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It's OK to use your brain when I'm talking to you

© June 2008 Anthony Lawrence

This is a support situation from this week. It's real, though I've obfuscated some names to protect the innocent.

Customer called saying that program foobar32 would not run, complaining of missing library foolib32.so. Given the naming of the library, I suggested that foobar32 probably needed to be reinstalled and she agreed.

The nice thing about foobar32 is that you can do that. Download a binary from their website, run it, and it will update itself without overwriting any of your data. All programs should be written like that; unfortunately not all are. I think the most frustrating are the ones that will do it but only if you are installing a new version.. well, anyway, foobar32 does it right.

So I talked her through ftping to foobar's site, locating her foobarinst32.elf program, and downloading it. The last thing I said was "Now type quit", but I heard a lot more keys a-clicking and then she said "Nope, still doesn't work."

That surprised me a little. After all, she knew that the missing library was named foolib32.so, so why would she think downloading foobarinst32.elf would magically fix that? I don't know, but my suspicion is that she was tired (it was after hours) and perhaps frustrated, so I'll give that a pass. I explained that we had a few more steps to do first, and I started out by telling her to type "chmod 755 foobarinst32.elf". She immediately responded with "It says 'chmod: foobarinst32.elf: No such file or directory'".

Huh? We just downloaded that. It has to be there. But then I remembered all those clickety keys. "Did you cd somewhere else after we downloaded that?", I asked. Why yes, she had.

"Do you know where you were when you downloaded it?".

No, she didn't.

"I'll do a 'find'", she offered. See, she's not a helpless, 'I don't know Unix at all' type of person. Not at all. I waited, and a minute later she said "Got it. I was in /root".

Good. I had her cd to /root and try the "chmod 755 foobarinst32.elf" again. No complaints this time. OK, now we'll execute it. "Type dot slash foobarinst32.elf", I said.

"Dot slash foo what?", she asked.

Aaargh. I know she's tired, I know she wants to go home. But sheesh, it's OK to be involved and engaged. It doesn't have to be passive robot time, type whatever the voices say. We downloaded foobarinst32.elf with the intention of running it, we chmod'ed foobarinst32.elf so that we could run it. Arrgh. I repeated it: "Dot slash foobarinst32.elf".

And then.. nothing. A few clickety clacks, a couple of pauses between more clicketys, and she said "OK, that's done". And that, frankly, surprised me, because foobarinst32.elf does ask a few questions that she might not know the answers to, but apparently she did. And then she tried "foobar32" and pronounced it working correctly once again.

Actually, this customer is one of the easy ones. She does know her way around, at least a little bit, and she's anything but stupid. Probably that's why it surprised me that she hadn't followed the chain of what we were doing. Had it been a totally clueless customer, the kind that has to be led through every single keystroke over and over again, that wouldn't have surprised me.

Oh well. She was tired. She wanted to go home. No harm done.

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Sat Jun 21 17:50:12 2008: 4353   JonR

I've experienced the same communication troubles pretty often, giving advice over the phone. (I'm not a consultant, just a user who knows more than most of my friends about the ins-and-outs of installation and troubleshooting Linux.) There are so many factors that either singly or together can produce a situation like this. Tiredness is probably foremost, as by the time a user asks for help he or she has often reached the end of the technological rope and is both frustrated and worn out. A hearing defect can be a big contributor (I'm hard of hearing, and millions of people are HOH without realizing it, often due to the toll of environmental noise or too-loud music). The "Foobar-what?" leads me to wonder if this might not be the case with your client. Obviously intelligent and knowing what she was working on, to appear not to recognize the same program name does suggest a hearing deficit -- and the phone can contribute mightily to difficulties in the case of hard-of-hearing people.

Simple distraction can produce the same result. Again, over the phone it's impossible to know the environment of the person I'm trying to help -- I didn't realize that the cat just knocked over the user's cup of coffee (though I'd usually get an aural clue such as "#*$! cat!").

I guess it's because I've been on the client end of this kind of situation often enough that I unconsciously play a scenario of distraction, mis-hearing, etc. as I walk my friend through re-installing or whatever needs doing, that I feel particularly satisfied if the result is what both of us desire. (And also because sometimes the result is failure. Then there are two frustrated people on the line.)

Sat Jun 21 17:53:55 2008: 4354   TonyLawrence

Funny you mention cats, because there are cats there. Unusual in an office, but several times when I've been there I've had a cat sleeping on the keyboard.. clickety-click :-)

Mon Jun 23 13:35:27 2008: 4360   BigDumbDinosaur

Cats? Ugh! Smelly, nasty little things. Dinosaurs eat them in an effort to clean up the environment and rid the earth of vermin.

Seriously, cats and computers are not a particularly good mix. I've cleaned plenty of cat hair out of computers over the years. The stuff gets sucked into everything and can actually stall CPU cooler fans and cause overheating and failure. Of course, dogs pose their own problems, like banging into a computer and head-crashing the hard drive.

Mon Jun 23 17:01:45 2008: 4364   JonR

In the past, I've had cats around (one at a time) for a total of about a quarter century. I can vouch for BigDumbDinosaur's findings, apart from never yet having seen a dinosaur actually devour a cat. (But now I'm going to keep my video camera handy.)

People with computers don't need cats anyway. That's what Flickr is for.

Mon Jun 23 21:55:51 2008: 4367   BigDumbDinosaur

Old mantra from my younger years: never date a woman with cats. You will always being playing second fiddle to the felines. And there's nothing like the damper that is put on a brisk lovemaking session when Tabby jumps on your bare back with claws extended.


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