Tag Archives: Troubleshooting

Drive-ing Me Crazy!

Sometimes the strangest problems have simple solutions…

My computer recently slowed to a crawl for no apparent reason. A full malware scan revealed nothing, but I noticed something – The hard drive activity light was on constantly, even when I was not using the computer. Hmm. Time for a look under the hood.

One of the best improvements in modern versions of Windows is in the Task Manager. Windows has always had this tool, but it has gotten a lot better at showing resource usage and performance data.

How do we launch this very valuable tool? Well, as with many other Windows features, there are several ways. I usually launch it with the keyboard shortcut Ctrl-Shift-Esc (That means hold the Ctrl and Shift keys and press the Esc key). Two other ways are right-clicking on the Taskbar, which gets you the following menu:

Right-click on the taskbar gets you this. Your menu will look slightly different.

Right-click on the taskbar gets you this. Your menu will look slightly different.

Another way is to click the Start button and type “task manager,” which gets you this:

Screenshot 2016-06-03 12.02.10

Any way you do it, you’ll get the Task Manager window, which will open at the “Processes” tab. This is the tab for finding and killing unwanted or unresponsive programs, or finding out what’s hogging resources.

The tab we need right now, however, is the next one over, the “Performance” tab.


As you can see, this gives the usage level, in percent, of CPU, memory, and drives, and network performance in Mbps or Kbps. As you can also see, I actually have three hard drives in my system. Well, my “E” drive was showing 100% usage – Even though I wasn’t doing anything to access it (It should have looked more like the above picture).

So, I naturally thought I had a drive going bad. I quickly backed up everything not already backed up, and ran a battery of tests on the drive, which all came back saying the drive was disgustingly healthy. Hmmm. There were three things that could be wrong; The motherboard drive controller, the drive itself, or the drive cable. A new drive would’ve cost me around $100, and I’m not about to replace a motherboard if I can help it, because it’s not only a lot of money, but a lot of work. I did, however, have plenty of spare drive cables lying around, so I replaced the cable, and What Do You Know? Problem solved! First time I ever had a drive cable go bad, but it does happen!

Moral of the story? Always try the simplest, cheapest solution first before you start throwing money at a project.

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If You Can’t Fix It, You Don’t Own It!

I read an article recently about farmers raising the demand for older tractors. The reason? A new tractor can easily cost $100,000, and that’s for a mid-range model. That’s not the real issue, though. The real issue is when some $2 electronic doohickey fails right in the middle of harvest season; You can’t exactly tow your combine down to the dealer, so the factory has to send a specialist out to diagnose and repair it… And that $100,000 investment sits idle for several days, right when it’s needed most.

Farmers are, as a rule, very self-sufficient people that often repair their own stuff. But when your tractor, or your truck, is a rolling computer and you’re at the mercy of the factory and the dealer, that’s no longer possible.

The price of older tractors is going up because smaller farmers want something they can repair in the field, themselves, instead of waiting for the factory rep to show up in his own good time. No longer happy with just selling you the product, they want full control over it for life, Including telling you when it’s no longer fixable, because they’ve stopped supporting it.

Manufacturers like John Deere can get away with this because of something called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA for short.  As is true of many things, the DMCA seemed like a good idea when it was passed in 1998. It’s intent was to bring copyright law into the 21st Century by addressing things such as Operating Systems and digital files.

This law has since been excoriated as one of the worst attacks on Freedom, ever. It turns out that bypassing a manufacturer’s security on, say, a tractor’s on-board engine management software in order to repair it is considered by this law to be a breach of copyright, and thus a crime. If a farmer changes the engine timing on his own tractor, that makes him a criminal.

Because it turns out that Farmer Jones doesn’t own his own tractor. Oh, sure, he owns the chassis, engine, and tires, and he’s the one who has to make payments on it, insure it, and buy fuel and oil for it, but John Deere owns the software code that makes it run, without which it’s just a very expensive lawn ornament.

This needs to change. If I pay money for something, I expect to own all of it, and be allowed to modify it to my heart’s content. What if book publishers made it a crime to underline passages in their books and fold over the pages?

This is why there is an Open-Source movement. Open-Source means that anybody with the knowledge to do so may modify the code. The author of the code can still sell the software, so he still makes money, and he still owns the copyright (Like the book publisher), but if someone else needs/wants to modify it, it can be done, legally. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is at the vanguard of this movement.

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If you can’t stand the heat…

We’ve just been through another long, hot Summer here in Arizona. It’s easy to overheat your car, yourself, and even your computer.

Computers, like cars, produce a lot of waste heat, that needs to be gotten rid of somehow, before something burns up. Your car (unless it’s an old Volkswagen or Corvair!) does this with a radiator. A pump circulates water through the engine and then runs the hot water through the radiator where it is transferred to the air.

Volkswagen engine

Volkswagen engine

Computers cut out the middleman, and transfer the heat directly into the air, with the aid of a fan, in exactly the same way the aforementioned Volkswagen does. If you look inside a computer, you’ll see one or more objects with many fins on them, resembling the fins on the Volkswagen. The fins are there to expose more surface area to the air, improving heat transfer. Fans blow over the fins for the same reason a fan makes you cooler – they blow the hot air away and replace it with cooler air.



If the fan stops turning, the computer will rapidly overheat. A car has a dashboard light to tell you when it’s overheating, but computers don’t have an equivalent. What they will usually do instead, is either misbehave in some strange fashion, restart (rarely), or simply shut down without warning. If your computer runs for a few minutes then abruptly shuts down, and only runs for a few seconds when you restart it, there’s a good possibility a fan has failed. If you feel comfortable taking the cover off your desktop computer, you’ll see at least one fan on the main board, also one on the back of the computer close to where the power cord enters. Make sure all those fans are turning. Don’t touch anything inside the computer while the power is on.

There is an equivalent of the dashboard light for computers. A free program called Speedfan will give you a real-time temperature of the various components of your computer, and warn you if they’re getting too hot.

Fortunately, fans for desktop computers are cheap and easily replaced. Unfortunately, fans for laptop computers are still cheap, but difficult and labor-intensive to replace. Sometimes, you can get more life out of a fan by giving it a good cleaning with canned air, but you’ll only be delaying the inevitable.

Keeping your computer clean will certainly extend it’s life. I’ll have another article about physical cleaning soon.

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UPS without the Brown Uniform

Everyone who shops by mail or online knows what UPS stands for. In the context of computers, though, UPS also stands for Uninterruptible Power Supply. This is a nifty gadget that will instantly step in and continue to power your computer – for a few minutes – if you have a blackout or brownout. They have a big beefy rechargeable battery that makes this possible. If your computer is in any way Mission-Critical, consider getting one of these. The better ones have a USB cable that connects to the computer and can automatically shutdown or hibernate the computer in the event of an outage. This can be a lifesaver, especially if you forget to save documents frequently. They also often have surge protectors built-in.

Obviously, you don’t need a UPS if you use a laptop, as long as the laptop battery is working.

While a UPS is a nice-to-have computer accessory, it’s not the most important one. The only accessory that I consider Must-Have is the surge protector, or surge suppressor. This goes for computers (including laptops), Audio/Video equipment, and anything else expensive that has microchips in it, which is now just about anything.

All modern electronics have circuits in them that are very sensitive to variations in their power diet. The electricity from the power company can get all kinds of spikes and glitches in it, sometimes originating dozens of miles away. A surge protector is cheap insurance against such occurrences. Please be aware that surge protectors do not protect from lightning; nothing on the face of the planet will save you or your stuff if you get a close enough lightning strike. Nor will a surge protector protect from all possible power problems – but they do help a great deal in keeping your equipment working smoothly.

Buy the best surge protector you can afford. A power strip is not a surge protector, unless it says it is. If you paid $6 for a “Surge Protector,” all you really got was a glorified power strip with a minimal amount of protection. How do you know what’s best? The only measure of a surge protector’s ability to do it’s job is how much of a surge it can absorb. This is measured in a unit of energy called the Joule (Pronounced Jool – A Joule equals 1 Watt of power for 1 second). The higher the rating, the better. A rating of at least 1,500 Joules is a good starting point for an audio/video system. (TVs and home theater setups need surge protection too.) I recommend at least 2400 Joules for computers (Including Laptops). If there is no Joule rating on the box, don’t buy it.

After you’ve decided how many Joules you’re willing to pay for, then you can look at the number of outlets and any other features. Good features to have are lights that tell you the grounding and protection status. You should check these lights occasionally, because surge protectors do wear out, and an ungrounded surge protector is completely useless – They work by routing excess current to ground. If the protector doesn’t have a ground indicator light, buy an outlet checker at your local hardware store, and make sure any outlet your expensive stuff is plugged into is grounded.

If you have a DSL modem connected to the phone line, make sure the surge protector has phone jacks, and use them to protect your DSL modem. Many power surges come from phone lines. The same goes for Cable internet. Get a surge protector with Cable jacks if you have Cable internet, and another just like it for your TV and audio gear.

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That’ll be a Hundred Bucks!

I used to live in an area (Name withheld to protect the guilty!) that had a lot of junkyards Auto Recycling Centers. They had plenty of parts, but it seemed you could never get a part for less than $100. “I need a parking light bulb for an ’89 Chevy.” “That’ll be a Hundred Bucks!” “That’s an outrage!” It’s even worse when you wind up paying someone a lot of money to do something you could have done yourself with minimal effort.

Once, when I was a lot younger and dumber, my phone quit working, so I did what any red-blooded American would do and called the telephone repairman. He snooped around for about 3 minutes, then unplugged one of my phones and said, “Okay, it’s fixed! That’ll be a hundred bucks!”

Volume muted

Volume muted

A number of years ago, I had a panicked call from a customer saying the sound on his computer had suddenly quit working. Upon arriving, I examined the situation, and pressed the “Mute” button on his keyboard. “That’ll be a hundred bucks!”

The moral of the story? It doesn’t take an “expert” to do some basic troubleshooting. Sometimes, a quick visual examination will make the problem glaringly obvious.



Your problem might be simple.


One of the best keys to do-it-yourself troubleshooting is cutting the problem in half – in other words, finding out what it isn’t. By the time Thomas Edison had a working light bulb, he knew of over a thousand things that didn’t work! It doesn’t take looking at a thousand things to do basic DIY troubleshooting; Just 2 or 3 can narrow down the problem tremendously. Is it getting power? are all the wires plugged in? Did you check the oh en oh ef ef switch (On/Off)?

An example: My phones quit working because I had too many phones plugged into the same line. I should have unplugged all the phones, then plugged them back in one at a time until the problem came back. Sound quits on your computer? Take a second to observe and see if it’s just muted. Internet connection down? Is it just one device, or every connected device in your house? Don’t neglect the obvious. That power outlet might be dead because a circuit breaker just blew. Those “new” batteries might be dead, or they may be in backwards.

At the very least, if you take a couple of minutes to analyze your problem, and you still have to call an expert, you might save some money by telling the expert where you’ve looked so far.


Inexplicable problems

Printer Problems?

You know the routine- you want one little part of a web page printed, and the printer spews out 42 pages of JUNK…and you can’t make it stop…AAAGHHHH!!! The last time it happened to my husband, he finally unplugged Everything!!

Turning off the printer doesn’t work; The computer patiently saves those documents in the print queue until the next time the printer is available. For this reason, most of the time, even rebooting the computer doesn’t work!

Here’s how to fix it. On the bar that runs across the bottom of your screen, (Called the Taskbar) close to your clock, There should be an icon that looks like a printer. If you have more than one icon that looks like a printer, hover the mouse over each one. The one that says something like, “X document(s) pending for default”, is the right one. (It’s also the one that only appears when there is something to print!)

Double-click on that icon and you will get a window with the name of the printer, and a list of print jobs either pending or printing.

If you want to stop ALL printing, go to the “printer” menu and click on “purge print documents”.

If you want to stop a particular print job, locate it in the list, highlight it with a mouse click, click the “Document” menu, and click “Pause Printing” or “Cancel Printing”

To stop this from happening in the first place, always print from the “File” menu on your program. Unlike the handy button on most programs, this will bring up a dialog box that gives you options- The most important being “Print Range”. From here, you can choose to print all, or only the pages you want. “Selection” means you will only print what you have highlighted beforehand by holding the left mouse button and dragging the mouse over what you want to print.

To figure out which pages you want to print if it’s not obvious, use the “Print Preview” selection on the “File” menu. You should probably do that anyway, because some things (Mostly web pages) don’t look the same printed as they do on screen.

On the other hand, if you click “Print”, and nothing happens, don’t just click the button again and again. Doing this puts multiple copies of the document in the queue, and you’ll really be upset when the printer starts working again! Make sure the printer is on and ready. If that doesn’t work, power down the printer, restart the computer, turn the printer back on, printing should start.

In rare cases, a document might become “Stuck” in the printer queue. Fortunately, there’s an app for that! Download it here, run it, and in 30 seconds, your stuck queue should be gone!

If you’re tired of wanting to print a web page, and getting everything including the kitchen sink, use Printliminator. This is a really nifty “Bookmarklet” (a bookmark that does more than just open a new page). Just drag the button up onto your bookmarks (Favorites, in Internet Explorer) bar, and clicking on it will give you the ability to delete with one click anything on that page you don’t want to print! Try it out, it will save you a lot of paper, ink, and frustration.

If all else fails, Defenestrate your computer!