Friday, 11 July 2014

The Urge to Tinker and The Domino Effect of IT Problems

Ever had one of those weekends when just about everything related to your home office that could go wrong does, and as a result of trying to fix the issues you end up causing more harm than good?

If your response was "no", then either you are very lucky, exceptionally skilled and methodical, or just plain fibbing!

I recently had the IT weekend from hell. It started on Friday when I realised that Mail wasn’t saving a new Smart Mailbox that I’d created. It got worse on Saturday when I couldn’t get internet access, and on Sunday evening when I lost my entire network I was ready to give it all up and start knitting for a living. In each of these three cases it turned out that the initial problem was not of my doing, but my actions compounded the problems, leading to a domino effect of perceived problems, which I then tried to address causing a vicious circle of IT cock-ups.

Let’s time shift back to Friday. I use Smart Mailboxes a lot. Despite some of my past whinges about Apple Mail, Smart Mailboxes are a simply brilliant and how I’ve missed them in having had to use Outlook for Windows for the last couple of months. On Friday I set up a new Smart Mailbox to manage all the email for my current contract. It only had three conditions so nothing too complex - but I noticed that when I quit mail the new mailbox was missing. This was repeatable behaviour so needed investigating.

There was some indication on the Internet oracle that it was a permissions issue. And since the Smart Mailbox plists in the Mail folder didn’t appear to be getting updated this seemed plausible. However, my Mail is stored on my SD Card (see Bulk Out Your MBA Storage) and the repair permissions button on DiskUtility is greyed out. So, I stopped worrying about my Smart Mailboxes problem and focus on trying to fix the permissions on my SD card. This involved all sorts of shenanigans (including buying a USB card reader) which I won’t go into now, but I couldn’t resolve the problem, and I was beginning to think this wasn’t the cause of my Smart Mailbox problem. But that was now going to have to wait until Saturday as it was time to travel back home for the weekend.

We were up bright and early on Saturday morning and I was all psyched for a couple of hours of troubleshooting with the full benefits of fast home broadband (as opposed to the mobile kind). I fired up Safari and most of my default tabs failed to load - my uStart home page was fine, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn were all down, Amazon was OK, others were hit and miss. Results weren’t consistent on my iPad - I could see Facebook for example. The network connection looked OK, the wireless seemed to be OK, and one of the boys was playing on the Xbox without any apparent problems. So I rebooted the router which had no effect on anything. I checked the BT Broadband status pages - but couldn’t access them!

For a brief moment I managed to get onto Twitter on my iPad, and it turned out to be a BT Broadband issue with their DNS servers and it was nationwide - although BT weren’t owning up to it. Changing to Google DNS servers helped fix some of the problems; not all of them, but enough to start getting on with resolving my Smart Mailboxes. And at least I now knew that this was a problem beyond my control that I couldn't fix.

In one search I found a reference to the Mail Tags plug-in which had been causing some problems with Smart Mailboxes. I duly removed Mail Tags and the problem was resolved. Re-installing Mail Tags didn’t appear to have any negative effects, so at least that mystery was solved.

By late Saturday afternoon the problems at BT appeared to have been resolved and normal internet service was resumed. Even though the Smart Mailbox problem was fixed, I’d got it into my head that there was a major problem with the SD Card and it needed fixing. I copied my Mail folder back to the MBA flash drive, cloned the card onto an external hard disk and reformatted it. I then returned the system back to it’s previous state. After various iterations of this and still without any idea of what the problem (or even if there was a real problem) I gave up and went to bed.

Everything seemed to be working normally on Sunday morning so I decided to leave it well alone and enjoy the day. With this new contract, my weekends had become like gold dust, and I didn’t want to waste them on chasing rainbow problems.

But on Sunday evening as I started to get ready for the following week I started having major network problems.  Both the Belkin Thunderbolt hub ethernet connection and my private wireless connection were self-assigning IP addresses and not connecting to the internet. The main household wireless connection was OK, as were all the iDevices in the house, so it wasn’t another BT cock-up. I started wondering about the changes I'd made while investigating yesterday's outage. Bit by bit, I rebuilt the network but nothing made any difference. …Until I unplugged and reconnected the power line connection next to the BT HomeHub and like magic everything started working normally in an instant. I should have known better - I’d restarted the power line connection upstairs but not at the source, where it’s most likely to have a problem.

Once you get into a problem solving mindset you see problems everywhere - even (especially?) where there are none. And sometimes, especially when you are tired and frustrated, you just end up making things worse. A few things can help to stop this mindset clicking in:

  • If the system has been working fine and something goes wrong, look outside the system before you start ‘fixing’ it internally.
  • Keep a checklist of common external problems to look for before you start digging in places that you needn’t be digging
  • Stop digging when you find yourself starting to fix problems that weren’t there previously

Sometimes our urge to tinker is overwhelming and it needs to be controlled. Life’s too short and there are enough problems to deal with, without creating new and imaginary ones!

No comments:

Post a Comment