When Macs Don’t Start Properly

What would you do if your Mac refused to start Finder and dropped you into Darwin, it’s UNIX  command prompt? Panic? Scream?  Swear?  Or would you smugly take out your restore disk, slot it into your machine and restart, holding down “C” so that you could boot from the DVD and perform an Archive and Install?

That’s what I did today – except that the machine wouldn’t actually boot from the DVD.  Then I panicked, screamed and swore.  I tried bypassing the startup drive,  zapping the PRAM… all that startup shortcut good stuff.  I fixed permissions, repaired and rebuilt the drive – everything the Mac-heads on assorted forums told other folks in similar situations to do. Nothing worked.  I kept getting dumped back into Darwin.  I tried to mount the DVD manually.  No luck.  I could log in, see my files and see the system.  I just couldn’t start Finder – and the Internet didn’t want to tell me how…

I threw the Mac Mini into a satchel and got the bus to my brother’s house (because, ironically, the computer that governs my car’s immobiliser has crashed too).  First order of business was to recover files from the machine.  We did this by launching a second, working Mac Mini in FireWire target disk mode (holding down “T” at startup) and connecting it to my Mac.  I then started my machine and logged into Darwin.  We then looked at it.

“What do we do next?” I said.

“Maybe if we took a look at the logs we could see what went wrong,”

This, my friends, was an inspired idea.  It was this idea that lead to our solution.  But not in the way you might think…

I found a file, named “logfile.txt” and using the little UNIX I remember from setting up web servers and the old days of anonymous FTP I typed:

sudo open logfile.txt

I fully expected the file to open in vi… but it didn’t.  It booted the Finder and opened in TextEdit!  Nothing else was running – just the Finder and TextEdit – but it was enough for us to get the foothold we needed.  From there we were able to launch System Preferences from the Apple menu and select the Startup Disk pane.  The DVD drive was still invisible – but the FireWire target mode Mini we’d attached to back up my machine wasn’t.  We set the machine to boot from the fully intact OS on the second mini and rebooted.

Five minutes later we were looking at my brother’s OS running on my machine.  I slotted a full Mac OS restore CD in the DVD drive and executed the installer in the Finder.   At reboot I made sure to select the correct target drive and chose “Archive and Install” to replace the old system and back it up.  Then we went for lunch.  By the time we got home, full of cheese and bagels, my crocked Mini was running happily under it’s own steam.

Crisis over.  I hope this post might help others in a similar situation. 

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