In response to my wife’s demand that I get a notebook computer in order to free up some space in our apartment and my own growing frustration with my 3 or 4 year old Dell Optiflex (or to be exact, with Windows), I plunked down $1899 and bought a Macbook Pro. This is the one that comes with a 15” screen and 2 gigabytes of memory. For another 400 dollars, I could have gotten one with more memory. Since I don’t plan to run lots of applications at the same time, I didn’t see the need for it.
Around a year or so ago I added 512 megabytes to the Dell in order to get it to run less sluggishly. Now it is slowing down once again, although not to the point of making me want to get rid of it. It is more a function of the daily hiccups of one sort or another that get on my nerves. For example, the Linksys wireless adapter I use has a slight incompatibility with Windows XP that while popping up an obscure error message continues to run. Also, if my wife checks her mail on my computer using Outlook Express, my Thunderbird often stops functioning.
I ruled out getting a Windows notebook computer since Windows Vista is considered such a crappy operating system. Windows 7 supposedly will be an improvement but I couldn’t wait around until 2010 to buy a new computer equipped with it. I also had a queasy feeling that this would be a repeat of Windows ME, Microsoft’s version of Howard Hughes’s “The Spruce Goose” or that bridge in Washington State that collapsed immediately after it was built, the victim of poor engineering and high winds. I bought a Dell with ME in 2001, a year of other disasters far worse than this purchase, and replaced it with another Dell running XP in less than a year. $1000 down the drain.
A Mindset winning an award at a Vintage Computer Show
This will be the first Mac I have ever owned, although I bought two for my mother over the years. My first computer was a Mindset, a company that began with much fanfare in 1984 but went out of business a couple of years later. The machine was an IBM compatible with advanced graphics capability that supposedly would allow it to compete with Atari. I bought it because it looked cool and because I had succumbed to the hype. I wasn’t the only one. The Museum of Modern Art has one in its permanent collection.
After I took a job with Goldman-Sachs, I took advantage of a low-cost offer to buy an IBM computer for home use that supposedly would make me a more productive employee. That was a Model 50 that I kept for a couple of years until I upgraded to a Dataworld, a 386 Intel machine that was considered powerful at the time.
After that, it was 3 or 4 Dells. I really can’t keep track. I do know that I have gone through just about every Windows operating system since the beginning and have frankly gotten tired of dealing with problems that stem from what appears to be at the heart of the architecture. I use a Dell with XP Professional at work that I have no problems with, but will be forced to use Windows 7 if I went that route. The fact that Columbia University does not support Vista makes me wary of 7, which apparently is nothing but an improved Vista.
If I were true to my socialist beliefs, I suppose I would have looked into a notebook running Linux, an open source operating system based on Unix, the operating system I use at work. However, I need to continue to run Windows since some of the applications I use at work, and will need to run occasionally from home, have never been available on a Mac. It is also important for me to use Finereader, an OCR program that is the best available and only works with Windows. The Macbook is using something called Boot Camp which allows you to bring it up either as a Windows machine or as a Mac using OS-X (pronounced OS Ten).
OS-X has this much in common with Linux. They are both based on Unix, in the Mac’s case something called Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) or Berkeley Unix. I use AIX at work, an operating system based on Unix that runs on the IBM servers I have been supporting for around 15 years or so.
The inventors of Unix
Computerworld, a trade publication, reported yesterday that Unix just celebrated its 40th birthday:
June 4, 2009 (Computerworld) Forty years ago this summer, a programmer sat down and knocked out in one month what would become one of the most important pieces of software ever created.
In August 1969, Ken Thompson, a programmer at AT&T subsidiary Bell Laboratories, saw the month-long departure of his wife and young son as an opportunity to put his ideas for a new operating system into practice. He wrote the first version of Unix in assembly language for a wimpy Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) PDP-7 minicomputer, spending one week each on the operating system, a shell, an editor and an assembler.
Thompson and a colleague, Dennis Ritchie, had been feeling adrift since Bell Labs had withdrawn earlier in the year from a troubled project to develop a time-sharing system called Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service). They had no desire to stick with any of the batch operating systems that predominated at the time, nor did they want to reinvent Multics, which they saw as grotesque and unwieldy.
After batting around some ideas for a new system, Thompson wrote the first version of Unix, which the pair would continue to develop over the next several years with the help of colleagues Doug McIlroy, Joe Ossanna and Rudd Canaday. Some of the principles of Multics were carried over into their new operating system, but the beauty of Unix then (if not now) lay in its less-is-more philosophy.
“A powerful operating system for interactive use need not be expensive either in equipment or in human effort,” Ritchie and Thompson would write five years later in the Communications of the ACM (CACM), the journal of the Association for Computing Machinery. “[We hope that] users of Unix will find that the most important characteristics of the system are its simplicity, elegance, and ease of use.”
Apparently they did. Unix would go on to become a cornerstone of IT, widely deployed to run servers and workstations in universities, government facilities and corporations. And its influence spread even farther than its actual deployments, as the ACM noted in 1983 when it gave Thompson and Ritchie its top prize, the A.M. Turing Award for contributions to IT: “The model of the Unix system has led a generation of software designers to new ways of thinking about programming.”
While I couldn’t begin to explain in technical terms how the Macbook makes the best advantage of an operating system so lauded above, all I can say is that my experience with the machine for the past month has been a delight. It is not only lightning-fast, it practically defines the term user-friendly.
The latest version of the Mac notebooks uses a buttonless trackpad. While at first this seems to present problems (and it did take some getting use to), it is far better than the pad on my wife’s Dell. For example, in order to scroll up and down on a website or in a word processing program, you don’t need to use the scroll bar at the right of the screen. You simply put two fingers lightly on the trackpad and move them either up or down to navigate the pages. Here’s more on the trackpad from a guy who looks like a much younger version of Jeff Goldblum:
The Macbook also has an illuminated keyboard which is just what my failing eyesight requires. Furthermore, the keyboard is easier to use compared to the Dell, not to speak of individual keys tendency to dislodge on the latter from time to time. I guess that’s what you get for $500, a bargain but not without its drawbacks. Since I plan to use the Macbook for the next 10 years, I am willing to pay a premium price up front to be spared hardware and software inconveniences.
Oddly enough, the biggest problem I have had with the Macbook is the Windows XP Mr. Hyde partition. To begin with, it took 3 attempts to get XP installed through boot camp, even with the assistance of a technician at Columbia University who works in my department.
After I got XP installed, I went about the business of reinstalling Finereader and the Symantec anti-virus program. During the Symantec installation, the machine shut down with the notorious Windows Blue Screen of Death that I hope was caused by Symantec rather than Finereader. The Blue Screen indicates a fatal error that can only be surmounted by reverting to an earlier version of your environment. I can live with the occasional worm but I can’t get by without having the ability to scan from books or articles.
Bill Gates demonstrating a Blue Screen of Death