The Northern Spy: The Pros and the Cats
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The Northern Spy: The Pros and the Cats

By Rick Sutcliffe

More on the 15-inch Retina display MacBook Pro

The Spy has had this machine a month now, and experience confirms his first impressions. The machine is computationally fast, though not spectacularly so. Having an SSD for a drive makes more of a difference than any internal changes. The display is crisp, better than anything he's had in a portable before, and the glossy finish not nearly as annoying as such once were, but the improvements are not as revolutionary as some have gushed.

Having no Firewire or ethernet connection and being required to use Thunderbolt adapters for both is a major annoyance, and the Spy regards this as a bad decision. A little extra thickness at the back to allow both would not have sacrificed much by way of design, and would have been far more user friendly. The adapters do work, but being tied to Apple for cable purchases is a second annoyance. Competition would be better, and Apple does not need to be in a business others prosecute better.

As for the latest cat he could say much the same about Mountain Lion. Additions are in areas the Spy doesn't use or want (social media integration) and incompatibilities, apart from mail programs, are minimal. He does have a miscellany of dos and don'ts however.

Do not under any circumstances use Apple's Disk Utility program to re-size partitions. It is supposed to be able to delete partitions and allow expansion of the one above into the vacated space just by dragging the partition boundary. This appears to work, but damages the partition map, so that even Disk Utility itself reports errors afterwards.

Take care when rearranging Thunderbird folders. Sometimes they won't go where you want, or make copies instead of moving. Then they cannot be deleted without quitting, going to the Finder, finding your profile, and very cautiously cleaning up at that level.

Be careful with your use of Firenet. Yes, you can Firewire two Apple computers together, go into the Internet preference panel, give each an IP number (best not on the same subnet as the local router) and have a very fast connection. Why do this? An older G5, say, running Leopard, makes a nice Time Machine backup to a spare drive, and one can screen share to it and run older programs in a creditable way--perhaps to recover images or text in some proprietary format no current program will read. All very nice, faster than running Ethernet, and it works--most of the time.

However, keep an eye on this, for sometimes if you connect an external Firewire drive to one of the two computers, its volumes will mount on the other one instead. Stop. Do nothing that involves saving files. Eject the volumes in question, unplug the drive, then save open files and reboot. A system that does not know where its volumes are is a disaster waiting to happen, and Apple is not likely to spend time on matters Firewire in the future.

Be cautious about new USB devices, including USB3. Some ports on some machines and/or devices are close to the edge of spec, or not to spec. A non-shielded or longish cable or a slight port-cable mismatch can result in the USB device so connected being arbitrarily ejected, or deliver spurious partition and volume map errors. When this happens in the middle of a backup, big problems can ensue.

As a precaution, the backup volume in question should then be nuked and the backup done again from scratch. This is similar to the issues with the ill-fated Firewire 800 ports on the G5 machines, which were at the edge of voltage spec and regularly burned out external drive interfaces (just the 800 side of FW, not the 400 or USB). The Spy has occasionally wondered whether Apple's failure to get that right was what motivated abandoning the spec it created.

And, on the gripping hand, the Spy rather likes the new "Spaces," once he figured out how to use it. The three finger swish is a superior way to switch among desktops than the old choose-by-number approach, and helps to overcome the problem of applications that don't know how to activate their own space when switching in. It would be nice if the spaces could be in a grid rather than a line.

But on the yet another hand (OTYAH), the Spy notes the unfortunate appetite for batteries displayed by Apple's external Bluetooth track pad. A pair lasts as little as a month before croaking, and this is of course independent of OS. Trackpads themselves? Very efficient for the time saving gestures, and good for coarse navigation. Fine navigation is still best with a honking big trackball like the old Kensingtons. Unfortunately, one of his has croaked, and the little marble in the Logitech versions does not give the same control. New is not always better.

You read it here first quite some time ago, back when the Spy predicted Apple would eventually be required by market pressures and its own corporate culture to design its own processor chips. Now, he isn't part of the cell phone culture any more, and has no plans to rejoin, even with the reputedly amazing iPhone 5.

But others tell him the A6 chip is a custom design, apparently from scratch, showing that the Spy's predictions are occasionally on the money. The next step? Custom chips for the desktop, and cut loose from Intel. Now, if the Power design could be tweaked sufficiently to get the power consumption and heat down … But a new scratch design is more likely. Sell that Intel stock while you can.

On a similar note, the Spy opined more recently that Apple would have to clone its data centre operations to make serious inroads into the content service business, even possibly the application service business. While he isn't keen on the latter, and centralized control is not part of the traditional Apple customer culture, the market is moving back in that direction, and it is certainly Jobsian.

Why not sell ultra cheap dumb machines with little or no local storage, run and store everything in the cloud? (Wait. That's the Air.) iSteve would approve, even if the Spy didn't. And, Apple is building more data centres. Next step is to take operations international. Six to ten centres with one on each continent should be enough for starters.

But extend that thought. Apple wants to be in the entertainment content service and TV business, but is having trouble licensing said content. No wonder. Those who control it now don't want their profits to be swallowed whole by the Cupertino juggernaut. What would iSteve do? Build or buy his own network, deal with television stations directly, and bypass the cable (and phone) companies. And if the Time-Warners of the world won't license content they own, buy one or more of them, too.

The money is there, a portion of the infrastructure is a-building as we speak, the corporate culture is consistent with such a move, and Apple has a way of getting into and dominating any business sector it pleases. It's only a matter of time before they iCook up a way to do it.

Mysterious doings

Last spring the Spy purchased a Mercury Elite Pro Mini enclosure from OWC, complete with a nicely skookum SSD, and used the device for backup, formatting it with several partitions. Everything worked well under Leopard and Snow Leopard for several months. When he switched to Mountain Lion a month ago, the optimal size for these partitions changed with the new setup, so he redid the partitioning and all the backups. It now has seven partitions.

Currently it checks out OK under disk utility both at the top level and the volume level. However, it has gotten into a state where if one makes a change, say a new backup, then ejects and unplugs, then plugs back in again, none of the changes are there, and the volume appears exactly as it did before the change. Nothing has "taken" in other words, even if it was checked to ensure it had before unplugging.

To drive the point home, here is a scenario:
- remove two folders from one of the volumes on the device
- empty the trash
- inspect directory structure: they are gone
- eject and unplug
- plug back in, and lo and behold, they are back.

Here is another:
- Do a backup that includes some new or updated files
- check to make sure they are there by opening them on the backup
- eject volumes and unplug
- plug back in again and the new files are not there. The originals are instead.

Now, he noticed this happen early on after switching to Mountain Lion, before he repartitioned; indeed a concern about possible corruption was one reason he did so. After doing that, it worked fine for several weeks under Mountain Lion, but now the behaviour is back. It is repeatable on several machines including:

- an older MacBook Pro 17-inch
- a retina 15 inch
- an 8-core MacPro 2010 machine

all running OSX 10.8.2 and regardless of whether
- using esata, FW800, or USB interface cables
- initiating a backup with CCC or just make some finder changes
- starting and ending the above sequences of steps on the same machine or switch machines after unplugging.
- rebooting between making changes and final checking
- regardless of which volume the steps are done on (once the behaviour starts, it affects the whole device)

Note that using other backup devices, including a very old FireWireDirect Mach 2.5 portable drive or a memory stick do NOT produce the behaviour, only this one does.

Now, despite that DiskUtility says the partition map is OK, one cannot help but think the issue is there--especially when the changes have been confirmed made before ejecting and unplugging, and that they are gone and the original files are back intact after plugging back in. Two partition maps? Two directories per volume? A totally whacked out volume? Massively corrupted files not yet discovered? Go figure. Good thing the Spy keeps about seven backups, including three via Time Machine.

Well, the Spy gave all this info in a trouble ticket at OWC, and they sent back an RMA number--no comment or question. Had the problem before? Good on them, but information would be better. All right, one backup device now out the door, and rely on slower ones for a time. But he bought the thing because of its triple interface in the first place (esata, FW800 and USB0 and is loathe to part with its speed. Ah well, it won't work properly so off it goes. One niggling issue: He does not yet know if he can erase a partition of his files altogether before sending it, or even nuke the whole thing. And if he does the latter, the evidence of drive misbehaviour will of course be erased with it. But security on the files is too important to let them go out the door, so… More on this saga as news breaks.

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:
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