An underused tool

My Mom’s computer had its printer failing to print with the problem “printer is in an error state.”

When I searched online, most of the information had four levels of suggestion: “Check that key is in the ignition,” “Replace the spark plugs,” then “Put in a new timing belt,” and sometimes “Take it to my buddy’s shop.” The vast majority of the help sites do not suggest “See what the operator manual suggests.”

“Check that the key is in the ignition” includes “Make sure that the printer is plugged in.” “Make sure that the printer is turned on.” “Make sure that there is paper in the printer.” “Make sure that the printer cable is connected.” These are all low-impact solutions. If any of these solve the problem, you don’t need to proceed to the next level. Performing them will not make things worse.

The missing level of “Check the operator’s manual” include running Windows troubleshooters and consulting printer manufacturer documentation.

“Replace the sparkplugs” include things such as make sure the printer is the default printer and clear the printer queue. Things that you can do with the menus and options available from the Windows interface. They’re not likely to cause damage, but may require more experience to follow the instructions.

“Put in a new timing” belt are things like “Uninstall drivers,” “Revert to an older version of Windows.” “Delete the files a folder,” and “Modify the registry.” They often require an extra confirmation step. Often they’re irreversible and may be pointing you toward the abyss.

“Take it to my buddy’s shop” include “Call our help line,” and “Install our software to repair it.”

The next thing one should do after “Check the key is in the ignition” is to “Check the operators manual.” With a PC, that means running the troubleshooter to diagnose and repair the problems automatically. Had I thought to suggest that first, Mom could have done it over the phone.

This is a general problem with online resources to help you solve a problem. They often want more that you would stay with their site longer, rather than of suggesting that you use existing tools to solve the problem.

Microsoft’s troubleshooters are not sexy. However they’re built in and maintained by the manufacturer. They can be more thorough by accessing the internal architecture of Windows. Many help pages that do suggest running the troubleshooter give it only a passing one or two sentence statement. Then go on to offer more extreme suggestions that seem plausible. Another non-sexy option is to go to the printer manufacturer’s site and see what their troubleshooting instructions are.

Any help site that includes “modify the registry” and install outside software shouldn’t be trusted with any of the rest of their suggestions.

For my Mom’s computer, the troubleshooter was all that her computer needed. Her computer got back on the road without needing an overhaul.

Lisa Notation

A really useful tool for technical support is to tell the user concisely where to look on the computer screen. Lisa notation is a simple way of doing that.

Lisa notation starts by dividing a rectangle such as the screen or a window into quarters and labeling the quarters A, B, C and D.


And then, in each quadrant, divide it into 9 sections, numbered like the dial of a phone.


Although that chart has a lot of clutter, it’s never needed in practice. You can estimate them automatically. Picking the quadrant is easy and then dividing it into 9ths uses a skill familiar to anyone who dials a phone.

With this technique, you can verbally point the person to the right part of the screen. Dividing the screen into 36 pieces this way is really easy. It’s something that can be understood instantly.

For example, if you’re helping someone with Microsoft Word, you could say ‘Click Draw at A-2 and then when it opens, near C-1 click Drawing Canvas.” Alternatively, helping someone with Firefox, you could say “select the item at C-3 that looks like books leaning on a bookshelf and then at Lisa A in the menu that comes up, click History.”

The last example shows that there can be a couple of variations. One is that you might only give the first letter if the area is small. Alternatively, you could just give a number “Lisa 5” to mean the center of the screen as if there were a 3 x 3 grid over the whole area.

The other thing to remark is that you would specify the location relative to the current area of interest instead of the full screen. For example in a dialog box, you would give the location relative to the dialog instead of the full screen. In a Windows “Save As” dialog, you could tell the user to “type the file name you want starting at the File Name edit box near C-5” regardless of where the dialog is on the screen.

Other situations that would really benefit from this notation are computer documentation and help files. When someone describes the steps to solve a problem, the directions would be much more precise and understandable if the writer would use Lisa notation. On the help page “how to send an email,” showing where would really help to someone inexperienced¬† Saying “Click in the subject line and type a subject” isn’t helpful enough. Someone that really needs it would appreciate the extra help.

Conversely, I might help someone on the phone, and I might not know exactly what their screen is showing. It could make the phone call go smoother if I would ask them to read to me what is near C-7.

Artists and art critics could use this notation quite effectively. What is supposed to be in the blank space of Mona Lisa’s B-6? It looks like da Vinci just got tired of working on the painting when he got there and quit.



Second Day Notes: Sharing a folder from Linux to Windows 10

Here are some notes about my experience sharing files from Linux so that my Windows 10 computer could access them. I’m going to try to make this useful but not give excessive details. It’s already going to be long!

The technology I used to share the files is called Samba. It uses the SMB networking protocol. According to, the Samba name was chosen because it has the letters ‘S’, ‘M’ and ‘B’ in the same order as SMB.

These comments are about “second day” issues. I shared successfully on the “first day” by following tutorials. However, I forgot what was important. I couldn’t access the Linux computer when I turned the computers back on the next morning.

I’m using Ubuntu 18.10 and Windows 10. Other flavors of Linux may use different commands, but the principles should be the same. Other flavors of Windows might work in the Windows 10 manner, but I didn’t try.

  • On the Windows side, I want to connect to the Linux computer’s name, not its IP address.

    \\\Documents bad.
    \\Sesqui412\Documents good.

    The IP address changes easily. The tutorials use an IP address, but that’s not the second day solution.

    I can also use net use L: \\Sesqui412\Documents to access the files as L:.

  • I don’t need the ‘samba‘ service running on Linux. I want the ‘smbd‘ service. This was a big rabbit hole. Once I gave up on the “samba” service and started using the “smbd” service, it worked correctly on the Linux side. I didn’t see any message online “Hey! you don’t want the samba service, you want smbd.” That would have been appreciated.

    This whole effort may have been completely unnecessary. if I had started with the smbd service instead of the samba service, I might have seen that everything was already correct from yesterday.

    This was a big battle. I was looking for information about starting samba. When I installed Samba
    sudo apt-get install samba
    I would get an error message
    "Samba is not being run as an AD Domain Controller: Masking samba-ad-dc.service".

    However, I didn’t notice the message right away. Reinstalling Samba with
    sudo apt-get install samba --reinstall
    let me eventually see the error. Trying to fix the message led me to a lot of grief and DuckDuckGo searches.

    There is a lot of information on and about Samba problems. I found the basic commands to use are
    sudo systemctl enable smbd
    sudo systemctl start smbd
    To check for error messages, use sudo systemctl status smbd. Some references also suggest starting nmbd. I didn’t verify that nmbd is necessary but I used it.

    Again, to emphasize, this whole section is probably unnecessary. It was certainly “educational.”

  • I didn’t need to manipulate file permissions on the Linux computer. I didn’t manipulate any file permissions and they weren’t necessary to make the share work. Some online helps make chmod suggestions about that but I could safely ignore them.
  • Yesterday, I set up the configuration file /etc/samba/smb.conf. It was pretty straightforward. Network Administration: Samba smb.conf file describes options in the file. There’s also help at How to set up quick and easy file sharing with Samba.

    Some tutorials explain that when you change smb.conf, you need to run
    sudo systemctl restart smbd
    to activate the changes

  • If you find a tutorial site that gives a long story without explaining their purpose, try to understand the situation, not throw attempts on the wall and hoping they stick. (Disclaimer: This post isn’t meant as a tutorial, but rather some observations. For example, I don’t say anything about how I did the “first day”.)

    Two help sites that I feel are worth avoiding are and If I see a link to either of them in a search result, I should keep looking somewhere else. Other resources are likely to have more “signal” and less “noise.”

    The three, and are communities that are more likely to have reliable information.

  • The passwords for Samba use the program smbpasswd on the Linux computer. I had trouble with the passwords. This was the command to fix it. I’m not sure exactly what I did. I might have just used the wrong password.

So, on the first day, I got it working. On the second day, it broke. It was a lot of work fixing it. I hope these notes help someone else know some of the principles so that they can have a happier second day than I did!

The Unreasonable Virus

Recently, I was talking with a clinic’s office on the phone. I had trouble getting the information I needed. Until I stopped myself, I started thinking that they were trying to be intentionally difficult. It seemed that the person had set up arbitrary walls to keep me from talking to the right person.

I realized that my experience with past businesses that have unreasonable call centers led me to expect that all phone services want to avoid helping. I have called phone company A and they have many levels of menus that all lead to the same place: not talking to a human. If I do reach a human, they forward me through several offices who each provide minimal information. Credit card company W has many ways to get lost on their customer service number.

Rubber stamps on a carouselIn my recent experience, I’d been hit by the unreasonable thought-virus: The expectation that service businesses are unreasonable and provide as little service as they can. The virus goes to the level of expecting to be abused; that it is a normal way of doing business.

The thought is a virus because it can be spread. A service professional who’s had experience with unreasonable systems, will help propagate their own version of the same negative experiences.

Organizations that have good customer service help the virus go away, but it is a difficult thought to clear up.

Internet mega-services company G is really helpful. Every time I have a question, I get to someone knowledgeable right away. They help me with my questions and give some extra information for the likely next questions I’ll have soon.

I wish there were a lot more G’s and a lot fewer A’s and W’s.

Original image: Stamp Carousel . By Christian Schnettelker (see Webdesign Agency) [Image license]