Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/08/28/escape_from_blogger/

The Prisoner of Blogger

There is no escape from the spinning wheel of death

By George Smith, Dick Destiny

Posted in Applications, 28th August 2009 14:08 GMT

I am not a free man, I am a number - number 27950736 to be precise - on Blogger, the village cloud application I've been trying to escape from for the past year.

Oh, it started out great in 2006. Seemed like a nice thing. But a year and a bit in, the Blogger machine's FTP service began stumbling.

FTP publishing isn't important if you like blogging in the Google cloud. But it is for others, having to do with reasons like not having Blogger's little fink button at the top of your vanity publication. Someone might figure your rants were best hidden behind an adult disclaimer, or should be sent to the spam cops and your blog locked and deleted. (More on the latter below.) Or you already have a substantial amount of material in the root directory of your domain, material you'd not like to see lost in space.

Not publishing your blog is taking longer than expected

So I used FTP to push blogger files to my property at dickdestiny.com and that's where the trouble started. When Blogger's FTP publishing servers can't get their act together, and that's now regularly so, interesting things happen. They're usually associated with something called 'the spinning wheel of death', followed by a "Publishing your blog is taking longer than expected" error screen.

This should actually be updated to "Not publishing your blog is taking longer than expected."

To understand this, first you have to know how Blogger deals with bugs.

At the door, it's always your fault. And it stays that way until enough people complain in unison in the Google Blogger help forums, at which point wheels begin to invisibly turn and something is done which passes for a remedy. If the screw up is really bad, as it was during a failure of Blogger's FTP servers earlier this year, it may be mentioned publicly by an official.

Most of the time, though, if the bug is fixed - particularly if it's anything to do with its FTP servers - nothing is said. Was there a problem, eh? Or did you hallucinate it?

No problem, sir...

Readers have probably already sussed that this approach to 'help' is one in which a problem isn't a problem if you're the only one complaining and posting about it. Let's apply it across the board for 'help' desks: "Well, sorry sir, but you're the only person who's complained about that today. Call back tomorrow, maybe the etiology will have improved and some others will have cried out, too."

In any case, when I first started using Blogger, I thought the FTP fail was due to my many imperfections. A week would go by with all posts meeting the spinning wheel of death, the blog unassailable as granite. I'd sit in front of the PC, dumbly wondering what it was that I had done so wrong.

That's because Blogger's stock excuse sounded reasonable: FTP publishing requires cooperation between Blogger and many separate and idiosyncratic hosts and if it has failed, your host has probably done something to screw it up. However, many now used to Blogger's FTP publishing fail have become aware of exactly how their hosts are not screwing things up. If this is you, the stock excuse, delivered again and again in the help forums, is just a fob. Yeah, sending stuff across the net to another party sure eats it - those rascals are throttling FTP access, they've denied access to Blogger servers, Blogger has had to make compromises, etc.

Around the same time Blogger's FTP publishing was going sideways in May, the service also labelled dickdestiny.com as a spam blog, a thing which can entail being denied access and having the blog deleted. Again, this was apparently some type of failure in Blogger's automated spam detectors because multiples of legitimate users immediately showed in the help forums to protest. The result was a Blogger employee assuring everyone their blogs would be cleared without further problem.

With FTP publishing a constant aggravation, product manager Rick Klau acknowledged it, calling the feature "brittle." Prior to that, he'd asked those who used Blogger's FTP publishing to describe why they wanted to continue using it in favour of coming home to the hive. In Twitter tweets.

That was enough. It was time to look for another blogging application.

WordPress! And it was already on my host!

I installed it in a subdomain off dickdestiny. Paradoxically, this is what Klau wanted Blogger's FTP'ers to do, except he suggested subdomains be pointed at Google servers.

Now perhaps you've already guessed that this adventure also ended in tears.

My WordPress fail hung on an unusual show-stopping problem with the program.

WordPress ate my blog

WP depends on its database and, apparently, under certain conditions, if that database server hiccups or goes sideways, and the application cannot see it, it thinks it's being asked to freshly install. It does not happen for everyone, but it is not uncommon, and it is very bad when it crops up. The rather negative aspect is illustrated well here, as Jeff Starr at the Perishable Press blog writes:

The problem that I painfully discovered when my server crashed is that WordPress does not always display the default page for all database-related issues. Apparently, if the database is missing entirely, WordPress assumes that it has not yet been installed and loads the Installation Page.

Oof!

For the curious and technical, this happens when something causes the wp_options table in WordPress's SQL database to crash or become corrupt. One repairs it and the blog comes back up. You may have rightly guessed this is not an obvious solution to anyone seeing it for the first time.

In any case, any stranger logging onto such a faulted blog in the time between crash and when the owner figures out what's up can input their e-mail and be installed as administrator. This is a fair sized window of opportunity, unless absolutely no one reads your blog, and it is exactly what happened as I was attempting to put the pieces of wreckage back together. A new administrator had to be disposed of after my password was reset in an attempt to lock me out. And although the blog remained intact, something was crippled in the capacity to update it.

The blog is hosted on Yahoo!, so the vulnerability is present for anyone using a Yahoo! hosted-website and its WordPress installation.

As for aid in WordPress support forums, one is dependent upon the pure milk of human kindness dispensed by others. If one is inexperienced, the help forums can be combed for clues which, on balance, tend not to accurately describe the fault and its implications. In two questions I posted, the general solution offered was to update to the newest version of WordPress, which is not a fix at all, but a catch-all recommendation many people receive from the volunteer squad as a pro forma band-aid. Some people, naturally, resent it.

As with Blogger help, one not so infrequently sees the passive-aggressive treatment handed out. If there has been a fault, it's because the user was not diligent. The software can do no wrong.

"Code is poetry," is the WP motto. Here's some poetry, ala Ogden Nash:

I once had a blog that was fit
But one day a server got hit
My site went upside down
And I floundered around
WordPress had dumped upon me a s---

As a way of giving you another flavour of all this, imagine the first appearance of Rover in The Prisoner. The menacing white balloon roars and sucks up a man, who screams for help.

The Prisoner: "What was that?" Number Two: "That would be telling."

The net takeaways are this: There are answers for the faults but solutions are obfuscated.

For this writer, WordPress looked very good. But the effort spent mining for a relevant solution isn't worth the time spent sifting through the fool's gold in the volunteer help database, an evaluation one reckons some others also come to if they endure the consequences of a non-trivial fault. It cast the impression, similar to one conveyed by Blogger, that if one suffers some form of unreliability... ehhhh.

It was easier to walk away. Throw the dice with Blogger again and pick up the pieces. Had FTP publishing had become more reliable? Sadly, no. The spinning wheel of death still haunts with no rhyme or reason, with a new and exciting wrinkle. The interface stalls on an error message, but checking the blog may show it has updated anyway.

Blogger's latest FTP misadventure dates from the beginning of August and remains unresolved. The unpredictable publishing teaches a new skill in (attempted) daily blogging: prayer. The basic lesson is to remember to complain in the help forum and practice spotty workarounds suggested by some members of the volunteer force who've been lucky.

Movable Type? ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.