It had to happen eventually. After eight-plus years of problem-free computing on Mac OS X computers, I caught a doozy.
I wrote the first part of this post on a 2010 MacBook Air booted to single-user mode while on a plane heading for Boston. It's the first major failure of one of my primary Mac laptops ever, and it left me stranded for the first time. Well, sorta stranded -- I could still use Unix's vim to write, after all, on my way back to the lab to determine exactly how screwed up this laptop really was.
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I caught many odd looks from other passengers; one fellow asked me point blank what application I was running. I suppose people aren't used to seeing a Mac with its pants down.
Very few things bother me more than starting from scratch and reconfiguring a primary computer. I've kept the same environment from Mac to Mac for years, as Mac OS X flawlessly migrates all your data, applications, settings, and so on from install to install. This is one of the major benefits of Mac OS X: You don't have to spend hours redownloading and installing applications, looking up license keys, reconfiguring mail clients, and the whole ball of wax that often comes with settling into a Windows computer. I consider that time a waste. My Mac environment fits like my favorite jeans, and I was damned if I was going to break in a new pair.
Once I reached solid ground and headed into the lab, I fired up the Mac again and saw that nothing had changed. Where it used to boot in 5 seconds or so, there was nothing but a spinning wheel and sadness. I grabbed my trusty Windows 7 laptop and turned it on to search for information on the problem. It promptly blue-screened, though it rebooted itself almost immediately. Unfortunately, it was before I could take an epic photo of these Mac and Windows laptops side by side simultaneously losing their minds.
As for the Air, it appeared that some corruption somewhere was preventing various kexts (kernel extensions) from loading and the window server would never launch. Being a hard-core Unix geek, I opted to cover all my bases and back up everything I could before trying a fix.