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Alligators

October, 1993


Following is an account of a sighting of the Restaurant Alligator, told to this writer with some glee and mischief as a true story. These same creatures, incidentally, are known to appear occasionally in the two-abreast sections of transcontinental airliners.

Jane and her husband made the big decision: they sold their house in Westchester County at less than market value, packed up their furniture and their eight-year-old son, and moved to San Francisco to be part of the multimedia revolution. Jane's skillset quickly proved its promise -- within six weeks and before the family had settled into a rental flat in Noe Valley, she had a full-time job and small piece of equity at a startup multimedia company. She liked her job and felt part of a dynamic and energetic team of creative peers.

On a sunny morning on her way to the still-new job, she stopped at the corner coffee boutique for a café latté, musing that where she had come from, the programmers drank Jolt.

While observing the aromatic ritual marriage of thick brown fluid to bubbling milk, she overheard three key words from a conversation at a small table behind her: "multimedia", "CD-ROM", and "title" were woven into a single sentence beneath the hiss of steam. The words caught her attention like the flash of faceted quartz dangling from the rear view mirror of the Camaro ahead. "Ping," her focus shifted 180 degrees.

She paid and took her Styrofoam latté and a glass of water to the table next to the conversation. Ears but inches from the words themselves, she sipped quietly at her cinnamon-dusted pick-me-up. Uncomfortable at first, she listened-in while drawing what she hoped would look like bored and aimless circles in a small puddle of spill from the water glass.

There were important-sounding people being discussed, real budgets and numbers, and even problems with staff; she took out her date book and began making cryptic notes as if arranging a carpool for her son. After about twenty minutes, she ordered another latté, and quickly returned to her table.

When she arrived at her workplace two hours late, Jane claims to have been wired tighter than piano strings from both the adventure and the caffeine. She went into her boss' office, closed the door, and recounted all. In her words, the information she presented flopped around the office for weeks like a not-yet-terminal mouse brought home by a proud kitten. It got a lot of attention.

This may be why so many business deals are discussed on golf courses, where there are no Restaurant Alligators.

Surf Alligators live within the cusps of breaking technology waves. They can be snuffed with good knowledge, tools, and a network of colleagues willing to answer arcane questions. Catching these alligators requires the patience of Costa Rican beach children who cast unbaited three-barbed hooks into the incoming waves to yank out their surprised and luckless silver prey.

Every time you upgrade your computer hardware, and occasionally when you upgrade your software, you are likely to attract surf alligators. These perils aren't like the steep learning curves where with effort you can incrementally improve your skill; they are brutally mechanical and test you in other ways: either you know it or you don't. If you don't know it, it won't work. Period.

While my Macintosh IIci had been an excellent workhorse computer for about three years, it was time to move up to the new, fast, and multimedia-equipped Macintosh Quadra 840av computer with its double-speed CD-ROM, built-in Ethernet, video digitizing, 16-bit stereo sound, a high-speed Express modem, voice recognition, and other advanced features made possible by integrating a digital signal processing (DSP) chip into the Macintosh architecture.

My rationale for this expensive move was that I will get at least three years of good use out of a computer that will remain at or near the top of the line long enough to justify its cost. Apple's RISC-based PowerPC will begin shipping in 1994, and it will be more than twice as powerful as my Quadra. But that power will be available mainly to applications that have been written specifically for the PowerPC chip in native code. Indeed, it is rumored that some applications, until they are redesigned by their vendors, will actually run slower on the PowerPC than on my Quadra.

I ordered one 16MB single-in-line-memory-module (SIMM) from a third party. When the tiny $720 item arrived in a box about an inch wide and three long, my wife commented that for such a price they could at least have used a blue Tiffany box, adding as an afterthought the irresistible refrain that begins "Say, how long has it been since you..." Oooh, I thought, as I observed the toothy head of this well-known alligator briefly raise its head, then return to its resting place. In a second small box were four 256K video RAM (VRAM) SIMMs to maximize the Quadra's built-in display capacity.

Opening the Quadra and installing the SIMMs was easy, but I had been there before. For newcomers, there are no instructions in the manual beyond the caveat: "Apple recommends that additional memory on the main circuit board should be installed by an Apple-authorized service provider or technician." While "Modification of the circuit board by anyone except a qualified technician voids your warranty and could damage your computer," I figured I wasn't modifying the circuit board, just putting things in where they belonged. Still, I always feel like a surgeon with life-and-death responsibilities when I crack open new computers.

The motherboard of this Quadra, incidentally, is removable (slides to the left, then out) after disconnecting its many cables, and the SIMMs snap into clearly evident mounts on the case-inward side. Watch for static electricity and be gentle -- the mystery is soon over even if the butterflies flutter around in your stomach until you power up. Of course, neither this writer nor this Magazine recommends that you mess with anything you shouldn't.

System software was already installed on the hard disk at the factory, so when I added power, the Quadra booted up with its characteristic resonant sound and a "happyMac" icon; so far, I hadn't wrecked the mother board.

But now we are into alligator territory. With my 486 MPC, you should know, I had been into the alligator pit much sooner, installing video, Ethernet, SCSI, memory, and video overlay cards while finding available interrupts and addresses, and living in jumper hell until the hardware all worked. The Mac was ready to go.

But it wasn't ready for me. I had still to move my applications, drivers (INITs and CDEVs), and fonts into the new machine's 7.1 operating system, connect my monitor to the on-board video, and get it all working again at the promised higher speeds and display resolutions. Moving files from the old computer to the new was easy using SCSI Syquest cartridges, but the two alligators that bit off a week of long nights and several days of telephone calls and eMail notes were expensively time-consuming. They were not Apple's fault, but were related to my own requirements that went beyond "vanilla." Nonetheless, the mottled skin colors of this alligator DO include well-written documentation of little use past beginner levels and statements such as "No User Serviceable Parts Inside" when you need to go inside to change a 1-amp fuse.

First alligator: My 19" RGB monitor (a Hitachi re-branded by both SuperMac and Silicon Graphics) has BNC inputs for red, green, and blue and requires that horizontal sync be superimposed on the green channel. This is supported by SuperMac's and other NuBus video cards at 8-bit color depth. I wanted the Quadra's internal video support for 19" monitors at 16-bits, claimed in Apple's literature. But no way would my monitor work, and it took four days of calling around to discover why. Sorry, no sync on green from the Quadra, they said. Throw it away. Get a monitor with more BNC inputs.

The second alligator involved a stupid assumption on my part. While moving drivers into the new system, I upgraded from Version 3.0.2 to Version 3.5 of Adobe Type Manager (ATM). I also installed the new Express Modem and fax software from Apple. When I restarted, the computer locked up so badly that the power on-off button wouldn't shut it down. As there's no low-level reset switch on this Quadra, I had to actually pull the plug out of the back (several times for several lockups). Was it ATM or the Express modem causing the crash?

It took many hours of empirical removal of INITs and several rebuilds of the operating system itself to determine that ATM was the culprit... but I didn't know why until calling Adobe's tech support line (408-986-6500 - 8 minute wait): Version 3.5 WILL NOT WORK with System 7.1. Stupid assumption that incremental upgrades will continue to work. I needed Version 3.6 or I could go back to 3.0.2. I discovered you can actually boot off the CD-ROM delivered with this computer when the CD300i is included - press and hold the Command, Shift, Option, and Delete keys when starting up.

On the monitor side, Apple's User Assistance Center (800-767-2775 - usually busy and not open at 1:00 a.m.) was of no help. My arcane questions were not in the annoying hierarchy of voice message help, and it took two days to get hold a real person to tell me the answer wasn't in her data bank. I felt like trolling with one of those Costa Rican fish hooks across the many rows of phone-answering cubicles at the Assistance Center, and yanking real hard.

Real monitor information was finally forthcoming when I contacted Noah Price and Dale Adams (on Apple's Quadra hardware team) through AOL and AppleLink. They had docs that explained all and included the peculiar sensing codes (pins 4, 7, and 10 of the 15-pin monitor connector) used by the Quadra's built-in video to automatically adjust to most monitors. This technical information is now downloadable on the Morph's Outpost bulletin board (510-238-4554) in the file named "QuadVid." I felt 100% better when I knew the WHY of it, even though I had to buy a new monitor.

Don't let anyone tell you that an upgrade is without danger... the Surf Alligator eats both time and money for snacks. But my system is working great now, and it was worth the hours and the cost to bring it on-line. Plan ahead and make your changes when time and money are available.