Disk "pilot lights" and other oddities

I have a Western Digital USB-powered spinning hard disk, perhaps called a Pocket Drive or some similar market-speak. I have a Samsung T-5 SSD. And I have observations and questions about mounting and dismounting them.

After upgrading from El Capitan to Mojave, the Western Digital drive started taking much longer to mount after I connected the USB cable. Under El Capitan, it would take about three seconds for the volumes’ icons to appear on the desktop. Under Mojave, it takes from five to 100 seconds (yes, I’ve timed it) for the volumes’ icons to appear. I assumed that the operating system polled the USB less frequently. However, the Samsung, which I have only used with Mojave, routinely takes about three seconds. As I typed this, it occurred to me that the difference might be the format: HFS for the Western Digital and APFS for the Samsung. Does this make sense? If so, is there a drawback to formatting the Western Digital with APFS? Might there be some other cause?

Each disk has something that I call pilot lights, for lack of a better term. On the Western Digital, it is a row of lights that flicker back and forth like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. On the Samsung, there is a red light and there is a blue light; I believe either can be bright or dim, but I’m not sure. When I dismount either drive’s volumes shortly after a restart (maybe one to three days), all the lights go out on the dismounted drive. After a few days, they don’t. In particular, the Western Digital will leave one light on, and the Samsung will leave the blue light on dimly. Does this mean anything? Why would the behavior change?

A perhaps related issue is the Western Digital will flash the Cylon light sequence after the volumes’ icons disappear from the desktop, as if something is still being read or written. Why wouldn’t the OS leave the icons on the desktop until all disk access has been completed?

Thanks for any insight.

I have observed a similar issue with one of my USB3 SATA docks (powered, holds a 3.5" HDD) on Catalina. When I eject the TM disk it holds and pull the cable from the Mac, the light on the dock will sometimes immediately extinguish, but sometimes it will stay on. I never understood why it sometimes stays on and sometimes goes off. Since it’s after cable disconnect I figured it might be related to how Catalina had unmounted the drive. Of course I wouldn’t know why Catalina unmounts the same drive in different ways.

These days I find myself more and more in situations where I’m left with “no idea why, it just does that” and I wonder if it’s just that I’m getting older and dumber or if indeed the Apple world is becoming more like the rest of the world. I used to make fun of Windows for putting me in those situations. Either way, looks like I will definitely be relying more heavily on places like this to keep my computing life on track. Funny, I always thought as tech got better and I gained more experience, it would be the other way around. :man_shrugging:

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The real problem is that everything—including Macs, toasters, refrigerators, cars, and airplanes—is breathtakingly more complicated than it used to be. That complication brings new capabilities, but it does mean that more and more of our technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I’m not sure I buy that. Good toasters are still manageable. It’s the crappy junk that comes with a gazillion buttons that nobody can figure out. When PCs came up they were vastly more “complicated” than typewriters, but then came along Apple and made them incredibly easy to use and soon enough writing a letter in MacWrite was a much simpler task than doing so on a typewriter. True progress I would expect results in less complication. So maybe we’re presently just stuck in the in-between phase. Or perhaps (and I would dare say more likely), we’ve allowed ourselves to be dazzled by lots of whizz-bang and in the process lowered our expectations as to usability.

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Even when user-level simplicity is a design goal, it’s often achieved through insane levels of complexity under the hood. Look at the drones that can basically fly themselves, following you and filming you. That’s way easier than having to fly a drone manually, but it comes at the cost of having a great deal of AI underneath, and it’s going to fail in unexpected ways.

Once this winter, our Nissan Leaf “crashed” and shut down while I was sitting in it, waiting for Tonya at an appointment. After some research (luckily, I had Internet access from my iPhone and could track down the error condition), it turned out the 12V battery that runs accessories had been drained by me doing a lot of waiting and not very much driving over the past three or four days. Despite having a huge lithium-ion battery that was full, the car wouldn’t start (or do anything) because the 12V battery had died.

I’m not saying this is good, just that it’s the way things are. iOS devices are easy to use, but that’s in large part because of unimaginably complex technologies that usually work fine—consider Face ID. When they fail, there’s essentially no way to know what went wrong.


Echoing Adam’s comment – user-level simplicity and under-the-hood simplicity are two different things. An automatic transmission is simpler to the driver, but a manual transmission is more straightforward for a mechanic to fix.

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The very point I was making (and what Adam initially replied to) was about human-machine interaction (usability). Is the claim being made here that ever-increasing under-the-hood complexity has to inevitably make stuff less usable? I would like to believe complicated tech can still be made usable, perhaps it just requires more effort.

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Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I might have been. I don’t see a necessity that human-machine interaction become more complex—just the opposite in fact.

However, I do feel that troubleshooting the problems that crop up in today’s technology is significantly harder than in the past, when the technology was simpler.

So it’s not general usability that suffers, but recovering from unexpected problems.

I think it also has to do with the fact that Apple follows its market and profits, and therefore focusses on its iPhone platform. Since the introduction of the iPhone, the MacOS has increasingly become less intuitive, less consistent, and much more closed. Yes, security has increased along the way, and “under the hood” features have improved, but the MacOS has shown nothing to the user except a degraded interface and user experience.

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If car companies acted like Apple did in the 1980s, they would replace their lead acid batteries with more powerful, lightweight hand-held sized lithium batteries like those used to jump-start cars with dead batteries!

But hey, who believes in progress?

As with all things, there are trade-offs to any such decision.

Lead acid batteries are reliable. They can function for 5-10 years if kept charged. They are inexpensive and their parts are almost 100% recyclable. They also don’t catch fire when damaged.

Lithium batteries - especially those that can supply enough current to start a car, are very expensive. They have a shorter shelf life, they catch fire if damaged, and it is far more difficult to recycle them.

For a cell phone or a laptop, where weight is a critical feature, lithium batteries are obviously necessary. For a non-electric car, where adding an extra 10 lbs of weight won’t even be noticed, that’s a far less obvious decision.

Of course, electric cars, which require several orders of magnitude more current capacity, all use lithium batteries. The amount of lead batteries needed to get a usable driving range would weigh far too much and use up all the space normally reserved for passengers and cargo.

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Have you tried turning it off and on again…? :grinning:

I’m not so sure about all of what you are saying:

  1. My little portable jump-starter, which jump-started my car four times and still shows at least 75% battery left cost me a lot less than my regular lead acid battery.

  2. Car manufacturers are always looking for ways to make their vehicles lighter to improve gas mileage. Just look at all of the lightweight plastics.

  3. Lead acid batteries leak acid if their case cracks, and their terminals constantly create corrosion. If fires are such a concern with lithium batteries, then why are they working so successfully in all-electric cars? Have they built into the batteries safety measures or improved quality control in manufacturing to reduce fires?

You’re comparing apples and oranges here.

Your portable jump-starter is meant for occasional use. It is meant to be stored indoors in a garage when it’s is not being used. It doesn’t have to worry about being crushing in a collision.

If you were to mount it in the engine compartment instead of the battery you have:

  • It would have to pass quite a lot of strict crash safety standards. Which would make it more bulky and heavy. Quite possibly more than the lead battery weighs.
  • It would need to be able to start the car several times per day for many years. Good quality lead batteries often ship with warranties of 5-7 years.
  • It would need to be charged by the car’s alternator, which is very different from the regulated AC power supply you use with it today.

As for weight, it is not at all clear that it would even be lighter. Look at batteries sold for the purpose of powering electric vehicles. They are very large and heavy. Some of that is because there are a lot of cells, but a lot is in order to keep those cells from being damaged in a crash, in order to prevent fires.

A lithium battery might make sense, and I’m sure car manufacturers have researched it, but I don’t think it is fair to take your personal experience with an occasional-use consumer device and make assumptions about how that technology would work in a continuous-use industrial environment.

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Why did I jinx this by mentioning it? For the past week, the Samsung has behaved like the Western Digital drive, taking up to 100 seconds to mount. I wish I knew what had changed—and even more, how to unchange it.