Everything is Broken

11 Jan 2015

In the last week I had some discussions with people about how bad most software really is. Then as a good case in point I decided to finally give up on my resistance to update to Yosemite. That was, as they say, a mistake.

Something in the upgrade went wrong, and the laptop in question is now no longer usable; I can’t get past the login screen, and the login screen is already barely working. The reinstall of the OS has just been showing “About 2 minutes remaining” for hours, no indication of if it is dead or just taking a tad longer than expected on an operation.

Fortunately I had brought my work laptop home, and I could start with file and software recovery immediately. It is a busy time at work, so getting a serious setback in the two projects I am working on would be a problem.

Then I couldn’t connect to my timemachine backup on my airport express. After fighting with that for a while I could see the files, but couldn’t get to it using the timemachine software, so to make progress I had to work with the time machine database as it is written to disk raw. I can tell you that this is not the most pleasant format to deal with in this way.

Among the many things that didn’t work as smoothly as they should were things like the following great error message:

lein do clean, midje
WARNING!!! possible confusing dependencies found:
[joda-time "2.2"]
[joda-time "2.2"]

lein is not at all a bad bit of software, it is just that its error message is a good example that is simple to share. Clearly this message is incorrect. The number of messages like this (login to your airport express has failed, contact your system administrator for details) just kept on going.

Currently, many hours after the initial mistake (lets try Yosemite on this laptop), at least the currently active projects are restored. There is still more to do, but I am back in a working state so I can relax about it again.

What I learned from this

Many of the things I learned from this, I learned again. That is to say I had learned them at some point in the past as well, but slowly forgot again. Here are some system administrator type things I learned again (the software development lessons like “don’t project your knowledge of a situation into an error message” are a separate issue)

Test backups

I had my laptop pretty well backed up, I thought. At home to my airport express, and at an offsite location as well. I also tested restoring a file occasionally. I had never tested restoring a file from this backup to another computer; and this did not work. The failure mode I experienced today, no more access to a laptop at all, can have many reasons; a harddisk dying, or a cup of coffee drowning it, are easy examples. This needs to be tested for.

So, I had my files existing in different locations. Nothing has been lost. Getting at them is hard though.

An example; I have been using eclipse for some java projects. Every now and then I add a new plugin, or change a setting, to learn this program. I have never spend the time yet to learn where all these things are stored, and now they are spread over many many different directories in the backup database that time machine has setup. Easier to start with a fresh eclipse setup.

Have a fully redundant setup

I have two laptops, my personal laptop, and one provided by my employer. I am allowed to use both for both work and private stuff. But I had decided to simplify and just use one of them. From now on I am going to keep both in always working state. If one completely dies, I can just pick up the other one and continue working (though with maybe a trip home or to the office to pick up the other laptop; takes much less time than what I had to do now).

As a possibly interesting, and for me certainly frustrating, sidenote, I had actually realised this earlier this week, which is exactly why I had my work laptop at home.

As another sidenote, the whole update to Yosemite on my personal laptop was investing time in something I should not; after working on it all day I get tired eyes, because of this I have been considering getting one of the retina screen laptops.

Simplify the setup as much as possible

Finally, some of the problems I run into were because of my setup not being as simple as it could. I have been experimenting with sublimetext, but still make a lot of use of emacs with lots of packages. Getting emacs back into working state took quite a bit of work.

I spend many hours a day on a computer. This makes it completely worth configuring this computer to fit my needs and desires. Also this configurating is allowed to take some work. Just using TextEdit because it comes default on a mac is just ridicilous, but the work needed to get emacs back to working state was not good either. And everything was much simplified by this work computer already having lots of software I use installed.

The commplexity is clearly my fault, but I am not sure how to fix it yet. One thing I am considering is occasionally fully reconfiguring my computer (i.e. start from a fresh install of the OS, and then setup everything again), then at least I will know exactly what it takes to setup a new computer (and I’ll be sure to have all license information for software I have bought handy).

So indeed, everything is broken, and I broke some of it, but how do you fix it?

UPDATE: when I returned from visiting my parents the Yosemite install had finished, this means it showed “About 2 minutes remaining” for between 5 and 7 hours (I don’t know when it finished while I was away).