Category Archives: Macintosh

Spotlight crash fix

I’ve come across this one on multiple client machines this month.

The symptom is simple: you invoke Spotlight (via the magnifying glass icon or command-space), and maybe four times out of five, within a second or so, no matter what you do, Spotlight crashes. You get a screen full of dump information with a button “Send to Apple.” If you type very quickly, you may be able to type your query, hit return, and even have it processed before the crash screen comes up.

This one is maddening, and plagued me for over a month before I found the simple solution.

Go to System Preferences / Spotlight, the Search Results tab. Uncheck the “Bookmarks & History” box.

That’s it.

Apparently, it’s common for something to crawl into one’s bookmarks or history that just flat crashes Spotlight. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I can live with having Spotlight not find things in there if they’re going to be more trouble than they’re worth.

The One Ring

"I'd like to run some tests on that 'One Ring to rule them all' ring. Can I borrow it for a few days?" "I thought you had it?"

Know that sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you realize that something really important is nowhere to be found? That’s what we get every time we ask a client for the password to his Macintosh, and the answer comes back, “I don’t remember.”

No one knows better than we do how many passwords a modern computer user has to juggle in the course of a day. Your email; your Facebook account; your banks; your photo collection; your credit cards; your pharmacy; hundreds of websites; and perhaps even your home thermostat.

The Mac OS does a reasonably good job of keeping track of (almost) every password associated with your life, by storing them automatically in a secure storage area called your keychain. That way, it can guard them against loss, present them automatically whenever needed, and keep your online life as manageable as possible.

This keychain is secured by the one password that isn’t itself stored in the keychain: the password you use to login to your Macintosh. That makes your Mac password, in effect, the one password that rules them all. Given that password, you can automatically or manually look up any other password you own in that keychain. Without that password, your entire digital life is toast. Having this one password can mean the difference between having to pay for one or two hours of repair time, or many hours of repair time plus many hours of your own time.

“Can’t I just pick a new password?”

Sure you can. But if it were that straightforward, what would keep anyone who walked off with your computer from “picking a new password” for it, and thereby gaining access to every bank account and credit card you possess?

Yes, there’s a straightforward procedure to force a new password onto a Macintosh account. But when you next log into it, you’ll be notified that your keychain is inaccessible, because it’s still encrypted with your original password… which, of course, you still don’t know. With the old password, it would be a simple matter to unlock the keychain to encrypt it with the new password. Without it, every other password you need (and don’t remember on your own) is locked up forever.

Regular visits to the mental gymnasium

The one feature undoubtedly responsible for more cases of “I forgot my password” than any other is the automatic login. It’s seductive because it promises to make your daily online life easier, and does… until your disk drive fails, or you fall victim to a ransomware or tech support scam, and you need non-trivial reconstructive work done on your Mac. At that point, not knowing your password (because it’s been months or years since you actually had to type it anywhere) is an extra kick in the ribs that you really didn’t need while you were down. (We are seeing much the same syndrome now occurring among users of iPhones and iPads due to the availability of “Touch ID.” A password you never type is a password you soon forget.)

Our advice is never to enable automatic login. Computers get stolen; the kids and grandkids get into things they shouldn’t when nobody is around; and most importantly, typing in your password every time you log into your Mac is the best and most effective way to ensure you never forget it.

(If you’re currently running with automatic login enabled, and realize you have indeed forgotten your login password, contact us for help before doing anything else, including disabling automatic login. We can ensure that the contents of your keychain(s) are safe-stored for future accessibility before forcing your account to a new, known password.)

The Big Three passwords

Our advice to our clients is that they keep special track of three main passwords. With these passwords, you can recover most any other password you own. Just like you wouldn’t go for a drive without pocketing your license, you shouldn’t go online without having a record of these three passwords in a secure place.

  1. Your Mac login password, for all the reasons outlined above. This one will let you into your keychain, where most of the rest of your passwords are safe-stored.
  2. Your Apple ID (App Store / iTunes Store / iCloud) password. This password is a major special case, as it doesn’t exist in your keychain (unless you stored it there by hand as a note, which you may want to consider now that you know it’s possible). This is the password you need to reclaim all your purchased apps, tunes, and movies, and to reestablish connections with your iDevices.
  3. The password to your primary email address. If you forget or misplace either or both of the other two, this is the one you will need in order to receive responses to all the “reset my password” requests you will be making to all your secure websites (banks, etc.) as well as resetting your Apple ID password.

(If you’ve enabled iCloud Keychain, you also chose a six-digit iCloud Security Code which you may consider recording somewhere, as it won’t be in your Mac keychain—again, unless you put it there by hand. However, it’s not strictly necessary to have unless you’ve lost every other Apple device you own, as you can authorize any related activity from any of your Apple devices.)

Exercise records discipline

When we advise keeping copies of this information in a secure place, that also implies having a single place for the information, identifying which password is for what, and destroying obsolete versions of the passwords. As repair engineers, we are too often confronted with “records” consisting of multiple notebooks, index cards, and/or sticky notes containing several dozen total passwords, most of which have long since been superseded by others, with none of them identified as to account or function. To top it off, sometimes the working password is not even among them, having been recorded on an entirely separate piece of paper located elsewhere. A little organization and records discipline can mean the difference between a smooth service call and locking yourself out of your digital data indefinitely.

We hope you’ll consider the tips presented here and choose to adopt as many as possible in your own life, to keep your valuable data accessible to you while remaining secure from others.

 

Bad Apple Mail—No Password!

This bug really burns me, because it’s been around forever, and Apple just isn’t doing anything about it.

Anyone who has used Apple Mail for more than a week has seen the following dialog box:

mailcantconnect

Of course, the natural response is to obey and type your password.

Don’t do it. 

Here’s why:

There are a half-dozen or so reasons why a mail transaction will fail. The mail server may be busy, hung, or dead. Your Wi-Fi may be down or your ethernet cable may be loose. There could be a network interruption in the greater internet somewhere between you and your mail server. Or, you could actually have supplied the wrong password for the account.

Unless your mail account is brand new, or you recently changed your mail password, the probability that this last choice is really your problem is vanishingly small.

However, that’s not Apple Mail’s opinion. “Couldn’t contact the server? Oh no, it has to be a bad password!” So Mail puts up this dialog box, inveigling you to type in your password again.

There is no upside to complying with this request. 

There are two probabilities here that absolutely dwarf all others: you will type in your password correctly, which won’t solve anything because your password was never the problem; or you will type in your password incorrectly, at which point you have now compounded your original problem by layering a worse one on top of it.

The real joker in the woodpile here is that one of the biggest reasons for typing in your password incorrectly is because you have actually forgotten your correct password. Now, a lost mail password can be retrieved using Keychain Access on your Mac… unless of course you have just overwritten it with a bad password because you responded to this idiotic query from Mail.  😡

The good news is that if you avoid thrashing at this juncture, you can still recover. Mail stores the POP/IMAP (incoming) account password separately from the SMTP (outgoing) account password, and in almost all cases known to man, they are the same password. Use Keychain Access to view the one you haven’t yet damaged, and beat this particular reaper.

Mail Mischief

[May 21 addendum: I’ve corrected this posting to identify the email service as Cox, not Gmail, and to append some additional information on defeating this bug.]

On this one, I suspected poltergeists.

A client called me complaining that she was periodically unable to send mail using her Cox account. We arranged a remote service session, and I found that the port and authentication type parameters for at least one of her outgoing server configurations were incorrect for Cox. I repaired them and verified that the result worked.

The next day, the client wrote to say she was having the same problems. I logged in again, and found that one of the port numbers had changed back to the same incorrect value, and the authentication setting had changed from “password” to “MD5 Challenge-Response.” I asked her if she changed those, and she said no, so I changed them back again and told her there would be no charge for the session.

Two days later, she reported to me that her service has been sporadic. Sometimes she could send mail, and sometime she couldn’t. Sometimes she could send it by switching to the SMTP server on her husband’s account, and sometimes she had to do the reverse.

I got back onto her system, and I found that the configuration values on her account have been changed again, and to values (like port 25) that don’t even work with Cox and never have.

I changed the broken account back to its proper value, whereupon the other one — which had just tested as working — immediately went out of whack!

I switched to it and found that the port had changed again… during the ten seconds that I was working on the other one.

Several times I ping-ponged back and forth, ports and authentication methods mysteriously changing themselves to the wrong values repeatedly during the course of a minute or so.

At this point I began to suspect malware, as improbable as that was. While I was downloading ClamXAV onto her system, I did a fast Web search on the symptoms. I was almost immediately rewarded with a posting describing exactly the same symptoms, and the fix for it.

It seems that in Yosemite, in the advanced section of the e-mail account configuration, there is a new checkbox called, “Automatically detect and maintain account settings.” Yosemite sets this on by default.

The downside is, it’s entirely brain-damaged. It’s just as likely to break your configuration as to maintain it, and is perfectly capable of doing either dozens of times a day, behind your back.

I turned that pesky option off, and again locked the port and password fields to working values. I’m hoping I’ll hear no more of this problem (at least from this client) until Apple finally fixes their buggy code.

[Addendum, May 21: Since posting this, I’ve heard from several other users with exactly the same problem. Informed speculation has it that it is Cox themselves who are feeding these erroneous values back into Mail, and not an Apple bug at all.

[Additionally, Yosemite also added a second “Automatically detect and maintain account settings” checkbox in the “Edit SMTP Server” area itself. If you don’t turn off both this flag and the one in Account / Advanced, the hits will just keep on coming. Make sure they stay off, as at least one user reports the one in Account / Advanced mysteriously turning itself back on right after he turned off the one in “Edit SMTP Server.”]