here have disk repair utilities." They were quite friendly, repaired the disk, and said:
"It was the data which was corrupted, not the physical disk. And with our apple utilities, we have repaired the disk, and you are good to go -- as good as new."

I was even happier at that point.

We brought the Imac back to the sunny room again, and it booted up quite nicely.

I didn't put any theories on paper, with formal conviction, but I did have a strong impression about what was going on. It seemed as if Apple had saved me, and the helpdesk was wrong.
It seemed as if the problem was at the data or software level, not the hardware problem. In fact,
just a month before that, they told us that all the Macs would undergo major changes, as they studied how to get them under new security arrangements (easy enough for PCs). There is lots of enterprise security and monitoring stuff  which uses lots of memory, and causes lots of thrashing in older Macs with less RAM, and that -- or viruses, which can get to Macs in some situations -- seemed like the probable cause. Didn't the helpdesk, working with IT to enforce the new controls on everyone,
have vested interest in downplaying the software aspects?

My suspicions about that were reinforced by various other bits of past experience. Long ago,
the late 1970's were my "Camelot for mainframe computing," the lost golden era of using
(and even contributing to) the Honeywell Multics operating system, which was unbreakable, because
of details of its ring brackets protection scheme. The great grandpa of Unix systems. People told me
that Snow Leapord also had a solid ring bracket structure, making viruses and such "impossible"
to a significant degree -- but also limiting the ability of enterprise managers to watch over me.
I did some real probing of the security situation with new versions of Windows -- and it seemed
clear that it was much more secure than older systems in preventing users from trying to take over their own computers (e.g. deleting junk and barnacles from the startup list), but much more definite in allowing BOTH enterprise managers and hackers from abroad to take over. Advice from a friend at NSA was a factor in my switching to Imac. ("We used to rule that Windows is a security risk, and we wouldn't let it in the building. But then came pressure form Big Stakeholder politics and stuff like that, so under certain restrictions....") Their Orange Book, inherited in great part from the Multics adventure, is a key part of the legacy... but soon after the death of Steve Jobs, Apple told
the Enterprise Managers that "we too can compete for what you want," Lion acquired the necessary hooks... and IT is much happier. (Some varieties of SE-Linux also advertize compatability with modern enterprise management, so I don't know what to make of that. If they had a competitive email
package, I would have looked seriously into SE-Linux as replacement for my Mac.)

BUT... neither my "happy ending" nor the more extreme suspicions were the end of the story.
As Bayesians would say, "I had to convolve my probability distributions again."

First... when I smiled and looked at the Library file downloaded before the first visit to the Apple Store... the regular "copy" routine in Snow Leapord apparently got to a hangup, and just did no more copying after that. I had nothing. This is not like windows, where you they warn you and ask whether to keep copying and such. (Though I haven't tried it on a failing hard drive.) After the first visit to the Apple Store, I proceeded as if everything were normal -- and that was such a mistake! I should
have gone through carefully checking and downloading all the email I could.

It died and would not restart at all, even with special keystroke tricks we learned.

Yesterday at Pentagon City Apple Store they explained... it's not always easy to know there are hardware problems. The disk repair program can work even when a disk is failing, before it becomes irreparable. It became irreparable right then and there yesterday. Most of my old email is gone,
and it would cost at least $1000 to go a company that specializes in data retrieval. I wish I had copied more right then and there, where they could boot it up from a special slim external hard drive, imaged with Snbow Leapord and Lion and disk repair kit. But at one point, after a few hours, I made the mistake of turning on the same disk repair that had worked before... and even worse, pausing it
at one point... and that was the last I could even SEE my old hard drive, even when the computer worked fine from their special disk. I think the copy in Lion worked better, but am not sure.

They also told me that the special disk they were using is not for sale at any price. So of course,
our helpdesk did not have one, and could not be faulted for not having one.

So that's the end of one era. I will get a new Imac at work, using Lion, and will make sure to
do more backup. I will replace the hard drive in the old one, on my personal nickel, and reinitialize the old machine, still on Snow Leapord, to operate in the less demanding world at home
accessing work through the web but not through more demanding software. And I will wonder what to do with that old hard drive when it comes back, next week they say. (For two months, I have done my job on a laptop outside the core network, causing delays in more than a few things.)

Will we ever get back to Camelot? Oh, well... For many people, one day it's a hard drive,
and another day it's a body organ... sooner or later...

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