Late Night Frustrations


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Sep 29, 2010 GMT
Jon maddog Hall


From time to time I write about Project Cauã, and how it might help the average person by supplying them with a local systems administrator to help them fix problems on their computer system.


I use Evolution as my mail/contacts/calendar/task manager. About three days ago my outgoing email stopped working. I could access the incoming email, but all outgoing email simply stayed in the outbox of Evolution. When I tried to schedule the email for delivery, dialog boxes would come up telling me that my smtp server was denying access. Almost simultaneously I saw a brief tweet from my ISP mentioning that they were “working on a problem” (but no real description of the problem), so at first I thought the issue was with the ISP.


Now my ISP and I have a love-hate relationship.....mostly hate. They do try hard, but when I tried to log into their site with Firefox their site would tell me to use “Internet Explorer”. Recently they removed that recommendation from their home page, and are supposedly supporting Firefox, but when I went to log into the site to see if I could fix the problem, all I got was an error page that told me that “.Net had a compilation problem”, and it flipped me back off the site again.


So I called the ISP help line. It did not help that the call was late at night, I was tired and I was also recovering from a lively Linux User Group meeting at “Wings Our Way” in Manchester, New Hampshire with its associated libations.


I will not write about the number of times I had to call the ISP back, the number of times I told them what my telephone number was, the number of times I confirmed my account, the number of different ways that they did the confirmation (“What was your father's mother's maiden name?”), etc. etc. But eventually they admitted they could not help me.


I went to bed, more than a little exhausted and irritated.


The next day, with a fresh look on things, and a fresh set of telephone numbers to call, I made another stab with the ISP. They told me that they did “support Firefox”, but that other browsers “had fewer incidents” (perhaps because fewer people used those browsers?), and recommended one to use. I installed that browser, and using a new password that they re-set for me managed to get logged into the web-based email site. Later I did manage to log into the site, using the new password, with Firefox, so apparently .NET had finally compiled.


The web-based email site gave me no real insight into what was going on, but at least it allowed me to see the test email messages flow into the in-box and be pulled out of the in-box into Evolution.


Eventually I noticed that no matter what email I sent as a test, or from what named account I used, no matter what the SMTP designation I used, the error messages never changed. I became suspicious that there was something wrong in the very first email message in the outbox of Evolution, and this was stopping everything else from funneling through. I moved that first email message from the outbox to another folder, re-started Evolution, and everything started working properly again. The e-mail that had been backed up in my output folder was quickly delivered.


It turns out that the email causing the problem was from a little-used email account that had been configured in Evolution, had been configured incorrectly, and the problem had nothing to do with the ISP, the basic configuration of Evolution or anything else. In effect, it had been “bad user (me) on device”. Hey, it happens from time to time and I will admit it.


Now the point of this whole blog entry is that I did eventually figure out the problem. It only took me six hours, five beers and a lot of swearing. I am happy to say that none of the swearing was directed toward the employees of the ISP. I also had the advantage of a Master's degree in computer science, 40 years of experience and a rough idea of how email works. Worse case scenario, I could have pulled down the source code for Evolution to figure out what was really happening. Some people might argue that I could have solved the problem faster if I had fewer beers, but we will never know if that is true or not.


But what if my mother and father encountered the problem? Would they have been able to figure it out? Would they eventually have given up, re-installed their e-mail system (or asked me to re-install it), given up on all of their e-mail that they had sent before which was still in the queue? How much would it have cost them in time and energy to fix this problem? Would they have taken the system to the local tech shop? Would the tech shop have fixed the problem, or simply “re-installed”?


How often does this scenario happen each day in small offices, homes, small hotels across the country? How much time do we, as a society, really lose trying to keep our computer systems running?


Some people will argue that “cloud computing” is the answer, but I think the real answer is having good, savvy people available and physically close to the end users, who can help the end users through these problems and let them go on with using computers as a tool.


Allowing “Mom&Pop” to simply use their computers as a tool is one of the goals of Project Cauã.



  • minor undocumented problems

    Happens all the time in my opinion because not all eventualities can be programmed for (and ISEB certified testers learn "there is no such thing as a bug free software only, bug free software in certain conditions/assumptions" or to that effect) so its not a problem with FOSS only or certain domain only. Having user input to improve software is an important part of development and it is important to defferentiate when should a software provide a failsafe and when it is the responsibility of the end user. And also a "graceful" failure should be programmed for. In this particular case, it may be to do with SMTP protocol which the program cannot change nor assume more assumptions about so it might be tricky to provide "graceful" failure effect.

  • how about better software?

    The real problem was poor software (evolution), which fell over and kept this a secret - a common FOSS problem, alas. It should not have fallen over because one email was badly formatted (or whatever), and it should have said something intelligible when running into a problem.
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