Well that was fun – Mac Hell…

Where have I been today? After writing the article on Hacks & Cracks & Leaks (Oh My!), I entered Macintosh Hell.

The spouse is on a Macbook Air. It is about 5 years old. Last week it started acting strange. Processes would sometimes hang. What was on her desktop was visible in a terminal window (an ‘ls’ would show it) but didn’t show on the desktop. Sometimes the boot would fail. We made an appointment with the “Genius Bar”…

A Few Days Later

Yesterday we were AT the “Genius Bar”. After waiting about an hour after we arrived at our appointment time, we were seen. The guy doing the service was great. It all went well. It took about an hour? At the end of it, we had a working Mac again, and the price was “free”. Seems they don’t charge for ‘fixes’ at the “Genius Bar”, only for parts. OK… That’s the good.

The Bad was that he figured it was the disk as their equivalent of an fsck (File System ChecK) application found a lot of disk errors. Asked if we had a backup. I stated I’d made a couple that had some odd behaviours, but it was likely that one of them was good, and we had a roughly 3 month old one known to be good. ( I’d made a ‘tar’ copy that complained about errors but seemed to work, and a ‘cp -r’ copy that got into what looked like an infinite decent and was not converging to completion, so I killed after seeing the same error on the same file name about 5 times…) So, without further ado, he nuked (formatted) the disk and reinstalled the OS.

Well, I’d have liked to ask if he had any special way to make a backup, but that option wasn’t presented. I’d have liked to ask if there was an intensive disk check that could be done before the OS install, but that opportunity wasn’t presented prior to the OS install already being underway. Oh Well.

I had a working OS and a working Macintosh and all it cost was time. OK.

I also got to observe what the Mac specific tools looked like and what the behaviours were. That came in handy today.

Today I was to restore from our disparate backups what files we had.

I’d picked today to stop coffee, and was fairly useless until about noon when I gave up and had 2 cups.

I sure picked a bad day to give up coffee…

I started doing the restore. After copy of some modest bit via “cp” I realized I’d not done “cp -r” (in a terminal window) and stopped it with “Ctrl-C”. (The Mac, being basically a Unix under the skin, takes many / most Unix commands). At that moment, with control returning from the cp command to the OS, it crashed.

On attempted boot, it just didn’t see any disk at all. No complaints, just a white screen with a folder icon in the middle with a blinking question mark.

OK, now what? Back to the “Genius Bar” for another 2 hour wait to get another appointment with a 3 day wait to get service an hour after showing up? Ah, no. So I went digging and learned some new tricks.

By about 1 PM I had it loading diagnostics from the internet. The hardware check passed with flying colors. The LONG hardware check that takes near an hour passed without error. Disk Check could not see the disk. Zippo. Nada. Attempting to force a disk check at boot didn’t work.

My guess is the disk is flat out fried. Not much you can do at that point without a disk. I also suspect that an intensive disk check before installing the new OS at the “Genius Bar” would have caught it…

By about 2 PM I had a USB disk cleared, and used Disk Check to format it for HFS (Macs file system). Shortly after I had the default operating system being installed over the internet. As it is large, it took a couple of hours.

A bit before dinner time I had it booting off the external disk. The Usual account set up, agree to {whatever} or your machine doesn’t run, click this, select that yada yada… Then it is live. YAY!!! A Live Mac!!

It worked fine off the external disk. Reboots work too ;-)

Then came the restore of files, again and at last.

I un-tarred the tar file and got what was about what was expected. 9 GB of “stuff”. All the expected directories looked to be there. I copied back the “cp -r” copy and the USB 3 month old set. The old set looked as expected. But the “cp -r” copy had a 50 GB or so “Library” folder where the tar Library folder was only about 6 GB. This doesn’t show up in the “Finder” (window manager / GUI file display thingus) at all, so is ‘special’. It looks to be filled with cache and similar bits for various applications. The folders (directories) that came after it in alfa order were NOT in that backup (no surprise, really, as I’d killed it when looping on Library).

In the end, it looks like I’ve got all the user files, in one spot or another, and they were copied back to the external disk in the user home directory. Now I’ve got a Mac that seems to be working fine, with most and hopefully all the user files back in place. (Tomorrow I get to start on assuring the Applications are all there… something like writer and numbers or some such).

With that, it’s about 9 PM. Essentially 8 or 9 hours in Mac Hell. My neck is stiff, my back a bit sore between the shoulder blades. Muscles a bit stiff.

I sure picked a bad day to give up Aspirin…

But I’ve recovered things to a usable degree, mostly. Which is good because the spouse made another appointment with the “Genius Bar” for Saturday (earliest available) for them to decide the disk is dead and install a new one. Not only does having the Mac working from USB disk mean the Spouse can give me back my tablet and use her Mac (until Saturday) but it also means I can show them the great diagnostic of the Mac working FINE off of an external USB disk and not seeing the internal disk at all. Ought to make diagnosis easy for a Genius at the Bar…


Well, the good news is it looks like few to no documents were lost. The Spouse did a cursory look over and saw no problems. The detail compare, folder by folder, between the three copies will wait until later. A quick “du -ks” on the copies I made showed the docs and desktop folder equal sized, so “I have what I have” from the new set, and anything missing will likely be on the 3 month old copy set.

Also, only generic Apple Applications were being used, so that’s easy to recover (if I can’t find them on the 3 month old backup).

And the Very Good News is that now I can put “Current on Mac OS X – rebuilt disks, reinstalled OS, recovered files” on my resume… It’s been a good decade since I had to fix a Mac. Things have changed. But not too much ;-)

The very bad news is that I’m out of both Scotch AND Wine… and the only beer in the house is 2 six packs of “Chum – the San Jose Sharks hockey team ‘red ale'”… bought as a gift for my son, so off limits.

I sure picked a bad day to run out of booze…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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22 Responses to Well that was fun – Mac Hell…

  1. Nick Fiekowsky says:

    Very nicely done. Small possibility that your wife’s MacBook Air is old enough to contain user-serviceable parts. You can check on iFixIt site. https://www.ifixit.com/Search?query=macbook+air

    I’ve had satisfying Mac speed-up with upgrade to Samsung Evo 850 drive. Stay away from 840 series.

    Thank you for sharing so many of your adventures. It’s a privilege to ride your coat-tails.

  2. p.g.sharrow says:

    Some days are like, WEEKS!…pg

  3. Larry Ledwick says:

    That sort of chase your tail marathon can get a bit tiresome glad you got basic functionality back.
    I figured you were knee deep in something given I had not seen much activity from you today.

  4. Lynn Clark says:

    This works on Yosemite (OS X 10.10.5):

    ctrl-click or right-click on empty space in a Finder window to open a context menu. Click on “Show View Options”, then select the “Show Library Folder” option. This will enable ~/Library (and maybe /Library) to show up in Finder windows.

  5. philjourdan says:

    Nice Steve McCroskey imitation! I have not used a Mac in several years. What bus do they hang their hard drives off of now? It could be the disk controller itself. But the beauty of the thumb drives! Now big enough to run almost any computer!

  6. Jon K says:

    Nice work Chief. Love the Airplane! references :)

  7. Glenn999 says:

    Good job EM!
    Now, to the really important parts. Giving up coffee. Tried it a couple of times; not good. Once quit for a month, then broke it one night with two cappuccinos. Yes, two! What were you thinking?:]

  8. E.M.Smith says:

    @Nick F:

    I’ll take a look at it. It may depend on how much they charge at the “Genius Bar”… I’m not fond of cracking open laptops as often they don’t like to go back together or need special tools or…


    You know it! But, when this is all done, I’ll have a Mac HFS disk on my Linux box ;-)

    Why I like *Nix, it lets me do all sorts of interesting things, especially with file systems…


    Like the Doctor at a party where everyone wants free consultations… I get a constant stream of “Hey, you know about computers, can you fix…” and it is very hard to say “No” when it comes from the spouse… who knows I have a long Apple history too…


    Thanks for the pointer. I need to find out what it does, and if I ought to restore it or just let it recreate too. Oh Well, something to keep me busy today ;-)

    @Phil Jourdan & Jon K:

    Hey, someone caught it! ;-)


    Airplane! (1980)
    Steve McCroskey: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.

    Steve McCroskey: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.

    Steve McCroskey: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.

    Steve McCroskey: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines.


    Some background on that is in the 1980s I was up to about a dozen cups a day. I’d drink a double espresso and go to bed and not notice…

    I decided to quit, just to show caffeine wasn’t very important to me.

    The first 24 hours it was nothing. Likely because I was so saturated it took a while to clear… At about the 48 hour mark, I had a dull headache, couldn’t poop, and wanted to sleep 15 hours a day…

    The third day I was back to drinking coffee… but pissed at having a dependency on anything… So resolved to go to zero. I began a taper off. Mostly on low demand days (weekends) I’d cut back by one, and then hold that level.

    About 2 years later I was at one cup / day….

    Realize that due to the British penchant for weaning from breast milk to a cup of mostly milk with a bit of tea in it (then a several year taper to mostly tea with a bit of milk) and Mum being an ‘avid’ tea drinker, never in my entire existence had my metabolism been to zero caffeine. We needed to explore new gene methylation levels to get the metabolism to function in that realm…

    The last cup took another year to taper out…

    At the 3 year mark, I held zero caffeine (from ANY source, Coke, chocolate, etc.) for about 1/2 a year, just to prove the point I was in charge.

    Since then, I’ve allowed a couple of cups a day. On extreme event demands, I’ve even gone to allowing saturation for a week. (Like, oh, when driving coast to coast in 60 hours…) HOWEVER, I require a ‘drying out’ when a couple of cups a day is needed to be normal…

    As I’d done a recent saturation run (and had crept up to about 3 or 4 a day prior to it), and the ‘recover after the run’ was finished, it was time to get the base demand level down to “one or less”. for a reset. I’d done a taper over the time I was back, down from saturation to about 3 / day, so figured I’d just cram it to zero for 2 days, then bounce up to one and hold until stability.

    Just your basic drug management. After all, it looses its “punch” if you don’t dry out every so often ;-)

  9. John F. Hultquist says:

    These computer things chew up time — and we can’t order more.

    2 six packs of beer
    I grew up in Pennsylvania — land of strange laws.
    Only bars could sell beer in 6-packs. You could go in and buy 2 but not more.
    Carry those 2 to your car. Go back in, buy 2 more. Go to car. Repeat.
    You could go to a distributor and buy — business hours — by the case or a barrel. Go Figure.
    This year PA law now allows 6-packs to be sold by distributors. Last May, PA began allowing
    certain gas stations with appropriate accommodations to sell 6-packs.
    The campaign to “Free the 6 Pack” has brought PA up to about the 1950s.
    If you decide to leave CA — do not go to PA. Too many people, too many laws.

  10. cdquarles says:

    Thing about caffeine, it is a cell signaling modulator (that’s why plants make it!) for many multicellular animals. Caffeine has a short half-life for most humans (5 minutes, if I am remembering correctly. That said, you can build up a high enough blood level to get withdrawal symptom (it is a cell signaling modulator, remember, directly through cAMP/cGMP and indirectly through neurotransmitters (norepinephrine and dopamine and GABA)

  11. Sandy McClintock says:

    I just put a SSD into the wife’s 2006 Mac Mini with OSX10.4. Trouble is the setup can’t be upgraded beyond OSX10.6 – it seems. When I try to install Chrome it tells me to try Firefox; Firefox says the hardware is too old :(
    I put a new SSD into an old Del Dual Core i3 PC and loaded the Yosemite Hacintosh OS http://www.hackintosh.com/
    I’m impressed with the setup which is quite lively and can use bluetooth USB dongles to talk to Mac keyboards. I do need to press the enter key on a wired keyboard at boot time.

  12. E.M.Smith says:


    That Hackintosh site is interesting. Never knew so many PC machines could be hacked to run the Mac OS…

    @John F. H.:

    Once, in Iowa? Friend and I had been on the road for days. Checked into hotel. When to grocery store to buy a small broom to clean up something (the car?) and some beer to make the weekend job easier in the heat. Clerk informed us we could not do that…

    There was some “Blue Law” saying you could not buy tools for working on Sunday, nor alcohol… Body soap was OK, but soap for floors was not… A small whisk broom was OK (one presumes to clean the farm dust off your suit for Church…) but a large broom was not… A long list of things…. Oh, and IIRC, the started covering the meat counter at something like 5? PM, since you could not sell meat without a butcher on site and he was going home…

    I’ve learned to be cautious about the laws in other States… ( Oregon you could only buy booze at the State run liquor store… with hours and service level to match all State Workers needs… Payed for several trips up to see friends in S. Oregon with a car load of booze from California…)


    A surprise to me was that theobromine in tea was a harder thing to stop. Different withdrawal character. I’d initially left coffee and swapped to just tea, but then discovered that was tougher. Ended up swapping coffee for tea, then tapering the coffee…

  13. John F. Hultquist says:

    I lived in Iowa and, yes, it is a strange place. Now covered with Berkshire Hathaway wind Towers.
    With a capital “T” ==> trouble

  14. Graeme No.3 says:

    Apparently, caffeine level is not affected in any way by the level of oxidation during tea manufacture. Green, oolong, black and white teas all contain caffeine. No one category of tea has more or less caffeine than another. Again, it all depends on the particular tea clone or variety in question (Chinese likely to be lower than Assam). 
    A standard cup of tea will contain an average of about 50mg of caffeine with a cup of coffee having 65-175mg and a bar of chocolate about 1-35mg.
    Some plant species that contain caffeine such as tea may also contain trace amounts of another alkaloid called theophylline that is an (analog) of caffeine.  Theophylline has a stronger effect than caffeine on the heart and breathing.  Some species related to tea, also contain another alkaloid called theobromine.  This alkaloid is largely found in Cocoa where its concentration is about 7 times that of caffeine.  Theobromine has weaker stimulating effect than caffeine.
    Research has shown that caffeine is rapidly absorbed following oral consumption.  Peak blood (plasma) levels are achieved usually within 30 minutes.  It is metabolized in the liver.  It has a very short half life of only about 3 – 5 hours in adults and is easily excreted in the urine. 
    For a good laugh
    I never knew tannin was an alkaloid.

    researchers have also claimed that drinking coffee could lower the risk of Parkinson’s disease and help protect against bladder cancer.

  15. E.M.Smith says:

    I find tea more “bracing”, a more ‘awake but calm’ where coffee is more ‘irritating and stimulated’… I also find the nature of the withdrawal of tea a bit more difficult and it has a “coming down” feeling like thirsty with attitude…

    Don’t know which part causes it, but Tea has several candidates:

    There are 4 substances in tea that are able to cross the blood-brain barrier to provide a stimulant effect.

    We have good, old caffeine, which you can also get from coffee and soft drinks.

    Then we have two substances related to caffeine, theobromine and theophylline.

    And finally we have a rather unique amino acid called L-Theanine, which has some very interesting effects on the brain.

    This article discusses these 4 stimulants in tea.

    I think it is those “very interesting effects on the brain” that keep me coming back for my next cup ;-)

    L-Theanine – A Psychoactive Amino Acid With Unique Properties

    The last substance is by far the most interesting of the four.

    It is a unique type of amino acid called L-theanine. It is mainly found in the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) and is able to cross the blood-brain barrier.

    In humans, L-theanine increases generation of brain waves called Alpha waves, which are associated with alert relaxation. This is perhaps the main reason for the different, milder buzz that tea generates compared to coffee (4).

    L-theanine may affect neurotransmitters in the brain, such as GABA and Dopamine (5).

    Some studies have suggested that L-Theanine, especially when combined with caffeine, can improve attention and brain function

    Yeah, that Alpha state sure sounds like it. And yeah, I like to alternate cups of coffee and tea when working a hard problem… for that synergistic improvement…

  16. cdquarles says:

    If I am remembering correctly, theobromine was the base chemical used to make theophylline and other early beta agonists (adrenergic receptors, think epinephrine and norepinephrine). These were better pharmacologically because of 1. purity, 2. shorter half-lives, 3. in the case of bronchial dilators, better controlled dosages in the Freon powered inhalers. [I am not sure why the epinephrine inhalers were taken off the market. I guess the propellant was the issue. Some ‘inert’ chemicals are not so inert when combined with chemicals of a similar class but just different enough that unwanted reactions occur.]

  17. cdquarles says:

    L-theanine? Isn’t that a glutamine variant? Likely GABA antagonist in action, I guess.

  18. philjourdan says:

    @E.M. – Re: Caffeine weening

    I was over a pot a day. Strong stuff. Then my sister came to live with me (going through a divorce – I had just recently divorced), and she cut my pot with decaf. Started at 3-1 (caf to de) and by the time (about 6 months later) she had to take her son to an out of town hospital (open heart surgery), I was down to 1-3. Since she had been making it, and I was a bachelor and lazy, I just did not make it. And no sodas either. (I have never been a chocolate lover).

    Now, when I have to pull an all nighter (very rarely, but about 3 times in the past 3 years), I drink 2-3 cups of the leaded variety and I am good for about 40 hours. But otherwise, I do not drink it. I like the taste, so it is rough when all around me are enjoying it.

  19. philjourdan says:

    @E.M. – Re: Blue laws. I have seen a lot of strange ones, but have not been to Iowa to buy booze, so that one ranks up there with strange. I have been to almost every state. I think my next project is to buy booze in every state to find out the restrictions! Got to have a hobby for retirement. :-)

  20. E.M.Smith says:


    Oh Noes!!! You’ve given me a new goal in life!!! ;-)

    RV, Booze Tour… what could possibly go wrong?! 8-0

    Unfortunately, over the last 40 years, many of the more strange Blue Laws have been removed…

    For example, when about 18 1/2 a buddy and I went driving around the country. In Canada, we were legal to drink, as in a couple of states. (One of them only let me buy 3.2% beer… just makes you piss a lot…) Well, we got used to this. Driving down the Appalachian spine, crossed a State line or two, stopped for gas at a mini-mart gas station, picked up a six-pack… back in the car, turned to my buddy and said “What State are we in? Am I legal here?” I guess it was the ‘confidence’ with which I put it on the counter… that ‘old hat’ attitude… Now: you get carded everywhere ( (I was carded at 60+ in Florida!) but I’ve not seen 3.2 beer in forever…

    Though in places with a long history of Blue Laws and a high Religious Presence (Amish in Pennsylvania, Bible Belt south) some of it persists…

    FWIW, Dad was from Iowa (east side) and told stories of Friday Night runs across the whole state to Nebraska to buy booze just over the border… different age limits IIRC… Would be interesting to see if there is still a “bar and liqueur store” cluster just over the border in Nebraska ;-)

  21. cdquarles says:

    My state’s rules have been relaxed over the years, including the Sunday no alcohol sold blue laws. They also vary by county ;). Distilled products -> state store or licensed ‘spirits’ outlet, restaurant, bar. Not distilled -> above plus any location with a beer/wine license. Sunday, depends, but default to not on Sunday.

  22. philjourdan says:

    3.2 Beer – let me guess – Ohio?

    I remember those days. Fortunately, we had some seniors who would buy kegs.

    I worked a 7-11 in Virginia in my early 20s. We had to padlock the liquor doors on Sunday morning until noon – because the store was within 500 feet of a church!

    But alas, as you said, most of those laws are gone. A shame really. It takes a lot of the fun out of it.

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