navigating the Mac crash zone
Alan Zisman (c) 2008 First published in Business
February 19-25, 2008; issue 956
High Tech Office column
computer I most often work on is a Mac. There’s an urban legend that
Mac’s don’t crash. That’s not entirely accurate. Mac hard drives, for
instance, are identical to those in Windows systems and suffer the same
sorts of physical failures with the same frequency. And the Mac
operating system, while based on a solid industrial-strength Unix core,
can suffer from problems from time to time.
Recently I had a
scary experience on my Mac. I was poking around in its Applications
folder (analogous to the Windows C:\Program Files folder) getting rid
of applications I’d installed but rarely if ever used. The Mac doesn’t
have anything like Windows’ Add-Remove Programs feature, and doesn’t
need it. Just drag a program’s file or folder to the trash, and it’s
gone. But perhaps I mistakenly removed too much, because after emptying
the Trash my applications folder was nearly empty.
contacts me with a computer problem my first suggestion is “restart
your computer.” Frequently, that’s all that’s needed. But when I
restarted, I had a new problem. The computer no longer recognized my
log-in password. I couldn’t get back to the desktop.
I had a Mac
operating system disc nearby, however, and could boot to it. (On a Mac,
hold down the letter ‘c’ on the keyboard as the system starts up to
boot to a CD or DVD.) In addition to allowing a user to install the
operating system (something I wanted to avoid, if possible), the Mac
operating system disc has a number of handy options in the menu bar.
One of them let me easily reset the log-in password.
booted to the operating system disc, I also ran Apple’s Disk Utility,
another option in the menu bar. This can erase or create drive
partitions, which I certainly didn’t want to do. That would clean off
my hard drive losing all my stored files. But it can also verify and
repair something called disk permissions. File permissions are a
somewhat mysterious behind-the-scenes feature of the Mac (and other
Unix-style) system; Wikipedia notes that permission errors “can cause a
wide array of problems ranging from application errors to the inability
to boot.” Disk Utility claimed to find and repair several hundred
permission issues on my non-functional system.
After that, I was
able to boot normally, and log in without problem. But most of the
contents of the Applications folder were still missing. The good news:
I make regular backups of my entire system using Time Machine, a user
friendly feature of Apple’s new OS X 10.5 Leopard operating system
version. The bad news: The Time Machine application was one of the
missing ones. I couldn’t start it up to restore my backup.
to my Leopard operating system disc. Another option in the menu bar:
restore a backup. Pointing it to my external hard drive it presented me
with a list of available backup dates. I picked the most recent,
clicked OK and went away for a couple of hours. While I was gone, it
put my Mac back the way it was just a few hours earlier- ready to
(Truth in journalism: a few programs needed to be
reset; iTunes, for instance, thought it was on a new Mac and forced me
to re-authorize my computer in order to play songs bought from Apple’s
music store. But the issues were few and far between.)
went very smoothly. It’s a real plus to be able to restore backups from
the operating system installation disc; previously, a user with a
crashed computer might need to reinstall the operating system, install
their backup application, and finally restore their backup: much more
time consuming and complex.
Perhaps due to my own stupidity, my Mac had crashed. Apple made it easy
to put it back together again. •