Why I am not a platform zealot

by Justin Gehtland

Religous OS wars are so tired. Yet, there are still OS warriors crusading against the heathens out there. But they generally don't know what they are talking about; they just repeat the party line.

Recently, my wife's (Windows XP) laptop finally gave up; it simply couldn't keep up with her digital photos or movies anymore. It barely wanted to get off the couch to download her email. It was out of gas.

We started looking into replacements. I couldn't convince her to try Linux, but she fell in love with Panther. We went out and got an iBook G4 with the cute, snow-and-ice case and its cute blinking light on the panel and its user-friendly interface and its rock-solid BSD chassis and all that goodness. I'll admit that I am hooked by Apple's sense of style and even started to believe the hype about the software and hardware just being better.

Fast forward...no, wait, no need. I get the thing home from the Apple store and install the Airport card. When I carefully replace the keyboard, SNAP. F12, F11, esc and ~ are now irrevocably cockeyed and the whole keyboard casing is tilted. We trudge back to Apple. Now, this I have to admit, was nice: no questions asked, they just went in the back and got me another one.

Now, fast forward. Its about two weeks later. Lisa loves her Mac. It is so easy to work with photos and movies and burn cd's and maintain her multiple email accounts and everything else. She's in heaven. She logs in and gets an innocuous message: Software Update available. OSX 10.3.3. Just click here! Press the jolly, candy-like button!

This manages to bring the Mac to its knees. Long story short, the following results occur:

1) Printing is broken. CUPS is fouled up because of a bad inode corresponding to the CUPS folder.
2) CD Burning is hosed. Regardless of whether I allow the verification step to proceed, discs come out unusable and the OS spins its wheels post-eject.
3) Permissions to some system folders are irretrievably damaged.

I learn, over the course of three days, that the built-in disk repair utility is essentially useless. I learn to log into single-user mode, where I can work in a more familiar environment (ahh, a Mac that can boot to the command line. Near-heaven.) I learn that even fsck is helpless in the face of my disk problem.

I go buy DiskWarrior. I do not understand why this is not bundled with every Mac. I run it. It fixes about half of our problems. But not all. And I am out $109.

I take the iBook to the "Genius" bar. When our "genius" comes out, I begin to tell him our problem. He scratches his chin and looks thoughtful. Meanwhile, I'm booting into single-user mode to show him the output from fsck. When I flip the notebook around so he can see the screen, his face kind of scrunches uncomfortably, and he says "what is that? I have no idea what you are showing me." He'd never seen a command line.

In the end, I borrowed an external firewire drive, copied off what I could, and reinstalled the original version of Panther. All is well now, and my wife has agreed not to allow her computer to update itself from the software update dialog.

What's the point of all this, you may ask? Is this some kind of random rant against Apple? No, and far from it. I love Panther, and as I said earlier, I think Apple is as close to perfect in styling as possible. No, this is a rant against Mac zealots (and Linux zealots, and Windows zealots) who keep finding me in the hallway and telling me that I need to switch to the Mac because it is "so much more stable" or "just all around more solid". Don't bring that weak stuff. Give me something concrete, or quit talking about it. Give me technical reasons, not propaganda.

Every OS has its place, its uses, and most importantly, its quirks. The same for the companies/communities that make them.


2004-05-26 16:39:54
ha ha
"I have no idea what you are showing me"

That is pricelss. I'm sure at the time you were kinda miffed, but that has to go in the 'CD-ROM as cup holder' hall of fame.

2004-05-26 17:48:45
Mac Zealotry
I tend toward zealotry out of fear. If it wasn't for Apple's diminutive market share, I'm sure I'd be less vocal. I could relax, and enjoy the Mac goodness, quirks and all.
2004-05-26 17:56:24
Hi !

First of all, I am sorry to hear that you have had these issues !

Just to let you know, Disk Utility should be able to take care of all permissions issues on your volume that might have been created by an installer. Indeed, it checks a file left by the installer itself to do its work and, unless this file has been manually removed, will find the necessary information. Permissions that you or a faulty application have altered for an uncommon specific file or folder are another issue but, up until now, it always repaired them on my various test Macs.

The node issue seems to indicate that the problems you were having are more related to a low level hard drive glitch than a software problem. Just to let you know, Disk Utility should also have been able to take care of most catalog problems -- although you are right about the fact that some problems can require the use of specialized software. I have never run in to this myself, though.

Your description made me wonder wether you used a special disk utility or "un erase" application ? Incompatible ones are likely to create hard drive catalog issues similar to what you experienced.

Without having a look at the iBook, this is of course speculation on my part. However, even though issues can always happen with any operating system, as you point out in your very interesting blog, a software update is unlikely to cause such a "disaster" in itself... Something else seems to have been at work.


2004-05-26 17:59:10
Sorry, I realized I have forgotten something...

Would you think that the service you got at the store wasn't appropriate, you can call Apple Customer Relations and describe the issue. Your comments will be taken into account and forwarded to the appropriate team. Their number can be found on the "Contact us" pages on Apple.com.

The "Geniuses" are normally extremely knowledgeable although, of course, nobody can have universal knowledge.


2004-05-26 18:43:31
A) I am not a platform zealot
B) I tried to convince my wife to buy Linux
D) Oh, but really, I love Panther.

Er, right.

2004-05-26 19:07:58
avoid repeats of this...
Relatively easy steps for your wife to avoid such future problems. Get two pieces of software. Carbon Copy Cloner and Cocktail. Next time there is a software update, run Carbon Copy Cloner to fully clone the hard drive to an external drive for backup. Run the update. After the update runs, IMMEDIATELY (after reboot) run Cocktail to fix all disk permissions,etc. IF something bad still goes wrong, just boot from the drive that you backed up everything to and run CCC in the reverse. I practice this method and have 'trained' my non-techie fiance to do the same...
2004-05-26 20:18:19
Beautiful point...MADE!
I think several of the people that read your article missed your point...or at least what I believe to be your point:

Regardless of you chosen platform, there are always going to be "evil gnomes" to fight. One simply must choose the fight most worthy to them at the time, whatever the reasoning (even blind zealotry, as mine is running Linux religiously on my TiPB). No complex program or combination of programs can ever achieve absolute perfection...not using OS X, not using Windows, and not even using Linux.

Good thing to be reminded of every now and again.

2004-05-27 01:00:00
Damned if you do...
There's a great deal of Windows and Mac OS 9 switchers that would run a mile if they went to get a problem solved at the genius bar and the 'genius' started running command line apps that look something like a matrix screensaver to them.
2004-05-27 05:40:42
Damned if you do...
Use whatever it takes to solve a problem.

The scary part is not that the self-professed expert didn't use a commandline, it's that he didn't even know one existed.

2004-05-27 05:45:11
seems to me you need the gist of this story bashed into your brain more solidly still?

Let me summarise:
he's had problems with the supposedly infallible Mac yet he still doesn't hold it against Apple.
He's had problems with Windows but doesn't hold those against Microsoft.

Both platforms (and every other out there) have their strengths and weaknesses, no matter what the zealots might be willing to admit (after all, Macs NEVER fail you if you believe the zealots, and neither does Linux (guess what, we had a Linux server at work go down so hard here a few weeks ago the entire company couldn't work for several hours until it was restored from a previous backup and some people lost a day of work).

2004-05-27 05:46:39
avoid repeats of this...
Had the platform been the perfection the zealots make it out to be neither action would be necessary (in fact, the update itself wouldn't be necessary as it's by definition impossible to improve on perfection).
2004-05-27 06:08:43
I didn't try to convince her to "buy" Linux, just install it (Debian -- free download -- burn and churn). However, I only did that because I thought I could do that and rehabilitate her aging Thinkpad without shelling out the $$$ for a new laptop.

When it became clear that this would not be a viable solution, we went with the Mac. It was the obvious choice.

Oh, and I DO love Panther.

2004-05-27 07:21:22
Open Standards Zealot
Your article is a classic case of bait and switch. Given your headline, I had expected to read an essay on the merits of multiple platforms and how each has its pros and cons and is well suited to some tasks and not to others. I had expected that you would come down in favor of diversity of platforms for purposes of security and of tailoring computers to the end which they are intended to serve. Finally, I had expected to read something in favor of open standards and platform-independent networking.

Of course, there is none of this in your article. Instead, it is a diatribe about your negative experiences with a Macintosh. Now all file systems are vulnerable to corruption, and it sounds as though your boot blocks may have been trashed somehow. (Did you get an error message about "Invalid key length" by chance?) Be that as it may, I simply don't believe that an employee designated to be an Apple "genius" at a retail store didn't know what a command line was and didn't know that the Mac offered it. No one will be acquainted with all error messages or all software utilities -- of course not. But your article goes over the top and strains credulity.

With each Mac Apple ships a restore disk which includes a separate partition of diagnostic and repair utilities. It will perform a full panoply of hardware tests for you (among other things). Apple's disk utilities are indeed modest -- and Apple acknowledges as much. I look forward to more robust tools from Apple in the future, (though Windows itself does not include robust disk repair tools -- otherwise there would not be such a healthy third-party market in this area).

I have installed a number of Airport cards -- including several in iBooks, and I have had no trouble with keyboards. You just have to take some care -- that's all. Laptop keyboards are notorious for being fragile, and if you don't think so, inquire with IBM as to its Thinkpad keyboard failure rates.

Let me suggest that in an effort to appear even-handed and objective you are -- with your bogus headline -- guilty of false advertising. Your article has NOTHING to do with the merits of multiple platforms; and a more accurate and honest headline would have been this:

"A Switcher's Bad Experience with a Macintosh"

-Jeff Mincey

2004-05-27 07:32:28
Open Standards Zealot
Jeff --

A) I'm sorry you were offended by my blog post. At least, I'm assuming you were offended, since your tone implies it.

B) The title wasn't bait and switch at all; it was, perhaps, too short, but, heck, my post clearly explains why I am not a raving platform zealot, after all. ;-)

C) More to the point, please, whatever you think of my post, don't call me a liar. If you'd like to talk to me or my wife (who was standing next to me) about the Apple "genius" who clearly had never seen single user mode, you can contact me directly. justin at relevancellc dot com. I know that the geniuses can't know everything, but c'mon. I'm not ignorant, nor am I a liar. I'm merely reporting what happened to me.

D) I spent three days with the repair disks, with Norton and with DiskWarrior. None solved my problem. The diagnostic and repair utilities would not fix the permissions problems (it would report them fixed, but when I reran the scan, the problems were still there), Norton wouldn't touch the primary partition and DiskWarrior fixed some of the issues, but not all.

E) I'm glad your experience with installing Airport cards went smoothly. Mine did not.

F) My post was not a diatribe against the Mac. Only against those people who have been telling me, even in the face of my recent experience, that the Mac is a panacea. It isn't. Nothing is.

Prince Charles
2004-05-27 08:13:03
oops, rewind and restart
From my experience the Mac is most vulnerable at the point of system updates. This is, I think, partially Apple's fault and partially the user's fault.

The user's fault: There are a number of third party applications that should be inactivated prior to performing a system update. This include, but are not limited to, the popular haxies from Unsanity. I've made it a habit to restart my system with all third party preference panes and haxies inactive before updating.

Apple's fault: In everyday usage, for whatever reason, file persmissions tend to become incorrect. This seems (note the squirrel word 'seems') to have an impact on updates. After having two disasterous updates similar to yours, I began performing a permissions repair before running an update.

Since I am responsible for computer labs I do a fair number of updates each year. Since taking the two above mentioned steps, I've not had a single update disaster.

As to your allegation that Apple's disk repair utility is worthless: Nonsense. Whatever your problem was, it might have been beyond the ability of the application to repair it. But in regular every day usage I find it to be the tool that I use 90% of the time.

Basically you have made the mistake of thinking that your problem is a problem of general experience. I don't think that is the case

Now, lets talk about my PC lab that is once again half dead thanks to a Microsoft update package. Or not. I'm too depressed to think about it.

2004-05-27 09:53:04
Open Standards Zealot
> C) More to the point, please, whatever you think
> of my post, don't call me a liar. If you'd like
> to talk to me or my wife (who was standing next
> to me) about the Apple "genius" who clearly had
> never seen single user mode, you can contact me
> directly.

I believe he was referring to this comment:

> He'd never seen a command line.

Showing someone the output of fsck in single user mode and coming to the conclusion that he/she has never seen a command line is a bit of a stretch, regardless of the reaction you observed.

Because the original poster did not agree with your conclusion, he stated:

> I simply don't believe that an employee
> designated to be an Apple "genius" at a retail
> store didn't know what a command line was and
> didn't know that the Mac offered it.

I don't see this as questioning your integrity but rather disagreeing with your logic.

2004-05-27 10:16:51
oops, rewind and restart
I agree that OS X has historically been far too vulnerable to changes in file/folder permissions -- and that it has not been good about dynamically cleaning up after itself (or after third-party installations have wrought their havoc. However, one thing you don't mention (and perhaps have not observed) is that Apple has made great strides in this area with Panther and in particular as of version 10.3.2 (and now through 10.3.4).

I can't speak to your experience, of course, but mine is that Disk Utility reports far fewer problems in this regard than ever before -- even after my having run a number of software updates and installations. So this is a most welcome development and I trust you will find this to be true as well.

-Jeff Mincey

2004-05-27 10:18:20
Open Standards Zealot
Ahhhhh....I see the confusion now, thanks. ;-)

So, let me go back and make it perfectly clear: it was not that he had never seen fsck. It was that he'd never seen the Mac in CLI mode. It was unclear whether or not he'd ever seen ANYTHING in CLI mode, but he was, and this was clear from further discussion with him, that he had no idea that the Mac could be interacted with in that way.

I hope that helps clear it up.

2004-05-27 10:18:31
Don't lose sight of what's important
Are Macs perfect? Of course not.

EVERY platform will have issues, regardless of brand, technology or even philosophy. But let's not forget what's probably one of the most important statements in this article:

"It's about two weeks later. Lisa loves her Mac"

In my own personal, and somewhat limited, observations Macs have generally provided a better overall user experience than either Windows or Linux alternatives. And as far as I'm concerned my Mac provides me with all the functionality that I need with as little hassle as can be reasonably expected. Does that make my Mac perfect? Well, perfect enough for me.

2004-05-27 10:23:24
oops, rewind and restart
Actually, I don't think my problem was one of general experience. I think my problem was very specific to me, and probably 90% of people will never experience anything like it.

I just happened to spend three days trying to fix it, and two days later, got pounded with some "Macs never have those kinds of problems" statements from my Mac-loving friends. Clearly, they do. Just like everybody else.

And, I thought it went without saying that I was having problems with Windows and Linux. Anybody want to tell me why my Shrike box drops wireless signal after 10-15 minutes on alternating days? ;-)

I was not trying to run-down the Mac. Just my Mac-zealot friends. ;-)

2004-05-27 10:36:46
Red Herring Argument
Justin, are you absolutely sure the person you spoke with was an Apple "genius"? I ask because at times the most tech savvy sales person may substitute for the genius or help out if one is out sick or on vacation or if the store is otherwise short staffed.

In my experience, even the Apple SALES people (at their retail stores) are quite aware that OS X includes a "Terminal" utility which permits access to the UNIX shells and shell tools (and CLI syntax). They may not all know about single-user mode specifically, but even this is fairly common knowledge to anyone who is so much as a casual visitor to the discussion forums on Apple's web site. I have been pleasantly surprised by the technical fluency of the staff at the Apple stores.

This is why I suggest you may have misunderstood the individual you spoke with. When they spoke of never having seen something before, maybe they were referring to the specific error message which was being reported. And in any event, the Apple people have a protocol to confer with each other in the event one can't help a customer with his problem. No employee can know everything.

Meantime, I'm not among those who thinks Apple (or Steve Jobs) walks on water. At the end of the day, the Macintosh is a machine and OS X is an operating system designed and developed by fallible humans. But I don't know anyone who says anything to the contrary. Even the greatest Mac proponent will acknowledge that the Mac is not flawless -- after all, if it were without flaw, then there would be no need for Apple to release bug-fix updates nor for Apple to maintain a large tech support department. So let me suggest this is a red herring -- you are arguing against a position that no one takes in the first place. (Or can you indeed show me someone who contends that the Mac is a perfect machine?)

2004-05-27 10:45:14
Red Herring Argument
Please see my post called "Starting to regret picking on the Mac."

As for whether or not my Genius was a Genius, well, he could have been a Martian in human clothes (and an Apple t-shirt) for all I can prove. All I know is:

a) he claimed he was the Genius on shift
b) that he had never seen single-user mode before
c) the only thing he could suggest was running Norton

I'm sure that most Apple Genuises are smart, helpful people. Please, Apple Geniuses, don't hunt me down! You are doing a great job!

2004-05-27 10:59:49
Don't lose sight of what's important
I agree. That IS the most important thing about the whole experience.
2004-05-27 11:26:27
Red Herring Argument
>Please see my post called "Starting to regret picking on the Mac."

And this post would be...where?

2004-05-27 11:58:42
avoid repeats of this...
Actually, using Carbon Copy Cloner to back up your Panther install to an external firewire drive is a really smart thing to do, regardless of the level of Mac 'imperfection' you perceive or experience. By the way, DiskWarrior is the one preventive maintenance tool I keep handy. Even after a fresh Archive and Install of the OS, DiskWarrior will graph out the fact that 18-20% of the directory is 'out of place.' Simply take 5 minutes and run DW (easy to do from the CD or installed from the FW drive, and you'll be good to go. I actually find XP Pro to be a little less problematic than Panther, but getting up to speed with the best tools to tune your Mac will go a long way.
2004-05-27 12:07:30
Damned if you do...
I would agree with that. But, make sure you have the full OS install cd because it's often easier to run an Archive and Install which will save your prefs and settings while resulting in a fresh system install. In most instances, you woun't need to plumb terminal to diagnose or fix (although it sounds like you want to).
2004-05-27 15:00:14
Red Herring Argument
2004-05-27 18:16:21
I don't know if you've ever written software, but it's REAL hard. It must be PERFECT, or it won't work. I guess I have some underlying sympathies for people who actually have to write this stuff. It's terrible. Mac, Linux, UNIX, Windows... my God, it's a miracle any of it gets done. I've done it. It sucks. This O/S diatribe is ridiculous. Go to www.OpenBSD.org... these guys are great. They tell you to stuff it & die. More into the O/S, less into in-fighting. Nothings perfect... live with it & go on...
2004-05-27 22:07:25
Open Standards Zealot
> I'm glad your experience with installing Airport
> cards went smoothly. Mine did not.

And therein lies the rub. You get to report your individual experience from the O'Reilly platform, while the rest of us who have little or no similar trouble can only bemoan another veiled mac-bashing in the Comments.

> My post was not a diatribe against the Mac. Only
> against those people who have been telling me ...
> that the Mac is a panacea.

Then the post is simply ill-conceived to begin with, or at the least just poorly written, because you don't bother to make clear "the point" until the last paragraph.

2004-05-27 22:13:53
> seems to me you need the gist of this story bashed
> into your brain more solidly still?

oh, and i suppose you're just the wanker to do it, eh?

> he's had problems with the supposedly infallible Mac

And who said it was infallible?

> He's had problems with Windows

What, no descriptive adjective for Windows?

> Both platforms (and every other out there) have their
> strengths and weaknesses

Ah, your summarising is like a fresh spring shower. Thank you so much for bashing it into my brain more solidly still.

2004-05-28 04:43:40
One of my colleagues just came back from two weeks vacation in California, went to the Apple store and "tried" the Genius Bar. He didn't get dazzled by the experience, so I guess Apple works it the same as most other retail outlets as far as service is concerned: you get someone who can handle working with the public for a full shift, but it's a coin toss whether you'll hit the person that has the answer to your problem. However, I'm a bit surprised about the "boot in verbose, fsck -y" fiasco; that's Repair 101, as far as OS X software problems are concerned.

I have a G4 that runs Panther and never crashes (it has Adobe, Macromedia, Apple and Microsoft apps on it). No third party system add-ons. My Powerbook 12 inch runs Panther as well, and the only flakyness I experienced was some weird behaviour on the dock after I'd installed a shareware dock utility. I removed the thing and I was back to full speed ahead. My XP Pro box committed "seppuku" after I installed some "XP Certified" DVD authoring software for my Pioneer A04 burner. I didn't have a Linux boot disk witn an NTFS mounter that could have let me get to my data, so I lost the work that was on the OS drive, but all the stuff I stored on the second internal drive was OK. All the usual tricks (consore repair, attempts to fix from OS CD, shaking a chicken over the monitor) didn't do squat to bring it back. I had to wipe that sucker and install a fresh XP Pro install.

I use them both, but I trust the Mac a bit more.

2004-05-28 10:54:44
This isn't contradictory
Plenty of people have sports cars or motorcycles that require frequent maintenance and they still love them.

I like OSX, but I don't like the fact that it suddenly doesn't read my memory cards or recognize my camera. I'll figure it out when I have the time, but it's not making me happy acting like this. Still, it's not like I'm going to run out and buy a Windows box.

2004-06-04 22:18:39
A few of the posts here bear proof of the zealotry mentioned in the article. I am a zealot myself, I guess. (My family often reminds me of this ;) But I see nothing improper about the author's story. Sad but true; flies can always find a way into the ointment. And by golly, I'm not foolish enough to split hairs with the author over the abiguity in the title. The better the Mac gets, the less I feel like defending my choice! Things are quite cool these days.