Ode to a 2017 MacBook Pro

So I was in a meeting yesterday, looking over at my Mac, and the lid didn’t seem to be closed all the way. My only thought was the usual “Apple doesn’t make them like they used to” and I ignored it. A few hours later, at the end of my work day, I went to unplug the laptop and go sit on the couch and write, and I noticed the side of the laptop was popped open, and the battery was swollen.

God damn it.

I got this machine at the very end of 2017. At the time, it was the top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook pro you could buy from the Apple Store inventory without a custom order. It was great and slim and bigger than my last one, and way too expensive. I moved everything over, went on a trip for Christmas, and when I got home, it was completely 100% dead. No battery, no lights, no plugging in a different power cord, no magic reset NVRAM bullshit, it was flat out DEAD. I went to the store and after much bitching, a manager gave me a brand new one, and a “sorry, that happens.”

I’ve never been 100% on this machine. It had the magic touchbar thing, which is completely useless, except there were no function keys or escape key anymore, so I had to use it. I shut off the other shit, because I constantly hit it while typing. And the typing is bad, too. In the quest to make it thinner and cooler, they put in this dud keyboard that felt like typing on an Atari 400, and even a piece of dust would break a key. There was also the lack of any ports other than TB3, which required a new set of dongles. The machine always felt creaky and weird, like I’d accidentally bend it at some point. I also had some random weirdness with macOS High Sierra, and never dared move up another version.

So anyway, swollen battery. I looked up how to replace it, and it’s a 58-step procedure that involves a heat gun and re-epoxying parts and brain surgery-level disassembly. Nope. Normally, this is where I’d cart it off to the Apple Store, since it’s still under warranty. Not an option during SIP. I called Apple, and my only option is to mail it in and wait a week or ten.

I didn’t want to upgrade. I was hoping to get at least three years out of this machine. But I needed a computer immediately. I ended up going to Best Buy’s web site and buying a new machine, then driving out to Pleasant Hill and doing the weird touchless curbside pickup. You reply to a text to tell them where you’re parked, and a gloved and masked worker comes to your car, looks at your ID, then puts the box in the trunk. Very weird.

The migration went predictably bad. The old and new machines couldn’t see each other on WiFi. Using the Thunderbolt cable to connect the two computers doesn’t work, because there are 167 different types of cable with the same exact connectors, and the “power” version of the cable isn’t data-ready or something. I thought I should just use the backup drive, but before I could do that, the system said it needed to download ten gigs of updates, and it futzed with that for an hour. I plugged in my CarbonCopyCloner bootable clone of the old drive, and it sat for six hours, then crapped out in the middle of the night because it was trying to copy the entire backup, including every file I’ve changed or deleted in the last three years. I restarted it, and six hours later, the files were more or less there.

Then began the real problems. First, I jumped forward to macOS Catalina, which means every 32-bit app on my machine is now broken. Then the barrage of “xyz wants to use your address book” and “abc wants to write to the hard drive” and “123 wants to see your location.” Some damn thing kept asking for my keychain password. It took seven tries to get iCloud to log in. I couldn’t get it to “trust” my iPhone. Adobe’s app manager got stuck in a login loop until I completely uninstalled everything Adobe and started over. The IR remote receiver I have didn’t work anymore. Etc etc etc. I think I’m about halfway stable now, but expect at least a week of fuckery until this calms down.

I seriously think this might end up being the last Mac I buy. We’re entering a dark period like the mid-90s, when Macs were twice as expensive, twice as slow, didn’t use any standard peripherals, and crashed constantly from a bloated OS. The current macOS keeps getting more and more stupid, as they try to unify with the mobile OS and push services more. Rumor is strong that Apple will dump Intel in the near future and move to their own ARM processor, which will be just like the PowerPC days, making Windows emulation impossible.

The problem is, what do I buy instead? I’m too tightly coupled to my other mobile devices. And Windows is horrible – I use it every day on my work machine, and it’s not an option for me. Going back to Linux seems unspeakable at this point. I almost feel like buying a typewriter at this point.

The new machine seems okay so far, now that it is stabilizing. The keyboard is improved somewhat, and feels closer to my 2014. The screen is slightly bigger. The build quality feels a bit better. Same drive size, same memory. More CPU, more cores, and I think the battery is better, but I haven’t gotten that far into it yet. I’ve got to figure out what to do with the old one, when the world is normal, or I give up and mail it in.

And usual reminder: BACK UP YOUR MACHINE. It saved my ass this time, yet again. CarbonCopyCloner, external drive. Anyway, let’s see if I can get more stuff done on the new machine.

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River of stress

I continue to stress out over the move.  I have two painters coming over today for quotes on patch/paint on the old place to get it ready to sell.  I have no news and no commitment on when we will get keys for the new place, so I’m now putting together the contingency plan so that when on Friday they tell us, “oh, maybe next Friday, or the one after that” I can scramble and try to reschedule the dozen things that will happen in the next few days.

I bought a KVM yesterday, a DVI one and the adapter I need to hook it up to the new work laptop.  I’m currently dragging both computers and my four-million-pound 20″ LCD monitor to the kitchen table and working there.  I’ve started using the LCD in portrait mode, because it rotates 90 degrees, and I find it pretty helpful while writing and editing.  I can open two full-page views, one on top of the other, or one really long page, and avoid a lot of scrolling.  I’d like to do this from now on, although my monitor stand is slightly shaky like this.  I’ll be glad to have the KVM – I currently keep the mac running, mostly to run iTunes all day and to keep my mail open, and I have it sort of behind my other computer, so I have to look around to see it.  I work the music with the remote, and that’s fine, but when I do look at the mail, I have the bad confusing habit of trying to move the pointer with the wrong mouse until I realize what the hell I’m doing.  I’ve thought about one of those systems where you can hang multiple displays on one set of input, and can drag windows from the Mac to the PC or whatever, but I’m sure they all involve some form of VNC that will bog down machines or require jumping through network hoops that I can’t deal with right now.

I also found a NeXT VMware image at http://osvirtual.net/en/nextstep-3-3-with-drivers-vmware/ and fired it up yesterday in Fusion.  I got it to work with no real problem, except I’d forgotten about a lot of the weird quirks about the NeXT interface.  And I think a lot of the allure of it back in 1991 was probably that it was a generation ahead of everything else out there, and it ran on the cool black hardware.  I like the idea of a NeXT cube, but I think clunking along on a 25 MHz 68030 is probably not ideal.  Back when a Mac IIfx was a speed demon and cost you $9000, the NeXT was a steal.

I just went off on a browsing tangent, reading about the IIfx.  It’s weird, it was the fastest Mac until the Quadra AV came out in 1993.  And in 1995, I had the Centris version of the AV at work (the Centris 660AV) and I had the same machine when I went to WRQ in 1996.  And in both cases, they were already doorstops at the time.  Like I remember when MP3s were first starting to become popular, and I downloaded some MP3 ripping software and popped a CD in the player (actually into the required caddy, and that into the player), and it took roughly two days of running day and night to rip the 9 tracks.  There are times I romanticize old hardware, but then I remember how clunky the stuff was back in the day, and I’m not as fond of filling up my storage space with it.

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System emulation time machine

I’m always talking about time machines, touchstones that launch you into nostalgia for some forgotten era of the past.  There’s one that I mess with that’s infinitely more detailed than any other, and it’s system emulation, which was once just a vague dream and is now huge and all-encompassing.

I guess it all really started in the 80s, when you could get the box for your Intellivision or Colecovision that played Atari 2600 games.  And that was a kludge, because it was nothing more than an actual 2600 that hung off the side of your existing system, so you basically used your Mattel power supply, joysticks, and connection to the TV to play Atari games.  Then the Commodore 128 had a Zilog Z80 CPU in addition to its 8502, so you could boot into CPM mode, which was great except none of us cared about CPM or running ancient crusty old office productivity software.  Later there was a lot of talk about the Amiga being able to emulate the Mac or run as a PC with external hardware, but I never knew anybody that really did this.

Fast-forward maybe ten or fifteen years, and I’m in the period when I’m firmly planted behind a desk in cubeland and want to relive the days of 1985, so I’m scouring eBay for a good Commodore 64 and 1541 and maybe an Amiga 500 or decent Atari 2600 setup.  And I’m spending my spare time browsing all of the web sites out there for 8-bit computers, now that there’s a whole world of freaky Finland hackers posting all of this crazy stuff on the interwebs that’s knocking loose the rust in my brain and making me remember to SYS 49152 after I load some ML at #C000.  And around then, some people started writing software that ran in a modern Pentium computer that would emulate the C-64 or the 2600 or any other old machine.  Because by then, you add all of the overhead involved, but you run it on a fast PC, you’ve pretty much got a 6510 running at 1.023 MHz.  The other major factor is that nobody can even keep track of who the hell owns Commodore these days, so there aren’t a bunch of cease-and-desist lawsuits over the ROM images, and a ton of the games are floating around.  That’s the other great thing: in 1985, you spent all day waiting for your 1541 drive to slowly load in that Zork game.  But now, a complete ISO of a 170K SS/SD floppy is smaller than the image of a rounded corner on a web page.  You could go download a thousand games at a clip and barely spike your bandwidth.

And this is truly amazing to me.  Because you can look back at some old era and look at a posed photo that’s two-dimensional and unmovable, or listen to a tape of some audio of an old song or an old conversation, and that partially captures a moment.   But this is trapping an exact bit-by-bit representation, a living and working version of the same environment you basically lived in decades before.  It’s like being able to download some magic thing that would recreate your college dorm room down to the last millimeter, every single detail and quirk and bug and problem, and you could step inside it and relive it.  I could sit at that BASIC prompt and look at every single one of the 65,535 bytes in that system, and run every old game that me and Matt Wanke would stay up all night playing back in the 8th grade.  I could load up Blue Max, the very first game I ever played on the C-64, and fly that little biplane through the weird 45-degree angled world, dropping bombs on the 320×200 terrain that scrolled past.

I spent a lot of time back at the blue and cyan screen, trying to type in some BASIC, playing some old games, and that was decent.  But what really pushed me back into the past was when MAME games started coming out.  MAME was an emulator that could simulate many of the common arcade cabinets that lived in the 80s and 90s.  Game cabinets weren’t all one-off creations; each vendor typically had some common chassis or series, so they could just pop out the ROMs from a dud game and pop in something new.  It wasn’t always that straightforward, and you had systems that mutated over time to add new features or new hardware or whatever, plus you had some games with weird joysticks or buttons.  But if you got bored of your X-Men game and wanted the Simpsons game, it was a straight switch.  And that made it easier to write a common emulator for a bunch of different ROMs.  And once I got MAME running on my laptop and started tracking down ROMs, I was absolutely hooked.  There were two games that were total time machines for me, because I spent so much time pouring quarters into both of them.

The first one was Smash TV.  Me and Ray used to play this constantly, back in like 1991.  When I went to IUSB, we never went to class, and would always drive around South Bend and Mishawaka, listening to death metal, looking for something to eat, something to do, and of course there was nothing.  So we always ended up at the arcade at University Park Mall, and we’d dump unending amounts of money into that game.  It’s basically a rehash of the movie The Running Man; a future where prisoners (in the game, the prisoner part was not mentioned) have to run through mazes killing mass numbers of robots and mutants and warriors with futuristic laser weapons in front of a televised studio audience in order to win money and prizes.  It’s a typical quarter-eater, where two guys can play, and you just shoot every damn thing that runs at you, and if you die, you just need to shell out another token to keep rolling.  The game has a lot of synthesized speech from the Richard Dawson game show host, saying “BIG MONEY!  BIG PRIZES!  I LOVE IT!”  And it’s one of those weird memory things, where I can’t remember my office phone number, but every single millisecond of this game is burned into my head so much that I can instantly repeat any of the lines or hum any of the music within it.  So when I pop it up in a window on my Mac, even though I don’t have the joysticks and have to use a/w/s/z or whatever, it instantly takes me back to those days of playing hooky and feeding quarters in a mall arcade that’s now probably a cell phone store or a place selling uggs or something.

The other game that I have memorized like this is Golden Axe.  This is a Sega ripoff of the Conan franchise (barbarian, not talk show host, although that would be a cool game too, with Andy Richter at your side dressed up as a wench, and broadswording Jay Leno in the head.)  It’s very similar to Altered Beast (also done by the same design team), a side-scroller with two (or was it three?) sets of joysticks and buttons, and you dumped in the quarters to continue.  You could be a barbarian, a dwarf, or an amazon woman (a tall Hilary Swank-type warrior, not a woman that buys a lot of books online on a Kindle.)  They had one of these in the tiny arcade in the Indiana student union, and they only had maybe five games, and all of them sucked, but this one sucked the least, so I was sort of forced to play it when I was killing time in there.  I’d rather go to Spaceport and play some Tetris or find a Smash TV console, but it was one of those captive environment things, and within a matter of time, I got hooked on Golden Axe.  I think it’s a funny game, because all of the various screaming sounds in it are too accurate and over the top.  I was playing this once when Sarah was in the next room and she came in and said “what the hell is that?  It sounds like some kind of Lil’ Jon krunk video game.”  But once again, all of those little sounds and sayings are etched into my brain, and when I fire up that ROM in a Sega 16-B cabinet emulator, I’m back to the student union in 1989, between classes and wasting time and quarters.

I thought of all of this because I was cruising around and wondered if anyone had ever installed NeXTstep in a VMware emulator, and I guess a few people have tried.  I wanted to just find someone who did the whole thing and had a VMware image I could download and fire up, but it’s considerably more difficult than that, setting up all of the drivers and crap.  Here’s a post on how to do it, though.  I think sitting at an OmniWeb browser in a NeXTstep login would be a pretty severe time warp for me.  I spent a lot of time lusting after that hardware when it first came out, and spent a good chunk of 1991-1992 trying to get some time on it.  It’s funny how fast the fall from grace was, though.  Those machines were total demons in like 1991, and by the time I got to the support center in 1993, we had a slab that was practically a doorstop, it was so slow.  But maybe if you took that awesome (in 1991) OS and dropped it in an emulator on a quad-core x64 i7 chip, it would be 5% faster than it was back on the 68040.  Something to mess with, but probably not during the same week when I have to move.

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Memory

I’ve been working in VMware all week, and constantly swapping virtual memory, even though this computer has four gigs of RAM.  And it’s not like I configured my virtual machine to use four gigs of memory and then wondered why I can’t run that and iTunes and iPhoto and iEverythingElse at the same time.  So I broke down and ordered eight gigs of RAM and hoped it would get here Saturday, but of course it won’t get here today, and possibly later, because our FedEx guy doesn’t understand how our door phone works.

(And all of this is stupid – I later found out that my backup software was configured to run 24/7 when I’m idle or not, and that was eating a ton of memory.  I saw this rogue Java process running, and thought it was… I don’t know what I thought it was.  But I could still use the extra memory.)

Anyway, my last OWC memory upgrade I bought was three gigs for the last laptop, which cost $150.  And when I did that back in 2007, I told a version of the same story:  in 1993, I was building this Linux computer, the first “real” computer I built.  (Prior to that, I built an 8088 with a meg of memory, but building an 8088 in 1991-1992 is a lot like building a Pentium II system today, which would probably involve a lot of shopping for lots of obsolete computer pieces.)  So I got this 486 (DX, not SX!) and I went to CompuSource and bought four one-meg SIMMS for $160.  So in 17 years, I’ve gone from 4MB for $160 to 8 GB for $220 (minus the trade-in of ~$50.)

And looking at my activity monitor, VMware’s little icon it puts in the menu bar uses 4 MB of memory.  It’s amazing to think an entire OS, with X Windows and emacs and multiple users and multiple xterms would run in that same amount of memory a few years ago.  It feels very Andy Rooney to talk about it, because I know when I was sporting the four megs of RAM, there were people talking about the old times in the same way.  I took this C335 assembly language class in 1991 with a teacher that had been hacking hardware for a generation.  We had these Atari ST computers in the lab that I think had either 512K or a meg of memory, and he would talk about the first computer he built with 32K of memory that took up a whole room and cost more than a small house.

But here’s the thing: if you were working on a wire-wrapped board for an Altair to hold 4K of RAM for a thousand bucks, and then five or seven years later, went down to your local Key-Bee toy store and dropped a few hundred bucks for a Commodore-64 with 64K of memory, the whole experience would be markedly different.  I mean, you’d go from toggling switches to enter ones and zeroes to this thing that would do 320×200 graphics in 16 colors and output straight to a TV with no additional boards and hardware, and had a built-in BASIC and a kick-ass sound chip and a real keyboard (sort of).  But if you make the jump from a circa-1993 Linux machine to a circa-2010 Linux machine, the storage and memory grows orders of magnitude, but the basic paradigm is the same.  I mean, our computers would have to read minds and have working replicator technology to make a jump like that.  I sit down at a Windows 7 machine of today, and fire up a Windows 95 machine of 15 years ago, and the underpinnings are vastly more powerful, but you’re still doing the same basic crap in the same explorer window and dragging around crap and staring at the same hourglass.  Moore’s law might be boosting the hardware, but it seems like every time they bump up the horsepower, some idiot says “hey, let’s use all of this magical power to make an animated paperclip that tries to guess that you’re making a bulleted list” or “let’s run a daemon in the background that sends this user’s private information to the mothership every five seconds, and let’s ignore the fact that 4000 other companies are going to do the same exact thing, so when the person’s computer sits idle, almost all of its CPU is going to byzantine licensing and crapware server programs.”

One big minus to the otherwise sweet MacBook Pro is I’ve gotta crack open the case to put in the memory.  Which means, I need to go find my set of jeweler’s screwdrivers for the baby phillips-head…

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