MacBook develops “short-term memory” personality disorder

Apparently blogging about a new laptop is the way to jinx it. (Either that or alluding to botched business decisions by Apple Inc. Conspiracy theorists would argue that Windows took offense at being virtualized and sabotaged the system.)

After working through the weekend, on Monday the XP SP2 image in Parallels refused to boot. Corrupted VM images are not uncommon but then Parallels itself started acting up, claiming that the image file itself can’t be opened because it is in use. Back at MSFT it would have been easy enough to grab another copy of any Windows flavor from an internal share and reinstall the operating system. Even simpler: PXE-boot and remote install over network. In principle that also works here but the BIOS emulated by Parallels apparently does not implement PXE boot. No problem– quick visit to the friendly support folks revealed the missing piece required to get PXE boot working. Being optimistic, this blogger assumed the OS install can be done on self-help basis and there is no reason to bother the support team already busy with irate users stopping by with more mundane problems than trying to get 2 rival operating systems working together.

Wrong. PXE boot worked and XP install would succeed partially before it would complain about corrupted local images. Even more bizarre, after stopping/restarting the VM there would be no trace of the installation at all– no formatted disk, no copied files. Back to clean slate. After a few more tries in the hope of non-deterministic success, it started to get bizarre: Parallels errored out a couple of times complaining that the VM can not be started because it is already in use. Each time a new image was created, installation would proceed

Next steps would have been a return trip to support and ask for help with the XP install from scratch. But MacBook started acting up for good and this time it was not Parallels to blame. After 3 days of constant use, Firefox started up with the first-time experience– as if it had never been run before. True to form, it complained about not being the default browser and asked if Safari should be demoted from that distinction. Meanwhile all the bookmarks were gone, history erased etc. This is not exactly what users have in mind when they want privacy-enhancing features.

The amnesia proved to be a recurring phenomenon across the board. Attempting to change the desktop pattern lead to more mysterious behavior– restarting the OS lost all customizations. Same with any changes to the browser, icons on the desktop, shortcuts added to the dock etc. All too reminiscent of the infamous patient Henry M case in psychology, about a man who undergoes surgery to remove parts of the temporal lobe. After the operation, his short-term awareness is intact but he can not commit anything to long term memory, the world frozen permanently in an instant before the operation. (He would routinely have to be explained everything over and over again.)

The mysterious behavior could have been caused by a subtle corruption in the file-system that prevents write operations from being fully committed. OS would simply reconstruct previous state on each reboot and disregard changes. But some experimenting showed files can be saved under Documents at least and running a disk-scan did not reveal any problems.

Outcome: yet another visit to the friendly support team to get OS-X Tiger reinstalled from scratch. This sets a new personal record for time to bring a brand-new machine to its knees to the point that the only recovery option is flatten/rebuild. (In fairness, rendering a PC inoperable is surprisingly easy when one is trying, but in this case the only objective was learning about Mac OS-X.)


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