Nice Interface in a Storm

This UI also teaches you what’s happening behind the scenes

March 11, 2004

My Powerbook’s hard drive came to a sticky end yesterday. Almost literally. Starting in the morning, it seemed to “stick” every now and then, and applications would hang until it came back. The sticking got worse and worse until eventually everything just died.

Down to the Apple store, and Tony in the Genius Bar said “before we wipe it, why not take an full disk copy to be on the safe side. It’ll probably cool down enough overnight that you’ll be able to get to the disk.” And he recommended Carbon Copy Clone as a way of getting a hard drive copied onto and external firewire drive.

And it all worked. I downloaded the software, booted up in the morning, and copied 40Gb onto an external LaCie drive. My hard drive resisted a few times, but judicious tapping of the case seemed to bring it back to life. When it finished, I rebooted off the firewire drive, and was able to create a book PDF to send to the printers before the weekend.

Along the way, I came to admire the Carbon Copy Clone interface. It’s trivial: it basically asks you where to copy from and to, and gives you a “start” button. But what makes it great is the log window. You see, underneath the covers, CCC simply uses BSD commands to do its work (things like ditto and bless). And in the log window, it shows you these commands as it executes them. First, that means that as the backup is happening, you can track the progress. I had a couple of terminal windows open to I could see directories being created in response to the commands that CCC was issuing. That made it easy to tell when the hard drive had stalled.

But it’s also a great interface because it taught me two or three new commands: things I hadn’t tried before. After I’d got a new loaner Powerbook powered up, I found myself using ditto a lot to install particular applications and directory trees.

So, for me at least, CCC is a really good example of a mixed-mode interface. It’s a GUI when I needed it (I have to admit to being panicky when the drive failed, and the idea of pressing a single “start” button to make an archive was appealing). At the same time, it also encouraged me to understand what was_really_ happening under the covers, knowledge I put to good use later in the day.

And now I’m thinking about the applications I write. Do I perhaps hide too much of what’s going on from my users? If I made it more explicit, would it help them become more proficient?

Anyway, kudos to Mike Bombich for Carbon Copy Clone. (And thanks to Tony at the Willow Bend Apple Store for the loaner machine).