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  • The Tiger Report: Not All Mac OS X Problems Are Easy to Solve

    July 23rd, 2005

    It’s probably just my ego at work, but I like to think of myself as someone who has learned a thing or two about troubleshooting over the years. I don’t say I’m perfect, however. When things go wrong, I don’t just depend on what I know. I do my research, checking Apple’s site and a number of the better known Mac help sites, and I usually manage to find a solution in short order, without encountering any aggravating situations.

    But sometimes the best laid plans and good intentions go astray. Let me tell you about one particular instance, very recently, where even the experts were mostly stumped.

    As some of you know, my radio show, The Tech Night Owl LIVE, is not just available in Podcast form. Each Thursday night, it is streamed live over the Internet. The technology involved isn’t terribly difficult to set up, particularly at our end, where we simply feed the show through a free application, Apple’s QuickTime Broadcaster. This is the very same application used by both home-brewed and commercial broadcast outlets.

    The setup is not terribly difficult. You first choose the encoding scheme, and there are presets that allow you to best serve your listeners. I created a custom setup that lies between dial-up and DSL. It’s not too fast for dial-up, but with superior audio quality, or the best we can deliver at a low bit rate. Of course, the transmission has to be fed over a system with the bandwidth to accommodate a large number of simultaneous listeners. I send the show over my broadband connection to a remote hosting facility that uses Apple’s QuickTime Streaming Server (Darwin Streaming Server can be used with a plain Unix box), and the setup process merely involves entering the proper IP number and login information.

    Understand that the show has been streamed for nearly three years over various Macs and several iterations of Broadcaster. So when it came time to move to a larger hosting facility, I expected the setup and test process to be quick and painless. Adding Podcasts involved more work, because I also had to convert the show’s archives to MP3 format, and create a “feed” file that would allow you to subscribe to the show courtesy of Apple’s iTunes, our listing in a number of show directories, and direct from The Tech Night Owl LIVE site.

    But I didn’t anticipate that a normally trivial process would get completely out of hand. Once the hosting facility configured a server for our use, I attempted a test transmission. But every time I clicked Broadcast in QuickTime Broadcaster I got an odd message, “Disconnected,” with the error number -3285 in parenthesis. The techs at the hosting facility hadn’t encountered that error, and they were thoroughly experienced at handling such things. Without mentioning names, they even host several sites for major rock stars, where the traffic for both audio and video is tremendous.

    A quick look at Apple’s troubleshooting documentation only made matters more confusing, since the error had something to do with Open Transport, the networking technology used in the Classic Mac OS. Yet I had a dual processor Power Mac G5 and Mac OS 10.4.2. Go figure.

    I went through some basic troubleshooting steps. After running Repair Disk Permissions and other Mac OS X maintenance functions and restarting, I trashed Broadcaster’s preference file, reconfigured the network settings and tried again. Same result! I went through the entire process of dumping preferences for both QuickTime and Broadcaster But I didn’t stop there. I reinstalled both, to try to begin from a clean slate.

    During this frustrating process, the hosting people reconfigured their server, and ran both local and remote tests with full success. Broadcasting to the old server always continued without a hiccup. The problems only affected the new server, which, unlike the old setup, required a custom login.

    My efforts to start from scratch were just as unsuccessful as my previous efforts. At this point, I decided to see if some other factor unique to my Power Mac might be involved. I installed Broadcaster on my PowerBook G4, used precisely the same settings–and I was able to stream without a hitch, after responding to a password prompt! I returned to the Power Mac and removed every single Apple preference file, restarted and tried again. It still wouldn’t work! So why did the broadcast succeed on the PowerBook and not on the Power Mac? An application that supposedly checked for damaged preference files said everything was all right. Yeah, sure!

    At this point, I simply created a brand new user account on the Power Mac. Without customizing any of the standard settings, I configured Broadcaster, crossed my fingers and clicked Broadcast. After the standard “preroll” process that takes a couple of seconds, the password prompt appeared! I logged in, and everything proceeded without a hitch. I fed a recording of last week’s show and the audio came through perfectly on my PowerBook, which is connected to a high-grade multimedia sound system. But didn’t I dump all the relevant preference files from my standard user account?

    There had to be an answer. I logged in to my regular account once again, and I took the drastic step of eliminating all the preference files, not just Apple’s! I stored them in a special folder I created for the process, and promptly restarted. I made no effort to modify system settings to my taste. Instead, I configured Broadcaster, and waited! After responding the password prompt, everything worked perfectly. I fed a show once again for testing, and listened on the PowerBook. I had made a few tweaks to enhance audio quality and it sounded just great!

    So which preference file was at fault? Well, in case you are wondering, I only have two login applications set to launch at startup: Apple Mail and NetNewsWire, an RSS application. The weird symptom persisted even after quitting those applications. Clearly some preference file was at fault, but I never found out which and perhaps it didn’t matter. But maybe it’s time for someone to create a “Conflict Catcher” for preference files, so someone else doesn’t have to undergo a similar painful experience.



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