Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Macintosh, How I Loathe Thee

I'm writing this on a Mac.

MaCultists dominate my profession. I'm constantly berated for not owning one. I'm told time and time again that I can't even be taken seriously, let alone thrive, in this business without kneeling at the throne of Jobs.

By a strange twist of fate, I'm sitting in front of a Mac today, a brand new Macbook pro that I'm told is one of the very best available. Granted, it's shiny; the graphics are flashy and the animations are smooth. It's even cold to the touch. I can see why some people, people who don't know any better, are really taken with this machine.

On the other hand, it's a piece of garbage. A shiny, flashy and expensive piece of garbage but a piece of garbage all the same.

Rather than rent a satellite truck at some six thousand dollars a day, I've been asked to help set up a live video feed from here back to the office so that the muckity-mucks can monitor what's happening on location. Someone other than me decided that the best way to do this would be through iChat.

Last week we set everything up; I took a playback device out to the spot where we would be doing this and tested to see that it would transmit and it seemed to work flawlessly. Over the weekend, though, our resident video expert shut the machine down rather than suspending it and the configuration that we had built magically went away. There's only one user account on the machine so I know that I'm logged into the right place. All our settings simply vanished like a fart in a high wind. Ubuntu does not forget things.

I'm not a Mac expert but I have to use them with some regularity so I'm not totally out of my element. I establish a new iChat account and find my counterpart back at the office. His badly compressed image stares back at me from miles away. I hook up the external video device via firewire and wait for the camera-select dropdown box to appear, which it never does. I check every link in the chain from the output at the camera, to the converter box, to the external monitor and everything is good. I even plug in my own, Ubuntu, machine and it gets the video feed just fine.

At this point I seriously consider just doing the whole thing on my own computer but I'm overruled by my boss, who's enthusiastically pro-Mac.

I try plugging the video device into another Mac and BOOM, it shows up exactly as I'm told it's supposed to. Unfortunately, that Mac doesn't have wireless broadband and I don't have the software to install on it, otherwise I would have just used that machine. Finding a local network and downloading from a repository, as I would on Ubuntu is simply not an option. Moreover, the manufacturer of the broadband card doesn't offer it's software for download. Wow. Ubuntu does not hide software from me.

I go back to the first machine and tinker. After some looking through an opaque file structure and a lot of plugging, unplugging and rebooting, the external camera option shows up in the appropriate drop down box, BUT IT'S GREYED OUT! Now it can see the camera but it won't let me use it and it won't tell me why, then iChat hangs for no reason and has to be restarted. This then happens two more times before it goes back to operating smoothly. Ubuntu does not tease me.

Being an Ubuntu person, I go for the standard Ubuntu response, "Ask The Internet!" So, I start looking up various strings of "External Camera iChat," "Video Input Mac," "Can't Access Firewire" and dozens of others and I find absolutely nothing that can assist me. Mind you. there seem to be dozens of other people who have encountered this issue but there is apparently no solution. Per my research, and Linux people tend to be pretty good at this kind of thing, Apple hasn't even addressed the issue and the Mac community, not being of the open-source mindset, does little more than complain rather than provide their own solution.*

Then the broadband card goes down.

I reconnect and get no throughput. I reboot, reconnect and I'm back online but my camera has disappeared from the iChat dialog. I reboot two more times and, finally, the external camera shows up as a selectable option in iChat. I select it, get a feed and connect to my colleague back at base.

Whooooo Hooooo! We're in business after only an hour and a half of fucking around. Sure, I have no idea why it worked this time, it's all just voodoo at this point but it works ... for about six minutes before the broadband card goes down again. Reconnect, back up ... for two minutes. Reconnect, fail, reboot, box-greyed out, reboot, no camera, reboot, iChat hangs, restart program, camera available but broadband won't connect.

Do you see where I'm going with this? Do you also understand that two dozen of my colleagues are standing around waiting for this to happen? I should also mention that most of the colleagues are kool-aid drinking Mac-Hacks and, despite the fact that no less than eight of them have taken turns trying to get this to work, none of them can get anymore out of this than I.

Finally, I decide that I'm going to have to go whole hog at this. Thus far I've been chagrin to try and manipulate any of the actual machine settings. I'm just not familiar enough with Mac to go screwing with the defaults on a machine that's not mine but how much worse could I make it?

Not much worse since I can't seem to access any of the actual system settings. Sure, there's all sort of stuff about language options, graphics themes, and lots of ways to tweak the bells and whistles but I can't find a way to poll the actual hardware. I can't find any settings for external cameras, for the firewire ports. I can't look at system statuses. I can't find anything of actual substance that might give me a clue as to why this is happening and, more importantly, why something slightly different happens every time I restart the computer. Ubuntu does not have these problems.

Some more internet digging with the broadband going out several times and I find that the settings I'm looking for are in iMovie. Someone tell me why I need to open a nested application in order to get to the hardware settings? I don't need to plug in my DVD player in order to change the channel on my television. What if I wanted to use a different application to access an external camera? Am I assured that that application will be able to access these settings? I mean really.

Moreover, iMovie can see the device and can view the feed so, according to all the documentation I've found, everything should be working just fine and this is obviously not the case. Ubuntu does not lie to me.

Floating in the back of my mind this whole time has been the knowledge that Mac OSX and all of it's inheritors have a command line option. After asking three of the Mac hounds that surround me, I find it. Unfortunately, I don't know the root password. The password that I used to log onto the account doesn't do it and my colleague back at the office, the one who owns the Mac in question doesn't know what the hell I'm talking about. Every suggestion he has for a sudo password fails. I can poll the port and see that the device is there but there's precious little else I can do.

Ultimately, we end up running the video feed into that other machine I mentioned, recording the feed as a Quicktime file, putting the file on a data stick, transferring it to the machine I have and emailing it home. It's not in real time the way that the powers that be wanted but at least they get to see it. In reality, though, nothing that we wanted to accomplish really got done.

The Mac people mystify me. I simply don't understand that kind of brand loyalty, especially not in light of the fact that the product doesn't deliver on any of it's promises. I'm even more mystified by the fact that, even after telling my boss that I could do all this on my Ubuntu laptop, he refused to even try because he has no faith whatsoever in anything not made by Apple.

A few final points. I know what many of the Mac people reading are thinking. I will freely admit that much of my difficulty is due to the fact that I'm not nearly as familiar with Mac as I am with Ubuntu and Windows. Perhaps everything I needed was right there in front of me and I just didn't realize it or know how to access it. However, I find this unlikely since there were a dozen hard-core Macultists standing around for this episode, none of whom could make any more progress than I.

Also, I've restricted my comments to those that are that specific to the job I was doing on this occasion but I've got a bunch of other complaints as well. Programs will simply refuse to open. The Dock menu pops up or disappears for no reason. The time is wrong and I couldn't find how to update or change it. Applications will tell me that they're done doing whatever I've asked when, in fact, they're not. Most importantly, this thing has the least ergonomic keyboard ever designed and I'll probably have carpal tunnel simply from typing this.

Wow, I hate Mac.

*Yeah, I get that I'm doing the same thing here but, with my preferred OS, I'm one of the people who helps provide the solutions so I don't feel at all bad about bitching here.

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