Friday, July 30, 2010

Yet more thoughts on Apple

It's been several months since we got our Mac Mini [1, 2]. Previously my wife used a Linux laptop. It worked well, except when it didn't, and I had to help out.

The Mac is just the same, except that when it works well, it works beautifully. Steve Jobs values aesthetics above everything else. But when it doesn't work...

So a few days ago she calls me to say the computer is not booting. I go over to look. Not only is she quite correct, but there's no way of telling what the problem is: all Apple gives you is a white screen with an Apple logo and an endlessly-spinning counter.

I go online with my laptop, and find that there are ways to boot differently by holding down various key combinations on boot. First I try "safe mode". It boots, and all seems well; but when I try the regular boot it fails again. And now "safe mode" doesn't work too.

Then I try "verbose" boot. This gives a scrolling screen of boot messages, of the kind familiar to Unix/Linux users. I see some messages about the filesystem but I don't understand them. The boot gets stuck at a point that I can't make sense of.

Then I try "single user". This time, I get a boot prompt that helpfully tells me to "fsck -fy". I do so, and after some churning, it tells me "filesystem cannot be repaired." I think, huh? I have seen serious filesystem errors on linux and unix, which can be repaired only at the cost of losing data: but I have never seen a filesystem that could not be repaired.

Googling gives me the dubious advice that repeatedly trying fsck should fix the problem, but it does not. I try the disk repair tool that comes from Apple's install DVD, but that too refuses to repair the filesystem.

Finally, "backup and reinstall" is the only way to go. I get a USB hard drive, use my unix skills to mount it and format it with the HFS+ filesystem in single-user mode, and back up all my wife's data (only a couple of unimportant files failed to get copied, luckily). And I reformat and reinstall, as any good Windows sysadmin would do.


  • This has never happened to me on linux, which I've been using on my own computers for 10 years now, and on other computers for even longer. A couple of times the filesystem was sufficiently corrupted that some important system files got lost, but all I had to do was copy them over from another machine or reinstall the affected package.

  • Linux, like OS X, typically uses a "journalled" filesystem (usually ext3 or ext4 on linux, HFS+ on Mac). This means that, after an "unclean" shutdown, the filesystem need not be thoroughly checked. But even when the shutdown is not unclean, Linux systems are usually set up to check the filesystem automatically once every 30 days, or once every 100 mounts (reboots), or thereabouts. This is just a precaution: hardware and software errors can always count problems. As far as I can tell, Mac is not set up to do this. In fact, as far as we know, the machine was not shut off "uncleanly" at any time recently: what probably happened was that undetected filesystem errors grew until they became unrecoverable. Why does Mac OS X not schedule a periodic filesystem check? Is it because Jobs thinks users will get frustrated at that informationless, spinning progress indicator? If so, why not just tell the user that the filesystem is being checked? I'm sure most users won't mind.

  • My wife -- and other non-techie users -- could not have recovered the computer on her own. From all accounts, Apple's customer service is good and very likely they'd have done exactly what I did, but they would have taken a few days rather than a few hours.

  • We should have taken backups, and got away very lightly considering we didn't. After this incident, we bought a new USB hard drive and set up Apple's "Time Machine" on it. This, like all Apple software, is slick and shiny; how well it works remains to be seen, or hopefully will not need to be seen for a while.

  • I strongly suspect that the "filesystem could not be recovered" message was not the truth, but an example of Apple's control-freakishness. The filesystem could perhaps be recovered only by losing a few files (a common-enough situation). Rather than let the user make that choice, Apple wants you to call customer service at the slightest sign of trouble -- by escalating that trouble, and also by hiding all useful information from the user, making it available only via arcane key combinations at boot time.

So if anyone out there is thinking of buying Apple: it's slick hardware and software, but in times of trouble, it's probably much harder to fix than Windows. And harder than other Unix-like systems, because it hides so much of its Unixness on the grounds of being user-friendly, or something. Still, for many people, the slickness probably makes up for anything else.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Giant steps

Madhav Chari, jazz pianist, performed with an all-Chennai trio -- consisting of himself, Naveen Kumar (bass) and Jeoraj George (drums) yesterday at the Museum Theatre in Chennai. I have written about Madhav before, when he performed with a French rhythm section [1,2] (who also back him on his recent CD, "Parisian thoroughfares"); and had previewed the concert here. Suffice it to say that it lived up to its prior billing. In an e-mailed announcement Madhav had declared it to be "absolutely the very first international standard jazz group from India since the incpetion of jazz in the country in 1927." It was. He said "We play jazz music: thats what we do." That's what they did. Over half of the programme was of Madhav's own compositions, beginning with "Tales of the south" (a reference, he said, both to New Orleans and to Chennai) and ending with "Blues for Havana". In addition they threw in pieces by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Cole Porter, and Sherwin/Maschwitz's "A nightingale sang in Berkeley square" (which Madhav played unaccompanied). They nailed all of them. Jeoraj took several drum solos, while Naveen played extended bass solos on Madhav's "Rejoice" and "Blues for Havana".

Madhav repeatedly said that the band is still feeling its way and is not really a mature outfit, which is why they chose not to play Ellington. But if there were flubs, I did not notice. The Parker was taken at breakneck speed, Porter's "Love for Sale" and Madhav's "Tango sentimental" were rhythmically very complex, and the chord changes in Coltrane's "Giant Steps" are a challenge for the best musicians. The band sailed through all of them.

But almost equally entertaining was Madhav's patter before the songs. He declared Chennai the most advanced city for percussion in Asia (previously he had said that though Chennai audiences may not understand jazz, they understand music better than anyone). He has a dim view of what has long passed for "jazz" in this country (perpetrated by people like Louis Banks), and took several potshots at the elites of Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi; he challenged anyone from those cities to measure themselves against Naveen and Jeoraj; he conceded that the sizeable audience yesterday (well over 400) may be achievable for jazz in Kolkata, but declared that there is no jazz drummer in that city who can keep time, so Chennai is ahead on that count.

Towards the end, he recounted a lady at a recent party asking him why he blew his own trumpet so much, and asked the audience (to resounding cheers): "Well, if I have the greatest jazz band in the history of India, am I supposed to keep quiet about it?"

Indeed, a few years ago I marvelled that there was a jazz pianist in this "conservative" city who was the equal of the best in New York. Now I find that there is an entire world-class jazz piano trio in this city -- but it now seems exciting rather than surprising. My opinion is that Madhav really does not need to blow his own trumpet. His piano, and his new rhythm section, are eloquent enough.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Should one pray for Hitch? - continued

Christopher Hitchens' own answer to the question is here, along with much other interesting stuff. In Hitch's words,

Well look, I mean, I think that prayer and holy water, and things like that are all fine. They don’t do any good, but they don’t necessarily do any harm. It’s touching to be thought of in that way. It makes up for those who tell me that I’ve got my just desserts... I have to say there’s some extremely nice people, including people known to you [interviewer Hugh Hewitt], have said that I’m in their prayers, and I can only say that I’m touched by the thought.

Yesterday I received my copy of his new memoirs, Hitch-22. The immediately striking thing is that he has chosen to be photographed smoking a cigarette for its cover. This was before the cancer diagnosis, and he does like to be considered a contrarian, but if he were superstitious I wonder whether he would now think of it as tempting fate. Hitchens is also known for his prodiguous consumption of alcohol (I am surprised that the book cover does not portray him holding a glass of Scotch); and smoking and drinking are both significant risk factors for oesophageal cancer, especially in combination in large quantities.

If I were religious, I'd pray for him. As it is, I (like millions of other strangers) offer him my best wishes: I hope that he recovers fully and, meanwhile and afterwards, suppresses his contrarian urges sufficiently to obey his doctors when they ask him to stop poisoning his body in this way.

As for the material between the covers of his book: I have only read as far as the beginning of the third chapter (on his father). The "prologue with premonitions" is not his most memorable piece of writing, but that is only because his standards are so high. It is, however, sprinkled (as one would expect) with interesting anecdotes and thoughts. His portrait, in the next chapter, of his mother Yvonne -- her life, her death, his relationship with her, and his thoughts on her after she died -- is stunning and harrowing: if the book maintains that sort of intensity, it would be a life-altering experience for any reader, I would think. I have a large and growing pile of books that are only partially read, but despite the considerable bulk of this book, I will not be surprised if I finish it sooner than many other recent purchases.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reading comprehension in Open magazine

Today I read this article in Open magazine, on allegations that Sharad Pawar's daughter, Supriya Sule, is a citizen of Singapore and therefore should have her Indian citizenship revoked. The article unquestioningly quotes Mrunalini Kakade, who lost the election to Sule in 2009.

However, nowhere in the article is there evidence that she is a citizen of Singapore: the phrase used, consistently, is "Permanent Resident" which is a status for non-nationals, short of citizenship (Singapore Government web site, Wikipedia; links produced by a few seconds on google). What Open's rather breathless article says is

According to [Kakade's] petition, Supriya Sule holds 'Singapore citizenship'--Permanent Resident Identification Number S 69726251--in addition to her Indian one. This is against domestic rules that do not permit dual citizenship.

The giveaway, as Mrunalini Kakade tells Open, was Supriya Sule’s disclosure that she owns property in Singapore. Under the law of that country, only a permanent resident of Singapore is allowed to purchase property there...

"Besides, she is also the director of Laguna International Pvt Ltd. In this context, her nationality is shown as a 'Singapore Permanent Resident'... "

So, all the evidence that Kakade has supplied, at least as quoted by Open Magazine, suggests that Sule is a "permanent resident" of Singapore -- not a citizen -- just as thousands of Indian citizens are permanent residents of the United States. There is nothing in India's laws that prohibits citizens from permanent residency of another country.

What should we make of a news magazine that writes a 1300+ word on this issue without addressing this point, or asking Kakade to clarify?

Friday, July 09, 2010


Cross-border terrorism is almost dead. Pakistan is engulfed in its own problems. So why does the Kashmir problem not die too?

Could it be because ordinary people do not like living in a police state? And, when they protest, they do not like being treated as terrorists and fired upon?

The local media is prevented from doing their jobs, and the "national" media (ignorant of Kashmiri, and broadcasting to those who are ignorant of Kashmiri) is free to lie. (Link via Shivam)

We shoot down unarmed protestors. Which incites more protest, and we shoot them down too. (Even unarmed motorcycles are not spared.) We ban the media. We squash civil liberties. And all this is "legalised" by the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (which was originally framed for the north-east, and extended to Kashmir in 1990). Our "law" allows the army to fire on protestors, invade people's homes, search them, take people away without warrant, and be immune from prosecution for all this. That's the law that has ruled the north-east for over 50 years, and Jammu and Kashmir for 20 years.

Now, why do we call ourselves a democracy? Why do we pretend that we have a free press? And why do we expect the people of those states to be grateful for these things?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Should one pray for Hitch? And should he know?

The question is engaging the religious. Christopher Hitchens has been diagnosed with cancer. Given his well-known atheism, should a religious-minded well-wisher pray for him?

On the religious side, Rabbi David Wolpe, who has debated Hitchens frequently on religion, puts it very well (as quoted on Goldblog) in my opinion: "I would say it is appropriate and even mandatory to do what one can for another who is sick; and if you believe that praying helps, to pray. It is in any case an expression of one's deep hopes. So yes, I will pray for him, but I will not insult him by asking or implying that he should be grateful for my prayers."

I wish all religious leaders were so open-minded: too often, religious impositions are accompanied by the implication that one should be grateful for the favour, or the threat that one is condemned if one is not grateful.

A scientist on the Dish goes a bit further in asserting that one should not even inform Hitchens (let alone demand his gratitude) that one is praying for him: to do so would be "malicious". In support, he links this randomized trial on the effect of prayer on patients who had undergone coronary artery bypass graft surgery. The study showed that, on patients who did not know whether or not they were being prayed for, prayer had no effect; but patients who knew with certainty that they were being prayed for did significantly worse (exhibited more complications within 30 days of the procedure).

So there you have it. Pray if you like, but don't tell.

(Actually, I'd be surprised if those results were replicable with other ailments: the only explanation that I can think of is that patients who know they are being prayed for believe that their prognosis is particularly poor, and therefore are under more stress -- which is particularly relevant here since they are heart patients. In particular, patients were told, via messages in envelopes, either that they "may or may not be prayed for" or that they "will be prayed for". Perhaps the latter statement was truly frightening to a lot of the patients. I'm unconvinced that the study was ethical: at the minimum, they could have chosen a different ailment, on which stress would not have such a direct and obvious effect.)