When “Ridiculously Simple” backfires

A few days ago, I ordered a nice new firewire 800 card for my G5. The G5 comes with one Firewire 800 port, and two Firewire 400 ports (one on the front, one on the back). For most average users, that’s probably enough. However, I am not your average user. I have had two external firewire 800 hard dtives (had being the operative word… my Wiebtech Fire800 case inexplicably died on me this week), a firewire 400 external DVD burner, an iPod, and an iSight, all of which are always plugged in (well, the iPod cable is plugged in… the iPod is on my person). Firewire is daisy-chain-able, but when you have iSights coming off of hard drives, connected to another hard drive, connected to one Firewire 800 port, things seem a bit dodgy. So, as I said, I ordered a 3 port (2 800, 1 400) firewire card to extend my G5’s capabilities. I’ve often reveled in the simplicity of Macs, and the beautifully organized innards of the PowerMac G5. One thing I hadn’t thought much about was the overt organization of the G5 innards.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I’ve built a few computers in my time, but they were always tangles of wires and cords and cables, intersecting cards and boards, hard drives and DVD burners. Pop open your PC sometime… even the store bought computers are still pretty messy. Contrast that with the inside of the G5: it’s so clean and organized, you’re almost afraid to mess with it.

Yet, I had my new card, and I figured it would be okay. I’d just installed a wireless network card in my dear mother’s home computer only a few hours previous, so I figured it was on a roll. I popped open the packaging to find my new card and a little power splitter. Standard fare. Then it hit me… I’d never seen one of the familiar red/yellow/black power cords on the inside of my G5. I got a bit scared. I’m a big Mac fan, but I still think like a PC guy (I have to fix them for other people so often, I can’t leave the mindset). Where was I going to find a power source to tap into?

Then it hit me. The DVD drive is just your standard Pioneer DVD burner. It HAS to have one of those power hook-ups. Sweet! Well, maybe not so sweet—the drive is really crammed in there. So crammed that, in typical Apple style, there is a sweet little mechanism that locks it in place, and when released, allows the drive to slide out sideways. Pretty slick… except for the fact that it’s still plugged in, and the IDE cable runs/folds over the top of the drive. Apple, in an attempt to keep everything tidy, used double stick foam tape to make sure the folded IDE cable stays put! That’s fine if you never have to remove the drive, but that stuff is damn near impossible to pry loose, especially if you are trying to keep it intact, so as to reattach it later. After much finagling, I managed to get the drive out far enough to remove the power connector, plugging in my y-splitter, reconnecting everything else, feeding the new tiny power-cord through a small hole into the G5’s wind-tunnel-like central portion, and sliding the DVD drive back into place. Phew! And I hadn’t even installed the card yet

Installing the card was your standard PCI card install: the delicate balance between pushing the card hard enough to get it to seat properly in the slot, yet gently enough not to snap something; the typical backplate that never lines up properly and requires some bending; the screw that never wants to go in straight.

Installed and ready to go, I closed the case, plugged in the power and booted up. However, when I tried to connect my firewire 800 drive, nothing. No mounting. Greg no happy. Tried the iSight. Showed up in iChat, but didn’t show any video when I tested it (although the sound seemed to pick up). When I put both on the card at the same time, it didn’t even show up (not even in system profiler). Not good. I was starting to freak out. Then I did what any good computer freak does in a situation like this… I started to swear profusely. I think that cloud of profanity is hanging over the Great Salt Lake as we speak. With that out of my system, I started trouble shooting. OSX doesn’t really have “drivers” per se, and FireWire 800 is native to Panther, so it couldn’t be a software issue. Must be the card. Lousy cheap cards, I thought. But then an odd thought crossed my mind—what if the card doesn’t need that power cable? Sure enough, I was right. After unplugging the power hookup I had gone to great lengths to install, the card worked flawlessly. Strangely, it is even powering objects, such as my iSight, even without that power hookup.

All this has got me thinking: sometimes problems are so simple we make them more complex, because there is no way the solution could be so easy. For example, when someone new to a Mac asks me how on earth to eject their CD (Mac’s don’t have eject buttons on their cases; it’s actually on our keyboard) or perhaps their zip disk or networked drive, they often don’t believe me that all you do is drag it to the trash. “But… that’s too easy.” Often, something so simple (and honestly, intuitive… how else do you get rid of something?) is overlooked as being a possible answer because we like to make our problems as big as possible. If we don’t get “it” at first, the problem must be something so complex that we can’t possibly comprehend it, and that makes us feel a little better about ourselves. This, obviously, doesn’t only apply to technology issues. Life problems are often caused by some underlying, basic issue, and sometimes the answer is something so ridiculously simple that we ignore it.