Troubleshooting Tiger

Note: this article is taken from MAC OS X Tiger: The Missing Manual Copyright © 2005 Pogue Press, LLC. All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher. Available from booksellers or direct from O'Reilly Media, www.oreilly.com.
Author: David Pogue / ISBN: 0-596-00941-0

Whether it's a car engine or an operating system, anything with several thousand parts can develop the occasional technical hiccup. Mac OS X is far more resilient than its predecessors, but it's still a complex system with the potential for occasional glitch es.

If you're used to an older operating system, beware: very few pages of the traditional trouble shooting workbook apply to Mac OS X. Mac OS 9 veterans can forget about giving a program more memory, turning off system extensions, and rebuilding the desktop. Windows refugees can forget all about driver conflicts, IRQs, and the Registry.

In short, Mac OS X is a whole new world when it comes to troubleshooting.

It's safe to say that you'll have to do lesstroubleshooting in Mac OS X than in Mac OS 9 or Windows, especially considering that most freaky little glitches go away if you just try these two steps, one at a time:

  • Quit and restart the way ward program.

  • Log out and log back in again.

It's the other problems that will drive you batty.

Problems That Aren't Problems

Before you panic, accept the possibility that whatever is frustrating you is a Mac OS X difference, not a Mac OS X problem. Plenty of "problems" turn out simply to be quirks of the way Mac OS X works. For example:

  • My System Preferences controls are dimmed
    As noted in Chapter 9, many of Mac OS X's control panels are off-limits to Standard account holders. Even if you're an Administrator, in fact, Tiger requires you to unlock System Preferences the first time you open it (by clicking on the padlock icon at the lower left corner of System Preferences and then entering your password).

  • I can't log in! I'm in an endless login loop!
    If the standard Login screen never seems to appear - and you go straight to someone else's account every - it's because someone has turned on theautomatic login feature...

    You won't have a chance to sign in with your own account until somebody chooses  → Log Out. (MT&T Editor's Note: That's Apple Menu - Log Out)

  • I can't move or open a folder.
    Like it or not, Mac OS X is unix, and Unix has a very strict sense of who, amoung the people who share a Mac over time, owns certain files and folders. For starters, people who don't have Administrator accounts aren't alled to move, or even open, certain important folders.

If whatever problem you're having doesn't fall into one of the preceding categories, then maybe something truly has gone wrong; read on.

Minor Eccentric Behavior

All kinds of glitches may befall you, occasionally, in Mac OS X. Your desktop picture doesn't change when you change it in System Preferences. A menulet doesn't open when you click it. A program won't open—it just bounces in the Dock a couple of times and then stops.

When a single program is acting up like this, but quitting and restarting it does no good, try the following steps, in the following sequence.

First Resort: Repair Permissions

An amazing number of mysterious glitches arise because the permissions of either that item or something in your System folder have become muddled—that is, the complex mesh of interconnected Unix permissions described in Chapter 12.

When something just doesn't seem to be working right, therefore, open your Applications→Utilities folder and open Disk Utility. Proceed as shown in Figure B-1.

This is a really, really great trick to know.

TIP: Many Mac mavens, in fact, believe in running this Repair Permissions routine after running any kind of installer, just to nip nascent problems in the bud. That includes both installers of new programs and of Apple's own Mac OS X updates.

Second Resort: Look for an Update

If a program starts acting up immediately after you've installed or upgraded to Mac OS X 10.4, chances are good that it has some minor incompatibility. Chances are also good that you'll find an updated version on the company's Web site.

Third Resort: Toss the Prefs File

Here we are in the age of Mac OS X, and we're still throwing away preference files?

Absolutely. A corrupted preference file can still bewilder the program that depends on it.

Before you go on a dumpfest, however, take this simple test. Log in using a different account (perhaps a dummy account that you create just for testing purposes). Run the problem program. Is the problem gone? If so, then the glitch exists only when you are logged in—which means it's a problem with your copy of the program's preferences.

Return to your own account. Open your Home folder→Library→Preferences folder, where you'll find neatly labeled preference files for all of the programs you use. Each ends with the file name suffix .plist. For example, com.apple.finder.plist is the Finder's preference file, com.apple.dock.plist is the Dock's, and so on.

Figure B-1. Click your hard drive's name in the left-side list; click the First Aid tab; click Repair Disk Permissions; and then read an article while the Mac checks out your disk. If the program finds anything amiss, you'll see messages like these. Among the text, you may recognize some Unix shorthand for read, write, and execute privileges (Chapter 17).

Put the suspect preference file into the Trash, but don't empty it. The next time you run the recalcitrant program, it will build itself a brand-new preference file that, if you're lucky, lacks whatever corruption was causing your problems.

If not, quit the program. You can reinstate its original .plist file from the Trash, if you'd find that helpful as you pursue your troubleshooting agenda.

Remember, however, that you actually have three Preferences folders. In addition to your own Home folder's stash, there's a second one in the Library folder in the main hard drive window (which administrators are allowed to trash), and a third in the System→Library folder in the main hard drive window (which nobody is allowed to trash—at least not without one of the security-bypass methods described in the box on the facing page).

In any case, the next time you log in, the Mac will create fresh, virginal preference files.

Fourth Resort: Restart

Sometimes you can give Mac OS X or its programs a swift kick by restarting the Mac. It's an inconvenient step, but not nearly as time-consuming as what comes next. And it can fix problems that cropped up when you started up the computer.

Last Resort: Trash and Reinstall the Program

Sometimes reinstalling the problem program clears up whatever the glitch was.

First, however, throw away all traces of it. Open the Applications folder and drag the program's icon (or its folder) to the Trash. In most cases, the only remaining pieces to discard are its .plist file (or files) in your Home→Library→Preferences folder, and any scraps bearing the program's name in your Library→Application Support folder. (You can do a quick Spotlight search to round up any other pieces.)

Then reinstall the program from its original CD or installer—after first checking the company's Web site to see if there's an updated version, of course.

Frozen Programs (Force Quitting)

The occasional unresponsive application has become such a part of Mac OS X life that, among the Mac cognoscenti online, the dreaded, endless "please wait" cursor has been given its own acronym: SBOD (Spinning Beachball of Death). When the SBOD strikes, no amount of mouse clicking and keyboard pounding will get you out of the recalcitrant program.

Here are the different ways you can go about force quitting a stuck program (the equivalent of pressing Control-Alt-Delete in Windows), in increasing order of desperation:

  • Use the Dock.
    If you can't use the program's regular File→Quit command, try Control-clicking its Dock icon and choosing Quit from the pop-up menu.

  • Force quit the usual way.
    Choose  → Force Quit to terminate the stuck program or use one of the other force-quit methods described on page 142.

  • Force quit the sneaky way.
    Some programs, including the Dock, don't show up at all in the usual Force Quit dialogue box. Your next attempt therefore, should be to open the Activity Monitor program (Applications→Utilities), which shows everything that's running. Double-click a programand then, in the resultingbox, click Quit to force quit it. (Unix hounds: You can also use the kill command in terminal, as described on page 611.)

TIP: If you find yourself having to quit the Dock more than once, here's an easier way: Make yourself a little AppleScript (Chapter 8) consisting of a single line:
tell application "Dock" to quit
Save it as an application. Whenever you feel that the Dock needs a good kick in the rear, double-click your little AppleScript.

  • Force quit remotely
    If the Finder itself has locked up, you can't very well get to Activity Monitor (unless it occured to you beforehand to stash the icon in your dock—not a bad idea). At this point, you my have to abort the locked program from another computer across your network, if you are on one, by using the SSH (secure shell) command. The end of Chapter 22 offers a blow-by-blow description of how you might terminate a program by remote control in this way, either from elsewhere on the office network or even from across the Internet.

TIP: If all of this seems like a lot to remember, you can always force-restart the Mac. On most recent Macs, you do that by holding down the power button for five seconds. If that doesn't work, press Control-⌘-power button.

WORKAROUND WORKSHOP Fixing Permissions Problems

Sooner or later, when you try to move, rename, or delete a certain file or folder, you may get an error message like this—"The folder 'Junk' could not be opened because you do not have sufficient access privileges"—or this: "The operation could not be completed because this item is owned by Chris" (or by root, which means by Mac OS X itself).

What they're trying to say is, you've run into a permissions problem.

As noted in Chapter 12, Mac OS X is designed to accommodate a number of different people who share the same Mac over time. Nobody is allowed to meddle with other people's files or folders. But even if you're the solo operator of your Mac, you still share it with Mac OS X itself (which the error messages may refer to as root or system).

In any case, if you're confident that whatever you're trying to do isn't some kind of nihilistic, self-destructive act like trashing the Applications folder, it's easy enough to get past these limitations. Just highlight the recalcitrant file or folder and then choose File→Get Info. In its window, you'll find an Ownership&Permissions panel that lets you reassign ownership of any icon to, for example, yourself (if you have an Administrator account, that is). Make sure your permission is "Read&Write." (Just don't perform this surgery on files in the System folder.)

Now you own that folder or file, and you can do whatever you like with it.

The Wrong Program Opens

As noted in Chapter 5, the way documents are linked to the programs that can open them is very different in Mac OS X than it was before. Some documents have invisible, four-letter type and creator codes that tell them which programs they "belong to." Other documents lack these codes, and open up in whichever program recognizes their file name extensions (.doc or .txt, for example).

Section shows you how to choose which program opens a certain document (or kind of document). But that's not much help when you double-click a text document and have to sit there while SimpleText opens up—in Classic, mandating a 45-second wait.

The simple rule to remember here is that creator codes override file name extensions. In other words, a file called Contract.txt generally opens in Mac OS X's TextEdit—if it doesn't have a four-letter creator code behind the scenes. If that same file has SimpleText's creator code (ttxt), however, it opens in SimpleText (and Classic) no matter what its file name is.

The quickest solution may be to strip away the type and creator codes. You can do that by dragging the troubled files' icons onto a program like Wipe Creator (available from this book's "Missing CD" page of www.missingmanuals.com). At that point, Mac OS X has only the document's file name extension to go on when choosing a program to open it.

Can't Empty the Trash

If you're having trouble emptying the Trash, start by holding down the mouse on the Trash icon itself. When you choose Empty Trash from the pop-up menu, Mac OS X empties the Trash without complaint, locked files and all.

If emptying the Trash gives you "Could not be completed because this item is owned by Marge," you're trying to move or delete another Mac account holder's stuff. As you know, that's a big no-no in Mac OS X.

In that case, just make yourself the new owner of the file or folder, as described in the box on Section B.4.

Can't Move or Rename an Icon

If you're not allowed to drag an icon somewhere, the error message that appears almost always hits the nail on the head: You're trying to move a file or folder that isn't yours. Again, the box on the Section B.4 explains the solutions to this problem.

Application Won't Open

If a program won't open (if its icon bounces merrily in the Dock for a few seconds, for instance, but then nothing happens), begin by trashing its preference file, as described on Section B.2.3. If that doesn't solve it, reinstalling the program usually does.

(continued on page 2)


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