On the value of patience (and multiple tools)

MS Outlook 2011 for Mac is a great teaching tool. Pretty much every time I deal with it, I learn about something else annoying it does. I may even learn a new curse or two.

Today, though, it’s teaching me something I actually value: patience.

I’m sitting in a client’s office, staring at her iMac while Outlook’s Database Utility chugs away at a rebuild following a restore from backup. Not that you’d actually know it’s doing anything. The progress bar is still. Has been for most of half an hour. The console isn’t showing me diddly, except that spindump is monitoring the DU’s process.

Activity Monitor’s entry for the DU is blazing red at me, and telling me that DU isn’t responding. At first, I nearly gave in to the temptation to drop the process and call it crashed. And then I noticed that CPU usage was steady at about 30%.

Disk activity was similarly steady, showing a ton of reads. So I wait. Like magic, a few minutes later the rebuild completes, and DU springs back to life to notify me. Outlook starts normally, and we’re back in business.

There are two lessons here for any tech worth their salt. First, be patient. Not everything answers the system’s monitors as it should (are you listening, Microsoft?). Second, look in more than one place to see what’s going on. If I’d placed my trust solely in the DU GUI, or even in the Finder, I’d have believed that the process was hung and static. But a quick look at two further measures of activity showed me that it was running, just not being very nice about telling me so. So I remind myself once again of the value of multiple tools.

Converting Exchange to Address Book/Mail/iCal/anything

One of the more annoying facts of living with Microsoft products is their preference for/corporate reliance on proprietary data formats. If they’re not tying your information up in a file nothing else can read, then they’re hampering you with half-assed or nonexistent export tools. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just an annoying roadblock to moving your data to a non-MS app (which is, of course, the motivation…maybe not the only one, but it’s in the top 5 I’ll guarantee).

Last night I found Outport, an open-source project designed to extract all kinds of information from Outlook and convert it to standard formats. So programs like Apple Address Book and Apple iCal — which use standards like iCal and vCard — can get access to your previously Outlook-bound data. Presumably, since Outport converts to widely-used standard formats, lots of non-Apple stuff can read the output as well. I just happened to be chin-deep in a Windows-to-Mac conversion, and desperate for a way to move a huge calendar.

So far, I’m very happy with what Outport does, and grateful to the developer for building it. Pity it seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Entourage, Outlook, and multiple computers

A brief entry by way of illustrating a hazard I hadn’t heretofore considered.

My client uses Microsoft Outlook 2004 11.4.1 on OS X 10.4.11, connected to a corporate Exchange server. She subscribes to several mailing lists. Recently, she began seeing repeat deliveries of mailing list messages she removed from her inbox.

We tried forcing a server sync, rebuilding the database, recreating the Entourage account, and eventually an entirely new identity in Entourage. More annoyingly, it wasn’t happening with non-list messages. Frustrated, I passed the cases to the system admins, who had previously handed it to me with a single casenote: “Does not appear to be a server problem.”

Thank you for your attention to detail.

I passed it back with an explanation of what I’d done to troubleshoot, and a request that they examine several messages more closely. I also asked that in the event they came to the same conclusion again, they document their reasoning and troubleshooting steps.

The next day, I repossessed the case, and documented the solution.

In an offhand conversation unrelated to the case, the client has asked if I would look at her personal computer, which had been running progressively more slowly. After some questions designed to draw out preliminary solutions, she mentioned that she never restarts the computer, or even logs out. I asked her if she left her home installation of Entourage running all day long as well.

Nailed it in one.

She was deleting the messages at work, emptying the Deleted Items, and allowing the client to synchronize to the server. A few minutes later, the server would hear from the home machine, which would report the messages not deleted, and return them from the dead — so to speak. Then the office machine would contact the server again, see the messages in the database, and redisplay them. Et, as they say, voila! Instant reappearing mail.

Why only mail list messages? I don’t know, but I don’t think it was just mail list messages. I think that because she removed so many of them, and because the reappearances were so very obvious, that they just stuck out more.

Moral of the story: Allowing two copies of Entourage to modify the mail database simultaneously is bad juju. That much seems obvious on the face of it, but having never seen the symptoms, I stumbled on the cause by sheer luck.