Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Blame Yourself First

Why is it that the stupidest, most obvious bugs are the ones you end up spending half an hour on? Did I say half an hour? Make that several hours... maybe even a day or more, sometimes. Consider the following JavaScript code (written with jQuery):

$(function() {
$(".clickme").click(function() {
var link = $(this);
link.css("color", "gray");

finish = function() {
link.css("color", "blue");

url: "/my/remote/url",
success: function(data) {
// ... process the result ...
error: function(data) {
// ... process the error ...

return false;

I wrote code very similar to this recently, albeit a bit more complicated, but with the same bug. Can you spot the bug? What if I renamed the finish function variable to iAmABonehead? Well, if that doesn't make it obvious, you might want to brush up on JavaScript, if you plan on using it much. Instead of creating a local reference to a closure named finish, I was creating a global reference to a closure named finish that gets overwritten every time the click handler fires. Thus, a quick couple clicks in a row, and you will end up with some permanently gray links.

Here's the funny part, though. I did what every good software engineer does... I saw the behavior in my browser of choice (Chrome at the moment), and thought... gee, that's an odd bug in jQuery with Chrome. My code surely doesn't cause that problem. How can I figure out a way to work around this odd bug?

Thankfully I caught myself, and gave myself a good reprimand:

Self! Don't be such an idiot! You are surely the cause of this bug... drill down a centimeter and you will find it!

So I took this quite excellent advice and decided to give the same bug a shot in Firefox. My reason being that surely our version of jQuery is thoroughly tested with Firefox... if the bug comes up again, it's either jQuery, or me. Except that it probably isn't jQuery.

A quick test indicated that jQuery I was the likely cause of the problem. A couple minutes of a closer inspection of the code and I found the accidental global and fixed my bug.

I guess this is the "Science" aspect of Computer Science. When dealing with bugs, you need to treat it like a (hopefully) repeatable experiment. Form a hypothesis on why you are seeing your experimental results, then conduct further tests and experiments to drill down until you have found and squelched the bug.

For your first hypothesis, don't think about which of your frameworks is likely causing the bug. Eliminate them as the possible issue. The bug is 99.99942% likely to be in your code. When I come across a bug in fresh code, it's weird how the frameworks and platforms I am using are the first my mind blames. It takes all those times being wrong with such accusations before I finally started to stop myself and reconsider which part of my code might exhibit the behavior.

The sooner you blame your own code, the sooner you will find the bug. It helps to take a breather and come back with fresh eyes, too. Usually the bug isn't just in your code, it's something so blatantly obvious that your eyes skip over it and can't see the semicolons for the braces.


Noah said...


Also, in this case, consider running JSLint over your JavaScript. It would have caught this. I imagine that Google's Closure would have done so as well.

Anonymous said...

"I guess this is the "Science" aspect of Computer Science."

Talking of Science, how'd you come up with 99.99942%?

Just kidding. Good post. Here's the unavoidable big fat But though - but, once you switch your attitude to "the problem is always in my code" and the problem actually is in the framework, or wherever else but in your code, you can potentially spend a lot of time on that too. That's my five cents on this issue.

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