Kernel Panics and Lolita

You are about to read a saga: the tale of how my girlfriend got a faulty new Apple laptop replaced. I am not only the narrator of this saga. I am also its hero.

The heroics began at 8:57am on Wednesday, June 6th. I was sitting in front of the Apple Store in Union Square, reading Lolita and waiting to be let in. But the story itself began much earlier. Let me catch you up.

This February, my girlfriend, Steph, bought a new Apple MacBook Pro. Her old one — slower, fatter — had begun to signal its demise. On cue she forked over $1,577 and came home with a perfect white box.

You or I would have started using the new laptop right away. But Steph — patient, wise, forward-thinking Steph — left it alone. She wanted to milk the old one for all it was worth so that when it finally died, the new one would last that much longer. Steph is about to enter a PhD program. She would very much like to spend her meager stipend on food instead of laptops.

Two months passed before her old laptop became unusable. Its battery stopped holding a charge. A demon possessed its trackpad; fragmentation claimed its hard drive. At last, it was time. Steph opened the box.

The new laptop seemed pure and good in her hands. But when she lifted its lid she found the following message:

You shut down your computer because of a problem.

Worrisome omen! Steph learned that this message means a kernel panic has occurred. Some googling yielded an official Apple help article. She followed all seven steps, including a PRAM reset, a data wipe, and an OS reinstall.

Her troubleshooting was to no avail. The kernel continued to panic from time to time when she woke the computer from sleep, as if her MacBook were plagued by transient nightmares.

On April 25th Steph brought the laptop to Create More, a Mac service shop. She explained her problem to the man behind the counter.

“I think it’s a hardware issue,” she said, “because I’ve already done an erase and reinstall.”

“It’s definitely not a hardware issue,” the expert mansplained. “You probably didn’t do the reinstall correctly.”

Steph has grown accustomed to this condescending attitude. She manages the IT for her neuroscience lab, a responsibility which includes configuring network attached storage, provisioning users, building websites, and writing scripts in Python and R. The guy behind the counter was merely the latest in a long string of men who think that Steph cannot manage a technical task on her own.

Steph conceded. It was no use arguing with him. He took the laptop and performed the same steps that she had. He opened the lid: no kernel panic. Puzzled, she took the laptop home. Maybe she had done something wrong.

Of course, when Steph re-opened her laptop later that day she was greeted by that same familiar message: “You shut down your computer because of a problem.”

Mounting frustration!

On May 2nd she reached out to Apple Support online. She chatted with someone who insisted that her laptop was connected to 27 Bluetooth devices at the same time and that she therefore might avoid the kernel panic by disabling some of them. This advice proved unhelpful given the fact that Bluetooth was turned off.

Steph made an appointment for May 9th at the Apple Store in Union Square. It is Apple’s flagship, a glass house of Geniuses. The day came. She sat down at the Genius Bar and waited. A male Genius came over. Condescension ensued.

“Have you tried restarting the computer? Reinstalling the op-er-a-ting sys-tem? Not being a woman?”

Steph persisted. “Yes I have yes I will Yes.”

“I believe you. But just to make sure, let’s do a clean reinstall here.”

“Fine.”

An hour passed. The Genius opened the laptop — no panic. But Steph had learned her lesson. She put the computer to sleep, waited fifteen minutes, and then roused it from its slumber. Panic.

Steph returned to the Genius. He eyed the panic report.

“Maybe it is a hardware issue,” he said.

He explained that they would need to send the laptop to their repair facility in Texas. It would take 3–5 business days. Steph agreed.

Two weeks later Steph received an email stating that her laptop was ready for pickup. Steph booked the earliest available appointment, which was a week or so out. On June 1st she returned to the store and met with a Genius.

“OK,” he began. “We ran some hardware tests here in the store and it looks like there’s nothing wrong with your device. So you’re all set.”

“Wait a minute,” Steph said. “I thought you were going to send this to Texas for repairs?”

He scrolled through the logs on his iPad. “No, it says here that we needed to do a hardware test, which we did. There’s nothing wrong with your device.”

Boundless fury! Steph took a deep breath and re-explained the situation. The Genius didn’t believe her, so she simply closed the laptop, waited twenty minutes, and showed him the panic report that appeared when she opened it.

“Hmm. And have you tried a clean reinstall?”

“Yes.”

“Interesting. Well, we should probably send this to our repair facility in Texas. It’ll be 3–5 business days.”

When Steph received the email three days later, on June 4th, I decided to go with her. I wanted to be there in case the kernel panicked again and they gave her a hard time. When we arrived at the Apple Store, a Genius told us that the laptop had had its logic board replaced. We had no idea what that meant so we googled it. Apparently the logic board is the main component in an Apple laptop. The Genius ensured us that the issue had been fixed. We put the laptop to sleep, waited, and opened the lid. No panic.

Joy o’erflowing! Steph had received a working laptop and I had received boyfriend points for coming along and You shut down your computer because of a problem.

Endless sorrow! Steph was beside herself. Steph, who does research on children with dyslexia and babysits a teenager with autism, was losing her patience.

She returned to the Apple Store the very next evening on the Genius’s promise that, “If there’s anything wrong with the device after our repair, bring it back anytime and we will make it right.” The store would close at 9:00 that evening. She arrived at 7:28.

She checked in with a person holding an iPad.

“Oh,” he told her, “we don’t do walk-ins after 7:30.”

“I was told that I could come back anytime because it’s a repeat hardware issue.”

“Right, but it’s after 7:30.”

Steph checked her phone. “It’s 7:29.”

At this point, Steph swears that he waited a few moments before answering, “Now it’s 7:30.”

Steph couldn’t take it. It was her fourth visit to the Apple Store and now this fuckshit wouldn’t even let her talk to a Genius. She left in tears.

At home, she vented. Her story had taken a definitive turn from frustrating to infuriating. I hated to see her like this. It was time for me to step in. If Steph couldn’t bring herself to yell at the Geniuses then surely I could. I, a white male software engineer, am the natural nemesis of any Genius. I can pretend to know anything. I can rattle off technical jargon and demand to speak to managers. I can say the word “unacceptable.”

Self-righteous fury bubbled up within me at the mistreatment of my loved one. I coddled and bottled my rage, and waited for the sun to rise on that glorious Wednesday.

Let us return, then, to that fateful morning. There I was, reading Lolita in front of the Apple Store three minutes before it opened. I was nearing the book’s finale. Humbert Humbert, the pedophilic protagonist, had been touring the country with his young lover, Lolita, when disaster struck. A man by the name of Clare Quilty caught up to them and kidnapped Lolita, devastating Humbert. Years later, upon learning Quilty’s name and whereabouts, Humbert set off, gun in hand, to enact his revenge. Sitting outside the Apple store, I came to identify with Humbert’s patient resolve to set things right.

A Genius opened the door for me. I was disappointed to find nothing villainous about him. He had neither horns nor a forked tongue. Actually, he looked a lot like me, as many Geniuses do. He introduced himself as Roger.

I briefed Roger on the situation. Despite the venom in my veins and the hatred in my heart, I smiled and spoke calmly. I used to work in customer support. I know what it’s like to get yelled at and I know that anger doesn’t solve anything. As much as I wanted to rip Roger’s head off, patience was the only way forward.

Sadly, Roger proved useless. “We don’t have any available appointments today,” he told me. “The next appointment would be on Saturday.”

“I understand that,” I said. “But we were told that for a repeat hardware issue we wouldn’t need an appointment.”

“That’s right. But I don’t have any Geniuses available right now. The best you can do is make an appointment.”

We went around in circles like this for a while. I told him that I had a 10am meeting. He told me that I could maybe talk to a Genius in four hours. I told him that I needed to see someone now. He told me to make an appointment.

I made an appointment.

Roger tapped a few buttons on his iPad and added me to the queue. He embarked on a long, unnecessary explanation of the text-messaging system by which I would be notified of an appointment. At last, satisfied with the great progress we had made together, he offered his hand. It was a dead fish in my own. For some reason, the flaccidness of Roger’s handshake — his person, his being — angered me more than anything.

I sat down at one of the long tables staffed by Geniuses and waited. I couldn’t get an appointment but maybe I’d find someone willing to help.

After about twenty minutes a Genius took pity on me. She had short hair and tattoos. She checked my place in the queue. It would be hours, she told me, but maybe there was something she could do. She consulted with another Genius.

“OK,” she said. “I’ve highlighted your name.”

I thanked her and continued reading, unsure of what this meant.

More time passed. I flagged a nearby Genius and asked him to check my status in the queue. Upon finding my name his eyes grew wide. “Woah. You’ve been highlighted. That’s extremely rare. Someone should be here any minute.”

I suppressed a smile. I was making progress: I’d been highlighted. I’d have a new laptop in no time, I thought. I sent a message to my team telling them that I’d miss our 10am meeting. To hell with work. This was my job now.

Twenty minutes later, a Genius named Isabelle came over to me. She apologized for the wait and asked what the problem was. I explained. She sympathized and told me what we could do about it.

“So, we’ve already replaced the logic board,” she said, “but it seems like that didn’t work. What I’m going to recommend is that we try to replace it again. We can send it to our facility in Texas and have it back in 3–5 business days.”

“Isabelle,” I said, “I don’t think that’s going to fix the issue. We’ve already tried replacing the logic board. I don’t think that replacing it again is going to solve the problem.”

“Well unfortunately that’s all we can do at this point. Unless… have you tried a clean reinstall?”

“Yes. In fact, here is a list of all the thing that my girlfriend has tried.” I showed her a text from Steph:

“Well I don’t see any record of a clean install in our logs,” Isabelle said. “That’s really the only way to ensure that it was done properly.”

“We’ve already done a clean reinstall and replaced the logic board,” I insisted. “I don’t think that doing either of those things again is going to work.”

Isabelle squinted at me. She knew I had something else in mind. “What do you suggest we do?”

“Here’s how I see it. This is a brand-new laptop that has had this problem since the day we bought it. We have tried reinstalling the OS but that didn’t work. We have tried replacing the logic board but that didn’t work. At this point, we have waited for over a month and we still don’t have a working laptop. So I think it’s fair that you replace the computer.”

Isabelle considered my proposal. “Let me talk to Jason,” she said.

Jason was Isabelle’s manager, a tall man with a beard and a black baseball cap. He gave off a no-nonsense aura, as if to forestall funny business or hope.

They chatted in private. Isabelle returned alone.

“We can’t do a device replacement,” she said, “because we have only done one hardware repair. It’s our policy to only replace a device when we can’t fix it after three repairs.”

“If I understand correctly, you’re telling me that we would need to send this to Texas, wait five days, reproduce the issue, send it to Texas again, wait five days, reproduce the issue, and then we would be able to get a new laptop?”

“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “But we don’t have any reason to believe that the hardware repair won’t work.”

“We just tried to replace the logic board and it didn’t work,” I said. “I don’t think it’s fair for Steph to have to wait another two weeks to get a working laptop when she has already waited for a month.”

Isabelle understood where I was coming from. She went to talk to Jason again, and when she returned she had a new option.

“OK, so we usually only do a replacement after three hardware repairs. But I talked to Jason and he said he’s willing to do a POS return. Basically, you can always return a laptop within 14 days of purchase. Even though it’s been longer than 14 days, we’re willing to make an exception because it’s taken so long to get this resolved.”

Kind Isabelle and generous Jason! I thanked Isabelle and she disappeared to make the magic happen.

But when she returned a few minutes later, she was empty-handed.

“There’s a problem. We can’t do the POS return.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it looks like Steph bought this laptop from UCSF. We can only do a POS return for items bought directly from Apple.”

I re-read the email receipt that Steph had forwarded me. It was on Apple letterhead. “What do you mean? Steph bought this on the Apple website.”

“Yes, but it looks like she bought it via the UCSF portal. When you buy something on the portal, it has a different code. It’s a separate system.”

“It says here that she bought it on apple.com.”

“Yes, but that particular website domain is not technically owned by Apple. If you want to return the laptop, you’ll need to do so through UCSF.”

This option, I knew, wouldn’t fly. I imagined how the conversation would go. “Hello, UCSF? My girlfriend bought a broken MacBook Pro from you about four months ago. Could you please replace it for free?”

I put the idea out of my mind. “Isabelle,” I said, “it seems like we’re failing here. It’s been two hours and the only option we have is trying something that already didn’t work. Help me out here. What else can we do?”

Isabelle looked around and leaned in close. “Here’s what I would do,” she said, lowering her voice. “I would call Apple Support. Strong-arm ’em. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Isabelle’s secret advice was to call the company whose store I was currently in, whose employee I was already talking to?

“But Isabelle, I’m a lowly customer. What if you or Jason called them? Wouldn’t that carry more weight?”

“No, unfortunately not. See, the Apple Store and Apple Corporate, we’re totally separate. We can’t call them.”

What was happening? I felt myself losing control of the situation. Moments ago a replacement laptop was as good as mine, but now my best option was to call a customer service hotline. I tried to get us back on track.

“So we can’t do a POS replacement,” I said. “We can’t do a normal replacement because we’ve only had one repair. The only thing we can do is send the computer back to Texas.”

“That’s right. Although, if you want we can repair it here instead.”

“You do repairs here? Is it faster?”

“No, it’s actually slower because we’re really backed up right now. We have a lot of iMacs. But the people here, they’re really thorough. They’ll rebuild the whole computer if they have to.”

“How long will it take?”

“7–10 business days.”

“But I imagine there’s a queue in place, right?”

“Yes.”

“So can you bump us to the front of the queue, since it’s been over a month?”

“Unfortunately not. Like I said, we have a lot of iMacs.” She said this as if it were common knowledge that one should never keep an iMac waiting.

“OK, Isabelle. Let’s do an in-store repair.”

“Great. But first we need to do a clean reinstall.”

“What? Why?”

“Like I said, we don’t have any record of a clean reinstall in our logs. Before we accept the device for an in-store repair, we need to make sure that it’s not a software issue. We can do that now for you if you’d like.”

I agreed and Isabelle proceeded with a clean reinstall. I closed the laptop, waited, and opened it. Kernel panic.

Isabelle acknowledged the issue and took the laptop in for repair. I left empty-handed.

On June 14th I received a voicemail from the Apple Store:

Hi this message is for David Fish, this is Eric from Apple, wanted to call you regarding your MacBook Pro. I’m looking at the issue, looks like it may not be turning on, I’m taking a look at it in store now and it looks like it’s not turning on at all. What I did notice is that it is under warranty right now, and considering the issues that are going with your system, [how] power off and power on is affecting you and you are experiencing runtime errors, it could be a result of several different parts. The best place to actually perform the diagnostics and to repair this computer is the repair center. They can definitely get it turned around much faster than we can at this point because even if we are to replace the logic board and it does start powering on normally it doesn’t guarantee necessarily that the runtime issue is gonna be taken care of because that can be caused by numerous other mechanics: memory, maybe bad hard drive, we don’t know. Again, the repair center has the proper tools to either diagnose this and replace several different parts if necessary. So that’s gonna be really the best bet. And it is going to be quicker for you, and I know that sounds kind of odd that sending it out would be quicker but considering these issues it would be much faster if it gets sent to the repair center. So please give us a call back at (415) 486–4800 to let us know how you want to continue. We are gonna put this repair on hold and wait for your answer. Thank you. Once again my name is Eric.

Unfathomable despair! The laptop had languished for two weeks in the Apple Store’s repair room and somehow gotten worse. It wouldn’t even turn on? What had they done to it? I had no choice but to call Eric and have him send it to Texas a second time.

I got the email on June 20th. I wanted to leave work then and there — the laptop was ready for pickup — but I waited. Finally, at 7:15pm, I arrived at the store. I welcomed anyone who dared impose an imaginary 7:30pm curfew on me. I would have their head!

I encountered no such foes. The store was quiet. After a few minutes a Genius named Derrick came out with Steph’s laptop. Derrick showed me what his Texan counterparts had done to it. Sigh: another new logic board.

This spelled trouble. It was only a matter of time, I knew, before the issue reappeared. I opened the lid. Kernel panic.

I welled with joy. Those fuckers — I had them! I spun the laptop around and showed Derrick, who showed another Genius, who took it to the back room.

Alas, it had been a false alarm. A third Genius returned with the laptop and introduced herself as Rachel. She showed me that the panic report was actually from an earlier date, before the logic board had been re-replaced. I stared blankly at the report. She was right.

I put the laptop to sleep and waited. I let twenty minutes pass before awakening the computer. When I did, there was no panic.

Was the computer now fixed? Had it actually been a logic board issue and we’d simply gotten unlucky the first two times? No. It was too hard to believe.

I asked Rachel what would happen if the issue happened again. She checked the logs.

“Well, this was the third repair, so if it happens again we’ll replace the computer for sure.”

“Great, thank you.” I decided to wait a little longer. If an evil spirit still dwelled within the MacBook’s sleek unibody enclosure, I wanted to be the one to discover it.

I shut it down and turned it on. No panic.

I restarted it. No panic.

I closed the lid and waited ten minutes. Bingo.

The panic report glistened like a diamond in a lake. I checked the date. It was a real panic report from right now. This was my golden ticket. I took an unnecessary screenshot — unnecessary because all logs are automatically preserved — and called for Rachel.

I got Jennifer instead.

Jennifer was the manager on duty. I explained that Rachel had told me that, in the case of three failed hardware repairs, I would be given a new computer. Jennifer cautiously looked at the panic report.

“That’s true,” she said, “but this is a software issue.” I tried to interrupt but she kept going, and with every word I watched my golden ticket corrode. “In this case, I’d create a guest user account, then use that account for a few days and see if it has the same issue. Then, if the kernel panic happens again, I’d try a clean reinstall.”

“Let me stop you there,” I interjected. “If you check the logs, you will see that we’ve already done a clean reinstall.”

Jennifer cocked her head and disappeared to the back room.

Rachel emerged. She came to the table.

“You’re getting a new computer,” she said.

Delicious victory! A new laptop, safely shrink-wrapped inside its white cocoon, was soon brought out. I checked over all the specs to make sure it was the same model, signed something, and stuffed the treasure into my backpack.

As I reflect on this saga I cannot help but identify, again, with Humbert Humbert in Lolita’s closing scene. Humbert arrives at Clare Quilty’s house thirsty for revenge. He searches the rooms for the man who has rendered life unlivable. At last, he finds him.

Only, things don’t go as planned. Quilty is no snarling beast. He is on drugs and not all there. He doesn’t even know who Humbert is. There is an awkward and pitiful tussle as Quilty implores Humbert not to kill him. When Humbert finally does, the scene is pathetic. Quilty lies in bed moaning and laughing and writhing at the gunshots.

A month ago I sat outside the Apple Store at 8:57am to enact my own revenge. Apple had mistreated my girlfriend and I wanted to hold their feet to the fire. But when I got inside, I found a staff of reasonable, sympathetic people willing to listen but ultimately responsible for defending their company’s bottomline, even at the expense of their customers. Frankly, I’m embarrassed to have expected anything else.

Our saga was an uphill battle. That poor MacBook went through three different logic boards at the hands of a dozen incompetent technicians. The irony of “Genius” is not lost on me. Even at the end, once we had reached the requisite three failed repairs, I had to argue my way into a new computer.

There was nothing fulfilling about Humbert’s revenge. It was simply something — indeed, the last thing — he had to do. After the killing there was nothing left for him, so he aimlessly began to drive on the wrong side of the road. He was shortly pulled over, and soon after that he was connected to the murder of Clare Quilty.

Likewise, there is no hidden meaning in the saga of Steph’s panicking MacBook. I am not fulfilled. This was just something that I had to do. In a strange parallel to Humbert’s driving misadventure, my Uber from the Apple store drove wildly and ran a stop sign, invoking the wrath of the driver of a brand-new Porsche 911. The enraged 911 made an illegal U-turn, veered into our lane, and brake-checked our driver. The altercation ended lamely with me calming the Uber driver down and the 911 driving away.

I assume that there will not be any lessons learned at the Apple Store, either. The staff succeeded in protecting its inventory to the very last, and although it could have lost us as customers, we remain hooked on their products. We will continue to buy. And if necessary, we will return to the Apple Store in Union Square to begin the tedious cycle anew.

I’d earlier entertained fanciful ideas for how I’d present Steph’s new laptop to her. But when I got home I was tired, from the ridiculous string of Apple Store antics and from the reckless Uber ride. I merely left the laptop, in its perfect white box, on her desk, took a long shower, and waited for her to come home.

Engineer @ Plaid. Incoming English MA student @ Columbia.

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