Mac Lab Report

Why I Use a Mac

- 2002.05.30

From time to time, a foolhardy student or colleague of mine challenges me with a daring quip: "I hate Macs," they say, or "I just don't like Macs. I'm not, uh, used to them." Then they look to see how I'll react.

Most of the time I shrug that off as simple baiting because my students are well aware of my computing preferences. Occasionally I get into an legitimate discussion with a student or other teacher about actual reasons why. Now, I did a lot of research when updating the "75 advantages" articles (sorely in need of updating and revision again), and in fact my wife uses a Windows 98 PC (mainly for compatibility with the folks she must trade files with, and because she really likes the Homestead online Web builder software). But for myself, both personally and in my classroom, with my goals, Macs suit me fine.


I decided to write a list of not every reason, but the convincing reasons, the important ones, so I could point the "Mac haters" at an extended answer without having to fire up enough energy to fight the Good Fight yet again. Keep in mind as you read this that in our district, OS 9 is tolerated and OS X is strictly experimental.

Here then, are my reasons.

1 Microsoft is an illegal monopoly. People avoid buying footwear from companies that employ sweatshop labor. Boycotts are raised against the corporate sponsors of tobacco. Why is it necessary for me to support a company that employs unethical and illegal practices? Doesn't that set a bad example for students in schools? This is like the implicit approval everyone assumes for speeders. It's okay if you don't get caught, right? It's okay to buy from Microsoft if they haven't been punished for their monopolistic practices, right?

2 Apple doesn't mind if you use an OS disk more than once if the machine came with the OS. In fact, you can install OS 7.5.5 on anything that will run it for free. With other operating systems, you can only install the operating system it came with legally. If you bought a computer that shipped with OS 8.1, for example, you shouldn't copy your OS 8.5 disk to upgrade it without a legal copy of OS 8.5 to do so. In my classroom right now, I'm working on getting a batch of additional OS 9 licenses so I can upgrade several machines. When the tech department tells me my purchase is registered, there's no particular reason why I couldn't use my single OS 9 disk and upgrade them all.

Apple trusts me to do the right thing - by not putting a serial number or forced verification system in the operating system install disk. Many installer disks come with the complete OS good on any machine that supports the OS. That's not as true now as it used to be - it's difficult to use the installer disks with a new iMac on an iBook for example - but in general, many of the installer files are intact and usable.

3 Setting up a Mac network is easier than it is with PCs. Note that I didn't say networking a Mac with PCs - networking the Macs with each other. It's just a whole order of magnitude simpler when you don't need to know about Dialup Networking and VPN and hundreds of options meant to make you more productive - and safe - on an NT network.

Networking Macs together, even with TCP/IP alone, is a snap. It may be true that the throughput is less, but I'm interested in getting a functional network first; fine tuning efficiency can go hang itself. I have science to teach.

Networking a Mac with PCs, however, is a pain in the neck (even with Dave) compared to just Macs alone. It's not Dave's fault - it's a fine product - but the fact is, Windows networking is still designed by technicians for technicians and we Underpeons aren't supposed to touch it.

Networking PCs to each other ain't no cakewalk either and requires deciphering more acronyms that a space tourist on a Russian space flight to the Alpha space station. That's why you have to take classes and hire help to do it. That's why you have IT departments.

It's so annoying, I'd almost rather be independent of the school network if I could do it legally just to avoid the whole mess - unfortunately, that's not an option. I know many of my readers, more knowledgeable than I about the nuances of Windows and Linux, will not agree with this opinion. You all have opinions, and you're entitled to them. This one's mine, and I like it.

4 There are only few things you can do on a PC that you can't do on a Mac. James Blish once wrote, referring to Star Trek, "There are few things that a StarBase can do that a StarShip cannot." I will admit, there are some things you need a PC for - but not many. In my classroom, I use a PC for exactly one task: Downloading data from a rocket-launched altitude/air pressure sensor that works only with DOS. I immediately save the data to a floppy and transfer it to our network so the kids can access it. I also have a digital camera, never used, built into a special telescope adapter based on the Logitech QuickCam Express. This is an exclusively PC camera - I've researched this point extensively, so I already know about IOxpert's drivers and the various open-source Linux drivers floating around. Frankly, I'd rather just buy another vendor's camera and put the guts in the box I have than try to wrestle with a Windows laptop. (Note to Logitech: Print that out and frame it.)

5 If you can do so much on a PC, why don't you? On the other hand, I can do PowerPoint presentations, Office documents (though I avoid that personally, I can't pull a Charles W. Moore - my students would rebel), and all of my special image processing, data collection, movie editing, and other projects.

Now at my school, we have computer science teachers who teach Flash and Shockwave. We have music teachers who do MIDI. We have a journalism teacher who is apparently unaware that the publishing world revolves around Macs. We have math teachers who do graphing on computers.

Ladies and gentlemen, we don't have anyone - except me - who brings it all together into unified projects. PowerPoint presentations with real research to back them up, not someone else's research regurgitated on a redressed Web page. Lab reports with embedded graphs. Movie projects accompanied by handouts. Computer based experiments designed by students on paper before starting. Simulations, measurements, predictions, verifications, equation editing, writing, presentations, movie editing - all in the same class.

My point is: you may be able to do a lot on a PC, but it don't count unless you actually, uh, do it.

6 Plug and Play actually works. If you have the right part for a Mac, it works like a charm. If it isn't the right part, it doesn't work at all. There's something appealing about that kind of symmetry; there's no gray area of guilt riding over you because you aren't able to make something work that ought to, but doesn't for some mysterious reason.

7 Apple doesn't blackmail school districts into buying district wide site licenses just to avoid costly inventories. 'Nuff said.

8 Apple doesn't kill your software if you don't install it within three months or ask you for a serial number when reinstalling an application or ask you more than once if you want to sign up for their free services.

9 Apple didn't sell my email address to anyone. I have a certain email account which I've never used for email. Guess what? Nine months, no spam. none. Thanks, Steve. Thanks for iTools. Thanks for the free Web space. Thanks for making iDisk as easy to use as a remote server.

10 One button is all you need for well-designed software. Just yesterday a friendly young lady, who is quite adept at constructing Web pages, told me "I hate Macs. I want two buttons on my mouse."

Now let me explain this carefully. Pay attention.

When you take your hand off the keyboard to use your mouse, you aren't typing with your left hand.

Let's all say this again together.

When you take your hand off the keyboard to use your mouse, you aren't typing with your left hand.

When you take your hand off the keyboard to use your mouse, you aren't typing with your left hand.
When you take your hand off the keyboard to use your mouse, you aren't typing with your left hand.

So there's no operational difference between using a two button mouse and a one-button mouse with a control-click to bring up a contextual menu - except you have to use both sides of your brain at once.

Besides which - and I may be the last defender of the one-button mouse, a criticism that has become so common it almost goes as a given these days - well designed software is simple. Engineers understand this, or they used to back when they actually did engineering with machinery.

Simpler things are easier to use. If a program needs five buttons and a scroll wheel, then you have yourself a clunky interface that needs redesigning. If you have to close 3 windows to uncover the one thing you needed to fill in and click back through it again, that's what we call (now listen carefully and take notes) bad design. Now just in case this isn't clear, I'll quote Steve Odekerk's Thumb Wars here: "Bad is bad. Good is good. Bad bad bad good good. Bad good. Bad."

There is a reason why automatic transmission cars are more popular than standard. If you commute in city traffic, you know. Yes, a well trained driver can get better mileage than a person driving an automatic. Yes, you can home build a computer that will run rings around a Power Mac G4 (if you use an Athlon) for a fraction of the cost of a new Mac.

But I don't want to build computers. I want to get from A to B and not think about how I get there. I would rather think about why I'm going and what I'll do once I am there. I don't want to know how to pour asphalt; I just want to drive on it.

Linux users may tell you, "Getting there is half the fun," and it is for them. More power to them, bless their hearts. They're as much a part of the Good Fight as anyone - maybe more so, since everyone is pretty much aware that if their roles were reversed, Apple would probably make a much more difficult-to-work with monopolist than Microsoft. But they're not a monopoly now, and it's all they can do to keep from wiping every imaginative third-party interface program developer off the planet.

Unfortunately for the Linux crowd, they don't know that for the Great Unwashed, How You Get There is Beside the Point. I (being Unwashed) just want to Get There.

If you want a real mouse, read my Lite Side article, This Old Mac, and hot-glue yourself a half-keyboard on an Intellimouse and stick your left arm [uh, in a sling - Ed.] and do everything with your mouse

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I use Macs. If you have questions, ask 'em now, because there will be a quiz later.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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