Packrats and Browser Wars

In this series, Alex discusses browsers vs. operating systems and the Mysterious Case of The Unheeded Update, and why video streaming is harder than it should be. It all relates to his efforts in a major tuneup of us MacBook Pro, but lessons apply to all systems.

Neotoma_cinereaI’m a packrat. There, I said it. I like having my stuff on my computer, reachable even when the Internet’s down. That’s been the premise of the PC revolution going back 30 years. Others, notably ChromeBooks and Salesforce, work fully only when the Internet’s working.

That’s an important distinction. In 1994, when Netscape Navigator was the most popular web browser, Marc Andreessen declared the browser would replace the OS. Clearly aimed at Microsoft, who proved them wrong with Windows 95, it still was a marker for the future.

Now, Chromebooks and web-based tools like Google Apps routinely put everything (or nearly everything) on the Web. Faster, smaller, much cheaper computers, twenty years of development, plus routine access to broadband, have made “everything on the web” (Or cloud) routine.

But “everything on the web” is quite different from collaborative tools adding to, not replacing, the user’s my-stuff-on-my-device experience. Consider Apple’s Continuity and Handoff: Continuity supports answering a call on whatever device is to hand: Your iPhone rings, answer on your MacBook. This is a great use of Bluetooth Low Energy (Your phone has to be within BT range of the other device), and seems to Just Work.

Handoff does the same for Apple Mail, Messages, Safari, Reminders, Contacts, Maps, Keynote, Pages, Numbers, and Calendar. (There’s a developer API for their own apps, too.) Start a text chat on your phone, it gets heated (This happens). You want your full-size keyboard to type lengthier arguments? So long as both are logged into the same iCloud account, simply pause mid-rant, swap to the other device, and pick right up.

Apple aren’t the only ones doing this. Facebook is moving from devices-in-isolation to transparent synchronization: Of your timeline, new notifications, etc., across multiple platforms, and darned quickly, as anyone watching both phone and computer pop up a message notification within half a second can attest. Presumably these features will extend to WhatsApp as well.

(Related: Facebook recently added encrypted notifications, using OpenPGP; while you might not care whether news that you were poked was spied upon, this is an encouraging step for privacy, especially after they moved to SSL-default access for their webpage.)

Or, consider Google Chrome, which shares browser search history between your devices—I am constantly surprised when I begin searches for “Antique steamrollers” on the PC and it’s an immediate choice when I type “A” on my Samsung Sprint Note 3. In fact, this works so transparently that, when it doesn’t, I know I have no or very limited cell signal. This is the sort of unobtrusive enhancement I quickly learn to rely upon.

Dropbox,, and a dozen other utilities replicate your files to the cloud; I’m not so Luddite that I dislike automatic, transparent copies to a secure location, but that’s still different from No Connection = No Work, a la the cloud-only collaborative solutions.

In my opinion, these additive tools are so transparent, they don’t replace your existing methods, nor detract from the “My stuff on my computer” model. Arguably, requiring an iCloud account is vendor lock-in, but that’s a subject for a different essay about online storage (Upcoming). My devices magically sharing my search history is a Good Thing, as long as security isn’t on my mind.

Rather, were sharing results: I’ve been using FireFox, with Yahoo as my default search, instead of Google Chrome, and therein lies a tale.

Browser Wars

The last few steps to fixing the problems with mysterious slowdowns involved chasing down browser bugs, or at least browser-versus-plugin bugs. As usual, the culprit seems to be Flash. Windows users, don’t tune out: Most of this applies for you, too.

I used Chrome as my default browser by elimination: Safari (Apple’s own browser) had strange page-display glitches, the cursor would freeze in other apps while Safari was open, and CPU utilization would suddenly go over 100%; Firefox didn’t like playing videos much, and saves within Microsoft Word 2011 could take 30 seconds. Chrome seemed the least-worst of the three. (On the Mac, CPU is measured on cores, not your entire system’s performance, so 130% CPU use isn’t as crazy as it seems.)

Then came the long series of fixes previously told; the underlying system problems went away, leaving issues only when I had a browser open. While performance has been blessedly better, it hasn’t been perfect. As before, the issues were sudden CPU spikes, accompanied by 747-on-takeoff level fan activity; cursor freezes; very slow saves within Word or Excel. To finish the investigation, I tried all three browsers again.

Of the three, Chrome now seems to cause the most slowdown. Chrome may also be why AppleSpell.service and AppleSpell grow’d like Topsy; since I stopped using Chrome as my main browser, I’ve all of four copies running in the two weeks since my last reboot, instead of the 30 to 40 I used to find. (None of them seemed to use much CPU or RAM, but it was the principle of the thing.) So, the AppleSpell issue seems to link to a particular browser, Chrome.

Safari? Loading it still brings the machine to a crawl for three to eight minutes, depending on the number of tabs to re-open: Neither unobtrusive nor friendly to routine use.

Time to try Firefox again. Kudos to the Mozilla Firefox developers; modern Firefox is much improved. No apparent marking errors, webpages malformed, dropped tags, or screen tearing. Load and re-load times are much faster, even with two dozen tabs open. I haven’t tried Firefox Hello (their Instant Message/video chat client), or Pocket (share and save webpages for viewing elsewhere), but the general browser performance has been great. Still, it wouldn’t be Chaos Manor without something inexplicable cropping up.

I was running version 38.0.5 of Firefox; per Firefox | About Firefox, this was “up to date”. I did get an odd error messages about how “Something is trying to trick Firefox into accepting an insecure update. Please contact your network provider and seek help.” Alas, I’m my own network provider—no one to call, and nothing odd in the router log. None of the online help, including the Mozilla support site, had anything useful to say. I found no evidence I actually was facing a man-in-the-middle, pagejack, suborned webpage or any other obvious attack. Avast anti-virus remained mum on any maladies. When the message popped up again, I investigated further.

A trip to the Firefox download site indicated Version 39 was ready for download, despite Version 38.0.5 insisting it was the absolute latest. One upgrade later, I appear to have better compatibility with Flash (More in a minute), faster load times, and greater browser compatibility. The mysterious “insecure update” message did re-appear, so something’s still not right. Further research finds nothing about Firefox being spoofed by Mozilla over updates, or any other cause. I’ll keep an eye out for answers, though.

Next Time

In the next installment, I’ll talk about browser compatibility (In general, improving), the current and future plumbing of web-delivered video, and how to check your own system out in a little more depth.

We invite your comments below. And if you have a ‘I did this so you don’t have to story’ to tell, consider sharing with us. Details on how to do that are here. – Editor

A Cleaner Mac Air

Do Alex’s OS X cleanup recommendations work? Chaos Manor Advisor Brian finds out…

When I previewed Alex’s recent CMR article on cleaning up the cruft on a Mac, I thought that I’d best have a go myself. While I’m nobody’s target demographic for installing all of the latest apps and games, I’ve had this particular Mac Air for 4+ years, and migrated to it from a 2007 MacBook Pro that started at OS X Leopard (10.5). So there’s possibly a few dust bunnies and rodent droppings in the odd corners of the machine. And since it already runs fine, I see no reason to see if it can’t be made better.

First off, I ensured that my home Time Machine backup was current. I also connected and refreshed my work Time Machine backup earlier in the day. Good to have restore targets, no? I used to use Super Duper with great regularity, but in a recent bit of work, I rebuilt directly from Time Machine and it worked just fine. So I now reserve my Super Duper runs to right before major OS X dot releases.

Keep what works

Now, to work. I checked Login Items under my account in Settings / Users & Groups. Not much there, but there were a couple of helper scripts that I don’t really need running. What’s left is just f.lux, a neat bit of software that “makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day….” I find that f.lux reduces my eyestrain from evening work on the machine. I can’t recommend this enough.

Next up, I went hunting in /Library/LaunchAgents, as the root user, and listed the plist files I found there:

Agog:~ bilbrey$ sudo su 
Agog:~ root# cd /Library/LaunchAgents/
Agog:LaunchAgents root# ls
com.REDACT.ED.upgrader.plist org.gpgtools.macgpg2.gpg-agent.plist org.macosforge.xquartz.startx.plist

I need the {REDACT.ED} agent bits for work, but after a bit of research on the other four, I decided to hang onto them, too. I use GPG for assorted purposes, XQuartz is used by some remote work I do with Linux systems, and I have Java installed for the same reasons. The Google updater? Well, yeah, I’ll keep that, too since Chrome is my primary browser here and everywhere else, and I’d generally like to have it up-to-date.

Under /Library/PreferencePanes, I only had the Java Control Panel, and something for MacFUSE, which I’d uninstalled long ago. So it was out with the latter.

Agog:PreferencePanes root# cd /Library/PreferencePanes/
Agog:PreferencePanes root# ls
JavaControlPanel.prefPane MacFUSE.prefPane
Agog:PreferencePanes root# rm -rf MacFUSE.prefPane
In the personal LaunchAgents space, I had more cruft, none of which I wanted anymore:
Agog:~ bilbrey$ cd ~/Library/LaunchAgents/
Agog:LaunchAgents bilbrey$ ls
Agog:LaunchAgents bilbrey$ rm *plist

After cleaning all that up, I restarted the system.

Did it work?

Well, yes, it did. Frankly, though, with on-board SSD, this Mac Air was already fast. But now it feels like it’s nearly back to new again. I had not measured boot times prior to doing this work, but it’s always been about 20 seconds from entering the password to the desktop being alive. Where the additional time is saved is in all of the add-on stuff that no longer shows up in the status bar – there’s less of that now.

I did run EtreCheck before and after. The latter run found that I had not found and destroyed both copies of a particular PreferencePane entry. One was up at the system level, and I forgot to check in /Users/Bilbrey/Library/PreferencePanes as well. That’s cleared up, now.

What I’m even happier about is that following Alex’s tips, I gained more visibility into my daily carry system. What I still want to look into are the things that after three days of runtime, EtreCheck reported as “killed due to memory pressure.” Hmmm. I’ll have to keep an eye on that.

Thanks, Alex!

Cleaning Out the MacBook Attic

 In this second installment (first of the two parts is here), Alex digs into the leftovers from Migration Assistant on his MacBook Pro, finds code almost old enough to vote, and discovers his computer truly can run faster.

Last time, I discussed MacOS’s Migration Assistant, and how it will enthusiastically move all of your old software and settings. This time, I’ll show how to delete it manually; it’s worth the effort.

Your Mac’s Attic

After the (much earlier) migration, I looked at my Applications, and deleted a few. Of course, apps don’t run unless started—or not at all, if they’re incompatible. Unless they auto-start, applications (as compared to daemons) are probably not getting in your way. /Applications holds most of your apps (29 Gigs, for me), including the OS X installer app, if you haven’t thrown it in the trash. At 5 GB, this may be worth deleting, if you’re trying to trim disk usage. (I just did—I can re-download if needed.)

But I didn’t look in other folders, ones holding other, important applications and settings, including various daemons which do auto-start, silently. Complimenting the /Applications folder is /Library, the system-level repository of launch agents, launch daemons, and preference panes. Some of these are controlled by the Login Items preference pane, but others, especially ones transferred from your older computer, may start anyway, even if not listed.

I took the Application Startup list (System Preferences | Users & Groups | Login Items) on faith; surely MacOS knew about applications it had transferred? Seemingly, no; there are multiple services resident on the Mac, moved by Migration Assistant from the older Mac, which don’t show as Login Items. They simply weren’t there.

Astute readers will recall that the Windows Upgrade Adviser checks for application compatibility, including version numbers, before moving your old apps to your new computer. So too does PCMover. The MacOS Migration Assistant doesn’t appear to do that.

Leftovers and Ancient Code

As I mentioned in a previous installment, EtreSoft’s freeware EtreCheck compiles a good list of all the applications, services (“daemons”, in classic Unix parlance), and other cruft in residence. (Much of this information is also in the System Report utility, but not as nicely formatted.) EtreCheck is how I found the Valve Steam client plumbing, the remnants of LogMeIn (Replaced with TeamViewer), and other stuff.

When EtreCheck still showed at least a dozen undead roaming unfettered amongst the innocent, it was time to look in individual folders.

Closer Looks

Launch agents are started by the launchd process, from a plist script (Preference script—essentially, a shell command). You can remove agents from starting via the command-line, but deleting them is more final.

My /library/launchagents folder contained several old plist scripts, including an ancient (2008!) system-stat app, iStat. After some cleaning, my /library/launchagents folder now contains:


There’s Avast’s startup commands, the inevitable Java updater, etc. Note the leftover Logitech preferences, from when I had a Logitech mouse attached; more about that in a moment. There’s also TeamViewer startup scripts, despite having uninstalled TeamViewer and thrown it in the trash. Since TeamViewer hooks pretty deeply into MacOS, for video and sound redirects, I’m going to delete those, too.

/library/launchDaemons contains daemons, or at least the scripts to load them:


Again, Java version-checker, plus the Microsoft Office license-checker, more Avast, Adobe VersionCue (Loaded but never used). Yet more TeamViewer that has to go.

There’s also Google Keystone—a play on Keyhole, codename for American surveillance satellites of the 1990s and source of much of the ground imagery in past generations. Really, that’s for Google Earth, invaluable for determining microwave look angles, scouting for hikes, and looking for easter eggs.

/library/PreferencePanes holds all the “Preference Panes”, Macspeak for third-party control panels, themselves (As separate from daemon launchers or preferences). Mine looked like:


This is after I removed the Logitech control panel (Ok, “Preference pane”) itself, a leftover from when I had a Logitech mouse. Before deletion, it ran, found no Logitech devices, appeared benign; still, since it was 2008 code, out it went.

Remove an item from System Preferences by control-clicking (Right-clicking, on a two-button mouse) then clicking “remove” on the menu. I’m sure you could also delete it from the PreferencePanes directory itself, but whatever legerdemain the Mac goes through to delete a pane seems complex, so I’d rather not take a chance.

And we’re still not quite done with the zombie-stomping. /System/Library/Extensions contains, as you might imagine, a long list of kernel extensions. EtreCheck showed many of them running on my computer, including ancient Virgin Mobile drivers (For a tethered-mode hotspot), even older Sierra Wireless drivers (Ditto), the inevitable LogMeIn drivers, old RIM/BlackBerry communications drivers, and Logitech drivers. After careful consideration, I’ve deleted these. Also present, but not running: Several dozen H-P drivers, apparently for printers, which I left alone.

As I discussed previously, preferences and programs fall into two types: Global, for all users, in /Library and /System/Library; Per-user, in the /<user>/Library folder. Unsurprisingly, I also have personal launch agents, in /Library/LaunchAgents:


That includes Citrix GoToMeeting preferences, personal Avast anti-malware preferences (Vs. systemwide in the earlier folders), ancient Kerio MailServer (Competitor to Exchange) client-side preferences, and Valve Steam client preferences for the few games I keep on my system.

The Google contact sync agent replicates mac-side contact info to my Android phone; H-P printer preferences and personal preferences for Apple folder views finish the list. Staggeringly, no TeamViewer preferences appear here.

Testing For Speed

I then emptied the trash to truly exorcise the zombie code, then a reboot. Reboot times are still in the 3-minute range, but login is much faster.

If you check “Re-open apps when I restart” on the Mac, they appear as pictures—snapshots of what they looked like at reboot—before becoming live. The “picture to live” times, even with a dozen apps restarting, was noticeably faster (Sorry, forgot the stopwatch). Perhaps the zombie apps and daemons have been exorcised?

EtreCheck shows far fewer mysterious entries, too, as does Activity Monitor. I don’t know yet for certain, but the results are promising. Word loads faster, saves faster; Time Machine backups don’t slow the system down appreciably; no strange delays in Firefox loads.

But there’s still one major application that needed reorganizing: Apple Mail, as I’ll discuss more in the next article.

Next time: more adventures with Alex as he digs into Apple Mail.

MacBook Pro Migration Assistant

 In this first part of a two-part installment, Alex works on his MacBook Pro to cure erratic performance, hidden storage, Terminator processes and the Precambrian-era apps that cause them. He starts with a discussion of migration.

Migration Assistant: Too helpful?

While I moved to this Mac (MacBook Pro 15”, early 2011, 8 GB RAM) over a year ago, it took this long to find out just how much stuff I’d moved—some programs were from two moves earlier! This was part of my mysterious slowdowns, unresponsive performance, and general low-level annoyance, distractions from Getting Things Done.

This is, I suppose, a curse of the modern age. In previous generations, computer speed was slow enough that I’d save up context-switches, changes from one program to another, or other time-wasters, until I needed a break.

Today, systems are fast enough that we, I, rely on instantaneous swaps from Word to Firefox and back. A two-second delay for Word’s “Insert Hyperlink” feature to open, or more than five seconds for MacOS to paste from the clipboard into the Hyperlink window, pulls me right out of writing.

Even though a few seconds is trivial, when I’m on a roll, it breaks my concentration; the imprecations yelled at an unresponsive computer scare the animals; I pick up the phone to look at the latest e-mails, etc. It takes long enough to get into writing mode; I don’t need computer excuses for not being productive.

Still, I had grown used to these delays, or at least tolerated them. When they stretched into seeming minutes, longer if you include the lost ‘what-was-I-doing-anyway’ productivity, it was time to investigate further.

Short of deleting everything from the computer and starting over, how else could I speed up the Mac? Turns out, plenty—including actions I haven’t seen written up elsewhere. While hunting down old code, I learned considerably more about what’s under the covers, too.

Choosing Your Migration Adventure

How should you move from your old computer to the new? There are many ways: Wi-Fi, Time Machine backup, USB drive, FireWire drive, Ethernet.

Migrating over the wire: As Apple mentions in their notes, many current-generation MacBooks and MacBook Pros don’t come with an Ethernet port; you will need a Thunderbolt or USB 3 Ethernet adapter to upgrade over-the-wire from the older computer. Many people buy the Apple-labeled Thunderbolt Ethernet adapters, or the USB 2 adapter, for just such an occasion as migration. USB 2 tops out at 480 Mbps, far slower than Gigabit Ethernet, but plenty fast for most uses. (This MacBook Pro 15” only has USB 2, not 3.)

The new MacBook (not “Pro”, not “Air”, just MacBook) is even more minimal; its only physical connector is a single USB-C—no Thunderbolt. It even charges via this single connector. USB 3.0 is fast (Nominally, 5 Gbps), USB 3.1 (On the MacBook), double that. The MacBook appears to be a trial balloon: Will consumers buy a computer with only one port, or is more better?

Personally, I miss having three USB connectors on the 17” Mac, plus FireWire, Ethernet and a separate video out, but I’m not the target market. I find an Ethernet adapter is essential; I move far too much data to count on Wi-Fi for everything. Sure, it’s another part to lose, but Ethernet is more reliable than wireless, and usually much faster. Yes, 802.11ac Wave 2 is multi-gigabit, but that’s under ideal conditions, and when the Wi-Fi is working.

USB or Thunderbolt adapter? Thunderbolt adapters take up the Thunderbolt/Displayport connector, meaning no second monitor if you need a wired network. (Alternatively, you could use a Thunderbolt dock, but they’re fairly bulky.) There are very nice USB 3 hubs which also sport an Ethernet port; unless you want the smallest possible set of gear to carry, that might be a good choice.

The lost connector: I mentioned FireWire, but it’s quickly being phased out, appearing on none of the current MacBook models. Not a huge loss; while FireWire 800 was almost twice as fast as USB 2, it’s much slower than USB 3 or Thunderbolt. Its other use, connecting directly to camcorders, disappeared long ago, and it will be relegated to guess this connector quizzes in a few years.

Can Migration Be Too Helpful?

When I moved from my finally-dead 17” MacBook Pro, I’d used Migration Assistant, the built-in “move your stuff” program that ships with MacOS. Migration Assistant (in /Applications/Utilities).

It makes the process simple: Connect the two computers (Wi-Fi, Time Machine backup, USB drive, Ethernet), start the Migration Assistant on both, choose “to another Mac” on the source machine, then, on the target, choose the source machine. You’ll be given an opportunity to choose what to move, about which more in a second. Watch for the message “Your other Mac is ready” on the old one, click continue on the new one, and step back.

If your old computer’s dead, the standard rite of passage is to extract its hard drive, stick it in an external case, and run Migration Assistant from there. The old drive then becomes a backup, or kicks around in your desk drawer for ages. (Not that I’m guilty, but exactly why do I have 40 GB hard drives still gathering dust?)

In-place upgrades (No new computer, just a new operating system) happen as part of the MacOS upgrades; they are similarly helpful. Most of the time, they’re completely automatic and transparent, but there are important gotchas, particularly with Apple Mail, as I’ll discuss next time.

Windows Migration Assistant works well for PC-to-Mac migration, though of course it moves files and settings, not the applications themselves. Mac-to-Mac migration with plain old Migration Assistant does move programs—all programs, if you let it. If you don’t just click past it (I did), there’s a selection pane, where you can choose exactly what to move:


Note the “Settings” checkbox and drop-down menu; this will become important in our next article.

In the next installment, Alex looks at leftovers, really old code, and the joyous discovery of a faster computer.

Saving Space and Lessons Learned

[In the final fourth installment of this series, Alex works with his MacBook Pro as he discovers several causes of its slowness. He figures out how to save more space, and concludes with Lessons Learned.

Prior installments of this series: first, second, and third. Comments are welcomed at the end of this post. – Editor]

Space Saving

I discovered another surprising disk – filler: Unused printer drivers. I collect them, like it or not, at client sites, building temporary networks onsite, or troubleshooting balky copier/printers. While I’m not exactly counting the bytes, a gig here, a gig there, and after a while it adds up to real space.

Where do printer drivers live? In /Library/Printers — not the same as /Users/Alex/Library. Installed printer drivers are system files, used by all logins, not installed in each user’s directory. I felt stupid. Of course, there were system files, separate from my personal login, and of course they were in the system’s own directory structure, not the users’.

How much space? /Library/Printers held 7.5 Gbytes of drivers—very surprising, considering I’d only downloaded a gig or so of driver – installers over the years. (I guess they get expanded at install.) The install files themselves are in /Users/Alex/Downloads, because the user (Me) had downloaded them. It’s only after installation that they end up on /Library/Printers. (I had already deleted unwanted installers from /Users/Alex/Downloads). Saving 7.5 Gigs of space is enough to make me care, especially before I migrate to an SSD.

Final result: I cleared out another 4.5 GB of unused drivers. It’s not the disk space per se that bothers me (Disk is cheap), so much as the backup “elbow room”.

Time Machine, Apple’s excellent built – in backup software, Just Works if the backup drive isn’t too full, but my secondary backup drive is the same size as the internal drive, 500 GB. (I also have a 1 TB primary backup drive.) Time Machine is supposed to automatically erase old backups to make room for new files. However, it doesn’t always think there’s room for backup on the smaller drive; I’ve had to erase the secondary backup target (After I was sure the primary backup was good!) before a backup would finish.

So, going from 80 GB free space (about a month ago) to 120 GB (now) should make my backup experience more reliable.

What We Have Learned

Here’s some ‘lessons learned’:

Precautions: As recommended here, I made sure I had deleted unused printers (Printers, once installed, are shown in System Preferences | Printers & Scanners) first, before I went after /Library/Printers. That’s a good idea anyway: I used to keep ten or more printer drivers installed, in case I visited that client again. I realized my printer-chooser (equivalent of the drop – down choose – a – printer Windows menu) was getting slow and erratic. A few months ago, I weed-whacked out all the ones I seldom use, and selecting a printer got much faster.

Printer presets are wonderful: As long as I’m discussing printers, it’s a good time to mention MacOS printer presets, too. (If you only ever print single – sided on one printer, you can skip this paragraph.) A preset is a bundle of settings for a given printer: Say, double – sided on the long edge, black and white, with toner savings on, from tray 3. Instead of navigating four dialog boxes every time you print, save a preset (or several) for each printer, and waste a lot less paper. It also avoids the “Where does the Xerox WorkCentre 355 driver hide &$$^&$!! stapling!” mini – crisis every time you need a seldom – used feature. For complex print jobs with collation, stapling, hole – punching or folding, capturing all those settings (With careful naming) into a preset can save endless paper, click charges, and aggravation. Printer presets are discussed here, here, here and many other places. Experiment early and often before you do any volume printing; the best time to learn is not on deadline. But, in short, if you ever print anything fancy, you should know about printer presets.

Extra networks too: While I was at it, I also deleted all the network locations (System Preferences | Network, then “Location” tab at the top) I wasn’t using. These are the equivalent of Windows’ network profiles, and I had dozens, for each network I’d ever tested. While they take up little space on disk, they do seem to confuse the network Preferences pane. Like selecting a printer, changing networks took longer than it should, until I deleted those extra network locations. Most people will probably never use any but the default “Automatic”, set for DHCP, except perhaps for a second “location” with a static address for talking to a particular router. MacOS makes switching network settings very easy; I learned to appreciate this the first time I needed to switch from a WAN (direct to a microwave link) to LAN (inside the router) more than once. (I think the record was five. Yes, a second laptop would have been invaluable.)

Some apps love their versions: I also threw out a dozen older versions of GoToMeeting, which were never deleted when the application updated itself. The GoToMeeting tools blog says this is on purpose, that all attendees must run the same version for compatibility, so this isn’t just a lazy installer. Still, it’s a bit disconcerting to have a dozen different copies of an app, stretching back multiple years, that you know you’ll never use. Or sometimes just days: just in July, I got three different versions within a week! It also suggests Citrix (Owners of GTM) might delete unsupported, older, versions, but I can see where that might be a whole other headache.

Wrapping Up

In all, I deleted another 15 gig of unwanted and old files, which will make the eventual migration to a Solid – State Disk (SSD) faster, along with future backups. (Backups take longer than they should, as my backup drives are all USB, and this model MacBook Pro doesn’t have USB 3.) Partly this was to delete anything inessential from slowing me down; partly this was for working space.

That’s not just work avoidance. For good performance, “Elbow room” on the Mac is fairly important. Time Machine needs temporary space on the source (internal) drive to prepare for backups. This is in addition to .MobileBackups directory, a local Time Machine duplicate of everything not yet backed up, which also takes up room. (Time Machine does intelligently decide what should take up local snapshots, trying hard to never make your disk so full you can’t work or back it up.)

I also feel a little more in control of my own destiny on this machine. I’ve been using Macs for thirty years, but only in the last five has MacOS been my primary choice. Learning (or, with UNIX commands, revisiting) the mechanics under the hood, if only a bit, has made me more confident.

Still, there’s a lot to explore. I still have unpredictable performance, Terminator processes, and (it appears) Precambrian – era apps causing them. Oh, and several dozen copies of AppleSpell.

More next time.

[Alex will return with those explorations in the next installment – Editor]

True Exorcism Requires Deeper Incantations

[Alex continues with his tuneup of his MacBook Pro. The first installment is here, and continues with the second.

In this third installment, Alex tries to clear 4,000 viruses, finds hidden storage, and searches for OS clutter. Comments are welcomed at the end of this post. – Editor]

Last time, I thought the mysterious slow – downs of my MacBook Pro (MBP), running the latest version of MacOS (10.10.4) had been vanquished. Alas, no; the app – not – quite – hanging – but – not – responding and unkillable – app problems returned, prompting yet more investigation.

I was fairly sure I didn’t have a native MacOS virus problem; I don’t click on bad links, I don’t download doubtful software, I don’t visit sketchy parts of the Internet. Still, there are a lot of threats, as discussed here, and I was seeing glitches, like slow awaken – from – sleep, apps that suddenly didn’t respond, etc.

The Mac has some built – in protection: XProtect scans for certain malware, MacOS won’t run unsigned code without permission, and it’s UNIX under the covers so there are fewer attack surfaces. The Safari browser blocks known – bad plugins (Java and Flash have been particularly vulnerable, lately), too.

The Virus Hunt Continues

Still, it was time to resume the virus hunt, Just In Case. In its first run, Avast had scanned over 4 million files before complaining it couldn’t reach its malware engine and quitting the scan; I had put all 2,700 viruses, Trojans and other malware found in the “Virus Chest”, their name for quarantine.

Before consigning them, I checked as best I could that they were all in e – mails, bore only Windows – malicious code, and were therefore benign to the Mac. Avast’s “Infection Details” list is somewhat clunky:


As you can see, some lines show actual infection details; on others, you must click on the right – arrow to show them. I never did see any “status” information. You can’t sort the screen report, nor expand all of the “infection details” at once.

Since then, I’ve run Avast once again. Instead of claiming to be “100%” done after two hours, it topped out at “73%” after five, and kept going, through over 4.3 million files in 50 hours, finding over 4,000 viruses while still at “73%”. (The picture is from the results of the second scan.) An annoying ‘feature’: Avast doesn’t have a “pause scan” option, so you can’t park it while you run something else. I finally stopped the second scan, as I needed to reboot.

However, when I attempted to stash this second crop in the virus chest—all e – mail viruses again, and all apparently inoffensive to Macs—Avast skipped thousands of them. I couldn’t tell just how many, as there’s no consolidated reporting.

Last time I had a virus scare, I installed Sophos. So far I’m 0 – for – 2 on Mac anti – virus I like. I’d welcome recommendations from readers.

During my perusals of the virus record, I also realized that Avast was searching the “other” user login, and there’s another tale.

Looking Under the Covers

I inherited the computer from another user. I thought he’d removed all his files before he gave it to me, but it turns out not. It was time to investigate user accounts.

User accounts are managed in the Users & Groups panel (System Preferences | Users & Groups). Sure enough, there’s a second Admin – equivalent login, named “Alex Pournelle”, different from the primary one, named “Alexander Pournelle”. I discovered that right clicking on “Alex Pournelle” (Or shift – click, if you don’t have a two – button mouse) brings up the Advanced Options tab:


Note the dire warning: This is serious and deep voodoo, which should not be toyed with needlessly.

Viewing it, though—I was careful to click cancel when done—confirmed that PeterX (internal account name) and “Alex Pournelle” (displayed full account name and home directory) were one and the same.

Having confirmed that, I had to decide: Do I want to delete the user and everything in the account? I’d rather not; this is a second, admin – level user account which I could use to access the computer if need be. Better to delete the contents and not the user account.

User File Management

Go to Finder, open /Users. Another similarity between the Mac and Windows: Most common commands do have a keyboard equivalent, for those who prefer typing to clicking. Shift – Command – G brings up the “Go” dialog box (also available off the “Go” menu). Finder view of /Users shows the “Alex Pournelle” directory—red “X” in the lower right means it’s not viewable by me.

First, I had to give myself permission to view this directory. Under the covers, MacOS is still a UNIX variant, so I knew I could use the chown (Change Ownership) or chmod (Change Permissions) if I couldn’t do it another way. I’d rather not use such deep system oaths if I didn’t have to—memories of “rm *” deleting way, way more than I wanted to still rankle—so look for the GUI method.

The Get Info panel (Finder, click on the directory, File menu | Get Info—or just Command – I) shows most data about files and folders. It’s also where you set permissions, or in this case, add them. Sharing & Permissions, bottom of the Info panel, click on the “+”, add myself, then click on the gear drop – down menu, then “Apply to enclosed items…” Wait until all the red pluses on the subdirectories in “/Users/Alex Pournelle” disappear. I had to do this twice, before it took effect, for obscure reasons, but now I could see folders and files.

Astute Windows users will be comparing this to the “takeown” and “icacls” CLI commands, or to the Advance Security Settings tab, and you’d be right—they’re quite similar. Note: If you never use an Active Directory network in Windows, or install multiple users on a single computer, you may never see these settings, but they’re there, and they can still cause havoc.

I also discovered that Apple Finder doesn’t give accurate sizes if you don’t have permission to view a folder—after I had access to the directory, the 15 GB of storage turned out to be more like 8, much of which was in Apple Mail.

I don’t want those e – mail messages around—they don’t belong to me, anyway—so it was time to delete them. In Finder, it’s off to /Users/Alex Pournelle/Library. Gut check: Do I want to delete the Mail directory? Yep, they’re not my files. Double – check that I’m in the correct user directory. Send the folders “Mail” and “Mail Downloads” to the trash, empty the trash, another 5 GB of space available.

[Next time: Alex figures out how to save more space, and concludes with Lessons Learned. – Editor]

Success, EtreCheck Info – But Not Done Yet

[Chaos Manor Reviews returns after another long hiatus with this series from guest columnist Alex Pournelle, who continues his father’s tradition of ‘doing things so you don’t have to’.

In this second installment (first installment here), Alex continues with his story about solving the slowdown on his MacBook Pro. The last installment left us with Alex doing a reboot. Comments are welcomed at the end of this post. – Editor]


App Store then ran normally, though it took several minutes to open the updates tab—not surprising, since I had deleted its cache and it needed to catch up on what was actually installed. Practice patience; check e-mail; read a newspaper… Voila: MacOS 10.4.4, iTunes and Camera RAW formats all needed updates. I started the 10.4.4 updater, ensured the Mac actually rebooted, and then went off to do something else for half an hour. That’s from experience: More than a few times, I was certain the updater was running, only to find out one last command box needed clicking, before the update would proceed.

While off raking the front lawn, it occurred to me that this whole dance was familiar: It was quite like fixing Windows Update on XP or 7, when no updates are ever found or Update just doesn’t run. True, Windows doesn’t store that sort of system info in the BIOS, and putting Windows Registry entries to rights (Or slaying them wholesale) isn’t quite the same as deleting plist items, but the overall process was quite similar.

Upon my return, the Mac was almost done—at least it hadn’t hung mid-update. (To their credit, Apple is pretty good at recovering from that rare occasion.) Time to make lunch, keep an eye on progress… There it is: The final reboot, followed by—a black screen.

The Reboot to Black Screen

That reminded me why I ritually disconnect the second screen on my Mac during updates. Every time I reboot after an update, the primary screen doesn’t display the list of users, as usual. (You only see this list when your Mac doesn’t auto-login to one user at startup, much like Windows.) The MacBook Pro responds (caps lock light goes on, screen is lit, sound volume chirps when adjusted), but no video. Don’t Panic. Disconnect the external monitor, and the login screen comes up just fine. For me, this only happens after a system update—not just regular restarts, which I see happens to others. It’s odd, and never happens (to me) in normal operation, just after updates.

So, now, is my computer behaving better? Yes. There are fewer odd pauses. One of the more infuriating was opening a Keychain Access dialog box, clicking on the “Show Password” box, and waiting a good two minutes for the password to come up. By stopwatch, 5 seconds now. (The jury’s still out on Microsoft Word, though—more about that when I have more data.)

I still don’t know why I have dozens of AppleSpell processes careering around my computer, irresponsibly sucking up resources and polluting Activity Monitor with dozens of instantiations. (Specifically, I have one or two copies of AppleSpell.service and four to forty of AppleSpell, which appear to be child processes.) To be fair, none appear to take an appreciable amount of CPU (0.0%, usually), and in-line spell-check seems to be working, but this is annoying. (Far more copies appear when running Google Chrome vs. Firefox or Safari, even with the latest versions.)

OS-based spell-checking (AppleSpell) is controlled in Keyboard System Preferences (Mac for “control panel”), text tab. Interestingly, turning off “spell check everywhere”, then closing the Keyboard menu doesn’t kill any of the AppleSpell processes. I’m sure that a reboot would kill them all, but I actually like the automatic spell-check; even though it’s often unhelpful, it makes me think twice whether my colloquial or neologic affectation is appropriate.

My support-site walkabout did stumble across an incredibly useful tool for capturing, in depth, what your Mac is doing. EtreSoft’s freeware EtreCheck tabulates a very complete and anonymized record of what’s started (Kernel Extensions, Launch Daemons, Internet Plug-ins, etc.), attempted to start, taking up memory, etc. It provides great hardware detail: My laptop’s battery, serial number D863155X08ZDGDLB4, has 133 cycles on it, and listed as in “normal” health. It even provides pre-populated, clickable web searches for, e.g., what “com.valvesoftware.steamclean.plist” or “com.distortedvista.istatmenusprocessserver.plist” might be. My primary backup disk was last accessed 15 days ago—time to run another Time Machine backup, once I’m sure everything else is stable.


EtreCheck is the de facto standard for submitting information on your Mac to support websites, and you can’t beat the price. It gave details about what was starting up (and not starting up!) in my computer, about which more next time—data nowhere near as easy to divine from Activity Monitor or Login Items (System Preferences | Users & Groups | Current User | Login Items).

Of course, EtreCheck isn’t as friendly for knowing “What’s in this thing, anyway?”, an honor which goes to Apple Menu | About This Mac | Overview | System Report. System Report opens the System Information utility, residing in the Apps | Utilities directory. SysInfo also provides many different stats, like System Power settings, that EtreCheck doesn’t. EtreCheck is a powerful tool, now occupying a spot right next to Disk Utility in my Dock.

Wrapping Up

The system is now up-to-date, save for iTunes. I’ve left off updating iTunes to Version 12.2, which supports Apple Music. I don’t use iTunes anyway, and reports of suddenly-trashed music libraries give this little urgency for me.

Computer seems more stable now, with fewer unexplained delays or the telltale “fan on takeoff power” sound showing Chrome is chewing 140% of CPU. (Percentage of a single core, not total overall CPU, so it really can go above 100%.) I’m writing this report on the MBP, and haven’t cursed once, so that’s a good sign. I don’t know if the resume-from-sleep problem is cured, since it hasn’t been put into sleep or hibernation, but, so far, much improved.

But, Viruses?

The Avast virus scan is now into its 36th hour, with 4+ million files scanned; it’s been at “100%” complete since hour 2. Avast shows 2,700+ infections, but they’ve been racked up while scanning mail files, so I’m fairly sure they’re benign (to Mac) PC viruses. That’ll be another update.

Next time: The Virus That Wasn’t, software toys in the attic, somnambulant Macs, and archaeological app removal.

MacBook Pro Slowdown Attack

[Chaos Manor Reviews returns after another long hiatus with this series from guest columnist Alex Pournelle, who continues his father’s tradition of ‘Doing things so you don’t have to’.

In this first of four installments, Alex digs into the reason for a slowdown of his MacBook Pro. It turns out there are many culprits, and therein lies the tale. Alex has provided many links to external resources about the problems, in case you are in a similar boat. – Editor]

I’ve carried an early – 2011 15” MacBook Pro (MBP) for several years. It’s my main computer, practically my only one since my 17” MBP died. While I miss the larger screen, I like the greater speed, the glass screen cover, the longer battery life, the quieter operation. (Apple stopped making the 17” MBP, as it had become a niche product—less than 2% of MBP sales, say some.)

I use the heck out of the Mac. The first day it was mine, it ended up corner-down onto the airport tarmac, a dent it carries to this day. There was no damage beyond the cosmetic, other than to my ego, and it didn’t even need a reboot. It’s no ToughBook, but I’d call it semi-rugged. (I do make sure my computer bag is zipped before racing to planes, lest I repeat the kinetic experiment.) As a sole computer, if you’re apt to move around a lot, I recommend MacBook Pros to everyone—even for Windows.

While this model lacks USB 3—a real limitation, when it’s time to run Time Machine backups—it does quite well in every other aspect. It charges via MagSafe 1, not MagSafe 2, which is good, as I have four old (MagSafe 1) adapters. It’s about to get a Solid State Disk (SSD) upgrade, but first I needed to make sure that the OS was in good shape.

But: there are issues. Why was it suddenly slowing down? Why was battery life unpredictable? Was there old software – carryovers from previous upgrades – present?

And I noticed the App Store (and also the portal to system updates) would lock up when started—to the point where nothing but the spinning wait cursor would appear. It would, after a few minutes, list as “App not responding”, at which time nothing but a mercy killing would suffice. A reboot didn’t repair it—I don’t restart the Mac very often, but I tried this time to no avail.

I knew the MacOS 10.10.4 system update had been out for a few weeks, certainly time enough for others to find most of the major gotchas; time to install it, before I started the SSD migration. While I could download an update manually, it seemed smarter to fix the actual problem.

A quick search suggested resetting Safari was the usual solution, but therein lies another tale.

You Can’t Get There From Here

Much as Internet Explorer is inextricably linked to Windows core processes, Safari is intrinsic to MacOS. The most prominent web suggestions were to reset Apple’s Safari browser—not that Safari was having a problem itself, but this would fix App Store and therefore the updates pane.

Incidentally, Safari version 8 does away with the formal “reset Safari” command, standard in version 7 and earlier. The new “Clear History and Web Data” option isn’t at all the same, Apple. Please, could we have the old way back?

Shift – Launch (Launch Safari while holding down the shift key): No change, App Store still hangs. Delete App Store caches and plists? Still a never – ending spinning beachball when App Store is invoked.

Manual check for Safari Add-ons — Extensions in Apple Parlance: Safari menu | Preferences | Extensions tab. Nope, nothing but AdBlock running, so that doesn’t look to be a problem. Manual check for Trovi or Conduit (a notorious adware nuisance for the Mac): None of the usual signs. (I didn’t expect any, as I don’t click on links, but…)

A Virus? And more “Google-Fu”

Time to install an anti-virus and run a complete scan; Avast seems well regarded, so on it goes. Scanning is going to take a while, so let’s try other things.

What about the App Store Debug Menu? Multiple sites suggested enabling it; I learned how here. Load App Store, quickly hit “Reset app”, before App Store hung—still not fixed. Hmm.

At this point, I turned my Google-Fu up another notch and dug deeper. Several other authors suggested resetting the Mac’s NVRAM as a cure for a zombie App Store—possibly, important version data are squirreled away there, but that’s a guess. Astute readers will remember “zapping the PRAM” (Parameter RAM) on PowerPC – based Macs in the past; resetting the NVRAM is the modern equivalent.

Reboot, hold down Command, Option, P and R, listen for a first startup tone (weaker – sounding, to my ear), then another reboot, let go the keys, then a second (normal) startup tone, and a reboot.

[And the results? Stay tuned for the next installment.  And we are enabling comments pertaining to this installment, for now, but will monitor for abuse. Note that any questions in comments may not be responded to; use the Contact Us page instead.  – Editor]