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How To Ask Questions The Smart Way, What you should read before posting here
TrNSZ
post Mar 11 2003, 03:37
Post #1





Group: Developer
Posts: 717
Joined: 25-September 01
From: ... The Studio
Member No.: 20



QUOTE
How To Ask Questions The Smart Way
Eric Steven Raymond, Evelyn Mitchell & Rick Moen

Copyright 2001-2003 Eric S. Raymond
_________________________________________________________________

Introduction

In the world of hackers, the kind of answers you get to your
technical questions depends as much on the way you ask the questions
as on the difficulty of developing the answer. This guide will teach
you how to ask questions in a way that is likely to get you a
satisfactory answer.

The first thing to understand is that hackers actually like hard
problems and good, thought-provoking questions about them. If we
didn't, we wouldn't be here. If you give us an interesting question to
chew on we'll be grateful to you; good questions are a stimulus and a
gift. Good questions help us develop our understanding, and often
reveal problems we might not have noticed or thought about otherwise.
Among hackers, "Good question!" is a strong and sincere compliment.

Despite this, hackers have a reputation for meeting simple questions
with what looks like hostility or arrogance. It sometimes looks like
we're reflexively rude to newbies and the ignorant. But this isn't
really true.

What we are, unapologetically, is hostile to people who seem to be
unwilling to think or to do their own homework before asking
questions. People like that are time sinks -- they take without giving
back, they waste time we could have spent on another question more
interesting and another person more worthy of an answer. We call
people like this "losers" (and for historical reasons we sometimes
spell it "lusers").

We realize that there are many people who just want to use the
software we write, and have no interest in learning technical details.
For most people, a computer is merely a tool, a means to an end; they
have more important things to do and lives to live. We acknowledge
that, and don't expect everyone to take an interest in the technical
matters that fascinate us. Nevertheless, our style of answering
questions is tuned for people who do take such an interest and are
willing to be active participants in problem-solving. That's not going
to change. Nor should it; if it did, we would become less effective at
the things we do best.

We're (largely) volunteers. We take time out of busy lives to answer
questions, and at times we're overwhelmed with them. So we filter
ruthlessly. In particular, we throw away questions from people who
appear to be losers in order to spend our question-answering time more
efficiently, on winners.

If you find this attitude obnoxious, condescending, or arrogant, check
your assumptions. We're not asking you to genuflect to us -- in fact,
most of us would love nothing more than to deal with you as an equal
and welcome you into our culture, if you put in the effort required to
make that possible. But it's simply not efficient for us to try to
help people who are not willing to help themselves. It's OK to be
ignorant; it's not OK to play stupid.

So, while it isn't necessary to already be technically competent to
get attention from us, it is necessary to demonstrate the kind of
attitude that leads to competence -- alert, thoughtful, observant,
willing to be an active partner in developing a solution. If you can't
live with this sort of discrimination, we suggest you pay somebody for
a commercial support contract instead of asking hackers to personally
donate help to you.

If you decide to come to us for help, you don't want to be one of the
losers. You don't want to seem like one, either. The best way to get a
rapid and responsive answer is to ask it like a person with smarts,
confidence, and clues who just happens to need help on one particular
problem.

Before You Ask

Before asking a technical question by email, or in a newsgroup, or on
a website chat board, do the following:

1. Try to find an answer by searching the Web.
2. Try to find an answer by reading the manual.
3. Try to find an answer by reading a FAQ.
4. Try to find an answer by inspection or experimentation.
5. Try to find an answer by asking a skilled friend.
6. If you are a programmer, try to find an answer by reading the
source code.

When you ask your question, display the fact that you have done these
things first; this will help establish that you're not being a lazy
sponge and wasting people's time. Better yet, display what you have
learned from doing these things. We like answering questions for
people who have demonstrated that they can learn from the answers.

Use tactics like doing a Google search on the text of whatever error
message you get (and search Google groups as well as web pages). This
might well take you straight to fix documentation or a mailing list
thread that will answer your question. Even if it doesn't, saying "I
googled on the following phrase but didn't get anything that looked
useful" is a good thing to be able to put in email or news posting
requesting help.

Prepare your question. Think it through. Hasty-sounding questions get
hasty answers, or none at all. The more you do to demonstrate that you
have put thought and effort into solving your problem before asking
for help, the more likely you are to actually get help.

Beware of asking the wrong question. If you ask one that is based on
faulty assumptions, J. Random Hacker is quite likely to reply with a
uselessly literal answer while thinking "Stupid question...", and
hoping that the experience of getting what you asked for rather than
what you needed will teach you a lesson.

Never assume you are entitled to an answer. You are not; you aren't,
after all, paying for the service. You will earn an answer, if you
earn it, by asking a question that is substantial, interesting, and
thought-provoking -- one that implicitly contributes to the experience
of the community rather than merely passively demanding knowledge from
others.

On the other hand, making it clear that you are able and willing to
help in the process of developing the solution is a very good start.
"Would someone provide a pointer?", "What is my example missing?" and
"What site should I have checked?" are more likely to get answered
than "Please post the exact procedure I should use." because you're
making it clear that you're truly willing to complete the process if
someone can simply point you in the right direction.

When You Ask

Choose your forum carefully

Be sensitive in choosing where you ask your question. You are likely
to be ignored, or written off as a loser, if you:

* post your question to a forum where it is off topic
* post a very elementary question to a forum where advanced
technical questions are expected, or vice-versa
* cross-post to too many different newsgroups
* post a personal email to somebody who is neither an acquaintance
of yours nor personally responsible for solving your problem

Hackers blow off questions that are inappropriately targeted in order
to try to protect their communications channels from being drowned in
irrelevance. You don't want this to happen to you.

The first step, therefore, is to find the right forum. Again, Google
and other web-searching methods are your friend. Use them to find the
project web page most closely associated with the hardware or software
that is giving you difficulties. Usually it will have links to a FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions) list, and to project mailing lists and
their archives. These are the final places to go for help, if your own
efforts do not find you a solution.

But shooting off an email to a person or forum which you are not
familiar with is risky at best. For example, do not assume that the
author of an informative web page wants to be your free consultant. Do
not make optimistic guesses about whether your question will be
welcome -- if you are unsure, send it elsewhere, or refrain from
sending it at all.

When selecting a newsgroup or mailing list, don't trust the name by
itself too far; look for a FAQ or charter to verify that your question
is on-topic. Read some of the back traffic before posting so you'll
get a feel for how things are done there. In fact, it's a very good
idea to do a keyword search for words relating to your problem on the
newsgroup or mailing list archives before you post. It may find you an
answer, and if not it will help you formulate a better question.

Know what your topic is! One of the classic mistakes is asking
questions about the Unix or Windows programming interface in a forum
devoted to a language or library or tool that is portable across both.
If you don't understand why this is a blunder, you'd be best off not
asking any questions at all until you get it.

In general, questions to a well-selected public forum are more likely
to get useful answers than equivalent questions to a private one.
There are multiple reasons for this. One is simply the size of the
pool of potential respondents. Another is the size of the audience;
hackers would rather answer questions that educate a lot of people
than questions which only serve a few.

Understandably, skilled hackers and authors of popular software are
already receiving more than their fair share of mistargeted messages.
By adding to the flood, you could in extreme cases even be the straw
which breaks the camel's back -- quite a few times, contributors to
popular projects have withdrawn their support because the collateral
damage in the form of useless email traffic to their personal accounts
became unbearable.

Whenever possible, use project mailing lists

When a project has a development mailing list, write to the mailing
list, not to individual developers, even if you believe that you know
who can answer your question best. Check the documentation of the
project and its homepage for the address of a project mailing list,
and use it. There are several good reasons for this policy:

* Any question that's good enough to be asked of one developer will
also be of value to the whole group. Contrariwise, if you suspect
that your question is too dumb for a mailing list, it's not an
excuse to harass individual developers.

* Asking questions on the list distributes load between developers.
The individual developer (especially if he's the project leader)
may be too busy to answer your questions.

* Most mailing lists are archived and the archives are indexed by
search engines. Somebody could find your question and the answer
on the web instead of asking it again in the list.

* If certain questions are seen to be asked often, the developers
can use that information to improve the documentation or the
software itself to be less confusing. But if those questions are
asked in private, nobody has the complete picture of what
questions are asked most often.

If you cannot find a project's mailing list address, but only see the
address of the maintainer of the project, go ahead and write to the
maintainer. But even in that case, don't assume that the mailing list
doesn't exist. State in your e-mail that you tried and could not find
the appropriate mailing list. Also mention that you don't object to
having your message forwarded to other people. (Many people believe
that private e-mail should remain private, even if there is nothing
secret in it. By allowing your message to be forwarded you give your
correspondent a choice about how to handle your e-mail.)

Make it easy to reply

Finishing your query with "Please send your reply to... " makes it
quite unlikely you will get an answer. If you can't be bothered to
take even the few seconds required to set up a correct Reply-To header
in your mail agent, we can't be bothered to take even a few seconds to
think about your problem. If your mail program doesn't permit this,
get a better mail program. If your operating system doesn't support
any mail programs that permit this, get a better operating system.

Write in clear, grammatical, correctly-spelled language

We've found by experience that people who are careless and sloppy
writers are usually also careless and sloppy at thinking and coding
(often enough to bet on, anyway). Answering questions for careless and
sloppy thinkers is not rewarding; we'd rather spend our time
elsewhere.

So expressing your question clearly and well is important. If you
can't be bothered to do that, we can't be bothered to pay attention.
Spend the extra effort to polish your language. It doesn't have to be
stiff or formal -- in fact, hacker culture values informal, slangy and
humorous language used with precision. But it has to be precise; there
has to be some indication that you're thinking and paying attention.

Spell, punctuate, and capitalize correctly. Don't confuse "its" with
"it's", "loose" with "lose", or "discrete" with "discreet". Don't TYPE
IN ALL CAPS, this is read as shouting and considered rude. (All-smalls
is only slightly less annoying, as it's difficult to read. Alan Cox
can get away with it, but you can't.)

More generally, if you write like a semi-literate boob you will very
likely be ignored. Writing like a l33t script kiddie hax0r is the
absolute kiss of death and guarantees you will receive nothing but
stony silence (or, at best, a heaping helping of scorn and sarcasm) in
return.

If you are asking questions in a forum that does not use your native
language, you will get a limited amount of slack for spelling and
grammar errors -- but no extra slack at all for laziness (and yes, we
can usually spot that difference). Also, unless you know what your
respondent's languages are, write in English. Busy hackers tend to
simply flush questions in languages they don't understand, and English
is the working language of the Internet. By writing in English you
minimize your chances that your question will be discarded unread.

Send questions in formats that are easy to understand

If you make your question artificially hard to read, it is more likely
to be passed over in favor of one that isn't. So:

* Send plain text mail, not HTML. (It's not hard to turn off HTML.)

* MIME attachments are usually OK, but only if they are real content
(such as an attached source file or patch), and not merely
boilerplate generated by your mail client (such as another copy of
your message).

* Don't send mail in which entire paragraphs are single
multiply-wrapped lines. (This makes it too difficult to reply to
just part of the message.) Assume that your respondents will be
reading mail on 80-character-wide text displays and set your line
wrap accordingly, to something less than 80.

* However, do not wrap data (such as log file dumps or session
transcripts) at any fixed column width. Data should be included
as-is, so respondents can have confidence that they are seeing
what you saw.

* Don't send MIME Quoted-Printable encoding to an English-language
forum. This encoding can be necessary when you're posting in a
language ASCII doesn't cover, but a lot of mail agents don't
support it. When they break, all those =20 glyphs scattered
through the text are ugly and distracting.

* Never, ever expect hackers to be able to read closed proprietary
document formats like Microsoft Word. Most hackers react to these
about as well as you would to having a pile of steaming pig manure
dumped on your doorstep.

* If you're sending mail from a Windows machine, turn off
Microsoft's stupid "Smart Quotes" feature. This is so you'll avoid
sprinkling garbage characters through your mail.

If you're using a graphical-user-interface mail client, (such as
Netscape Messenger, MS Outlook, or their ilk) beware that it may
violate these rules when used with its default settings. Most such
clients have a menu-based "View Source" command. Use this on something
in your sent-mail folder to check that you are sending plain text
without unnecessary attached crud.

Use meaningful, specific subject headers

On mailing lists or newsgroups, the subject header is your golden
opportunity to attract qualified experts' attention in around 50
characters or fewer. Don't waste it on babble like "Please help me"
(let alone "PLEASE HELP ME!!!!"; messages with subjects like that get
discarded by reflex). Don't try to impress us with the depth of your
anguish; use the space for a super-concise problem description
instead.

A good convention for subject headers, used by many tech support
organizations, is "object - deviation". The "object" part specifies
what thing or group of things is having a problem, and the "deviation"
part describes the deviation from expected behavior.

Stupid:
HELP! Video doesn't work properly on my laptop!
 
Smart:
XFree86 4.1 misshapen mouse cursor, Fooware MV1005 vid. chipset
 
Smarter:
XFree86 4.1 mouse cursor on Fooware MV1005 vid. chipset - is
misshapen
 
The process of writing an "object-deviation" description will help you
organize your thinking about the problem in more detail. What is
affected? Just the mouse cursor or other graphics too? Is this
specific to XFree86? To version 4.1? Is this specific to Fooware video
chipsets? To model MV1005? A hacker who sees the result can
immediately understand what it is that you are having a problem with
and the problem you are having, at a glance.

If you ask a question in a reply, be sure to change the subject line
to indicate that you are asking a question. A Subject line that looks
like "Re: test" or "Re: new bug" is less likely to attract useful
amounts of attention. Also, pare quotes of previous messages to the
minimum consistent with cluing in new readers.

Do not simply hit reply to a list message in order to start an
entirely new thread. This will limit your audience. Some mail readers,
like mutt, allow the user to sort by thread and then hide messages in
a thread by folding the thread. Folks who do that will never see your
message.

Changing the subject is not sufficient. Mutt, and probably other mail
readers, looks at other information in the email's headers to assign
it to a thread, not the subject line. Instead start an entirely new
email.

Be precise and informative about your problem

* Describe the symptoms of your problem or bug carefully and
clearly.

* Describe the environment in which it occurs (machine, OS,
application, whatever). Provide your vendor's distribution and
release level (e.g.: "Red Hat 8.0", "SunOS 5.9", "Windows XP
Service Pack 1 with all public hotfixes as of MM-DD-YYYY", etc.).

* Describe the research you did to try and understand the problem
before you asked the question.

* Describe the diagnostic steps you took to try and pin down the
problem yourself before you asked the question.

* Describe any recent changes in your computer or software
configuration that might be relevant.

Do the best you can to anticipate the questions a hacker will ask, and
to answer them in advance in your request for help.

Simon Tatham has written an excellent essay entitled How to Report
Bugs Effectively. I strongly recommend that you read it.

Volume is not precision

You need to be precise and informative. This end is not served by
simply dumping huge volumes of code or data into a help request. If
you have a large, complicated test case that is breaking a program,
try to trim it and make it as small as possible.

This is useful for at least three reasons. One: being seen to invest
effort in simplifying the question makes it more likely that you'll
get an answer, Two: simplifying the question makes it more likely
you'll get a useful answer. Three: In the process of refining your bug
report, you may develop a fix or workaround yourself.

Don't claim you that have found a bug

When you are having problems with a piece of software, don't claim you
have found a bug unless you are very, very sure of your ground. Hint:
unless you can provide a source-code patch that fixes the problem, or
a regression test against a previous version that demonstrates
incorrect behavior, you are probably not sure enough.

Remember, there are a lot of other users that are not experiencing
your problem. Otherwise you would have learned about it while reading
the documentation and searching the Web (you did do that before
complaining, didn't you?). This means that very probably it is you
who are doing something wrong, not the software.

The people who wrote the software work very hard to make it work as
well as possible. If you claim you have found a bug, you'll be
implying that they did something wrong, and you will almost always
offend them -- even when you are correct. It's epecially undiplomatic
to yell "bug" in the Subject line.

When asking your question, it is best to write as though you assume
you are doing something wrong, even if you are privately pretty sure
you have found an actual bug. If there really is a bug, you will hear
about it in the answer. Play it so the maintainers will want to
apologize to you if the bug is real, rather than so that you will owe
them an apology if you have messed up.

Describe the problem's symptoms, not your guesses

It's not useful to tell hackers what you think is causing your
problem. (If your diagnostic theories were such hot stuff, would you
be consulting others for help?) So, make sure you're telling them the
raw symptoms of what goes wrong, rather than your interpretations and
theories. Let them do the interpretation and diagnosis.

Stupid:
I'm getting back-to-back SIG11 errors on kernel compiles, and
suspect a hairline crack on one of the motherboard traces.
What's the best way to check for those?
 
Smart:
My home-built K6/233 on an FIC-PA2007 motherboard (VIA Apollo
VP2 chipset) with 256MB Corsair PC133 SDRAM starts getting
frequent SIG11 errors about 20 minutes after power-on during
the course of kernel compiles, but never in the first 20
minutes. Rebooting doesn't restart the clock, but powering down
overnight does. Swapping out all RAM didn't help. The relevant
part of a typical compile session log follows.
 
Describe your problem's symptoms in chronological order

The most useful clues in figuring out something that went wrong often
lie in the events immediately prior. So, your account should describe
precisely what you did, and what the machine did, leading up to the
blowup. In the case of command-line processes, having a session log
(e.g., using the script utility) and quoting the relevant twenty or so
lines is very useful.

If the program that blew up on you has diagnostic options (such as -v
for verbose), try to think carefully about selecting options that will
add useful debugging information to the transcript.

If your account ends up being long (more than about four paragraphs),
it might be useful to succinctly state the problem up top, then follow
with the chronological tale. That way, hackers will know what to watch
for in reading your account.

Don't ask people to reply by private email

Hackers believe solving problems should be a public, transparent
process during which a first try at an answer can and should be
corrected if someone more knowledgeable notices that it is incomplete
or incorrect. Also, they get some of their reward for being
respondents from being seen to be competent and knowledgeable by their
peers.

When you ask for a private reply, you are disrupting both the process
and the reward. Don't do this. It's the respondent's choice whether to
reply privately -- and if he does, it's usually because he thinks the
question is too ill-formed or obvious to be interesting to others.

There is one limited exception to this rule. If you think the question
is such that you are likely to get a lot of answers that are all
pretty similar, then the magic words are "email me and I'll summarize
the answers for the group". It is courteous to try and save the
mailing list or newsgroup a flood of substantially identical postings
-- but you have to keep the promise to summarize.

Be explicit about the question you have

Open-ended questions tend to be perceived as open-ended time sinks.
The people most likely to be able to give you a useful answer are also
the busiest people (if only because they take on the most work
themselves). People like that are allergic to open-ended time sinks,
thus they tend to be allergic to open-ended questions.

You are more likely to get a useful response if you are explicit about
what you want respondents to do (provide pointers, send code, check
your patch, whatever). This will focus their effort and implicitly put
an upper bound on the time and energy a respondent has to put in to
helping you. This is good.

To understand the world the experts live in, think of expertise as an
abundant resource and time to respond as a scarce one. The less of a
time commitment you implicitly ask for, the more likely you are to get
an answer from someone really good and really busy.

So it is useful to frame your question to minimize the time commitment
required for an expert to field it -- but this is often not the same
thing as simplifying the question. Thus, for example, "Would you give
me a pointer to a good explanation of X?" is usually a smarter
question than "Would you explain X, please?". If you have some code
that isn't working, it is usually smarter to ask for someone to
explain what's wrong with it than it is to ask someone to fix it.

Don't post homework questions

Hackers are good at spotting homework questions; most of us have done
them ourselves. Those questions are for you to work out, so that you
will learn from the experience. It is OK to ask for hints, but not for
entire solutions.

Prune pointless queries

Resist the temptation to close your request for help with
semantically-null questions like "Can anyone help me?" or "Is there an
answer?" First: if you've written your problem description halfway
competently, such tacked-on questions are at best superfluous. Second:
because they are superfluous, hackers find them annoying -- and are
likely to return logically impeccable but dismissive answers like
"Yes, you can be helped" and "No, there is no help for you."

In general, asking yes-or-no questions is a good thing to avoid unless
you want a yes-or-no answer.

Don't flag your question as "Urgent", even if it is for you

That's your problem, not ours. Claiming urgency is very likely to be
counter-productive: most hackers will simply delete such messages as
rude and selfish attempts to elicit immediate and special attention.

Courtesy never hurts, and sometimes helps

Be courteous. Use "Please" and "Thanks in advance". Make it clear that
you appreciate the time people spend helping you for free.

To be honest, this isn't as important as (and cannot substitute for)
being grammatical, clear, precise and descriptive, avoiding
proprietary formats etc.; hackers in general would rather get somewhat
brusque but technically sharp bug reports than polite vagueness. (If
this puzzles you, remember that we value a question by what it teaches
us.)

However, if you've got your technical ducks in a row, politeness does
increase your chances of getting a useful answer.

(We must note that the only serious objection we have received from
veteran hackers to this how-to is with respect to our recommendation
to use "Thanks in advance". Some hackers feel this connotes an
intention not to thank anybody afterwards. Our recommendation is to
either say "Thanks in advance" first and thank respondents afterwards,
or perhaps express courtesy in a different way, such as by saying
"Thanks for your consideration".)

Follow up with a brief note on the solution

Send a note after the problem has been solved to all who helped you;
let them know how it came out and thank them again for their help. If
the problem attracted general interest in a mailing list or newsgroup,
it's appropriate to post the followup there.

Optimally, the reply should be to the thread started by the original
question posting, and should have `FIXED' `RESOLVED' or an equally
obvious tag in the subject line. On mailing lists with fast
turnaround, a potential respondent who sees a thread about "Problem X"
ending with "Problem X - FIXED" knows not to waste his/her time even
reading the thread (unless (s)he) personally finds Problem X
interesting) and can therefore use that time solving a different
problem.

Your followup doesn't have to be long and involved; a simple "Howdy --
it was a failed network cable! Thanks, everyone. - Bill" would be
better than nothing. In fact, a short and sweet summary is better than
a long dissertation unless the solution has real technical depth. Say
what action solved the problem, but you need not replay the whole
troubleshooting sequence.

For problems with some depth, it is appropriate to post a summary of
the troubleshooting history. Describe your final problem statement.
Describe what worked as a solution, and indicate avoidable blind
alleys. Name the names of people who helped you; you'll make friends
that way.

Besides being courteous and informative, this sort of followup will
help others searching the archive of the mailing-list/newsgroup/forum
to know exactly which solution helped you and thus may also help them.

Last, and not least, this sort of followup helps everybody who
assisted feel a satisfying sense of closure about the problem. If you
are not a techie or hacker yourself, trust us that this feeling is
very important to the gurus and experts you tapped for help. Problem
narratives that trail off into unresolved nothingness are frustrating
things; hackers itch to see them resolved. The good karma that
scratching that itch earns you will be very, very helpful to you next
time you need to pose a question.

Consider how you might be able to prevent others from having the same
problem in the future. Ask yourself if a documentation or FAQ patch
would help, and if the answer is yes send that patch to the
maintainer.

Among hackers, this sort of behavior is actually more important than
conventional politeness. It's how you get a reputation for playing
well with others, which can be a very valuable asset.

How To Interpret Answers

RTFM and STFW: How To Tell You've Seriously Screwed Up

There is an ancient and hallowed tradition: if you get a reply that
reads "RTFM", the person who sent it thinks you should have Read The
Fucking Manual. He is almost certainly right. Go read it.

RTFM has a younger relative. If you get a reply that reads "STFW", the
person who sent it thinks you should have Searched The Fucking Web. He
is almost certainly right. Go search it.

Often, the person sending either of these replies has the manual or
the web page with the information you need open, and is looking at it
as he types. These replies mean that he thinks (a) the information you
need is easy to find, and (B) you will learn more if you seek out the
information than if you have it spoon-fed to you.

You shouldn't be offended by this; by hacker standards, he is showing
you a rough kind of respect simply by not ignoring you. You should
instead thank him for his grandmotherly kindness.

If you don't understand...

If you don't understand the answer, do not immediately bounce back a
demand for clarification. Use the same tools that you used to try and
answer your original question (manuals, FAQs, the Web, skilled
friends) to understand the answer. Then, if you still need to ask for
clarification, exhibit what you have learned.

For example, suppose I tell you: "It sounds like you've got a stuck
zentry; you'll need to clear it." Then:

Here's a bad followup question: "What's a zentry?"

Here's a good followup question: "OK, I read the man page and zentries
are only mentioned under the -z and -p switches. Neither of them says
anything about clearing zentries. Is it one of these or am I missing
something here?"

Dealing with rudeness

Much of what looks like rudeness in hacker circles is not intended to
give offence. Rather, it's the product of the direct,
cut-through-the-bullshit communications style that is natural to
people who are more concerned about solving problems than making
others feel warm and fuzzy.

When you perceive rudeness, try to react calmly. If someone is really
acting out, it is very likely that a senior person on the list or
newsgroup or forum will call him or her on it. If that doesn't happen
and you lose your temper, it is likely that the person you lose it at
was behaving within the hacker community's norms and you will be
considered at fault. This will hurt your chances of getting the
information or help you want.

On the other hand, you will occasionally run across rudeness and
posturing that is quite gratuitous. The flip-side of the above is that
it is acceptable form to slam real offenders quite hard, dissecting
their misbehavior with a sharp verbal scalpel. Be very, very sure of
your ground before you try this, however. The line between correcting
an incivility and starting a pointless flamewar is thin enough that
hackers themselves not infrequently blunder across it; if you are a
newbie or an outsider, your chances of avoiding such a blunder are
low. If you're after information rather than entertainment, it's
better to keep your fingers off the keyboard than to risk this.

(Some people assert that many hackers have a mild form of autism or
Asperger's Syndrome, and are actually missing some of the brain
circuitry that lubricates `normal' human social interaction. This may
or may not be true. If you are not a hacker yourself, it may help you
cope with our eccentricities if you think of us as being
brain-damaged. Go right ahead. We won't care; we like being whatever
it is we are, and generally have a healthy skepticism about clinical
labels.)

In the next section, we'll talk about a different issue; the kind of
`rudeness' you'll see when you misbehave.

On Not Reacting Like A Loser

Odds are you'll screw up a few times on hacker community forums -- in
ways detailed in this article, or similar. And you'll be told exactly
how you screwed up, possibly with colourful asides. In public.

When this happens, the worst thing you can do is whine about the
experience, claim to have been verbally assaulted, demand apologies,
scream, hold your breath, threaten lawsuits, complain to people's
employers, leave the toilet seat up, etc. Instead, here's what you do:

Get over it. It's normal. In fact, it's healthy and appropriate.

Community standards do not maintain themselves: They're maintained by
people actively applying them, visibly, in public. Don't whine that
all criticism should have been conveyed via private mail: That's not
how it works. Nor is it useful to insist you've been personally
insulted when someone comments that one of your claims was wrong, or
that his views differ. Those are loser attitudes.

There have been hacker forums where, out of some misguided sense of
hyper-courtesy, participants are banned from posting any fault-finding
with another's posts, and told "Don't say anything if you're unwilling
to help the user." The resulting departure of clueful participants to
elsewhere causes them to descend into meaningless babble and become
useless as technical forums.

Exaggeratedly "friendly" (in that fashion) or useful: Pick one.

Remember: When that hacker tells you that you've screwed up, and (no
matter how gruffly) tells you not to do it again, he's acting out of
concern for (1) you and (2) his community. It would be much easier for
him to ignore you and filter you out of his life. If you can't manage
to be grateful, at least have a little dignity, don't whine, and don't
expect to be treated like a fragile doll just because you're a
newcomer with a theatrically hypersensitive soul and delusions of
entitlement.

Questions Not To Ask

Here are some classic stupid questions, and what hackers are thinking
when they don't answer them.

Q: Where can I find program or resource X?
A: The same place I'd find it, fool -- at the other end of a web search.
God, doesn't everybody know how to use Google yet?

Q: How can I use X to do Y?
A: If what you want is to do Y, you should ask that question without
pre-supposing the use of a method that may not be appropriate.
Questions of this form often indicate a person who is not merely
ignorant about X, but confused about what problem Y they are solving
and too fixated on the details of their particular situation. It is
generally best to ignore such people until they define their problem
better.

Q: How can I configure my shell prompt?
A: If you're smart enough to ask this question, you're smart enough to
RTFM and find out yourself.

Q: Can I convert an AcmeCorp document into a TeX file using the
Bass-o-matic file converter?

A: Try it and see. If you did that, you'd (a) learn the answer, and (B)
stop wasting my time.

Q: My {program, configuration, SQL statement} doesn't work
A: This is not a question, and I'm not interested in playing Twenty
Questions to pry your actual question out of you -- I have better
things to do. On seeing something like this, my reaction is normally
of one of the following:

* do you have anything else to add to that?
* oh, that's too bad, I hope you get it fixed.
* and this has exactly what to do with me?

Q: I'm having problems with my Windows machine. Can you help?
A: Yes. Throw out that Microsoft trash and install an open-source
operating system like Linux or BSD; or go ask Microsoft.

Q: My program doesn't work. I think system facility X is broken.
A: While it is possible that you are the first person to notice an
obvious deficiency in system calls and libraries heavily used by
hundreds or thousands of people, it is rather more likely that you are
utterly clueless. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence;
when you make a claim like this one, you must back it up with clear
and exhaustive documentation of the failure case.

Q: I'm having problems installing Linux or X. Can you help?
A: No. I'd need hands-on access to your machine to troubleshoot this. Go
ask your local Linux user group for hands-on help. (You can find a
list of user groups here.)

Q: How can I crack root/steal channel-ops privileges/read someone's
email?
A: You're a lowlife for wanting to do such things and a moron for asking
a hacker to help you.

Good and Bad Questions

Finally, I'm going to illustrate how to ask questions in a smart way
by example; pairs of questions about the same problem, one asked in a
stupid way and one in a smart way.

Stupid: Where can I find out stuff about the Foonly Flurbamatic?
  This question just begs for "STFW" as a reply.
 
Smart: I used Google to try to find "Foonly Flurbamatic 2600" on the
Web, but I got no useful hits. Does anyone know where I can
find programming information on this device?
This one has already STFWed, and sounds like he might have a
real problem.
 
Stupid: I can't get the code from project foo to compile. Why is it
  broken?
  He assumes that somebody else screwed up. Arrogant of him.
 
Smart: The code from project foo doesn't compile under Nulix version
6.2. I've read the FAQ, but it doesn't have anything in it
about Nulix-related problems. Here's a transcript of my
compilation attempt; is it something I did?
He's specified the environment, he's read the FAQ, he's showing
the error, and he's not assuming his problems are someone
else's fault. This guy might be worth some attention.
 
Stupid: I'm having problems with my motherboard. Can anybody help?
  J. Random Hacker's response to this is likely to be "Right. Do
  you need burping and diapering, too?" followed by a punch of
  the delete key.
 
Smart: I tried X, Y, and Z on the S2464 motherboard. When that didn't
work, I tried A, B, and C. Note the curious symptom when I
tried C. Obviously the florbish is grommicking, but the results
aren't what one might expect. What are the usual causes of
grommicking on Athlon MP motherboards? Anybody got ideas for
more tests I can run to pin down the problem?
This person, on the other hand, seems worthy of an answer. He
has exhibited problem-solving intelligence rather than
passively waiting for an answer to drop from on high.
 
In the last question, notice the subtle but important difference
between demanding "Give me an answer" and "Please help me figure out
what additional diagnostics I can run to achieve enlightenment."

In fact, the form of that last question is closely based on a real
incident that happened in August 2001 on the linux-kernel mailing list
(lkml). I (Eric) was the one asking the question that time. I was
seeing mysterious lockups on a Tyan S2462 motherboard. The listmembers
supplied the critical information I needed to solve them.

By asking the question in the way I did, I gave people something to
chew on; I made it easy and attractive for them to get involved. I
demonstrated respect for my peers' ability and invited them to consult
with me as a peer. I also demonstrated respect for the value of their
time by telling them the blind alleys I had already run down.

Afterwards, when I thanked everyone and remarked how well the process
had worked, an lkml member observed that he thought it had worked not
because I'm a "name" on that list, but because I asked the question in
the proper form.

Hackers are in some ways a very ruthless meritocracy; I'm certain he
was right, and that if I had behaved like a sponge I would have been
flamed or ignored no matter who I was. His suggestion that I write up
the whole incident as instruction to others led directly to the
composition of this guide.

If You Can't Get An Answer

If you can't get an answer, please don't take it personally that we
don't feel we can help you. Sometimes the members of the asked group
may simply not know the answer. No response is not the same as being
ignored, though admittedly it's hard to spot the difference from
outside.

In general, simply re-posting your question is a bad idea. This will
be seen as pointlessly annoying.

There are other sources of help you can go to, often sources better
adapted to a novice's needs.

There are many online and local user groups who are enthusiasts about
the software, even though they may never have written any software
themselves. These groups often form so that people can help each other
and help new users.

There are also plenty of commercial companies you can contract with
for help, both large and small (Red Hat and Linuxcare are two of the
best known; there are many others). Don't be dismayed at the idea of
having to pay for a bit of help! After all, if your car engine blows a
head gasket, chances are you would take it to a repair shop and pay to
get it fixed. Even if the software didn't cost you anything, you can't
expect that support will always come for free.

For popular software like Linux, there are at least 10,000 users per
developer. It's just not possible for one person to handle the support
calls from over 10,000 users. Remember that even if you have to pay
for support, you are still paying much less than if you had to buy the
software as well (and support for closed-source software is usually
more expensive and less competent than support for open-source
software).

How To Answer Questions in a Helpful Way

Be gentle. Problem-related stress can make people seem rude or stupid
even when they're not.

If you don't know for sure, say so! A wrong but authoritative-sounding
answer is worse than none at all. Don't point anyone down a wrong path
simply because it's fun to sound like an expert. Be humble and honest;
set a good example for both the querent and your peers.

If you can't help, don't hinder. Don't make jokes about procedures
that could trash the user's setup -- the poor sap might interpret
these as instructions.

Ask probing questions to elicit more details. If you're good at this,
the querent will learn something -- and so might you. Try to turn the
bad question into a good one; remember we were all newbies once.

While just muttering RTFM is sometimes justified when replying to
someone who is just a lazy slob, a pointer to documentation (even if
it's just a suggestion to Google for a key phrase) is better.

If you're going to answer the question at all, give good value. Don't
suggest kludgy workarounds when somebody is using the wrong tool or
approach. Suggest good tools. Reframe the question.

Help your community learn from the question. When you field a good
question, ask yourself "How would the relevant documentation or FAQ
have to change so that nobody has to answer this again?" Then send a
patch to the document maintainer.

If you did research to answer the question, demonstrate your skills
rather than writing as though you pulled the answer out of your butt.

Answering one good question is like feeding a hungry person one meal,
but teaching them research skills by example is teaching them to grow
food for a lifetime.

NOTICE: Mr. Raymond is not your personal helpdesk. He gets far too many
queries from lusers as it is and cannot be bothered with petty requests.


This post has been edited by TrNSZ: Jan 2 2004, 07:27
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