Acoustic Mac

Don't Try This at Home

Beverly Woods - 2002.03.22 - Tip Jar

In a spirit of caution, I backed up my entire hard drive one evening. Having done the safe thing, I was possessed by a spirit of experimentation and decided it was as good a time as any to enter the realm of partitions.

One of the ironies of being a first-time computer owner is that you don't know exactly what you want to do with your computer until you've had it for a while. You're making the important decisions about the setup of your machine with no working knowledge of what you and the Mac are going to want from each other. By the time you start to figure things out, it's a mighty inconvenient time to do something like partition your drive, because now your drive has your stuff all over it.

I went through approximately a year after getting my iMac in which I had no backup method at all (don't try this at home). I was lucky: My data remained intact, and that year was what the market needed to come up with affordable, reasonably user-friendly backup systems for those of us with several gigs of stuff and only USB to get it out with.

After some research, I settled on a LaCie 20 GB USB drive, which I have been very happy with for the most part.

The LaCie came with Silverlining Pro, a software package that can be used, among other things, for partitioning a hard drive - or so I thought. I spent some time deciding on an optimal partitioning scheme. This wasn't so easy, even in the second year with the computer: Trying to forecast exactly how I'm likely to use some new scheme seems somewhat iffier than forecasting next year's weather.

Nonetheless, I was able to decide on a plan that seemed reasonable: four partitions of varying sizes for different purposes. Running from the Silverlining CD, I set them up, passed through the various warnings (ALL DATA WILL BE LOST) and hit the "Start" button. (Do not try this at home! Seriously.)

All seemed to be coming along fine until the end, when it said it was "updating drivers" or some such thing. Suddenly the program on the Silverlining CD froze. On trying to restart, I was met with a gray screen with a little box on the lower right with a few bits of information and the LaCie URL on it. The infamous flashing question mark blinked from the center of the screen.

I was doomed.

No, no, no - don't think like that! There are always things to try, things to try. Why wasn't it starting from the CD? I restarted again, the "c" key held firmly down. Nothing. Or rather, the same thing.

Through the ensuing hours, I tried every trick I had heard of. I tried to boot from various CDs. I tried to boot from my external hard drive. (Of course I couldn't boot from the newly partitioned drive, because All Data Had Been Lost and there was now no System Folder.)

There were only a few variations in the Mac's new menu: The flashing question mark might or might not alternate with a happy Mac face, or I might get a happy Mac face on an image of a computer that proceeded to do absolutely nothing, an inch of perfectly self-satisfied Buddha-consciousness on the screen, content to sit endlessly smiling. The question mark might blink from a folder or from a picture of a floppy disk apparently conjured from the genetic memory of my iMac, which has of course never seen a floppy and wouldn't know what to do with one in the wild.

I discovered that if I held down the option key at startup, I would get a screen in an unusual shade of periwinkle blue. This evidently dated from a preverbal era of the Mac, as it contained no text, only symbols with the elegant simplicity of rock paintings: a curved arrow in a box; a straight arrow in a box; between the boxes, buttons representing whatever disks were connected or loaded in the CD drive. So promising! Little square system-folder icons beamed out at me from the selection buttons. I selected and continued, only to be met around the corner by my old demons, Blinky and Smiley.

I began to feel a kinship with those I had heard of in the dominant computer culture who sometimes suffer from something called The Blue Screen of Death. This was it, the dark night of the computer soul, when repeated incantations, and various caffeinated beverages were of no avail. I resolved to call Tech Support in the morning.

First I checked with Apple. My iMac being far beyond its allotted time of free support, they offered to give me advice on the phone for $49, while remarking that since third party software was involved, they might not be able to help anyway. Thus encouraged, I called LaCie tech support. "You did what? You shouldn't have done that! That's only for external hard drives. We can't help you. Check with Apple."

Like many who had entered loaded psychic areas before me, I had guides on my journey. First among them was my esteemed partner in Macdom, Seth.

Some months before, I had held steady through an hours-long episode involving stubborn blinking question marks on Seth's WallStreet. Seth now repaid the favor by offering advice profound in its simplicity: "Write the list. Before you go ordering a new hard drive or hauling your computer off to distant repair shops, write to the iMac list. Use my computer. Someone there knows. Someone will help you."

I pulled myself out of my fatalism long enough to drop a note to the list. Then I went off to a long day at work.

When I returned, there were several queries in my webmail box, asking for more information on my system and problem. One of these, when answered, gained an immediate further reply. Had I tried this? That? After a while my unseen friend and I exhausted all remedies possible with the machine unopened. Time to reset that switch on the logic board. Time to open the computer.

Venturing into the territory officially marked For Technicians Only, I downloaded a tech manual and embarked on a Voyage To The Interior.

"Remove outside cover" takes seconds to read, but it took me about a half hour to perform, since the tabs on my case didn't want to let go and I didn't want to break anything. Ditto "Remove Battery."

A realistic beginners' tech manual would have titles like "How To Reset the PMU while Sweating Bullets" or "The Logic Board: Slightly Less Than One Square Foot of Solid Anxiety." Working on the iMac was more than a technical problem; it required spiritual discipline. I had to remind myself to breathe, breathe...

Finally I had done it: reset the PMU. Another restart, and . . . Blinky. Smiley. This was getting old.

The 17th suggestion in the string of helpful emails I had accumulated was unplug the hard drive, boot from a CD with the hard drive unplugged, plug it back in, then reformat the drive. This idea, which had sounded like a farfetched fantasy when first proposed ("Oh yeah, like I'm really going to do that!" said my inner skeptic) now seemed merely a logical extension of my chosen path.

After some cajoling - the power cable not having had any previous plans to separate from its beloved hard drive - I had it unplugged. I balanced the iMac on a book to keep the plug accessible, watched in awe as the machine calmly booted from a CD as though nothing were unusual about that, and with fear and trembling plugged in the hard drive.

The hard drive whirred. The Disk Setup program on my install CD ceased to function. Mouse clicks were to no avail. I unplugged the drive. CD fully functional, mouse clicks frozen in time suddenly responded to.

Replugged the drive: frozen again. Tried other CDs: Norton, even Silverlining. Same thing.

Improvising variations on the theme, I restarted from the install CD with Disk Setup on it, restarted again, and plugged the hard drive back in about 2 seconds into the restart.

And that was it. "Reformat this disk?" the program asked, having correctly located my hard drive. I could scarcely believe it. Yes, yes, oh yes, please!

And they all lived happily ever after - but don't try this at home. LEM

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