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ATPM 18.01
January 2012





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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Dave Trautman,

How Did This Happen?

There is a point in the story of Dr. Frankenstein where Mary Shelley’s main character comes to the realization that this “new life” he has created is ruining his life. Although I did not recoil in fear when I came to a similar realization, I did ask myself how such a thing could have happened while I wasn’t paying much attention.

Before I left my comfortable position with a university, I was able to acquire one of the new beige G3 mini-tower Macintosh computers. I had been using a Power Mac 8100 in my cubicle up to then, and was able to work on projects involving MPEG video capture (with NuBus cards installed), HTML site making (with a variety of writing tools), long-form documents (with FullWrite Pro), slide presentations involving music and graphics (using ClarisWorks of all things), assembled QuickTime VR objects and panoramas (using QTVR Studio from Apple), and was fairly expert at converting files from antiquated software as well as from dead formats (using MacLink Pro and GraphicConverter). TARGA files, anyone?

So, it came to pass where I was needing to replace my first real Macintosh—a Mac II—with a more up-to-date machine capable of similar feats. Although the Power Mac 8500 was attracting a lot of my attention during that year, there also appeared a new generation of Macintosh with a new PowerPC 750 chip that was named the G3. With 266 MHz of clock speed it snapped my head back just how much faster things could be from my original 15 MHz Mac II.

Just as with the Mac II before it, the design of the case was meant to allow access to all parts and to allow for internal upgrading and configuration of the machine in all number of ways. (My 8100 was a pain to open.) The basic G3 machine was heroically faster, the data bus was much improved, it sported a 24× CD drive, and the card slots were now PCI standard; plus it still supported SCSI. I also liked the Iomega 100 MB Zip slot on the front. I’d been using Zip drives on external cables up to then and wasn’t enjoying it too much. (Don’t start me on parallel cables for Zip either.) I also was beginning to use Jaz cartridges, as well, for storing larger project files. I had a nice comfortable 9 GB external drive running on my work 8100 machine for video projects.

The G3 machine (bought for I believe around $3,500) boasted a whopping 6 GB hard drive and could accommodate two additional internal drives as well as external SCSI drives. But it also had a video “personality” card which allowed a person like myself to connect to video sources and “capture” video. I had the “Wings” version shipped, but I also dreamed of having a future card for MPEG capture and such. I was really going to move forward with one of these machines.

It is still hard for me to admit after all these years to finding myself swept up in the hysteria and a materialistic acquisition compulsion during those years. Whenever some new capability or feature or peripheral appeared I scrutinized it closely and measured it against my machine’s configuration. Many times I was driven by the prosperity of those times to indulge myself in adding on yet-another capability.

I did, of course, have an existing addiction to network speeds provided by the university so it was clearly “logical” to install broadband into my home office. I was able to operate with very similar download speeds to those I became accustomed to for the previous few years. A network which was so fast that many of us held LAN parties with Quake battles when the office was closed on a Friday afternoon.

This also introduced me to the compulsive and revenge-filled fantasies of becoming a Quake lord and dealing justice from the barrel of a rocket launcher. Many sweat-soaked afternoons were spent learning the maps and developing counter-strategies against my formidable opponents. The experience taught me a lot about myself. As much as I believed myself to be a pacifist with only an intellectual interest in engaging in mock battle on a virtual field-of-play, I quickly discovered the base instincts at work when one’s rising sense of outrage at being “fragged” for the 36th consecutive time brought out the “revenge beast” within me to roar with unbounded retribution for those who had wronged me in this mythical land.

But my relationship with my new G3 Mac was intended to be a mature one. A sober and thoughtful one reflecting my new family responsibilities and my ever-expanding future of digital opportunities. At first it was possible to simply re-arrange some of the tables and counters and filing cabinets in my home office to make a place for this new machine. My trusty LaserWriter was just as happy getting PostScript data from this machine as it had been from my older Mac II. My ever expanding collection of software and shareware was also quite comfortable within the System 7 and later Mac OS 8 environment.

Within months of leaving the university I was offered a very lucrative and challenging position with a new company that was happy to pay me twice what I had been earning before then. It was a high-pressure project with an enormous number of dancing variables and a level of exactness for which I was already skilled at delivering. The work was fascinating and yet drove me crazy at times. On reflection, I think I can say this was around the time my control over my Mac G3 modifications began slipping away.

At first it was just part of a “wave” of change which meant getting some PCI cards for the machine to be able to use USB devices like a scanner. Then it was adding a 40 GB drive to the inside and then another 60 GB drive later on. I was using the machine for a lot of document creation and for handling the enormous amount of reference material required for my work. And perhaps a bit of a “split personality” developed, switching from a Windows 95 machine in the workplace each day back to a Mac G3 machine when I got home, which may have contributed.

My hard drive started to load up on kiddie software like KidPix and others. I had vast stretches of SimCity urban planning which I had created during those long Sunday afternoon naps my wife and child would be taking. And I had a growing collection of QuickTime material along with various edits I was doing.

As my take-home pay grew, so did my desire for more features. And then, at the office one day, our senior IT person walked in with a copy of Mac OS X in his hand. He too was a fiend for the Macintosh, and we shared many a smile between us when various Windows systems would fail around the facility for things we knew the Mac would never do. In fact, it was during this time that the “I Love You” virus appeared and took down the entire operation for most of a day.

The new and colourful iMac had been released in those years, and our office managed to create a single workstation for it in order to handle some small video and audio work we were doing as part of the larger project I was managing. The people who were given this new Mac to use had no idea their boss was a Macintosh “fanboy” and were surprised when I would show them better ways to edit and process media as well as show them key commands they didn’t know the Mac could do.

But in my home office I had created a FrankenMac.

It probably wasn’t actually anything more than a completely filled up mini-tower with all the RAM and drive space and PCI cards it could hold. But when I made the decision to replace the G3 CPU with a G4 chip, I think I finally leapt from the ledge and was on a final trajectory down to that scary place we all know exists within us. Once I felt the draw of the obsession take hold of me, there was no going back. I had a copy of Mac OS X and I was empowered by the alchemy of the genius which is XPostFacto to believe that I could surgically alter my original PowerPC G3 750–driven machine so it might be capable of running the latest operating system from Apple. (XPostFacto is a utility from Other World Computing which helps to install and boot Mac OS X, Mac OS X Server, and Darwin on certain unsupported systems.)

A new G4 chip arrived with instructions on how to replace the previous one. Apple’s engineers made this process about as simple as anyone might ever want it to be. You just had to pre-install a startup extension to recognize the new chip, and then shut down the machine. The design of a G3 tower (like some other models) allowed one to get into it very quickly. The ZIF-socket was easy to get at, and within 10 minutes I was ready to boot up my new creation. And boot it did.

This only fed my obsession further. I was more determined than ever to enrich my computing experience with the new Unix-based OS and wanted dearly to see that Jaguar screen for the first time. I then spent almost all of my free time in the next three weeks working with the XPostFacto patch to install and run Mac OS X 10.2 on my machine. That “Jolly Rancher” interface with the pin-stripe window treatment was going to have to wait until the author of XPostFacto got back to me about why my particular Macintosh was not responding as described in the notes.

But not long after I sent away a question the author got back to those of us who were having Beige Tower troubles and issued a version and some further instructions to handle the “video” issue, which this particular model presented to his OS patch methods. Once this was dealt with my machine actually did boot up into Jaguar.

My sense of satisfaction, heck my sense of unrestrained glee, lasted for about eight months. Here I was using a Mac not meant to handle this new OS, and I was able to explore a new desktop, extra features, and a whole new look for the Mac. It was a joy to behold and allowed me to find out a lot of things. I was learning to bring up Terminal and send direct commands to the subsystem, and I was finding out how to live without “extensions” loading along the bottom of the screen. And I spent many hours with the new iCal and iMovie and new screen-savers. The only fly in my ointment was with FullWrite Pro, which seemed to get jammed up by the Jaguar operating system and did not want to run. Even with the Classic environment available to me it just would not run. I learned later that it was a flaw in the Apple OS which took two more versions before it was patched over—allowing my FullWrite program to return to a limited life.

Around this time the problems began.

It isn’t without some level of recognition that a person finds themselves farther along a road they were exploring than they originally expected to travel. But here I was in the midst of the dense jungle of intermingled hardware and software without a clear idea of how I got there. And when my machine first started to freeze up, after about an hour into use, I just thought it was some small thing which needed a tweak. After all, I was supposedly fully aware of all the changes I had applied to my hardware and software. I then got back onto a treadmill of updates, drivers, and complete re-installation steps and even replacing ribbon cables inside the machine. I dove head-first into the deepest of these Amazonian waters only to find slippery eels and elusive solutions swimming below the surface.

It was a FrankenMac to be sure. It did not operate as it was intended. It was not made up of the same parts I started with. It was running a brain too big for the processors on board. And it was beginning to suffer digital seizures at random moments. I even became convinced that my Internet connection was contributing to system crashes I was experiencing. This was the extent of my delusions about what I was doing.

I was not facing up to the reality of what was happening. I was occupying an ever smaller place within which my FrankenMac would remain reliable. I was no longer confident of completing a document without some sort of glitch rearing itself up and taking me away from the task at hand. From booting up to shutting down I was spending a larger and larger percentage of my time dealing with the machine instead of the task or documents I wanted to be working on.

It might have been something my wife remarked one day, or it might have been something I read in a forum, or it might have been something I overheard at work, but eventually I was struck with the futility of my efforts. Perhaps the constant stress of my everyday work had blinded me to the slippery slope I had crawled out onto, but it was literally months of fidgeting and tweaking, and reorganizing and reformatting before I was able to take a mental step backward and survey the sum total of what I had created for myself.

The diminishing returns had finally overtaken the sheer joy of modifying my Mac G3/4. It was around this time that my project at work was nearing completion and I was feeling more comfortable with my family’s prospects. So I set out to learn more about these new flat-screen iMacs which had been popularized recently. A gleaming new iMac landed on my home-office desk (reducing the clutter significantly) around the same time some very angry people flew some aircraft into some buildings in New York and Washington and the world outside changed forever. At the same time, my world at home was finally free of the tyranny of my own misguided dream of building a FrankenMac to serve my every need.

Needless to say, I am quite cured of my compulsions to have every new thing and to think up ways to modify my Macintosh machines. I am forever on guard against taking any first step toward entering that nightmare again. Today my FrankenMac is comfortably deceased in a large Apple product box in my storage area with the brain removed (the original G3 chip was put back) and the EIDE hard drives taken out. The other USB, FireWire, and SCSI drives are also packed away—having been cloned and cleared of their data.

This might be a cautionary tale for future Macintosh owners, and certainly the current Mac Pro tower has a very attractive set of expansion options for someone who wants to go down that road. But I am fully recovered from my self-inflicted wounds. Sometimes I find myself reflecting back on those years and wondering if what I experienced was similar to what so many PC users were going through with those innumerable clone boxes and versions of Windows and drivers and peripherals. But then I don’t want to think about it.

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Reader Comments (1)

Dave Thompson · January 4, 2012 - 10:58 EST #1
Your upgrade story reminds me of one with a Winder$ box a couple of years ago. I had a dual-processor motherboard gathering dust in my closet and wanted a decent (not top-shelf) Winder$ box for some light gaming and other work-related tasks.

After six weeks and too much cash, I dropped the project, sold off all the accumulated parts, and bought a small mid-tower HP cheap. It required replacement of the power supply to power the graphics adapter, but that was easily done.

The frustration factor was significant on this project and I doubt I'll attempt it again... even with all of my experience building and maintaining linux boxen.

Good story...

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