Bug reporting in date +%Y

I’ve done a handful of troubleshooting, but I’ve never reported a bug. Most of my personal “bugs” are issues with a setup I have, or something like that. Nearly all of my troubleshooting was solved with a couple searches: others had encountered the same problem, gave it a good, hard look, and either found a workaround or got the bug fixed.

Tatham’s essay on the matter brought up plenty of good suggestions for describing a bug report. Helping developers reproduce and pinpoint the issue is key. It made me consider how software has changed since 1999, and how bugfixing must adapt as well.

As Moore’s Law dwindles away, software has moved itself to more than one core on your processor. Multicore, concurrent, and distributed computing has rapidly grown to grasp the benefits of the latest CPUs. Running pieces of code on different cores, or even different machines, adds several layers of complexity. Event driven programming means events happen at unspecified times. Parallel programming means events can collide with one another. Reproducibility of bugs has become an ever-growing problem, so when one is encountered, isolation is still a key component.

The strangest bug I’ve hit: undo-tree

undo-tree is an Emacs extension to visualize the editor’s interesting undo system, making edit traversal a bit more intuitive. However, a nasty bug has been floating around it for years: unrecognized entry in undo-tree-canary. If you hit this, you cannot traverse any further through undo history, meaning anything before it is lost!

Various workarounds have been suggested, but YMMV depending on the version and environment you’re using. I hit it a handful of times when working on something crucial, and prayed I had a backup elsewhere. On the bright side, I checked things into Git far more often.

A couple years later, the bug still exists. Around Emacs is a complicated and dated ecosystem, with several backwards compatibility attempts as its changed over 30+ years. Continuously hitting this bug is partially why I moved to Spacemacs: having a more standard, integrated, and tested set of packages atop Emacs seems to keep odd errors like this away.

What can I contribute to?

Looking a bit ahead on the course schedule, I’ve been considering what I’d like to do for the bugfix assignment. I have a few small projects I could take a look at, in languages and domains I’m comfortable with. However, I’ve been wanting to expand into a few other domains I’m interested in: Programming language Theory, OS-level development, and decentralization.

Rust would cover the first two. I’ve played around with it a little, but not enough to fully understand how the borrow checker works. I love the idea of pattern matching (wrapping and unwrapping data based on its structure) in a language usable in systems programming. I agree with many of its design decisions: a handful are taken (either loosely or exactly) from Haskell, but its research origins show as it matures. I’d love to give Rust a try, taking on a small bug to get familiar with the ecosystem.

I’m also a firm believer in the power of decentralization: it (in theory) destroys the idea of data ownership and control. I’ve been following the Matrix project for years, and love the progress they’ve made on moving Synapse to Python 3, auditing Dendrite, QOL improvements to Riot, and countless other clients popping up as the protocol grows. I’d likely tackle a small bug in Synapse, if I could find one: I’m already familiar with Python, but have no clue what I’m doing in the decentralization domain (other than a bit of crypto experience).

I’ll keep an eye on bugs, and see what comes up in the next week.

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