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Tim Ferriss Facepalms

How can someone use a Mac for so long and know so little?

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Tim Ferriss of 'four hour work week' fame has a Mac. He doesn't know much about it, so he went online recently to learn a bit more. What he learned was par for the course.

How to Bulletproof [sic] (or Unf*ck) Your Mac

'It displayed Indexing Spotlight with an estimated finish time of several MILLION hours.'

Their algorithms aren't perfect. Often they're not as good as they could be. And some design decisions aren't too peachy either. Don't use Spotlight. Move on.

'But what if your Mac crashes or is stolen?'

Crashes are rare. You prevent personal mishaps with theft by making sure your system requires a password to log in or get back from a screen saver.

'Does that goddamn spinning beachball mean that my computer's going to implode?'

No. It simply means something is busy. This is IBM's CUA 'user in control principle' at work - the computer user must always be in control, and if the user is in fact not in control, said user must believe said user is in control. Ergo the beach ball. Or the hour glass. Or the old watch. Something that kicks in after 2-3 seconds.

'this post... will get the job done with minimal headache and paradox of choice...'

We'll see about that.

'Most software glitches on OS X are permissions-based.'

No they are not. Permissions are only an issue if you treat your computer (Mac or any secure OS) like a dork.

'Permissions set the read/write characteristics of every file and who those files can be viewed by...'

But most files have adequate permissions for anyone - that 'other' or 'world' setting is found everywhere. It's not the permissions as much as it's the ownerships - something casual users are hardly aware of. And it's not just about 'viewing' files - it's about writing to them or running them. 'Viewing' a bundle executable doesn't help run the application - the executable must be 'executable' by you.

Thankfully one hears the mantra 'fix permissions' more seldom these days. 'Your coffee machine acting up? Fix permissions!' Fixing permissions is not an elixir. And the MOAB people showed how that system fails and how easy it is to hack it.

You will never have any issues if you keep your stuff where your stuff belongs. Unless your box is used by more than one user, there's no reason to go into /Applications anyway - use ~/Applications instead. That might be 'rocket science' to some but it's actually little more than 'doggie wagon science' if one simply focuses on a simple issue for a few seconds.

'Another common problem is a corrupt directory file.'

It is? One has to wonder who Ferriss' online sources are. And the method he recommends is worse than carrying coals to Newcastle when you're already inside the city limits. (What's a 'directory file' anyway?)

  1. Make sure your box is going to reboot into the volume you want. You check this through System Preferences.

  2. Clean up what you can, then reboot - and hold down ⌘S.

  3. Now you'll see the actual system message buffer coming on screen. Wait until it finishes and you'll get a prompt. Type in the command below at the prompt and then sit back and wait. You should eventually see 'appears to be OK'. That's as good as it gets. No need to find DVDs and stuff - unnecessarily time consuming too. Once the command below has run, type in 'reboot' and you're back in business. Repeat for each volume.
    /sbin/fsck -fy

Another thing not mentioned in the silly Ferriss piece is how you're going to know something's wrong in the first place. Herp derp. Answer? You don't. So don't wait. Make sure you do the above regularly. And at least any time you crash or forcefully shut down the system. Why? Because file systems use lazy write, meaning they have things in cache that might not be written out to disk before you pull the plug.

'Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm talking about DiskWarrior ($99), the Spartan Army of OS repairing awesomeness. I've been using it since 1998, and it's saved my bacon on numerous occasions.'

That's a big mouthful. Note the phrase 'I've been using it since 1998' because that's key - Apple didn't have Mac OS X on the market in 1998. What applied to 'Mac OS' back then doesn't apply to Mac OS X today. The product Ferriss continues to use is a Carbon throwaway. It might be better today - and even be 'Cocoa' - but it has whiskers you don't want and don't need.

Another subtle point: Ferriss just admitted he's been using Macs for almost fourteen years. There are preteens born after 1998 with no special predilection for computer science who are better at using a Mac than Ferriss. What the 'f*ck', as Ferriss would put it, has he learned in all that time?

'Now would be a good time to book an appointment at an Apple Store. The specialists at the Genius Bar...'

Too funny. Those 'specialists' at the 'Genius Bar' offer a level of service comparable to a Starbucks barista. You should never be in that much trouble - no malware to worry about etc - but if you are, then go to a real expert. And if all you're worried about is having to reinstall your OS, then don't worry - this isn't Windows. It's probably never going to happen. So chill out.

'... the basic concept of a bootable drive eluded me for an embarrassingly long time...'

No surprises there. Ferriss seems to have messed up his box pretty bad; odds are others won't come close to that level of clumsy destruction.

'Think Macs are impervious to viruses? Not forever, at least that's my bet. I ended up installing the simple Sophos Anti-Virus for peace of mind.'

Coming from someone of Ferriss' pedigree, that can be expected. In other words: he's a fool.

The 'Survival List'

Par again for the Ferriss course. A few comments.

'Tuneup - for cleaning up and unbloating iTunes'

Just stop using iTunes. Use Spotify or move to Europe.

'Cocktail - use 1x per month to clean up your OS'

Absolutely not. See here here and here. And if you want that kind of silly interface to do things your box can already do for free, then for goodness sake opt for the free alternative OnyX? Thank you.

'1Password - for (not)remembering log-ins and passwords'

Or just use the built in Keychain Access. Yes you can insert your own passwords into it manually and yes it's every bit as secure and moreover: it's built into the system and moreover again: it's free. You fool.

'Quicksilver or Alfred - for quickly launching apps (Call me old-fashioned, but I'm perfectly happy with Spotlight for the app-launching feature)'

No worries anyone will call Ferriss old fashioned. Quicksilver was modded by a colleague of Rixstep's but still and all. There are far better ways to skin such a tame cat.

'Netnewswire - RSS reader (I don't have an RSS reader installed)'

You do have access to an RSS reader if you have Safari. Or probably any modern browser. You can make a special submenu of your favourite RSS feeds just as easily. Or use the superior Vienna. RSS is a bit last millennium now anyway.

'AppZapper (Tim addition to the list) - aptly called the unintaller [sic] Apple forgot, I use AppZapper to delete all the niggly hidden files, sometimes dozens, associated with applications that you want to get rid of'

Wow. Apple didn't forget AppZapper. Sometimes Apple can do some amazingly weird things but they'd never admit to doing AppZapper. Want a real software removal tool? Then you need to see all the stuff AppZapper and its clones will never find. You need to step things up a bit. Oh and - 'hidden files'? They're not hidden. How ridiculous.

'Other Armaggedon-avoiding Mac tips?'

There are no reasons to be alarmist about Mac OS X. Period. Not unless you're just plain silly and like to write giggly articles for your boyfriends.

Above all, Ferriss' article plays too 'cute' with the issues, tries to downplay the truth to make people continue to be believers, and is way short on useful advice. Good luck to Tom Ferriss - his Mac will probably run smoothly anyway. But that's to Apple's credit and not to his short list of clever tricks.

The link to the Ferriss piece was sent with the admonition 'don't be harsh with him - he's very influential'. OK but what if he's an idiot spreading really kindy info? He's been 'computing' for at least fourteen years and he still doesn't know what a bootable volume is, he still thinks Disk Warrior's the bee's knees (if you have a bad hard drive then you replace it on your warranty DUH) and discovers a great op called 'fix permissions'? Where's he been when the panic attacks hit MacRumors? That wimpy writing style with an overabundance of absent information does harm.

OK. So how do you take care of a system like Mac OS X? You have a number of issues to contend with from the get-go.

Really Taking Care of a Mac

1. Almost no modern personal OS has a good file manager. You need one. Microsoft's Explorer is less than worthless. It looks (and behaves) more like a Dr Seuss book. Apple's Finder does more injustice to its name than any software product in memory. If there's one thing Finder does not do, it's find things. Apple use Spotlight for that today. If you can stand listening to your HDD wax asthmatic.

You have two choices on Mac OS X today - Path Finder and Xfile. Path Finder is a monster, and often a buggy monster, it's slow, and it can hang and beg you to crash it. Xfile is lean and mean, has no known bugs and hasn't had one for years, and is blazingly fast. And will in addition really find things on your Mac. Something the other 'file managers' don't really get into that much.

2. You don't need antivirus. This bears repeating even though it's not a measure you need to take. You don't need antivirus. AV products are not only unnecessary, they're also often poorly engineered and they can actually cause you (your computer) harm. If the bad guys - the AV predators - can convince Unix users they need their worthless products, the game is over. Besides: those AV engineers all use Macs today themselves. And they'll readily admit their signature-based products are totally worthless. Use your brains - and don't invest in some klutzy AV product. Just be intelligent and you'll be fine.

3. Never run or install unknown or untrusted software. This is a famous Apple mantra. And it seems to make no sense whatsoever. And it doesn't. But then again it does. Because you simply can't argue with the logic. So how do you get around the obvious Catch-22? Here's a clue: it's not by using AppZapper.

How is AppZapper going to protect you from a trojan? Because you can get hit by a trojan even if your system is secure - it's you that's been fooled, not the system. How is AppZapper going to protect you? It can't. Seriously. Get a clue. Malware authors are going to be thwarted by something like AppZapper?

Do you even know how AppZapper works? Then why use it, why recommend it, why defend it if you don't?

Like many useful smaller applications, AppZapper does only what you could do yourself but makes it easier. AppZapper uses an heuristic approach - and is sensible enough to offer suggestions as to what's to be removed.

AppZapper doesn't have to be installed and running before your target software runs. So therefore it can't possibly know what's happened when you installed and subsequently ran the applications you now want gone. AppZapper works on a number of clues only.

  • The application bundle itself. This is of course a no-brainer.
  • It can peek inside Info.plist to pick up the bundle identifier.
  • It can also search your home area for files containing the app's name.
  • It can specifically search in Preferences, Application Support, and Caches.

But that's about it. AppZapper doesn't know what the software (and its installer) have done. There's only one really secure way to test unknown software: on a test machine. That's an option for admins for wide distribution and not something your average user wants to get involved in. But there's another way almost as good.

Tracker too does things you could do on your own - but in this case only with an extraordinary effort. Thanks to the security of the OS X file system, there is no way for userland software to fudge disk data. If any bad (or stupid) software tries to muck with your system, it'll show up in the file system, and thereby with Tracker as well.

You only need to track a new app once. As long as you thoroughly test the app and let it try to do everything it's capable of. And you need to watch its installer as well - both are pieces of software and both can do things you're not expecting.

AppZapper won't come close to protecting you against app installers - it doesn't know anything about them. There are ample articles at this site that show how ineffective applications like AppZapper and its clones really are. Read those articles. There's a free version of Tracker out there in the Xfile Test Drive. Not all features are enabled but there are enough features to get you through some rough spots and give you an idea of what the game is really about.

A Tracker listing is the equivalent of AppZapper suggestions but it shows you everything and it shows you in realtime as well. You save the listing as a Tracker 'playback' file. When the time comes to throw away that app you were testing, you simply open the playback file and get to work. But now you'll be secure in the knowledge you get at everything - with no guesswork involved.

4. Monitor your ingress and egress traffic. Little Snitch is a good recommendation for egress control but be aware the MOAB group showed how this app could be defeated. But Little Snitch is good software. The two ACP utilities GD and Xframe will also show you traffic - they're intrusion detection in that context rather than firewalls. But again - you see everything. The former shows you all your connections, both currently and over time, and the latter shows you the actual traffic demultiplexed down to the actual destination protocols used. And it logs this traffic as well - indispensable for admins.

5. CLIX. CLIX replaces OnyX and even more so replaces Cocktail and all those 'Wizards of OS X™'. For all those apps are anyway is a bunch of Unix scripts and Unix command invocations. Why not use a utility that does that for you in the most flexible way possible? CLIX comes with thousands of helpful (and powerful) commands to run. It does more than Cocktail, OnyX, and all the rest combined. Plus: you can make your own commands to augment it - something you might have to wait months or years to get with the others.

6. Looking for something? Where are you going to look? On the actual hard drive? Or in one of Spotlight's hysterical caches? And what's in those caches anyway? Can you get everything in there? Do you really think Spotlight is going to index your entire hard drive? Apple don't have any utility for really searching a hard drive. But Xscan does the job. And once you've got the likely suspects, you can being looking inside them with Xfind.

7. Wiping your tracks. Amazing how few people care about this today. But the spooks and the TLAs still do. Anyone can recover things from your computer you can't even see. Are you sure you want that to happen? Privacy is not to protect the guilty - it's a human right. Forensic equipment can see generations back what you used to have on your computer - and what you had before that, and what you had before that. And so on. You have to shred things to make sure they're really gone. SPX is the original file and disk shredder for OS X and it's still the best. It's almost a file manager in its own right like Tracker. And it really does the job, using 35 passes on each file and then another 4 steps to make sure the traces of the traces are really gone. It even shreds its own memory! And for that really clean feeling, you use SPX Nighttime. SPX Nighttime takes what's left - your disk free space - and shreds that too. And with the 'weekend' switch, you get the full 35 steps on each and every last byte you've ever had access to.

That's only a quick run-through. There are a lot more things you can do to run a class op on your Mac. The ACP is a wealth of opportunities to fine tune almost anything. It's expensive - almost $100 - but there's always the free Xfile Test Drive.

When it comes to computer use, everyone's a student. Taking time to learn things need not consume that much time or energy. Going to the wrong sites and listening to the wrong sources can screw you up more than you might imagine. Next thing you know, you too might be headed for a Starbucks with a totally f*cked Mac. Be smart instead.

PS. Carnegie Mellon is one of the best computer science schools in the US - it's where Apple's MACH microkernel was developed.

See Also
Reviews: AppZapper 1.8.0: A Fairy Tale?
Reviews: CocktailTE: Arsenic & Other Laces
Learning Curve: The Wizards of OS X™
Learning Curve: 1st Time Tracker?
CLIX: Learn How to Fish
Tracker: Why Chance It?
Xscan: Looking for something?
Xfile: The Standard Setter
Xfile Test Drive

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