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Me against the Mac

When I started working in my new lab, I was given a brand new PowerMac G5, a heavy duty performance machine encased in a bomb-proof aluminum tower.  I was ecstatic.  I would finally be able to harness the famed power of Apple for my work.  Results would probably be knocking on my door by their own free will.  And my laptop, barely a year old at the time, would be relegated to fill the roll of an impotent travel companion.  Writing the following paragraphs, on my laptop, reminded me that reality is always different from how one imagines it.

I once read a book on the history of Apple and the philosophy behind it.  While Steve Jobs developed his first system he subjected it to continuous usability tests by his grandmother who had never sat in front of a computer before.  She didn't even know computers existed.  Thus, for her to understand it and be able to use it, the machine had to be extremely simple and intuitive.  No confusing user intervention, defaults were law.  This was a brilliant strategy to conquer a market that didn't really exist yet.  People didn't know they needed or even wanted computers, and many were just plain scared by these intimidating contraptions.  So Mr. Jobs came up with a colorful user interface and cute little pictures to click.  In fact, clicking was all the user needed to do to operate the computer, and hardly any settings could be adjusted or defaults overridden.

As I said, this was brilliant.  Many people bought into it, and a cult following developed.  Unfortunately, this cult demands that Mac will forever stay exactly as it was initially conceived, as if the pinnacle of computer engineering and design was reached in the early 80s.  Obviously, many options and decisions that were smart a few decades ago are now just plain obsolete.  A menu bar strategically located at the top of the screen was helpful in the days of the original Macintosh 128k where only one window would fit onto the nine-inch screen and the lack of preemptive multitasking dissuaded users from working with two applications at the same time.  Nowadays, with 30-inch Cinema HD displays, the same static menu bar is an impediment to quick working.  The distance from a window located in the bottom right corner of the screen to its menu bar can be as much as half a meter.  Every time one has to access the menu bar, precious time is killed pushing the cursor up there.

What holds me back the most when working on a Mac are the missing ALT key and the keyboard shortcuts that come with it.  When I want to insert special characters in Word, I hit ALT-I+S on my PC.  On my Mac, I have to move the mouse up to the menu bar (half a mile away, as described above), hit Insert, cruise down the menu until I find Special Characters.  Takes seconds longer.  Same for page break.  ALT-I+ENTER+ENTER on a PC, an odyssey with the mouse on the Mac, menus followed by submenus.  When I want to flatten all layers in Photoshop, I hit ALT-L+F on my IBM, to rotate by an arbitrary number I hit ALT-I+E, to change the size of the canvas, ALT-I+S.  On my Mac, I have to find my mouse, cruise up to the menu, …  You get the picture.  Almost any action on a Mac becomes a task in itself.  Even on a slower Intel CPU, I will always work faster than on a Mac, and it will never make any sense to me why anyone would chose to run Photoshop on a Mac.

There are more little annoyances related to Apple's obsession with pointing and clicking.  When I close an application with unsaved changes to a document, a small window pops up asking me if I want to save the changes before quitting, discard them, or cancel the operation.  On any PC, I move my right hand to the arrow keys, hit them once or twice till the desired option is highlighted and hit enter.  On the Mac I have to remove my hand from the keyboard, move over to the mouse, find out where the cursor is currently positioned, move it to the appropriate box, and click.  And the seconds tick away.

When it comes to resizing and moving of windows, the powers of the mouse are strangely curtailed.  Why is there only one little corner for resizing.  What if I want to resize in one dimension only?  I can't just pull on one side of the window like in any other window manager in existence.  What about moving a window whose title bar is hidden?  Yes, this can happen.  Under linux, I just hold the ALT key and move the window after clicking and holding anywhere in it.

The upside to all the issues described so far is that they are consistent.  The menu bar is always at the top of the screen, windows can only be resized from the bottom right corner, I need to move the mouse up to the Image menu to flatten layers or change the number of pixels of the image I'm working with.  I can handle that, though I wish I didn't have to.  What really aggravates me, however, are problems and errors that pop up randomly and without any regularity.

A pdf file downloaded from the web will often open in Acrobat, as one would expect and desire, and as has been set in the file preferences.  Sometimes the Apple innovation Preview takes over, and I have to change the settings manually yet again.  In order to do this, though, I have to find the file first, which is not trivial since all icons on the Desktop move around with complete randomness every time I download a file.  Mind you, not only the file that I download ends up god knows where on the screen.  No, all the other file icons and shortcuts also dance around like French kids drunk on Beaujolais nouveau.

To make matters worse, these erratic icon perambulations become only evident when the desktop is refreshed, ie. when the Finder is activated.  It might thus happen that, with Firefox being the active application, I click-hold onto a freshly downloaded file to move it into a different folder that's open somewhere on the desktop.  OSX will duly inform me that an error has occured.  The file I am trying to move does not exist.  In fact, it does exit, but it is not located at the position anymore that is indicated by the icon.  Why have icon then, you might ask?  Why not refresh the screen automatically every few seconds?  I have no answer, only countless suggestions how to make this operating system usable, if only anyone would listen.

I have set three different keyboard layouts, French, English and German, because I want to access special characters no matter which language I use.  Most of the time, this is English, and invariably my computer is shut down with the keyboard layout set to English.  About 10% of the time, though, the computer starts up with the layout set to French.  How annoying this is can only be understood by someone who had to use a French keyboard once.  At some point, I tried to outsmart my computer.  I removed the French keyboard layout leaving only German and English behind.  Next time I started the computer, the French layout is back, it is active by default, and I can hear Steve Jobs snickering in the distance.

Working with my USB memory stick, a godsend if there ever was one, is another cause of constant irritation.  When I plug it into one of the many jacks on the computer (keyboard, front, or back) it is always recognized by my Mac, and I can see it in the system profile.  Sometimes, though, it remains strangely invisible to the Finder and is therefore completely unusable.  There is no way I can make it appear in the list of drives in the Finder short of rebooting the computer.  The same thing happens more rarely when I attach my miniPod.  This is an Apple product connected by FireWire, still, iTunes sometimes doesn't see it.

Sometimes, when I leave the computer with unsaved changes, I find helpful dialog boxes when I later come back to my computer, like: The application Word has canceled the closing of the session.  To try again, quit Word then choose "Close the session" in the Apple menu.  Of course, I never wanted to close the session in the first place.  The other day, I discovered a work-around.  When I run the X server (Why, again, is this not installed by default?) and leave the computer for a while, I find a dialog box upon my return asking me whether I am sure I want to shut down X.  In fact, I am sure I don't want to shut down X, but I haven't found a way of making this clear to the Mac (*).  By the way, before this dialog box pops up, the operating system always closes Acrobat, while all other applications remain running.  Does there any hidden pattern that I don't see, any sense that I can't make out?

In any case, the situation now is an improvement to before when I had set the screensaver to come on after several minutes and the screen to be shut down after some more for energy economization.  What my computer did was more complex and could only be understood by a very patient person with a Ph.D. in chaos theory.  Most of the time, when I hit any key the computer woke up only to fall asleep again right away.  It would even do that if I was quick enough to grab the mouse, hold on to a window, and start moving it around frantically.  Yes, a Mac can fall asleep while the user is active!

How did I get around this?  I just kept waking it up.  This sometimes took a minute, but in the end the computer stayed awake.  Well, most of the time.  Very rarely, it stopped reacting completely.  It simply turned black and would not become active again no matter what I did.  I had to shut it down and restart it.  There is no reboot key, by the way, nor is there a reboot key combination.  Militant Mac aficionados deride Microsoft's CTRL-ALT-DEL combination - I wish my Mac had it.

And yet, smugness, arrogance and a false sense of superiority persist.  Executives and fervent users, in uncanny unison, see Apple as the mother of all innovations.  It took this company more than twenty years to go from a one-button to a multi-button mouse, and still its arrival was celebrated.  My ThinkPad, almost two years of age now, has a hard drive-stopping sudden motion sensor, a feature that Apple recently introduced with much fanfare.  My ThinkPad also runs on a Centrino, a chip that Apple will soon be offering in their portables.  I bet this will also be presented as a major technological break-through.

I wish I could use my ThinkPad at work.  All Mac problems would suddenly be history.  I wish I could just connect the black beast to the net and work with the fastest, slickest, most reliable machine that I have ever seen.  But I can't.  I'm not allowed to.  It's against institute policy.  So tomorrow I'll continue to fight my Mac like Don Quixote his windmills.  Always trying, never winning.

As if working on a Mac wasn't bad enough, the server that hosts this webpage is now also Mac-based.  The first thing my trained eye caught was the Apple favicon.  Thankfully, I found a website that helps you create your own icon.  Thanks for that.

Clicking around in Mac Help the other day, I found how one can prevent the computer from closing the session automatically.  Go to System Preferences - Security, and the last option is "automatically disconnect after".  On my computer, this is greyed out.  I can't change it because I'm not root.  And since our computer support at the institute is worthless, I'll live it as I have learned.

20 November 2005