TweetFollow Us on Twitter

25 Years of MacTech: Mac Memories by Adam Engst

Volume Number: 26
Issue Number: 03
Column Tag: 25th Anniversary Stories

25 Years of MacTech: Mac Memories by Adam Engst

Back when I was an undergrad at Cornell University, before I started TidBITS, I worked in Cornell's public computer rooms (this was before everyone had their own computer, so most students had to go to a computer room to use a Mac). Cornell was an extremely early adopter of the Mac, so we had quite a few rooms of Macs around campus. After a semester and a summer of working as a PTOP (Part Time Operator)-the person who sat behind the desk, signed out boot floppies, and made sure no one stole the LaserWriters-I was promoted to being a "STOS" - Student Terminal Operations Supervisor. (Cornell was a little acronym happy in those days.)

One of the rooms I was in charge of was actually had no PTOPs-it was an unmanned facility in which the Macs were locked down to desks, though that didn't prevent students from stealing the mouse balls as a way of ensuring that there would always be a computer available. It was in Carpenter Hall, the Engineering Library, and it was frequented primarily by Computer Science students.

For the most part, we didn't have a lot of interaction with the computer science students. Although many CS majors applied for jobs in the computer rooms, most couldn't interview their way out of a paper bag. People skills were far more important than programming skills for someone who was babysitting recalcitrant printers and helping sorority girls use tabs to format their resumes. But we always assumed the CS students knew their way around a Mac, since they were learning programming.

One day I was in Carpenter Hall's computer room with one of my employees, discussing how we were going to rearrange the room to get several Macs out from under a leaky water pipe. Non-stop excitement, I assure you. We weren't wearing badges or anything else that identified us, but somehow the upperclassman CS consultant who was in the room to help the freshman CS students figured out that we were responsible for the Macs, so he came over to ask us if we could help one of the students with a problem her Mac was having.

Keep in mind, we're talking about single-floppy Mac Plus machines here, so you had to have a boot disk that stored the system, your applications, and your documents on a single 800K floppy. (More amazingly, they all fit!) So, even though it wasn't our job to help the CS students, we figured it might be a hardware problem with the Mac, which was our problem.

When we walked over to look at the Mac in question, it had a modal dialog box on the screen that had apparently flummoxed both the student and the consultant. It said, and I quote, "You cannot erase the startup disk." There was only one button to click, though I can't remember if it was an OK or Cancel button.

My guy and I looked at each other, and we looked at the students and we said, in unison, "It means that you can't erase the startup disk." Both the freshman and the upperclassman looked relieved, and said, "Oh, well, that's okay then" and clicked the button. We smiled at them and walked back to look at our leaky pipes.

Though this was a popular story among our Mac-savvy colleagues, few of whom were taking any CS classes, the real point was that we learned that no matter how clear a user interface may be, sometimes it takes a person to explain precisely what it means.

Of course, we had plenty of other run-ins with far more sophisticated students, such as the one who figured out how to make an invisible copy of MacPlaymate the startup application on the hard drive-equipped Mac Pluses that drove our LaserWriters, or the students who figured out how to hack infinite amounts of money onto the vendacards that we used to charge students for laser printing. Then there was the excitement of discovering and dealing with some of the very first Macintosh viruses; after graduating and starting TidBITS, a colleague at Cornell and I were the first to discover the MDEF virus.

But no one held a candle to the guy who figured out how to send PostScript code directly to a LaserWriter and change the password from the default of 0 to some number between 0 and 32,767. The problem was that each attempt to change the password took 11 seconds, so it could have taken up to 4 days of constant execution to try each possible number. But we couldn't even do that, since the LaserWriter EEPROM, where the password was stored, was rated for only 10,000 writes. So if our program didn't guess in the first 10,000 tries, the LaserWriter's motherboard was toast. We were at an impasse, but eventually the solution presented itself in the form of a "friend" of the hacker who told us the password. We suspected it was the hacker himself, but we had no evidence and were just happy to avoid an expensive repair.

Wait, one more! One of the other computer rooms I was in charge of had a network of 20 double-floppy Macintosh SEs, with a pair of hard-drive equipped SEs in a cabinet to act as file servers over LocalTalk. Our PTOPs signed out boot disks that provided access to the applications on the servers, with a particular floppy for each Mac, and each Mac having access to a folder of applications on the server. It was an odd setup, with the primary goal being to ensure that we could use only 20 copies of the applications, since that's all we had licenses for.

But we only had 20 Macs, and replicating the folder of applications 20 times seemed silly. In fact, the main reason there were 2 servers was because the 20 MB hard drives were large enough to hold only 10 copies of all the applications.

At some point, I learned that it was possible to set a shared bit for applications using ResEdit, at which point multiple people could use the same application over the network at the same time. Once I realized this, I couldn't see any reason for the second server, since a single copy of all the applications could be shared among all 20 Macs from one server. So late one night, after we closed up, a friend and I tested this theory, and discovered that not only did it work, it increased performance because the server hard drives didn't have to seek all over to satisfy requests from different Macs. So we reconfigured one of the servers and redid all the boot disks, and watched it carefully the next day.

When it proved to be a smashing success, we gleefully informed our boss, who didn't respond with particular enthusiasm, which we didn't understand. After all, we'd just improved performance for users and freed up an expensive server for our organization, all while staying entirely within the terms of our software licenses. It turned out that we had stepped across organizational boundaries, since networks were installed by a different department, and those people were unamused at being shown up by a couple of students. Nevertheless, they didn't make us put the network back, though they never did take the unnecessary server away for some other use.

Much as I love how the Mac has evolved and become far more capable and stable than it was in those days, I still miss some of the excitement of being presented with entirely novel problems that were close to the core of the system, and that could be solved even by people who didn't have years of experience.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

VirtualBox 5.1.20 - x86 virtualization s...
VirtualBox is a family of powerful x86 virtualization products for enterprise as well as home use. Not only is VirtualBox an extremely feature rich, high performance product for enterprise customers... Read more
Arq 5.7.9 - Online backup to Google Driv...
Arq is super-easy online backup for Mac and Windows computers. Back up to your own cloud account (Amazon Cloud Drive, Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Cloud Storage, any S3-compatible server... Read more
Vienna 3.1.10 :d05d7a5d: - RSS and Atom...
Vienna is a freeware and Open-Source RSS/Atom newsreader with article storage and management via a SQLite database, written in Objective-C and Cocoa, for the OS X operating system. It provides... Read more
WhiteCap 6.7 - Visual plug-in for iTunes...
WhiteCap is a sleek and sophisticated music visualizer and screensaver that features futuristic, wireframe mesh visuals with dynamic backgrounds and colors. WhiteCap contains thousands of visual... Read more
Dropbox 24.4.16 - Cloud backup and synch...
Dropbox is an application that creates a special Finder folder that automatically syncs online and between your computers. It allows you to both backup files and keep them up-to-date between systems... Read more
Amazon Chime 4.2.5645 - Amazon-based com...
Amazon Chime is a communications service that transforms online meetings with a secure, easy-to-use application that you can trust. Amazon Chime works seamlessly across your devices so that you can... Read more
Notion 0.1.8 - A unified workspace for m...
Notion is the unified workspace for modern teams. Features: Integration with Slack Documents Wikis Tasks Note: This application contains in-app and/or external module purchases. Version 0.1.8:... Read more
Google Chrome 58.0.3029.81 - Modern and...
Google Chrome is a Web browser by Google, created to be a modern platform for Web pages and applications. It utilizes very fast loading of Web pages and has a V8 engine, which is a custom built... Read more
Notion 0.1.8 - A unified workspace for m...
Notion is the unified workspace for modern teams. Features: Integration with Slack Documents Wikis Tasks Note: This application contains in-app and/or external module purchases. Version 0.1.8:... Read more
WhiteCap 6.7 - Visual plug-in for iTunes...
WhiteCap is a sleek and sophisticated music visualizer and screensaver that features futuristic, wireframe mesh visuals with dynamic backgrounds and colors. WhiteCap contains thousands of visual... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

ChordFlow (Music)
ChordFlow 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Music Price: $6.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: ChordFlow is a chord sequencer with a unique 4-track polyphonic arpeggiator, extensive chord library, MIDI out and Ableton Link... | Read more »
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is out...
The newest season of Telltale Games'The Walking Dead is well underway. After the release of the third episode, "Above the Law" about a month ago, episode four, "Thicker Than Water" is hot and ready for more zombies and gut-wrenching emotional... | Read more »
Best games we played this week
Another week, another new wave of mobile games do dive into. We've dug through the list of apps that came out this week to tell you which apps are worth your sweet time. And while there weren't too many games this week, there were some big ones.... | Read more »
Vignettes (Games)
Vignettes 1.0.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0.1 (iTunes) Description: Vignettes is a casual but unique exploration game without text or characters, where objects shapeshift as you spin them around... | Read more »
Get Me Outta Here is an 80s retro shoote...
Are you ready to fight some aliens? Because Crescent Moon Games has released the retro shooter Get Me Outta Here on iOS devices today. [Read more] | Read more »
Get a bunch of Apple productivity apps f...
If you're an Apple Mac owner, you're probably aware of the host of Apple productivity apps the company includes in all new Mac purchases. Apps like iMovie, Keynote, and of course, GarageBand. While you used to be able to also buy these apps... | Read more »
Terra Mystica (Games)
Terra Mystica 1.03 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $9.99, Version: 1.03 (iTunes) Description: Short Summary:≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈ | Read more »
Ms. Spell (Games)
Ms. Spell 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Cast spells and battle monsters in this turn based game, that has you delving into ever the changing Dreadwood to retrieve the lost... | Read more »
Invert - A Minimal Puzzle Game (Games)
Invert - A Minimal Puzzle Game 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Invert is a minimalist puzzle game for fans of brain teasers, logic puzzles, and Rubik's Cube fiddlers. | Read more »
Evergrow: Paper Forest (Games)
Evergrow: Paper Forest 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Solve puzzles in the handcrafted forests of Evergrow through the eyes of an imaginative child and his parents. Discover... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

15-inch 2.7GHz Touch Bar MacBook Pros on sale...
Amazon has 2016 15″ 2.7GHz Apple Touch Bar MacBook Pros in stock today and on sale for $150-$200 off MSRP. Shipping is free: - 15″ 2.7GHz Touch Bar MacBook Pro Space Gray (sku MLH42LL/A): $2599 $200... Read more
Apple now offering Certified Refurbished 13-i...
Apple is now offering Certified Refurbished 2016 13″ Touch Bar MacBook Pros for $270-$300 off original MSRP. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.9GHz... Read more
MyGiHealth Digestive Symptom Tracker Version...
My Total Health, Inc. has announced the release of MyGiHealth 2.1, an important update to their digestive symptom tracker developed exclusively for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch devices. MyGiHealth is... Read more
Galaxy S8 Materials Costs Highest by Far Comp...
The new Samsung Galaxy S8 equipped with 64 gigabytes (GB) of NAND flash memory carries a bill of materials (BOM) cost that comes out to US$301.60, much higher than for previous versions of the... Read more
iCarMode 4.0 Car Dashboard App For iOS Integr...
Indie developer Diego Resnik has announced the release of iCarMode 4.0, an update to his productivity app developed for iOS devices. iCarMode has positioned itself as a true car dashboard app,... Read more
How to save $150+ on Apple’s 13-inch 2.0GHz n...
Apple Authorized Reseller B&H Photo has non-Touch Bar 13″ 2.0GHz MacBook Pros on sale for $150 off MSRP for a limited time. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 13″ 2.0GHz... Read more
15-inch 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro, Apple refu...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2015 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pros available for $1699. That’s $300 off MSRP, and it’s the lowest price available for a 15″ MacBook Pro. An Apple one-year warranty is... Read more
Apple Certified Refurbished iMacs available f...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2015 21″ & 27″ iMacs available for up to $350 off MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free. The following models are available: - 21″ 3.... Read more
Save up to $160 with Apple refurbished 9-inch...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 9″ and 12″ Apple iPad Pros available for up to $160 off the cost of new iPads. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: - 32GB 9″... Read more
27-inch Apple iMacs on sale for $200 off MSRP
Amazon has 27″ iMacs on sale for $200-$201 off MSRP, each including free shipping: - 27″ 3.3GHz iMac 5K: $2099.99 $200 off MSRP - 27″ 3.2GHz/1TB Fusion iMac 5K: $1798 $201 off MSRP - 27″ 3.2GHz/1TB... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Media Products - Commerce Engineerin...
Apple Media Products - Commerce Engineering Manager Job Number: 57037480 Santa Clara Valley, California, United States Posted: Apr. 18, 2017 Weekly Hours: 40.00 Job Read more
*Apple* Mac Computer Technician - GeekHampto...
…complex computer issues over the phone and in person? GeekHampton, Long Island's Apple Premium Service Provider, is looking for you! Come work with our crew Read more
*Apple* Mobile Master - Best Buy (United Sta...
**493714BR** **Job Title:** Apple Mobile Master **Location Number:** 001024-Weatherford-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Best Buy Apple Mobile Master Read more
Best Buy *Apple* Computing Master - Best Bu...
**496963BR** **Job Title:** Best Buy Apple Computing Master **Location Number:** 001061-Marina-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Best Buy Apple Computing Read more
*Apple* Mobile Master - Best Buy (United Sta...
What does a Best Buy Apple Mobile Master do? At Best Buy, our mission is to leverage the unique talents and passions of our employees to inspire, delight, and enrich Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.