Joys and terrors of computer programming

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Nov 5 17:55:22 MST 1999



I've been in this racket since 1968 and every once in a while I am reminded
of why I got into it, and also why it makes me nuts.

Rule number one (as well as two through one thousand) is don't make
assumptions.

Early in the week I saved the day at Columbia. The systems programming
group at Columbia had spent the preceding weekend installing a new release
of MVS. On Monday morning a bunch of Financial Front-end tables were
corrupt. It clearly was related to the new system, but trying to figure out
why was very difficult. When you looked at a file that had been downloaded
from the mainframe in order to build one of the corrupted tables, it looked
identical to one that had worked prior to the MVS upgrade. Upon
investigation, I learned that the new file transfer protocol (FTP) module
in MVS got rid of trailing spaces. This meant that if a table was expecting
30 bytes, it had to be exactly, for example, "Proyect" followed by 23
spaces. The new downloaded files threw the trailing spaces away. By
discovering this, I saved the systems group from having to back out the new
release of MVS.

On the same day I discovered that the author index of the Marxism list was
fucked up. Names were not sorted and the messages were not even those that
the index was supposedly keyed to. I made the assumption that I had
forgotten some parameter in .procmail or had not used the right combination
of resource files. I spent--without exaggeration--12 hours trying to figure
out what was wrong. Then, by happenstance, I looked at the bottom of an
Author index page and noticed that it was "Converted by MHonArc release
2.3.0 Beta version". Meanwhile, the MHonArc web page offers version 2.3.4
for downloading.

It seems right now that I was working with a buggy version of the software
that the ISP had not yet replaced. I'll get on the phone with them on
Monday to advise them of that fact. It's good that I have the weekend to
cool off. I don't know whether to yell at them for not keeping up with
software upgrades or to punch myself in the nose for not checking out what
should have been obvious to a computer professional. Or near professional.

Louis Proyect
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