Bugs on the Road

I’ve run across numerous bugs in my travels.

Some have been really real, like the time I found a 4 inch long dragonfly (seriously, the live flying kind) hanging from the projection screen in a conference room in a hotel in Florida. I was supposed to be teaching a software testing class, projecting slides onto that screen, so I found the presence of the dragonfly more than a little distracting. (The hotel wanted to spray it dead with insecticide, but I couldn’t let them do that. The class participants worked together to capture the beast in a water pitcher and released it, unharmed, outside.)

Other bugs have been of the software variety. Like when I needed to get a receipt from a travel website and it consistently gave me an error message instead. (Frustrating, that.)

This last trip yielded more bug sightings than most.

First, there were strange limitations that inhibited my travels. Trying to arrange plane tickets revealed a constraint imposed by the flight reservation system. It seems that you can only fly through any given city 3 times on one ticket. So the fact that I needed to transfer planes 4 times, and wanted to transfer in Frankfurt each time, kept resulting in fatal error messages when I tried to book the tickets online. The helpful airline desk agent explained the limitation to me (though she couldn’t explain why it exists) and was able to book my ticket – with a stop in Warsaw instead of Frankfurt for one of the transfers.

Similarly, I was unable to book my train tickets myself online. Each time I did, I received a helpful error message: “CH.enrolled java.lang.Except.” Someone at my host site was able to book tickets for me, and I still don’t know why I couldn’t book the tickets myself.

(For the curious: I tried with different browsers and still had the same problem – not surprising, since it was a java error and thus most likely server related. I had guessed that the problem was with my data – perhaps my passport number was in an unexpected format, being a US passport rather than one issued by an EU country. But since my host was able to book the tickets, that wasn’t it either. Perhaps it had to do with my machine being in the US? Or with my keyboard being a US keyboard? Or with the way I entered the data? Who knows.)

Then, once I reached the Frankfurt airport (on transfer #1 for those who are counting), I found that one of the internet kiosks had crashed. Blue Screen on Kiosk

Based on the Blue Screen of Death displaying on the monitor, my guess is that there’s Windows under the covers of these kiosks.
Closeup of Blue Screen

And once I got to Poland, I discovered that they have seriously big bugs there. Bigger even than in Florida. The bottom picture is one I found hanging off the side of a building in Wroclaw.
Bug in Wroclaw

After this trip I could only conclude that I am truly a bug magnet.

A Duck by Any Other Name…

“See, there’s always a duck,” I said to my colleague. Duck in Portugal I’m from the US; he’s from Finland; and we were both in Portugal on business. We’d taken a break from work to take a walking tour in the mild weather. I’d already told him how my youngest daughter had had declared the ubiquitousness of water fowl. As we were walking, I spotted a duck. I thought he would appreciate the joke.

“That’s not a duck,” he replied.

“Yes it is,” I said.

“No, it’s not,” he replied.

It occurred to me that maybe ducks in Finland look different. “OK,” I said. “If that’s not a duck, what does a duck look like?”

“White,” he said. “And bigger. That’s not a duck, it’s a sorsa,” he gave me the Finnish name.

Certainly, the duck we were looking at was not white. It had the colorful markings of a male mallard. “Right,” I said. “There are white ducks and colored ducks. But they’re both ducks. A sorsa is a kind of duck, right?”

“No,” he insisted. “Ducks are white and have bigger beaks than this.”

I began to sense that we might be talking about two entirely different things. “Big white water bird,” I mused. “with a bigger beak. Do you mean a goose?”

As we sorted out the difference between ducks and geese and sorsa, it dawned on me that this English-Finnish discussion offered a good example of the difficulty in sorting out a common language on software projects.

I started remembering all the conversations in which someone used an overloaded term like “server.” Or “test.” Or “done.”

For the record, it turns out that we were, indeed, looking at a sorsa. And it was, indeed, what I would call a Mallard duck in English.

But just contemplating how much effort it took to establish this simple basis of understanding about something we could see and hear, I am astonished that business stakeholders and technologists on software projects – something truly intangible – are ever able to achieve any kind of shared understanding about what we’re building and how it should function.