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ATPM 18.02
February 2012



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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Dave Trautman,

An Achievable Dream

The idea was to assemble all the parts necessary for me to shoot, edit, master, and distribute video productions on a completely portable system. The first proper decision was to acquire a 17-inch MacBook Pro with a 120 GB hard drive, a 2.16 GHz Core Duo, and max out the RAM at 2 GB.

I picked up a PYRO AV converter in order to be able to take on any possible source of video and audio from other recording situations. It allowed me to convert digital and analog sources to FireWire signals, which could be utilized on my MacBook Pro.

I had a professional digital video camera with FireWire output and got some Sennheiser microphones to go with it. My trusty tripod was still useful, and my lights were old but good. I had a bird’s nest of adaptors and cables from decades of production work, and I had now amassed a large collection of USB, FireWire, DVI, HDMI, and other adaptors and extensions to fit any situation I might encounter.

I saved up for 18 months to afford Final Cut Studio with all the components I would need to edit and master my video work and burn DVDs on my MacBook’s SuperDrive. Three very large external hard drives were the final parts of the project, which finalized my shopping list of needs to become a fully independent video producer. Of course, a newer version was released a month later.

• • •

At different times of my life, I’ve worked inside and even been responsible for multi-million dollar production studio facilities. I’ve done work in some of the most advanced facilities, and I’ve been fortunate to have been given access to the most current machines and techniques of video production as they were introduced. I began my career when a studio was the primary location for making television. I entered the workforce just at the time when cameras were moving from the pedestal to the shoulder. They became small enough to walk around and move toward the content instead of booking time under the lights and having the content come by for a visit.

I was extremely fortunate to have had a kind of laboratory of video equipment and mobile gear where I could experiment with different approaches to storytelling and be exposed to a lot of the innovations which were arriving all the time. After a while, I became responsible for running a studio in a large university, where materials were produced in-house for use in class.

While I was in technical school, I challenged my instructors regarding the future of television. I believed computers were going to play a significant part in the making of television. They told me it would be a very long time before people used computers in any part of making television.

I can confess that I did not find myself doing as much production as I planned for when I put together my studio-in-a-box concept. My work took a turn away from direct production, and I eventually became a consultant to others. My experience and expertise in all things media meant I was more involved in helping others do their projects than I was in doing my own. It was much more lucrative to be paid for helping others than to invest in a project that might or might not find a paying audience.

Shortly after I got my MacBook Pro, I was in Los Angeles and the motherboard died. I was able to take a day and get to the Century City Apple Store on Santa Monica Blvd where I could see a “genius” about my problem. It was my first Apple Store experience, and it was quite amazing. It was the first time I was able to observe people responding to the special qualities of the Apple product experience in a relatively normal shopping environment (as much as one can say any shopping in L.A. is the least bit normal).

My genius was very quick to determine the problem and immediately offered to take the machine and fix it within a day or two. I had to explain that I was from Canada and would have to have it fixed locally once I returned home. From what I had read at the time, my particular model of MacBook Pro was experiencing this problem a lot. Upon my return, I went to my usual Mac service people and they had my machine turned around in a day. Since then I’ve had zero problems with the motherboard.

About a year into owning my MacBook Pro, Apple opened a retail outlet in my city with its own Genius Bar.

Over the years, I have had some other issues with my MacBook Pro. The first was quite surprising because I had absolutely no idea what my problem was. I was, by this time in my Macintosh experience, chastened enough not to try to suss out the problem. I made an appointment and brought my MacBook Pro in for an inspection.

I had prepared a full length account of what I had been up to, when things began to get wonky, and some of my own theories about what might be wrong with the machine. I sat on the stool and lifted the machine out of my case and set it on the counter. The genius immediately told me he could see my problem and he would be happy to replace my battery right then. I was flabbergasted. I pleaded with him to hear my story while he went to work keyboarding the session and ordering up a replacement battery.

But the real shock for me was when there was no charge for the visit. This was the second time that my MacBook Pro was taken in for work and there was no cost. What struck me was how observant this person was in noticing the slightest bulge of the battery on my machine. Until he pointed out the very small bulge, I could not see it. Once the replacement was out of the box and in my machine it was happy days all over again.

As I was traveling more regularly for this particular contract period than I normally did, I decided to buy a second battery and have it for those times when my machine was running low. The original battery was now replaced, and another battery was bought about three months later. When I was not traveling, the “spare” was on a shelf over my desk at home.

• • •

I had gotten pretty familiar with most of the Mac line of laptops years previous to this. My father developed a condition where he had much difficulty walking and standing, so I got him a greenish clamshell iBook to use. He learned to use e-mail, to browse for interesting things on his Internet connection, and he learned to trade stocks on his account using the iBook. After about four years of daily use, this clamshell was upgraded to a white iBook, and he continued to use it until he died in 2010.

My wife was allowed to get a white MacBook on a technology allowance at her work and became somewhat familiar with it. My son ended up using my wife’s MacBook for most of his high school years. When he started university, I bought him a nice new MacBook Pro with the unibody aluminium frame. There was a promotion at the time for a free iPod touch. My son was not interested in the iPod touch, so I got it. It’s been in continuous use by me ever since.

My son’s approach to his MacBook Pro is to change nothing. After three years he is still running the same system it came with. I had him load Office for the Mac and a couple of other utilities, but he’s never responded to the upgrade offers, or felt he needed to move up to Snow Leopard or Lion. Only recently did he ask me to put Parallels on the machine and let him load up Windows 7 for some of his assignments.

As for me, I’ve upgraded my machine each time a new OS arrived on store shelves, and I’ve kept all of my utilities, applications, and widgets up-to-date. My MacBook Pro is not capable of running Lion, and there are one or two other limitations emerging, which will require me to address its future fairly soon. I continue to Time Machine my data and stay aware of issues of security and new features. I think this is still a throwback to when I was running an unstable machine and needed to feel I could handle any problem.

Right now my machine sports a large dent on one corner of the lid where it made contact with some concrete stairs when I missed a step and stumbled. My computer briefcase is leather, and I use a shoulder strap mostly when carrying it. I hurt myself somewhat when I stumbled, and I did not really notice my computer bag at the time. In fact it was not until a few days later that I noticed the dent on the machine. I had been using it constantly over those days and did not really observe the lid closely until the weekend. I immediately imagined that my son had borrowed it somehow and put a dent in it, but I quickly dismissed that (as much as I wanted to blame someone else) and it took me some time before I could reconstruct my movements of the past few days to make the connection between my stumble and the dent. The machine usually travels in the briefcase in sleep-mode, and there was no damage to any of the data. This MacBook continues to impress me even as it gets older.

My contract work required me to get Parallels for the Mac, and it came with a companion disc of Windows XP as part of the sales promotion. I was able to operate within a large government ministry entirely outfitted with IBM desktop machines and IBM laptops (as well as Lenovo tablet PCs) and access their networks and servers as well as SharePoint and Exchange systems with no trouble at all. It was also helpful for the MacBook Pro to be able to switch back and forth between systems so I could use my more powerful Macintosh software when I needed it. As far as anyone wandering by my desk knew, I was running a version of WinXP on my aluminium laptop. Very few people noticed that it was a Mac. But when they did it started some interesting conversations about how they would prefer to use one or how they got one for their son or daughter because it was a better machine for school.

My MacBook Pro did make a few video projects, and once I was editing some video on my laptop in this government office when someone noticed this. They were amazed that I was able to handle the video and audio right there on my portable machine. They were also amazed later when the video played in a board room on the hi-res projector and it looked fantastic. I delivered a DVD master for three different video projects in that contract, and they were duplicated and distributed across the entire ministry.

• • •

The only other technical mystery related to owning my MacBook Pro was when my household Wi-Fi connection would occasionally fail me. I would be working away quite normally, and suddenly the Wi-Fi would drop out for no particular reason.

This re-animated the “old me,” who was determined to suss out this problem for himself. I spent more than three months trying to narrow down this problem. I worried about the operating temperature of the MacBook Pro getting too high if I was doing complex work. But that wasn’t it. My machine would drop the wireless link even when it was cold. And I even investigated nearby wireless signals that might interfere with mine. But it did not reveal any conclusions. I ran test after test and worked for a long time on my own before I went to my local Apple genius to see what they could do.

Of course, the machine operated perfectly at the store on their network. As much as I might explain, they just could not reproduce the problem. But they did suggest that my wireless chip might have an intermittent problem and they would be happy to replace it. So I did.

After about a week of having a more normal network connection, the drop outs started up again. It was during one of those frustrating afternoons where I’d finally resolved to close the lid on this machine for the rest of the day that I literally put my finger on the problem. After closing the top of the laptop, I stood up from my chair and touched the sleeping machine as I stepped away from the desk. I felt a current on the outside of the computer which I had not noticed before. I wondered what was causing this. I knew from my vast experience with electronics of all kinds that sometimes when the “ground” of an electrical connection is “lifted”—or gets severed—a trace of the current will be conducted to the metal the device is made with.

When I noticed the slight current with my finger, I turned my attention to the power chain. My household outlets had all been upgraded two years before with a top-to-bottom re-wiring of my house (which included a lighting strike protection circuit for the whole house). So, I had some confidence that the wall outlet was likely not the problem. Then I turned to the power bar, which connects AC to all my devices on this desk. When I pulled the cord out for the MacBook Pro adaptor, the current on the laptop vanished. When I plugged it back in, it returned. So then I checked the MagSafe connection, and when it was out the current was not there; back into the socket and the current returned.

Fortunately I had bought a spare power supply some years back, when I realized I would be better off to leave one at the office and keep one at home. The next day I brought home the office power adaptor and substituted it for the previous one. Magically, there was no longer any current traveling through the metal case. I had solved this problem a little too late to save myself some money, but essentially the un-grounded electrical connection was generating a field which was blocking the Wi-Fi signal just enough through the case of the MacBook Pro to have it drop out fairly randomly. With a new power adaptor in hand, I returned to my desk and replaced the faulty one. Ever after I have had no trouble whatsoever keeping and holding a wireless network connection.

• • •

About a week later, I went to swap my battery for the “spare” I kept on the shelf and found it was popped open. This was the “newer” of the two I owned. I had written the purchase date on the plastic of each of my batteries to distinguish them from each other.

A couple of days later I walked into my local Apple store (having made my appointment online) and slapped down this bursting battery. It was the only time I encountered some resistance from them regarding my product failures. But after assuring them that I in no way caused this battery to burst and pressing them to “do the right thing” they eventually replaced it. So now I had replaced two separate MacBook Pro batteries at no cost.

This is—for me—a hallmark of the Apple experience. Fully aware that if I owned a different kind of computer or laptop I would never have been given the kind of service I got from the Apple Store, I am more than just a little eager to show off my now aging MacBook Pro and tell tales of how they’ve kept me going.

I’ve heard stories from people who’ve broken an iPhone or dunked an iPod and taken them for examination by an Apple genius. In these stories, it is told that the genius has considerable latitude in deciding whether the “story” being told is an interesting one or is credible, and Apple encourages them to keep the customer happy—even if it means a little bit of cost to the company.

I can certainly testify to how happy I’ve been with my adventures in laptop computing when it came to getting service from my Apple Store (and one other). And this takes me right back to my first encounter with an Apple IIe, where I developed more and more confidence in both the idea of relying on computers to do important work as well as enjoying the experience and being delighted by the whimsical approach Apple took to dealing with the user experience. Each of the Macintosh machines I’ve used has been yet another advancement of my capabilities and a realization of my larger dream of utilizing the power of computers in my every day work.

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