September, 2009

  • The Old New Thing

    Reading the error message carefully can help you see how the computer misinterpreted what you typed


    The details have been changed since they aren't important but the lesson is the same.

    A customer had the following problem with a command-line tool:

    I've created a taglist but I can't seem to get it to work with the track command. When I ask it to track the taglist, it can't find it. But if I ask for all my taglists, there it is.

    C:\> show taglists
    You have 2 taglists:
     active (8 tags)
     closed (6 tags)
    C:\> track active
    No such tag "active".

    Yes, the track command isn't working, but let's take a closer look at that error message. It says no such tag. Strange, because you are trying to track a taglist, not a tag. Shouldn't the error message be no such taglist?

    Aha, the problem is that the track command takes a list of tags on the command line, not a taglist name. The error message is correct: There is no such tag called active. Because active isn't a tag name; it's a taglist name.

    C:\> track -taglist active
    Taglist "active" is now being tracked.

    Today's lesson: Look carefully at what the error message complaining about; it may not be what you expect.

    Exercise: Diagnose the following error message, given no information about the program being used beyond what is presented here:

    I accidentally made a change (transaction number 12345) to the file XYZ, and I want to back it out. But when I run the backout command, I get an error. Can somebody help me?

    C:\> backout 12345
    12345 - file not found
  • The Old New Thing

    Grown in the middle of some very respectable Seattle suburbs, such as Renton


    "The marijuana is grown in the middle of some very respectable Seattle suburbs, such as Renton."

    This is a funny sentence if you're a longtime resident of the greater Seattle area, because Renton has historically been a working-class town. (Here's Almost Live's parody of South King County to give you an idea of what Renton is up against.)

    The city is working to change its reputation. I wish them luck.

  • The Old New Thing

    Woe unto PROGMAN.INI


    Sad but true: Once you document a file format, it becomes a de facto API.

    The Windows 95 team learned this the hard way when they set out to replace Program Manager with Explorer. Not only were the settings in the PROGMAN.INI file documented, so too was the binary file format of *.GRP files. The binary file format was included for diagnostic purposes: If you have a corrupted GRP file, you can use the binary file format documentation to try to recover what you can out of it.

    But many people treated this documentation not as a FYI, but as a backdoor API. Instead of using the formal DDE interface for creating program groups and icons, they just directly edited the PROGMAN.INI file and the applicable GRP files to get the icons and groups they wanted.

    Oh wait, and then you need to reboot in order for the backdoor API to take effect, because all you did was modify the on-disk files, not the in-memory copy held by PROGMAN.EXE.

    Of course, when Windows 95 replaced Program Manager with Explorer, these programs found themselves modifying the data files of a program that no longer was running. Special code had to be added to Explorer to read settings from PROGMAN.INI and even detect that a new GRP file was added and convert it into shortcuts on the Start menu.

    I wouldn't be surprised if that code is still lying around, just in case somebody pulls out an old application from 1994 and installs it.

  • The Old New Thing

    Welcome to the 11th annual Mid-Atlantic Road-E-O


    The top sanitation truck drivers in the mid-Atlantic area converged on Pen Arygl, Pennsylvania for the regional finals of the SWANA Trash Collectors Road-E-O. And the results have been posted [pdf].

    Only A Game's Ron Schachter reports [mp3]. (Despite the wackiness, the competition does highlight skills that all truck drivers need to master in order to complete their rounds.)

    And there's plenty of beeping.

  • The Old New Thing

    The wheels of government bureaucracy turn slowly: Green cards


    When foreign nationals come to work at Microsoft, the legal department gets to work with the paperwork of applying for permanent residency (colloquially known as a green card even though the cards haven't been green for a long time). Obtaining permanent resident status in the United States takes a ridiculous amount of time, and I remember the irony when one of my colleagues finally received his green card... on his last day working at Microsoft.

    Still, at least it arrived in time, if only barely. :: Wendy :: received her green card two months after she left the country.

  • The Old New Thing

    Walt Mosspuppet: The return of the fake blog


    Fake Steve Jobs put on the map the wonderful insanity of the fake celebrity blog. (I'm sure there were others before Fake Steve Jobs, but that's the one that made it cool and hip.) Copycats sprung up, from Fake Steve Ballmer to Mock Mark Cuban, but none of them really had the staying power of good old Fake Steve Jobs.

    (movie trailer voice) Until now.

    Introducing Walt Mosspuppet, a fake video blog starring a puppet version of the technology reporter.

    I love this guy.

  • The Old New Thing

    One way to make sure nobody sends you feedback


    Last year, somebody sent out a message to very large group of people describing a change to, well, what it described isn't important to the story. What's important is that the message ended with the following sentence:

    If you have questions, please send them to abcdef.

    If you don't see why this was a brilliant move, go back and check what that "abcdef" link really does.

    One of my cynical colleagues noted, "Maybe this was intentional. That way, when they get no feedback, they can say, 'See, this was an awesome decision. Nobody complained!'"

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