The Nagging Bug Fix

Nothing makes you feel that you have conquered the whole world than when you solve a problem. When you finally understand what has gone wrong, provide a fix and it works like a dream, you are in seventh heaven (wherever that is.) Recently I had a session on troubleshooting and could see that all the participants had this type of ‘wow’ moments in their lives. All of them were Storage administrators and had many stories of troubleshooting to tell. I will relate those at a later day after obtaining the required permissions from them to put it on this blog. In the meanwhile, I want to relate a minor debug that I have been invovled in the last couple of days. I can’t say I solved the problem, though the problems seems to have disappeared. This is what I call the nagging bug fix. You know the problem is solved but you don’t know why!!

First, let me explain my setup. There is nothing much as far as the hardware setup goes. I use a Lenovo Thinkpad and I have Windows XP loaded on it. I use VMplayer with Ubuntu Linux virtual appliance running in it for all my Linux needs. I use three different email accounts. One for my personal mail, one for my technical subscriptions and reading technical blogs (thru google reader) and one ‘official’ mail for all official transcations.  Now, my ‘official’ mail id is my own domain while the personal and technical subscription mail ids are gmail based ids. I could have gone to two different service providers but was happy with the experience of gmail and google reader that I decided to have both mail ids based on gmail. Since the browsers use cookies and know that you are logged in, it is not possible to see the mails from two ids simulatneously from the same browser. So I use two browsers. One for each mail id. I generally use Firefox for my technical stuff and Explorer for my personal stuff. Nothing logical in this selection, just my quirk.

Sometime back I downloaded a trial version of VMware workstation in order to work with Celerra VSA (virtual appliance.) I had downloaded TweetDeck as well. I also downloaded Celerra appliance but before I could start testing it, I had some assignments come my way and the last couple of weeks were spent in these assigments. I started earnestly working on my system this week on and noticed that Firefox was hanging once in a while. This happens sometimes and so I killed it, restarted it and kept going. Then I noticed that it had stalled again after some time. Once again the same process was repeated and I continued my work. When it happened again the next day, I got frustrated and decided not to use Firefox but try using Chrome instead. I thought things were working fine but suddenly Explorer stopped. I was now feeling like a butcher, having to kill these browsers at regular intervals.

One of the first things you learn in Computer Debugging 101 is that many problems get solved if you reboot!! I am sure we will try a reboot even if we were to administer a super computer!! This now runs in our blood and I had to do this. So the reboot happened. Again I started Chrome and Explorer. After some time Chrome hung!! Reboot had not solved the problem but instead was confusing me!! Kill-Start happened but the problem kept on appearing and I could no longer pretend that this was not a problem.

The steps in Debugging go thus:

1. The problem will solve itself. Just look the other way
2. A reboot will solve the problem. Time to switch off
3. Reload the software and things will be fine.

Naturally I had to try the third step and Internet Explorer was anyway tempting me to load the latest shiny version with Silverlight and all. How can you refuse such an offer? That too when it comes with a Silverlight. (I have no clue what Silverlight is but c’mon, it sounds so sexy.) So there I was, downloading the latest browser with all the plug ins and what not. Once done I started the browser and here is where competition happens nowadays. As soon as you start your browser it says something like, “Hey, are you a moron?  I am not your default browser. Make me your default browser. Click OK”. Scared, you click OK when the other browser wakes up and says, “Hey, someone trying to make you a moron and wants to be your default browser. Don’t let that happen.” Too scared by now, you are not sure what you do. You click some button and things quiten down. It used to end here in earlier days. Nowadays you hear a screeching sound and a screaming text saying, “How come I am not your default search engine. Why is someone else your default search engine.” Next someone crops up and says, “I want to beyour Phising filter”, to which someone else pops up saying, “No way. I am your Phising filter”. You realize that your desktop / laptop is now a battleground!! After you have pacified all these guys, the browser starts up with some 10 rows of toolbars. Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask, Don’t Ask, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton.. oops, the last couple are not toolbars, not yet atleast. After all this trouble sometime later one of the browser hangs!!

Things are getting serious now. I start looking to check if my DNS is a problem. Doesn’t seem to be. Next step in debigging is to do the reverse of step 3, i.e. uninstall as many softwares as you can. You don’t know what clashes with what. So I start this process and discover that lot of stuff keeps getting updated without your knowledge. Norton Antivirus goes about downloading latest patches, Firefox goes about downloading latest version and fixes, Windows keeps downloading latest security patches and rebooting your system on its own. These are just a few of them. Ofcourse each asks you something before they download but these message happen so often that you generally click OK for everything. “This web site wants to use your bank account and draw some money”. Click OK. Done.

So I uninstalled TweetDeck . The problem exists. Uninstall VMware workstation. Problem exists. Uninstall some mp3 player. Problem exists. Reboot. Problem exists. Use Firefox instead of Chrome. Problem exists. Use Internet Explorer instead of Firefox, problem exists. Tear your hair. Problem exists.

The major problem about problem solving is that you do not notice details in the beginning. Now as that this was getting on my nerves I started observing closely as to what could be the characteristics of the problem. I immediately noticed that whichever browser had opened my technical subscription gmail was hanging. I started this in a different browser and now this browser was slowing things down. Finally I had got hold of the problem!! Gmail was the culprit!! The Gmail help forum asked to check if I had some plug ins which were not compatible. Nothing of that sort was on the system and there was no further help.  So the next step in debugging in current times? Yes, you guessed it right!! The internet. So off I was to find if someone else had this problem. Looks like lot of people have been having this problem lately. Check out this link. Everyone was confused as to why this was happening. Someone suggested that we turn off the https option in gmail. Someone suggested we use an earlier version of gmail. Someone asked people to turn off the Phishing filter if they were using Norton. As anyone involved in debugging knows, the worst case scenario is when you do too many things at a time and the problem gets solved. You have again debug to find what was the problem. So I decided to do this one at a time. First I switched off the https option and reloaded gmail manually by using the http option. Sometimes you get lucky and  and gmail started running normally and the browser did not hang now !! First try and you have succeeded.

I call these types of bug fixes as nagging bug fixes. Firstly, a good bug fix gives you a better understanding of the system. Nothing like that happened here. Second, the solution was quite trivial. Some minor setting change and things work without you knowing why that was a problem and you have no means of probing further. Added to it is the frustration that all the effort you have put to debug deserves a more complicated bug fix!! Third, a nagging feeling that this may probably not be the right solution.  The reason is that when I use gmail for my personal mail, the setting has https and it works like a dream!! So why should the setting affect one mail id and not the other. This has been consistent across all browsers. So what the heck is the problem? Sometimes, as in real life, you just need to accept the solution and move on and not probe too much. You need to get rid of that nagging feeling by drinking a cup of strong coffee or any other bewerage of your preference. Afterall, if the problem happens again, we have the necessary tools. Reboot, Reload, Reinstall, Uninstall and the World Wide Web!!!