Womack Report

November 13, 2009

Observation Beats Logic

Filed under: Computers,Work — Tags: — Phillip Womack @ 7:12 pm

I had a good day today.  A good day in a sort of terrible fashion. 

It’s a good day because I reinforced a valuable lesson I thought I had learned a long time ago.  I apparently haven’t learned it well enough yet.

It’s terrible because I spent most of the week blundering about uselessly on a problem that I could have fixed much more quickly and easily.  It’s also terrible because I have a potentially hideous computer virus problem at work, but I take the useless blundering much more seriously as a personal failing.

Earlier this week, one of my coworkers reported that she couldn’t get to various resources on the network.  Not that unusual an event, could happen for any number of reasons.  She mentioned that she had clicked on something and then her connection had shut down.  She thought that was at fault.

So, I went and tinkered around with it.  Couldn’t ping any servers.  Check the status on the network conectors…huh.  Shows no network connectors exist.  Check in the device manager, and the network adapter drivers are all flagged as having problems.  Also, there are a number of devices I don’t recognize.  “Ah, ha!”  I say to myself.  “Here’s the problem!”

I try to reinstall the drivers.  No success.  Network is integrated into the computer motherboard, so it’s not a loose connection or anything.  I check everything that I think of, then decide it must be a random hardware failure.  The machine is under warranty, so I just contact Dell to get a new motherboard put in.  Dell has me troubleshoot a bit more, covering ground I’ve already checked, then the support tech agrees to send a service tech with the motherboard.  Easy enough, it’ll take a few days.

Today, the tech came and swapped the motherboard.  When I started the machine up again, the same issue occurred.  Drivers don’t work right, can’t reinstall them.  The on-site tech immediately made himself scarce when he realized the problem was still there; he pointed out that he just installed the parts Dell told him to and jetted before he could get sucked into any responsibility for getting it working.  Not the most courageous move for him, but whatever.

So, at this point I figured the motherboard had to be good; not much chance of two failing the same way.  I decided to do a full repair of Windows, replace all the system files and reinstall all the devices, and see what I could figure out that way.  Not a clean format, but next best thing.

Most of the process runs fine.  When I’m ready to start it up again, the system freezes at the loading screen.  Hard reset it, it comes up, and the network works again!  Hooray!  Then my email proxy starts screaming about all the virus messages it’s blocking.  Hooray?

One disconnected network cable and a few virus scans later, I’ve discovered a moderately horrifying trojan infection on that machine.  Moreover, when I clean all the infected files up, the network adapter screws up in exactly the sme way I’d been seeing before.  So, not too hard to connect some dots there.

At this point in the story, I kick myself for being an arrogant idiot.  See, right back at the beginning, the user told me she’d clicked on something bad, and then the network stopped functioning.  So, why was I chasing a hardware failure?  Clicking a link in a web browser is never going to cause a hardware problem on a computer motherboard.  It’s impossible.  Seeing what looked like a hardware problem should just have tipped me off that some software issue was screwing with the network card drivers, and I should have responded accordingly.  Instead, I wasted several days, and seriously inconvenienced my user.  I could have been better than I was.  Next time I will be.

What kills me on this whole story is that I used to gripe at my support techs when I worked at Video Insight about this exact issue.  “Listen for clues,” I frequently said, “don’t just assume you know what’s going on and disregard the person on the other end of the call”.  That was me, today.  My user gave me the clues to solve the problem, and then I ignored them to focus on what I thought the problem ought to be.

You can never win by fitting your problem to your solution.  It’s tempting, when you see a problem that’s very similar to something you’ve seen before, to ignore the small differences and apply the familiar solutions.  It’s satisfying, and it’s easy.  You build a chain of reasoning, and it’s totally perfect, flawless.  All you have to do is ignore this one tiny fact someone observed.

But observation beats reasoning every time.  What actually happened is what happened, and all the clever logic in the world won’t change that.  You have to build your reasoning on top of your observations, not build your tower of reasoning and then pick out the observed facts that give you the conclusion you want.

I apparently needed to hear that again.  And I’m glad to learn that lesson again so cheaply.

August 22, 2007

ISAM, August 22

Filed under: Computers,Notes,School — Phillip Womack @ 7:54 pm

Info Systems for Management. Professor is Hien Tran. I was running late; he was already started when I arrived. His clock looks to be about five minutes faster than mine.


January 17, 2007

Computer Acting Up, part 2

Filed under: Computers — Phillip Womack @ 2:01 am

Keyboard fiddling didn’t accomplish anything. Suspicion has now turned to the battery/power system.

Battery life on this machine, an Acer Aspire 3000, has always been lousy. It also rapidly got worse. The battery life dropped noticably within three months of purchase, and by nine months from purchase the battery life was under ten minutes, meaning the computer couldn’t really run without a power cord any more.

When the system is freezing up, I’ve started fiddling with things and several times triggered a “Not Responding” message from the power management program. This also somewhat ties to the system only working if I let the bettery drain completely before bootup. Makes me think the system is freaking out because the battery is always showing a critically low state, and it isn’t charging.

Sadly, a new battery appears to cost $150. I’m really not sure if I think this computer is worth that, even less than a year old. Given past experience, I’m certain the new battery will just dwindle and die again in the course of a year or so anyhow. Might be easier to make do with a computer that has to be unplugged to turn it off, since I’m far from certain a new battery would solve the problem. Have to keep tinkering.

Edit:  further tinkering supports the wacky-battery hypothesis.  Restarting with no battery at all in machine works fine.  I ordered a third-party replacement battery, rather than one from Acer; hopefully the quality will be a bit higher.  Would be nice to be able to run without a wall outlet again.

January 16, 2007

Computer acting up

Filed under: Computers — Phillip Womack @ 10:46 pm

My computer is misbehaving.  Sometimes after bootup, the trackpad and keyboard will stop responding, and then the computer will freeze.  An external mouse will continue responding throughout, so it’s not a hard lock, but it’s still not letting me do anything, either.  Unplugging the power from the machine and letting the battery die will result in it coming up correctly the next time I turn it on, after which it will resume the wacky behavior.

I suspect it’s hardware related, particularly the ribbon cable connecting the built-in keyboard to the motherboard.  That’s a common reason for laptop keyboards to stop responding, and when I pulled the keyboard off to check, I found the plastic clip which holds the ribbon in place was cracked on one side.  I dropped the laptop earlier today, which could have jarred the ribbon out of place.  I reseated the cable; we’ll see if that controls the issue or not.  If it works, I may have to get out the superglue and fix that clip.  I don’t want to take it to be repaired, because I suspect the only fix I’d be offered is to replace the motherboard.  That’s more trouble than I want and more money than I want to spend.

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