On the value of helpful error messages

So I bought a Withings Bodyscale recently. It’s a good scale (does body fat as well as weight), but obviously its killer feature is that it records your weight on the Withings site.

Why? Well, because while I’m far from obese I could definitely stand to shed a few kilos (or at least convert a few kilos from fat to muscle), and my new mantra of “Strategies, not promises” tells me that I should pay attention to my past failure to actually keep up with exercise programs and do things to modify my behaviour rather than promising to do better. Additionally, I’m a firm believer that you can’t change what you can’t track, and this seems like a good way to track it.

Anyway, sales pitch over. That’s not the point of this post.

The point of this post is that I bought the weighing scale and it didn’t work. Initially I thought it didn’t work at all, but on further investigation it worked fine as long as it wasn’t hooked up to a computer via USB.

The USB thing is just for the initial calibration – it’s totally unimportant once you’ve set up what wifi network it should use – but unfortunately initial calibration is vital. This meant that the device in question was completely useless for what I actually bought it for, which was sad.

The symptoms were pretty dire too: It didn’t show up as a device at all under windows. Under my main linux system it gave a slew of unhelpful warnings in dmesg. If you tried to boot a windows machine while it was plugged in the entire system would scream in panic and send you into recovery and repair mode.

I was about to send a really shirty email to Withings (I’d already made them aware of the problem and hadn’t exactly received a lot of help back) when I thought I’d just try it on the teeny tiny ubuntu computer I use to drive my TV.

Behaviour was identical to on my laptop, no surprise there. Except when I looked at the dmesg output it said “Maybe bad USB cable?”

“Huh”, I thought. “You know, I haven’t tried that…”

So I went out and bought a new mini-usb cable (I have plenty of micro, but no mini. Seriously guys: Why in the name of bob are there 6 different connectors for an ostensibly universal standard?), and sure enough: The mini-USB cable they sent with the system was the culprit. System works fine when I use a different one.

So this turned out to be a really easy fix once I knew what to try, but I undoubtedly would have completely failed to suspect the cable, and would have created a great deal of hassle for both myself and Withings in the course of replacing the “broken” scale, if it weren’t for that teeny little piece of advice dmesg helpfully provided me with.

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4 thoughts on “On the value of helpful error messages

  1. Ivo

    The error message isn’t what makes the difference: it’s the fact that it contains a heuristic to detect a possibly broken usb cable in the first place. ‘On the value of helpful heuristics for uncommon, but hard to figure out problems’ seems more appropriate?

    1. david Post author

      Don’t agree. The error message was what was helpful. The heuristic was merely what was needed in order to provide that message – if it was present but didn’t tell me then it wouldn’t be useful.

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