Taking a Stance with a Computer Purchase

After a decade using macOS by-choice, I’ve decided it’s time to try something else.

I’m writing this on an early-2013 MacBook Pro running Catalina. There’s some dust caught in the left fan, which means that as I’m using it, there’s an insufferable rattling noise as the fan rotates, whacking against the dust inside the machine. Fixing this is incredibly easy. One simply needs to open up the bottom, dig some dust out of the fan, and your computer is humming quietly again.

The catch: I don’t have a pentalobe screwdriver to open the bottom case of my Mac.

In 2008, way before I had my first laptop and when I still viewed Macs as mysterious, other-worldly machines, I remember seeing my friend’s 2008 Unibody Macbook Pro for the first time. The coolest part was when he showed me how to replace the hard disk. There were these latches that you pulled to remove the access door of your shiny aluminium laptop. It felt so elegant. This was a machine designed for you to disassemble and upgrade as you see fit.

In 2013, as I was setting off to university for the first time, I remember buying my ‘college laptop’. This felt like such a rite-of-passage for me. I knew I wanted it to be a Mac. I remember the thrill as I heard the Mac OS X chime for the first time on my very own Mac. Computers are very personal devices, and I’d felt so powerful knowing that this unibody laptop was mine to customize and tinker with.

To use the cliche’d boiling frog analogy, nothing earth-shattering happened in the last decade, but gradually, I’ve just felt that this computer doesn’t belong to me anymore.

When I upgraded to Catalina, I noticed that I was able to read Hacker News again. This confused me because I edit my /etc/hosts file to block off the website. It turns out that macOS Catalina locked down system files and you can no longer edit your own /etc/hosts file.

Then the other day, I was trying to install the nix package manager to give reproducible package management a go. Nix requires you to create a /nix directory in your root folder, where all of your Nix packages will live. It does not touch your system in any way otherwise. That’s when I hit yet another roadblock: Your root directory has been locked down on Catalina and so you can’t make a folder in Root. There’s a workaround that involves, for “legacy” Macs like mine, mounting an unencrypted partition that contains your Nix folder to /nix in your root directory.

In what world do I, the owner of my laptop, not get the right to modify my own root directory? I get that many users are not informed enough about the inner-workings of a Unix or Unix-like operating system and could irreparably damage their OS install with root access, but that means Apple should put in the appropriate safeguards, not disable write in the Root directory altogether.

Yes, some very clever people in the Nix ecosystem worked out a way to get Nix to play nicely with this Catalina limitation, but this was a purely arbitrary and artificial constraint put in place by Apple. It sent a message to me: This is not your machine. Tread carefully when you use it. Apple, in its quest to protect its users from ourselves, has become hostile to tinkering. This is no different from using nonstandard pentalobe screws to hold the bottom-case in-place. Handle with care, it whispers. This is a scary machine. Modify at your own risk.

The laptop has been showing its age for quite a while and so I decided my next laptop won’t be a Mac. I can’t accept that I don’t own my machine.

I’ve ordered a System76 Lemur Pro from their website. Linux has come leaps and bounds since I first booted up Ubuntu 9.04 Jaunty Jackalope on my computer back in 2009. System76 promises full compatibility with Linux in a laptop that’s just around a kilogram. The memory and storage are fully upgradeable and the company publishes in-depth how-to instructions for your model. The company makes an effort to disable Intel Management Engine (a security risk), and the laptop firmware is open source.

The idea of voting with your wallet doesn’t work. I realize that the number of Mac users who care deeply about having write-access to the Root directory is probably not enough to affect Apple’s bottom-line in any meaningful way. That being said, the direction that macOS is heading in isn’t one I feel I can accept anymore.

I became a programmer in-part because open source demystified the computer for me. Seeing how passionate people were about various components of an operating system (window managers, compositors, init systems etc.) made me grapple with the fundamentals of the magic that made my computer work. In elementary school, I installed a virus on a friend’s parent’s computer. We immediately shut it down, and I, the resident computer ‘expert’, recommended we ‘let it rest’ as the computer ‘immune system’ fought the virus. There are many people out there like me, with very simplistic mental models for how computers work. That’s okay. That’s why abstractions exist. We abstract away the complexities so people who don’t care don’t have to think about the inner-workings of complicated systems. That’s a beautiful thing.

Beautiful abstractions are one thing, but intentionally locking down a system is another. I don’t dread a world in which usable computers mean people don’t have to think about how they work. I dread a world in which computers actively fight people who have the curiosity to dig a little deeper.

My Lemur Pro is on the way, and I’m excited to give Linux a shot again.