Cassandra - Thursday Diversion: Pressure Cooker Environment for Engineers; Catalina Pauses; and Effects of World Health Problems
By Graham K. Rogers
Although I have Catalina running on a Mac mini that I keep for backup purposes, I am still reluctant to move to the latest macOS for my MacBook Pro. Even expert users are expressing concerns about what goes on under the hood. Apple expects to be affected by the corona virus problems although in the long term this is unlikely to cause major problems, presuming that COVID-19 is not the species killer we all dread.
I was sad to read on MacDaily News that the long-running Mac360 site is shutting down as founder, Ron McElfresh, battles amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): a neuromuscular disorder. I will keep the link to the MacDaily News report as this has links to funding pages for Ron. The Mac360 was one of many I have accessed over the years for reliable information. Ron McElfresh writes that he will keep the site running until March and is still hoping that someone will take it over. I also note that another long established site, the invaluable MacSurfer, has now gone subscription-only (apart from a few teaser stories), as the management are nearing retirement age. I know the feeling.
I have still not updated to Catalina on the MBP although it is running fairly well on the lightly-used Mac mini I keep at work. I nearly weakened, but there are still too many questions concerning Time Machine and system controls that not even Apple can answer fully. As well as examining Time Machine changes, hoakley on the Eclectic Light Company notes system changes to the Repair Permissions process, which used to be one of the first standbys for fixing problems. This has disappeared and not even running the Unix commands in Terminal can fix this on Catalina: Apple says, Don't.
I had a look at the diskutil manual (man diskutil) although I am still running Mojave, and I was surprised to learn that the older ways of wiping disks securely, such as Gutmann method (really, really secure) are no longer recommended. Now recommended is encryption then a wipe. Ordinary users don't have time or abilities to do these types of tasks so Catalina is not particularly user-friendly. In a follow-up posting hoakley reports that his own PermissionsScanner is able to do the job and claims it is better than Apple's recommended solution, although it needs the user to allow it to run under Apple's new Gatekeeper rules, by adding PermissionScanner to the Full Disk Access list in the Privacy pane.
It is also worth mentioning a comment from Marco Ament on Twitter that I saw this week, "I'm finding that Catalina introduced LOTS of little delays involving Finder integration: displaying open/save dialogs, displaying changed files, starting moves/copies, deleting files", adding "What did they DO to this OS? It's been declining for years, but this is an especially bad one."
Like hoakley, Arment is an intelligent, longtime Mac user, but like me (since OS X 10.1) I have never seen such problems, either with the beta that I ran for a while, before running away, or from online comments. It is clear that changes made under the hood with the purpose to enhance security have made Mac OS difficult to analyse for those with the skills to do so, and mysterious for many users.
On that question of Permissions; when I was writing for the Bangkok Post on Apple and Macs I had a regular correspondent who was always breaking his Mac: he just could not leave things alone. One morning I had a desperate phone call as he had been going through his folders and files and been disturbed by Read: All permissions on his hard disk. Well, he did not want anyone to have the permission to read his hard disk, so he turned that off. He lost the disk (temporarily) and I had to write out a method to regain access, by starting in Single User mode (Command + S), mounting the hard disk, then writing commands to reset the necessary permissions. Of course, as he had no computer, I had to send the information using SMS to the mobile phone and trust that he followed everything to the letter: Unix does not forgive.
It may be related to me not updating the MacBook Pro to Catalina, but the Personal Hotspot, on which I tend to rely when at my office, now no longer works with the MacBook Pro. The Personal Hotspot doesn't work at home either, There is no problem with the iPad Pro, or the Mac mini (running Catalina), but there is no connection possible with the notebook. Nor is a proper Bluetooth connection possible between iPhone and Mac. I thought that might be the problem, but tried a cable link, which was just as bad.
On the odd days I take the Mac to the office, I have to use the university network which works poorly with Apple: I cannot send mail using iCloud and the service is limited, including no FTP for "security reasons". It is run by computer scientists whose philosophy is about control, rather than computer engineers who are all about use. Even downloading is sometimes a problem and the signal grinds to a halt. It is a poor sign when I am able to update software quicker using a Personal Hotspot on the Mac mini than a (supposedly) real internet connection.
There was a surprise update to WatchOS (6.1.3) on Wednesday morning. There are no other updates to iOS or as far as I can see Catalina. I did see an update to the iPadOS beta (13.4). The WatchOS update seems to have had some Iceland-specific changes and the usual bug fixes. It fixed improper delivery of irregular heart rhythm notifications to Apple Watch owners in Iceland.
As regards the electrocardiogram facility on the Apple Watch mine still reports the ECG app is not intended for use by people under the age of 22. I am aware that this particular feature is not available to use is in Thailand, but this warning about age 22 is totally irrelevant.
I spent most of my weekend at the university where I work, as a mentor at a worldwide innovation challenge. In a workshop environment, teams of students round the world are given 48 hours to come up with a solution for one of several problems. There were 14 questions, with one on the Coronavirus being added at the last minute. With poor publicity this time, there were only a couple of teams in our workshop, although they tried really hard, examining problems related to smart cities and distracted pedestrians. This is a problem that I find infuriating: the smartphone zombies.
As well as disturbing the flow in a crowded area as they shuffle along, there are risks to others if they suddenly stop, particularly (as I have seen many times at BTS Siam) at the top of a set of stairs. Legislation is useless - car drivers here just ignore any ban on use of phones, and I have made taxi drivers stop in the past: preferring to change cabs. This has happened to me twice in the last couple of weeks (and before), but each time the driver is actually surprised that someone would even say something. Both of the last two had their hands off the steering wheel more than once in a short period.
The University and Faculty of Engineering where I am based are investing much money in facilities that can provide students with technology to allow development of ideas. And as part of that with engineering, prototyping is essential with some projects, so there are devices to help with this, including 3D printers. The environment - big rooms, big tables, good light - also helps with the essential discussions and debates that go on, particularly in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a weekend workshop.
This project was run in the oddly named Innogineer Workshop (Thais sometimes invent names that sound good to them, but might not work in other countries) which is part of the Faculty of Engineering. Nearby another building is under construction that will be financed by the Ministry of Science and managed by the Faculty of Engineering, but will be available to students and members of all faculties on the campus.
One of the minor problems with the current COVID-19 epidemic is that, when I go out and am wearing a mask (whatever its true value is), when I try to use the iPhone, FaceID will not work. The first couple of times I was annoyed, but then understood why this was happening. If I change my glasses there is sometimes a period when this will fail too as the checksum does not come to the right result within the phone. However, after a couple of failures, the iPhone begins to open again with FaceID, which presumably means it had learned the new glasses I was using.
In the full context of the situation this is something of a minor blip, but the effects are being felt in many ways other than the epidemiological problems and illness. With improved technology it has been possible to sequence the genome in hours rather than weeks or months and this means more researchers can examine the virus. The more who are able to work on it, hopefully the quicker a cure of some type can be produced.
The Chinese government were quick to share early information with the wider health world, although they seem to have faltered, particularly with the statistical reporting as the problem grew. Other countries may be even more reluctant to deal with the problems directly: Indonesia reported that the lack of reported cases was due to the power of prayer; while the PM of Cambodia allowed a ship to dock that had been turned away from other countries (including Thailand) and met the passengers without any protection. It is being suggested that this may cause long-term world problems, although keeping passengers on such a cruise ship is also dangerous as the situation has been likened to a "Petrie dish": with all those people in close proximity, it only takes one. . . .
Unsurprisingly with the main problem currently centered on China, Apple is taking some hits both in terms of sales, and with its product manufacture and has already reported that it expects to miss its guidance for the next Quarterly report. There is of course lots of hand-wringing from a number of Wall Street related sites who panic every time Tim Cook has a cold. Apple closed down some of its stores and offices (and it has a large organization there) early on, but has now reopened some of them, although there may not be too many customers. To be fair, if you are in an area where there is a chance of a serious infection, the last thing you would be thinking about is a new iPhone.
A more serious problem for Apple is manufacture. Although it is Apple that makes the headlines, other companies are also going to be affected. The main assembly of Apple products should be affected less (or not so much) as the main contractor, Foxconn has facilities in other countries, that are less-affected at the moment. It is with specific components that there may be problems, and my comments are only speculation.
Bear in mind too that China is the main source for rare earths that are critical for the manufacture of modern electronic devices: a set of seventeen metallic elements, including the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium (Minerals Education Commission). These have tried be extracted and processed before they are able to be used in manufacturing; all of which takes human resources.
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)