The Last 7 Years on My Mac: an anniversary

A lot was happening seven years ago. On Friday 16 January 2015, MacUser magazine, the original UK title, ceased publication. That was my cue to set this blog up, primarily as a platform for me to publish updated versions of articles which had appeared in the magazine which had just vanished into oblivion.

I published my first articles here seven years ago, and since then seldom a day has passed that I haven’t added to that number. I quickly established how eclectic this was to be, with a series of articles on Truth in (landscape) painting, which featured paintings by Poussin, Constable and Cézanne in rapid succession.

Howard Oakley, Landmarks, 2014, watercolour on Arches 850 gsm NOT paper, 27 x 54 mm, artist's collection.
Howard Oakley, Landmarks, 2014, watercolour on Arches 850 gsm NOT paper, 27 x 54 mm, artist’s collection.

There was even the occasional glimpse of my own work, a mistake I didn’t repeat too often.

Red lights = dead drives = broken Promise?
Red lights = dead drives = broken Promise?

I rearranged the room in which my iMac and Promise Pegasus Thunderbolt RAID R4 live. Before doing anything, I checked that the RAID system was fully up to date, and shut it down using the supplied (and current) Promise Utility app. iMac and RAID were moved gently, reconnected, and powered up. To my horror, three of the four drives then showed red lights, indicating hardware failure. I shut everything down again, checked connections and reseated the drives in the RAID, powered it up, then the iMac. Now all four drives are ‘showing red’. Have I killed it?

I soon found some tender spots, such as when my own Promise Pegasus external RAID had problems. Although long since decommissioned, that RAID system still sits just behind my production Mac.

Watching OS X updates quickly became an established duty. One of the first was to report on Yosemite version 10.10.2, Mavericks 10.9.5 and Mountain Lion 10.8.5 security updates.

At the end of that first year, disaster struck. On 13 December 2015, I reported the unexpected death of my own 27-inch iMac. But good news followed, when I started contributing the Genius Tips section to “the best Mac print magazine on the planet, MacFormat.” I’ve not long written that section for issue 376, my 81st, and I believe that it’s now syndicated to Mac|Life magazine too.

At the end of that first year of the Eclectic Light Company, this blog had been viewed 76,000 times by nearly 30,000 visitors. I was overjoyed at its success.

2016

Six years ago, on 20 January 2016, I looked inside OS X 10.11.3, only to discover that there was a great deal more that had changed than Apple had admitted: “When Apple released its latest update to OS X, to bring it to version 10.11.3, I was impressed that it was a goodly size, over 600 MB. But when the release notes and security announcement arrived, well after I had already updated, I was very puzzled. Apple listed just two bug fixes and nine security patches. And that took over half a gigabyte to deploy?”

You can read my list here. The updates may have changed greatly, but Apple’s absent documentation hasn’t.

It may seem hard to believe now, but six years ago we were still in the “Apple is doomed” years. As I wrote then,
“Despite still making a record quarterly profit of $18.4 billion – that’s approaching half of its total profit for the whole of 2014, and sufficient to buy the gold reserves of the UK twice over (end 2014 value) – because its growth has slowed, the doom-mongers are waging words again.” That was when Tim Cook – who clearly wasn’t cut out to run Apple, and would soon be gone, said his critics – revealed that Apple’s “installed base recently crossed a major milestone of one billion active devices.”

That year this blog became steadily more popular, clocking up 335,000 views and 160,000 visitors. I could hardly believe it.

2017

Five years ago, on 18 January 2017, Apple pushed updates to MRT bringing it to version 1.14; last week MRT 1.86 was released. Also in January 2017, XProtect was updated to version 2087, and it’s currently at 2153.

My hot topic at the end of that January was the introduction of the Unified log in Sierra. As I wrote: “In macOS Sierra, Apple has made a major change to the logging system. Although some traditional logs are available, such as system.log which can still be browsed in Console, all the important log entries go into a new and much more detailed log system. Unfortunately, Console does not provide useful access to those new log entries. As Sierra has been shipping for over four months now, we must presume that for the time being, at least, Apple is not going to give us good access to the new-style logs.”

consoleprob2

This was the start of what turned into Consolation, and more recently Ulbow. At that time it was merely an AppleScript app named LogLogger.

Changes to the log brought further increases in traffic. For 2017, the total number of views rose to 812,000, with 460,000 visitors over the year.

2018

By 16 January 2018, High Sierra appeared to be in trouble. My summary of its multiple updates read:

  • 10.13, 25-09-2017. An initial two-step installer was hurriedly replaced with monolithic, 5.17 GB. There were inevitably some APFS conversion issues, and a few users were quickly begging to go back to Sierra, but most fared well.
  • 10.13 Supplemental Update, 05-10-2017. The primary reason for this was to address a glaring encryption password bug in Disk Utility, and a bug allowing malicious apps to extract keychain passwords. But at 915 MB, it contained more extensive fixes which had missed the original release date.
  • 10.13.1, 31-10-2017. This also addressed some important security matters, including the KRACK Wi-Fi vulnerabilities. Again, at 2.1 GB it was also catching up with things which should have been fixed before 10.13 was released.
  • Security Update 2017-001 (17B1002), 29-11-2017. This was an urgent fix to address the notorious root user vulnerability, and was just over 1 MB.
  • Security Update 2017-001 / Supplemental (17B1003), 01-12-2017. This was an additional fix to the last fix.
  • 10.13.2, 07-12-2017. At 2 GB, another major update with many bug and security fixes.
  • 10.13.2 Supplemental (17C205), 08-01-2018. A much smaller update, mostly with Safari 11.0.2 to mitigate the risk of Spectre.

So in the first just over three months, we had three major updates. Much of the urgency and additional fixes were in response to a series of glaringly obvious security vulnerabilities, in particular the root user gaffe.

systhist03

My apps included SystHist, and I was actively tracking what Apple was doing to sort out the mess with firmware:
“Mac firmware had quietly become one of the platform’s most worrying problems. Six months ago, you could have picked a handful of the same model of Mac and found them running several different versions of EFI firmware. Although no worse than Windows PCs, as all Macs are made and sold by the same manufacturer, there was no excuse for such chaos.”
“The situation also had all the ingredients of a security disaster. Should malware get into the EFI firmware, with so many different versions around, it would be almost impossible to detect. Firmware malware is just about as persistent as it gets, so even if you knew a Mac was infected, it could be almost impossible to remove. Had any malware developers turned their attentions to Mac EFI firmware, the effects could have cast Macs out as pariahs for a long time to come.”
“Thankfully, Apple decided that it needed to get a grip on this, and hired three engineers to tackle the problem. They built a new utility eficheck into High Sierra, and started collecting valuable information about what really was in EFI firmware in Macs being used in the real world.”

schikanederutonula
Jakub Schikaneder (1855–1924), Utonulá (Drowned Woman) (1893), pastel on cardboard, 45.5 x 88cm, Národní galerie v Praze, Prague, The Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons.

In 2018, views of this blog rose further to 1.1 million, with 605,000 visitors.

2019

Three years ago, on 22 January 2019, I stumbled across an ancient bug in macOS, which started tripping up a couple of my apps. One of these scanned for UTIs, and occasionally wrote the following error message:
2019-01-19 21:08:36.560996+0000 Alifix[66486:23689766] [default] *** Expected to get UTI for file '/Users/hoakley/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Acrobat/2015/Acrobat/Synchronizer/Notification' but got NULL on line (/LSCore.mm:2226). Flags are 0000000000003000. Please amend <rdar://problem/18605177> with this information.

Instead of certain items returning a UTI as expected, they were returning a NULL, because of a bug which could well date back to the introduction of UTIs in macOS 10.5 in 2007.

The following day, I was back on the trail of information missing from Apple’s release notes: “The update from macOS Mojave 10.14.2 to 10.14.3 is the smallest of Mojave’s updates so far, but is still substantial by any reckoning: a download of around 2.3 GB, it installs over 4 GB of updated files. Apple’s release notes only detail one change, an improvement to Kerberos authentication which may be of interest to enterprise users.”

There was also a serious bug in the Keyboard pane’s Shortcuts tab, whose App Shortcuts item was dysfunctional. To reproduce that “if you only have the single default shortcut, add some others. After adding two or more, they will be displayed with the ellipsis character … instead of their menu title, and attempts to edit that title are frustrated because the edit area is the size of the ellipsis, not the title. There is no apparent way in which this can be corrected by the user.”

shortcutsbug

Total views for 2019 rose to 1.7 million, with nearly 900,000 visitors.

2020

With the introduction of Apple’s new file system APFS, I explored some of its quirks, for example demonstrating how you could (ab)use Unicode to apparently achieve the impossible.
filenames01
Whichever way you look at them, they really do have the same name, don’t they?
filenames02

Although never as popular as articles on Macs, those on painting unearthed some fascinating if disquieting works of art.

brachtshoreoblivion
Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), The Shore of Oblivion (1889), oil on canvas, 139 x 257 cm, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Darmstadt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

On a remote and forbidding shore, below towering rock slabs, small waves lap on the sandy beach below snowslopes. The low sun lights the top band across the rocks, while behind is a dense and dark bank of cloud. Scattered across the beach are large numbers of bleached white objects, which on close examination prove to be human skulls, apparently washed up by the water. This is the apocalypse, all that remains of the human race, oblivion for humankind. How soon we were discover that Eugen Bracht’s vision wasn’t so unreal after all.

macOS Catalina brought another huge structural change in the introduction of the Volume Group, splitting the startup volume into two. I set about charting how that worked.

CatalinaIntegrated152

That article and others during 2020 proved so popular that the total number of views during the year rose sharply to 3.3 million, with 1.9 visitors in all.

2021

A year ago, I was responding to the arrival of Apple’s M1 Macs as you’d expect, tweaking my existing apps and developing new ones, including Stibium, to measure the read and write performance of internal SSDs in these new models.

stibium10rel04

I also had a long and sometimes painful quest getting M1 Macs to boot from external SSDs. By January 2021, I was still struggling, and wrote:
‘The only option left now was to start from scratch and format the external disk using Disk Utility, then install a fresh copy of 11.2 on it. This eventually worked, but only after encountering further problems. During installation, I elected to copy account settings from my internal SSD, but this failed because “This Mac can’t be used to migrate data”. Additionally, I was informed that “Due to an issue with unlocking this system, you can’t migrate. Please update this Mac and retry.”‘

bootextdisk03

When Apple released the Big Sur 11.4 update, these finally worked reliably.

Last year, views rose slightly but remained at 3.3 million in total, with 1.8 million visitors.

2022

Over those seven years, just under 6 million visitors have viewed articles 10.8 million times. Together we’ve posted over 26,000 comments to the 6,800 articles that I’ve written and published here.

None of this would have been possible without your support, the many encouraging emails you send me, and your comments. Thank you for reading all that you have over those last seven years. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our journey together, and hope that we’ll continue to do so.