The golden secrets of diagnosing computing problems

Since that’s what I’m doing this morning–specifically, trying to figure out why Firefox is messing up Castle Age for me, and not for the rest of the world–a good subject seemed to be the things many people don’t grasp about trying to correct, or at least track down, most computer problems.

No result is diagnostic unless you can reproduce it. In order to make the problem go away, you have to know how to make it happen.  In this case, I can reliably say that with all my Firefox paranoia add-ins enabled, both Castle Age (a Facebook game) and Facebook chat are partly broken.  I have had them occasionally work correctly, but in general, it’s about 99% reproducible.  This is good.  It’s the intermittent failures that’ll send you around the bend.

No result is diagnostic unless confirmed from a fresh start. This is especially true of instabilities.  Once you see your first instability or oddity, there is the chance that further instabilities and oddities are consequent from the first one.  The true test is if you get the same reproducible result from a fresh start.  When I was a computer shaman, I can’t tell you the number of people who reported ‘dozens of errors’ without restarting Windows and trying again.  It was hard to get them to understand that only the first error told us anything, and then only after a fresh start.

Change one thing at one time. If you alter more than one thing at once, and the result changes, you cannot know which change on your part made a difference.  Never, never, never go into your Options or Settings and change five things at once–you won’t know what solved it, and you might mess up something else.  In any case, you will muddy the waters and probably forget what all you changed, thus making it impractical to put it back the way it was.  One change at a time, then test.

Therefore, the basic concept–and why computer nerds seem to be able to solve things that mystify you–is not as mystical and shamanic and otherworldly as it may seem.  What they’re doing is just good science–and this is also why all the DSL tech support people first make you reboot everything, in case you wondered.  Restart whatever it is.  Try again immediately, in a deliberate effort to reproduce the problem.  Once you can reliably reproduce your problem, you can begin trying one thing at a time to address it.  If the change doesn’t address it, put what you changed back where you had it, and try something else.  Knowing this will save you headaches and money.

In my case, I strongly suspect that one of my add-ins is preventing CA and FB from doing things.  Thus, the process is tedious but will yield useful information:  disable something, shut down Firefox, restart it, reproduce the problem.  If I can still reproduce the problem, my change didn’t fix it, so I should re-enable what I disabled, disable something else, restart Firefox and test again.  If suddenly I can no longer reliably reproduce the problem, then I have a very good idea which add-in is the culprit.  I then have to decide if it’s one I can live without.

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