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March 2008

brett's logjam

April 2008


1 April 2008

April First

Today is one of my favorite days of the year. It’s a day where silliness and craft are celebrated; where a good joke is one that can be played even though the other person expects it.

Sadly, I don’t have any jokes today. But I do have the Muppets.

I mentioned that I love April Fools’ Day, right?

Personal Log

3 April 2008

Returned To Vendor

Unattended

I packed up Vinyamar to send her on her long journey back home, in anticipation of the replacement Macbook Air arriving later this week. It’s with some relief that I returned to Hithlum.

I really should stop naming my computers. It makes me irrationally attached to what is essentially a highly advanced screwdriver.

Computer Log | MacBook Air Log

Recovery, Week II

Repair Truck

Recovery takes time, I wrote. And usually longer than you want.

I’m showing improvement over last week. There were a few setbacks, like the ill-fated trip downtown, or anytime Trip accidentally bonks me with his head. But if I can avoid the occasional blows to the head, or overexerting myself, things have improved.

One of my friends noted that I looked really haggard in the previous post, which is probably true. I got a shave (thank goodness), but now I could really use a haircut. The left side of my face and head is still noticeably swollen, though it’s slowly returning to normal. The incision is healing well, there are no problems with taste, and the pain is usually manageable. The ear is still a little numb in back around the incision, but the bruising is mostly gone.

I had my post-op on Monday, where my doctor removed the surgical packing from the outer ear. There is still foam in the middle ear, behind the eardrum, which will eventually turn into a thick ooze and drain out the eustachian tube. But in the meanwhile, it’s causing a certain amount of dizziness, particularly when I turn my head too quickly.

The dizziness is damned inconvenient. It comes on suddenly and leaves me nauseous for hours, which I don’t think it was doing before. Or, perhaps, I’ve attained a general state of well-being where I didn’t notice it because I felt like crap all the time. My doctor assures me that dizziness is very normal at this point, so I try not to freak out about it… too much.

I drove my car on Monday, which went okay, but I had a dizzy spell and couldn’t drive back from my in-laws. I haven’t driven since. I also put on my glasses for the first time on Monday, and even with lightweight glasses it’s too uncomfortable to do for long. The arm rests on the incision, so I usually go without. After two weeks I’m used to the fuzziness.

The variable hearing is still present, and I have no idea if my hearing has improved because of the surgery, or because I no longer have an inch of foam on top of the eardrum. It’s really weird.

Also, my doctor was suitably impressed that I shared the pictures online.

There’s not really much else to report; no satisfying conclusion to reach with this post. It’s simply another week with a new eardrum. I think I’ll keep it.

Personal Log

4 April 2008

More MacBook Air Core Shutdown Woes

QWERTY

Vinyamar’s replacement arrived today. I unpacked it and didn’t even bother setting it up past logging into the wireless network and downloading a movie from the NAS. Five minutes later, I’d reproduced the core shutdown issue.

I updated the software, rebooted, and reproduced the issue again. It took a little longer under 10.5.2 than 10.5, but it still happened.

So now I really don’t know what to do.

I called AppleCare, and they had me capture data to send to the engineers. I should hear back early next week, but don’t know what they’re going to say that will actually resolve the issue.

I also spoke with one of the AppleCare managers who talked to me earlier, and he wanted to know what he could do to help. I felt bad, because I know that the key to getting good customer service is to know what you want, and ask for it. But aside from a Macbook Air that works right now, I don’t know what else I want that satisfies me. The MacBook is probably small enough, but lacks the three-finger scroll and incredible design of the Air. The MacBook Pro has the power, but with power comes size.

In my short time with the Air, I came to really like the way it was like a folio I could take with me and tuck into a chair next to me. I didn’t even get to travel with it, but I could see it becoming a constant companion. I would RDC into my windows laptop, and Share Screens with Hithlum, and still have two Spaces left over for working, without any problems.

Well, no problems except, of course, for the random freezes. Those admittedly sucked.

Part of me says: just accept it. It’s not that bad.

But the rest of me says: it is that bad, and don’t settle for something that doesn’t make you happy.

So I put Vinyamar II back into the box this afternoon, and left it alone. I don’t think I even renamed it from the default; it’s probably still “Brett Peters’s MacBook Air,” which always makes me wonder what the correct rule is for possessives for proper names ending in sibilants.

And so I wait. Maybe tomorrow will bring something new.

Computer Log | MacBook Air Log

6 April 2008

LiveJournal

Apparently, my LiveJournal has been one of my best-kept secrets for the last 3 years. My wife is the latest among friends and family to ask me about it with a certain amount of surprise.

I have a MySpace account, too. I should probably get that out in the open again, even though I didn’t think I was hiding it. (Check the elsewhere page for more poorly-hidden secrets.)

Anyhow, this came up because I’ve started using LJ as a place to archive my Twitter stream via a service called LoudTwitter. LoudTwitter batches tweets and lets you post them into blogs, much like del.icio.us. Since I’ve already tried that experiment and didn’t like the result, I used my dormant LJ as a Twitter archive.

I think it works pretty well — easier to read historically, certainly — but would like to know what you think about it.

Other Sites Of Mine

The Abandoned Halls of Vinyamar

Macbook Air | Vinyamar

“Thus Turgon lived long in bliss; but Nevrast was desolate, and remained empty of living folk until the ruin of Beleriand.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

Like Turgon, my time with Vinyamar has come to an end.

Friday I received a replacement MacBook Air which suffered the same problem as the original. It’s now been nearly a month since I chose the Air to start developing applications again, and for all but a short period of time I’ve been frustrated by it. I want so very much to have repeated the delight of my experiences with my iPod, PowerBook, and iPhone.

But the MacBook Air has simply not lived up to that standard.

The physical machine is very nice. It is beautiful, compact, and a joy to handle. The failures of the internals should not be taken as a condemnation of the class design — far from it. The case is a tremendous success. The computer is a tremendous success.

If only the CPU could keep up with it.

I want, so very much, for the Air to be great. I want to enjoy using it. But I don’t. I work on it for a little while, do a few things with it, and then the machine locks up.

I am sure that future revisions will improve. By the time this machine hits its third generation, the core shutdown problem will be a distant memory. But the flaw in my Vinyamar is here, now, and I need a tool that works now. I can’t wait for them to fix it in six months.

So… I guess I’ll go get a MacBook or a MacBook Pro, instead.

Damnit. I so wanted this one to have a happy ending.

Computer Log | MacBook Air Log

7 April 2008

Use The Twitter, Luke

Immediately after posting yesterday’s decision to abandon the MacBook Air, I let the good folks on Twitter know about it. And, no more than a minute after tweeting, AppleCare called to talk. At 8:30 PM on a Sunday!

What the?

I must ascribe this to awesome coincidence, as at no time did either of us mention Twitter on the call. I’m not as fortunate as Michael Arrington to have attracted the attention of a Comcast VP in Philadelphia from his twittering in San Francisco.

Yet, the response was immediate, and at an awfully odd time. Wouldn’t it be great if companies monitored twitter like they do blogs, and resolve customer problems before they spiral out of control? It’s a nice thought.

But I have no proof, so I must assume coincidence.

Anyway, I had written an email on Friday that was the stated reason for the call, and I talked to the rep briefly about returning the Air, which required another call on Monday to coordinate with the Sales team. I set up a time and went back to my computer.

Where, in turn, I received an invitation to join the TUAW Sunday Night Talkcast to talk about my MacBook Air issues.

Wow, The Twitter is really something!

I accepted, and had an engaging time with the TUAW panel. You can hear the results on TUAW or in iTunes, whenever episode #37 comes out. I’ll be in at about the 10 minute mark.

Hopefully, I don’t sound like too much of a dork. We’ll find out in a few days, I guess!

I wanted to make this point last night, and I’ll make it again here: this is not an issue with Apple’s customer service. Having experience managing customer service teams, I found little fault with the behavior of the AppleCare reps. Most of them strived for resolution on the first call, and were willing to work extremely hard to help me diagnose and resolve the problem. My suspicions that this is a problem beyond their ability to solve would sadly be borne out today, which I’ll describe in the next (and hopefully last) post on this matter.

The point of this post is that you never know what a new technology will bring. If you ask me why I use Twitter, it’s an easy response: so my (non-twittering) friends around the country can see what and how I’m doing.

But the side effects are pretty cool, too.

Computer Log | MacBook Air Log

From Tragedy To Farce

I spoke with AppleCare this evening to initiate the return of my MacBook Air Vinyamar. As a bonus I received the results of Apple Engineering’s analysis of my core shutdown crash data: the system is behaving as designed.

These past few weeks troubleshooting, reinstalling (twice, over Remote Disk, no less, which I can assure you is not speedy), waiting for replacements, talking with technical support — and dropping a core under load is expected system behavior.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Dropping a core under load is a feature, not a bug.

Therefore, since I’ve gotten so good at it, here’s my guide to shutting down one of your MacBook Air’s cores.

The Unfair Version

  1. Begin with a clean, fresh MacBook Air.
  2. Place it on your bed, a pillow, or lap.
  3. Sign on to your network, and start downloading a nice big movie file from your NAS.
  4. Open Activity Monitor, and make sure the CPU monitor is visible.
  5. Open Safari. Watch a movie trailer or two, and then browse YouTube while waiting for the movie to download.
  6. Play the movie with Quicktime or iTunes. Keep opening tabs in Safari. You won’t need more than 10, especially if they’re AJAX-heavy sites.
  7. Turn on Time Machine and start a backup.
  8. When the video starts stuttering or your UI getting sluggish, check Activity Monitor.

Voila! One of your cores has dropped. You’ve halved your processing speed.

Now, the activities described seem harsh, but they’re really relatively normal for someone futzing about on the internet. File transfers in addition to video seem to speed up a core drop, which presents a problem for anyone using Time Machine.

But there are those who will cry foul entirely because of #2. The Air requires some ventilation, and if you place it on a soft surface (even with the vents unblocked) the computer will heat up quickly.

Okay, fair. Try this one on, then:

The Fair Version

  1. Begin with a clean, fresh MacBook Air.
  2. Place it on a flat desk or marble floor.
  3. Sign on to your network and open Activity Monitor.
  4. Fire up a feature-length movie or two, either over the net or from the local disk.
  5. If you’re feeling adventurous, open XCode and do a little hacking.
  6. Read some documentation on Safari or Preview.
  7. Work for about an hour or so.
  8. Wait for the stuttering video and UI lockups. They’ll come.

Heat speeds up the process, but if you keep the CPU under a certain amount of load (doesn’t need to be pegged) it will eventually shut down one of the cores. After an hour or two of a big H.264 file playing in Quicktime, I could get the Air to drop its core under theoretically ideal conditions — on the marble floor of a cool bathroom.

Now, there are users on the Apple support forums who never experience the core dropping. I’m really happy that they don’t. I don’t know what to say to them, other than that whatever their MacBook Airs have, I wish mine would have caught it.

For me, this just hasn’t been worth it. It doesn’t matter how nice the Air is.

This will likely be the last post in my MacBook Air Log. I will ship the computer back to Apple tomorrow to return it classified not as a defective unit, but instead as buyer’s remorse. So shipping’s on my dime, naturally.

My only remorse is that I wasted so much time with it, wanting it to work one way, with those fancy dual cores, when all the while?

Behaving as designed.

Moving on now.

Computer Log | MacBook Air Log

9 April 2008

The Core Shutdown Feature/Flaw

I'm Running Out Of Pictures Since I Returned The Air Yesterday

The MacBook Air core shutdown issue is a result of the Intel Santa Rosa platform’s aggressive thermal throttling of the MacBook Air’s Merom chips:

The Santa Rosa platform comes with dynamic acceleration technology. It allows single threaded applications to execute faster. When a single threaded application is running the CPU can turn off one of the CPU cores and overclock the active core. In this way the CPU maintains the same Thermal Profile as it would when both cores are active.

So, by design, the Santa Rosa platform will throttle itself to keep the heat down.

I kicked myself for missing this while researching the problem. I should have looked at the CPU specs once I knew the core shutdown was responsible for the performance degradation, but I didn’t. Mea culpa. I was thinking as a consumer, not as an IT professional.

Please note: I do not think this excuses the problem. The UI freezes, stuttering, and slowdowns remain unacceptable. The CPU ruins the user experience, which is a bug. A feature that acts like a bug is a bug.

But it does explain it, and therefore allows us — consumers and Apple alike — to address it.

If the Santa Rosa platform is the problem, which I now believe it is, there are very few options available for MacBook Air owners. Either you live with the performance hits, and hope that it is fixed at a later date, or you don’t.

It boggles the mind when you consider the anecdotal return rate that units who don’t exhibit this problem may actually be defective! There are plenty of MBA users who are gambling that they’ll get one of those in the replacement cycle. But not me.

If anything, finding out that this problem is a design feature/flaw strengthened my decision to get off the Air platform (and increased my nostalgia for the PowerPC chipset, but that’s another story.) I am frustrated that it took so long to identify the root cause, but relieved to know that gambling on another unit isn’t worth it.

Since my case dragged on for several weeks at AppleCare, and therefore attracted a bit of attention from management, I used the opportunity to make a few suggestions to them.

  1. Educate Support: Product specialists need to know about this behavior and be able to explain why it happens, and what benefits it brings (if any). First-tier troubleshooting should be revised to better diagnose real mobo problems.
  2. Educate Consumers: Apple needs to address this issue publicly with a technote to stem the tide of replacements.
  3. Fix it in the OS: You can’t change the chipset, but serious efforts can and should be made to reduce the effects of the core shutdown within the OS and better manage single core mode invocation.

The first two suggestions can reduce agent support costs and reverse logistics expenses, as well as improve customer loyalty. I’ve run customer service organizations before, and I know the band-aids you can apply to make support more effective.

The solution lies in #3, though: fix the damn problem.

Sadly, that’s beyond AppleCare’s ken.

 

Special thanks to Artifex and Mike Rose for publicizing this problem, Josh Kagan for his insight into the Santa Rosa platform, and everyone on Twitter who’s listened to me gripe about this for the past three weeks.

Computer Log | MacBook Air Log

A Wee Problem

Broken iPhone

Yes, my iPhone had a wee accident. Full story at Nobody Wants A Styl.us.

Update: Yes, your eyes don’t deceive you, this story was picked up by TUAW. Thanks, Michael!

iPod Log

11 April 2008

Darkhorse Candidate

X Marks The Spot

A month ago, I made a fateful early-morning decision to forego the MacBook Pro and get the MacBook Air.

This led to interesting times.

While waiting for the interesting times to end, I reconsidered my original decision and took a long look at the MacBook. I think it was a mistake to not seriously consider the MacBook before. After some consideration, I found it a good compromise between weight, size, performance, and value.

It is therefore a pleasant surprise to announce the arrival of my black MacBook named Eöl.

Eöl is named after the Dark Elf of Tolkien’s First Age, Thingol’s kinsman who traded the sanctuary of Doriath for the freedom of Nan Elmoth. Eöl had a rare friendship with the Dwarves of the Ered Luin, and his craft was well-respected.

Eöl (the computer, not the character):

I am suitably impressed by the speed and performance of the MacBook, especially compared to the Air. The dual core 2.4GHz CPU is like a Camaro … who ran over your neighbor.

Long-time readers will no doubt point out that Eöl, as a person’s name, falls outside my established nomenclature of using regions or cities. This is completely true.

My only response is that I was going to name it Khazad-dûm or Moria, but Merrystar said it was named Eöl.

I thought about it for a while, and decided that even with Eöl’s less than sunny story: yup, that sounds just about right.

(I’m supposed to be learning from my mistakes, after all. Not repeating them.)

Computer Log | MacBook Log

A Boy and His Electronic Toys

I’m tickled pink about all the visitors around this site. Thank you for coming! I’m really happy you’re here; please feel free to drop me a line or twitter me and let me know how it’s going.

I started writing about the computers under my care really for just one reason: so that I would have some record of what I’d done, so I could stop making the same mistakes over and over again.

I don’t know if I’ve accomplished that, exactly, but at least it’s been entertaining watching me try.

Since many of you are new around here, and this is an admittedly quirky personal site, let me point you towards some other computer logs that may interest you:

Commissioned

The following computers are currently in service.

Speaking of which…

Decommissioned

These computers have left the building:

You will no doubt notice certain themes in the names.

Each computer has its own category, some with more information than others. Hopefully you’ll find something you like.

Thanks again for visiting!

Cheers,
Brett

Al-Rassan Log | Arbonne Log | Computer Log | Hithlum Log | MacBook Air Log | MacBook Log | Sarantium Log | Tigana Log | Tsiolkovksy Log

Field Notes

Field Notes

Okay, enough about computers. I’m tired about talking about computers. All sorts of stuff happened this week. Non-computer stuff! News!

Like … notebooks!

I got a new set of notebooks. Really cool notebooks: Field Notes notebooks.

These are most excellent notebooks. I like them even more than my pocket Moleskine. The paper quality is excellent. They fit well in the pocket. They are really well made. They ooze utility.

But, still… notebooks.

If it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing.

(Notebooks, I say!)

(I should probably call it a night.)

Personal Log

12 April 2008

Underclocking a MacBook Air

Several folks contacted me this morning to let me know about more MacBook Air users who have discovered that underclocking their CPUs keeps the processors cool enough to avoid the core shutdown.

The author suggests an application called ‘Coolbook’ which purports to underclock the laptops CPU by lowering the voltage supplied to the processor and by more agressively throttling the speed of the CPU.

Knowing what the Santa Rosa platform is up to, this now makes a certain amount of sense: Rob underclockspowers the CPU by 20%, and further limits the CPU to 75% of max speed (1.2GHZ) while on battery, which in turn has a dramatic cooling effect while only minimally affecting performance. The cooler CPU avoids the shutdown threshold and therefore the UI is more stable.

It appears to be better to suffer 25% degradation all the time on battery, instead of 50% (or more) some of the time. The OS requires a certain minimum processing threshold, but it’s really the CPU threshold that’s of concern. Underclocking appears to keep the load and temperatures under that threshold.

At least one person who emailed me asked if I thought underclocking is a good idea. I honestly have no clue; I’d like to say no, always stick with the manufacturer’s specs. But in this case those specs suck, and if you can do something about it (and undo the underclocking if anything goes wrong), it may very well be worth it.

For more on the core shutdown issue, please see my MacBook Air Log. I’ll continue to post more information there as it comes in.

Computer Log | MacBook Air Log

Ladies of the Court

Ladies Of The Court

The Governor’s wife and her attendant walk through the Palace grounds of Colonial Williamsburg.

Photo Log | Williamsburg Log

19 April 2008

PSA: On DNS Hijinks and Hijacks

This is a somewhat obscure technical problem, but several ISPs have recently begun hijacking mistyped domains and directing them to ads.

This is bad on several levels. Wired has a story about how it’s even worse than you thought: it lets hackers (the bad kind) hijack any site on the web.

The hole was made possible by ISPs subverting the Domain Name System or DNS, which translates website names into numeric addresses. Instead of simply returning an error message to a user’s browser when a user typed the name of a website that doesn’t exist, Earthlink and others instead substitute a page of Yahoo ads and suggest alternate spellings for the non-existent site.

The ads are served up by a British company called Barefruit, which pretends to actually to be the non-existent domain when delivering the ads.

Due to unforeseen consequences and Barefruit’s failure to screen for rogue JavaScript code, that forgery allowed a hacker to create perfect fraud site imitating eBay that looked in the browser address bar to actually be legitimately hosted on ebay.com.

“The entire security of the internet is now dependent on some random ad server run by some British company,” Kaminsky said, adding that he’d talked this week to many internet companies who were pissed, though not at him.

“I can’t secure the web as long as ISPs are injecting other content into web pages.”

Known ISPs who are doing this: Earthlink, Comcast. Verisign did this a few years ago, but doesn’t anymore. (Instead they steal domains when you search for them, which is a different level of evil.)

The best solution is to not use affected DNS servers. If you are on Comcast or Earthlink, use OpenDNS instead. It’s reliable, very fast, and free.

Computer Log

The Tulips of Spring

The Tulips of Spring

The tulips in my front yard are doing quite well this year. I suspect it helps that there are very few deer paths nearby.

Also, if you like flowers, I highly recommend visiting the Keukenhof near Lisse. I recommend it even if you don’t like flowers, because it’s that wonderful an experience.

Photo Log

22 April 2008

Pirate Cow

I know that I have that other site for posting stuff like this, but sometimes, I can’t refuse. Because there are some things that I must call out to my friends.

Like cows.

Pirate cows.

Yarr! Mooo!

As you were, then.

Web Log

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