Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Macintosh Blues

I've got this friend who's retired (70+) and keeps sending me plenty of Medicare jokes. The picture on the left comes from one of those and is titled "challenging vision-test". Now, this has got nothing to do with the subject of the blog today but I thought it was funny, so I put it there...

Thus, all of a sudden, yesterday, as I was sitting there, minding my own business, both of my Macs decided to die on me. One chance in a trillion years and it happened to me, just yesterday. Started with the iMac. I wanted to scan some old pictures on my Epson V700 and the Mac wouldn't see the scanner. I tried all sorts of simple things but to no avail. Turned off the scanner and went on to reboot the iMac. And then was when the bitch happened. The freakin' thing wouldn't boot! I kept seeing this folder icon with a flashing question mark. Your worst Apple nightmare! Mac's equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death! Meaning that my hard disk, if the SOB was still alive (at that moment I wasn't sure yet), was no more bootable. Something had corrupted the root files that typically care that the OS boots on any given Mac box after the familiar startup 'gong'. WTF?! All of a sudden? Out of nowhere?! Apple support sez to try a number of things, one of them being to reinstall the OS. I tried them all, starting by resetting the PRAM and NVRAM, repairing the hard disk (yep, it was still alive and kickin' and BTW, the Disk Utility repair said 'no problems found...') and eventually re-installing darling Snowy over the earlier system files. You can imagine my 'joy' when I saw that even after full reinstall the darn folder icon with the flashing question mark kept coming back. Seer happiness! WTF was this? A virus? I thought Macs got no viruses, right?

I knew by then that the only way forward was to first recover from the damaged bootable all my content files to somewhere safe and then repartition it and reformat it and start all over from scratch. Blimey! As I am of course 'exceptionally intelligent, mind you' I had never used the Time Machine (for Apple uninitiated, the Time Machine is Apple's way to do automatic backups in the background). Or any backup with any other tool for that matter! I thought computer crashes were for pussies!

Thank Moses, my other Mac (a 15' MacBook Pro) was by my side then, at that moment of need. Connected the two Macs with a Firewire cable and booted the damaged iMac in Target mode (booting in Target mode, as all Apple geeks know, places the box is a 'slave' position with respect to another firewire connected Mac who can then see the slave like any other mounted disk and can do disk maintenance of any sort! Even restore a clone OS install upon it! And even make it bootable via this restore. I wish I had a recent clone then... Excellent feature of OSX that even the dumbest dude from a Windows crowd would admit, hands down). I could then 'amuse myself' in the next couple of hours collecting all my useful files, pictures, movies, documents and music, give 'n take 150 GB, on an external 2TB Lacie. Almost with watery eyes for having lost a quasi perfect installation, I launched a new clean install, after repartitioning and reformatting the bleeding iMac. Long story short, this time Snowy worked. Next thing was to bring back my useful content from Lacie and reinstall about 100 applications, which is my 'usual' footprint. Try now to locate the needed install packages, serial numbers, activations, the works! A geek's worst nightmare. 8 hours +, back and forth! I FOKKIN' HATE IT!

But, wait a min... this wasn't the end of it! As it proved, it was just the start of more hail to come. While I been recovering Gigabytes upon Gigabytes back to iMac, I had to do something simple on the MBP. Somethin' trivial I believe, like checking new mail. I don't remember why exactly but I had to go reboot the MBP all of a sudden because something didn't seem to respond kosher. Imagine my flabbergast when, instead of the familiar apple icon, I see AGAIN (!!!) that freakin' folder icon with a question mark flashing to my eyes wide open!!!! Say WHAT? What the F@CK! Holy donkey that carried Mary and Jesus to Egypt! What the hell is goin' on here? I wish someone videoed my reaction when this happened! I mean it! Not in a Trillion years! Macs don't get that shit! Why me??? Think of that... for a good deal of time yesterday pm, only computer that connected me to the outside world was the bleedin' iPhone! You must be shittin' me!

In the meantime, the iMac was slowly getting back in shape, but no app installs had yet happened. Not that simple, mind you. CS4, MS Office, iLIfe, iWork, Lightroom, Aperture, to name a couple... they all take some cycles to get up and running. Especially that moron Microsoft Office that needs to do all its SP updates sequentially! Can you believe that? It's like pulling teeth! What do these guys eat for breakfast to get that smart? Applepies and donuts? Anyways, again I went to try Apple's advice as a good Apple citizen and again I did a reinstall above the damaged version of the MBP OS, but again, no shit! I had to finally repeat identically the same process as on the iMac earlier in order to restore the MBP back to its initial state. Obviously no backup here as well! Jeez, my IQ should be approaching 200 by now!

And, because I'm so bloody smart, ain't I, I managed, long time ago, to lock the laptop with a firmware password, in order to prohibit trespassers booting from an external source in case of theft! Like that helped... every average Apple geek knows that even that trick is pure BS. If you got your fingers on a firmware locked MB, all it takes is a screwdriver to open up the box and recover the hard disk and its data and read it somewhere else. Big deal. Of course the stolen MBP remains unusable which explains the sweet revenge feeling of its legit owner who locked it in the first place. Anyways, what was that firmware lock password again? Search me! Happily, for non-financial logins, I use a simple algorithm to generate a couple possible passwords that I use, and having tried them all, I finally managed to spot the right one and enter the familiar list of available booting sources (BTW, the MBP disk was nowhere to see on that list!). At least I could now reinstall the OS again. But the problem was the 'T' mode! How do you get the darn thing into Target? In the meantime, the iMac was good enough to help me transfer MBP's data to Lacie safely, but how do I get the firewired MBP into a 'T' mode? Because of the firmware lock holding the 'T' key while booting wouldn't do the trick. Sure! Works as specified, right? Would be stupid if it did! Even morons know that... Eventually a faint candle lit upon my skull and I figured it out! I first booted holding the option key, entered the firmware password and instead of selecting any object from the list of bootable sources and hit enter, I first pressed the 'T' key and then hit enter! Wow! Eureka! Praise Allah! The disk went indeed into target mode, at last. The remaining process was then breadcrumbs compared, and lasted for the next several hours, as usual...

My mess started Friday 2pm CET. 8 hrs later both Macs were almost half done. Snowy could again boot normally in both machines, but the state of each one of them was by far not the desired. From 7am this morning until about now (3pm), the recovery's been still going on. Most data and apps are back to normal and right now the MBP is doing a final task. A Time Machine backup, that is! Lesson learnt! I reckon...

The most frustrating part of the job, when one recovers damaged PCs or Macs, is about content files, that is, pictures, videos, browser bookmarks, emails and email accounts, agendas, contacts, and iTunes music. Problem is, the simple availability of those files is not enough to restore the content in its initial state, because Mail, iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, Aperture, Lightroom to name a few, have their own way of managing data, and for the purpose of a well done recovery it's not as simple as keeping backups of the content files alone.

I was eventually lucky to be an account holder of and I could get email archives, accounts, logins, etc as well as contacts, browser bookmarks, and passwords all synced and recovered in a 'heartbeat'. I was even delighted to see that all those content rich apps I mentioned above, behaved properly after I put all the content back to the original folders and they (the apps) seem to have found and restored everything on their own, like nothing happened, God bless'em!. Especially iPhoto and iTunes did a superb job. Even Parallels!!! After installing it and updating to its latest version 4 point something, the darn app went to find all my Windows virtual spaces and everything worked like a charm! That was a HUGE bonus! Imagine I had to reinstall bleedin' Windows on top, as virtual spaces upon two Mac boxes after this Friday mess! Don't even get me started on this... No way, Borg! I'd rather jump off the window!

Lessons learnt? I dunno! Will I be disciplined enough in the future to keep backups? Doubt it! Spent almost 24 hours (minus some five hrs that I slept, I think) to do a full recovery on my two Macs and was glad I was able to find backups of my app install packages and their activation keys / serial numbers. It's also cool that these days, every supplier has his products calling home for updates and this makes it even faster to restore apps to their latest and brightest!

Where did all this come from then? Was it a virus? That found its way from the iMac to MBP? Maybe... I'll never know. Is it going to happen again? You bet! And when it does, I rather jump in a hole, 6 feet under, and stay there waiting for the Antichrist!


alanna said...

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jalica said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.