How To Answer Questions The Smart Way

Published 2015-03-01

Eric Raymond's "How To Ask Questions the Smart Way" was published in 2001, and has been very popular ever since. It gets referenced on my local Linux User Group mailing list with some frequency (usually alongside an admonishment to stop top-posting). To be sure, it contains a lot of good advice for how to perform research, how to frame a question, and what salient information is generally a minimum required to solicit help.

And yet, I absolutely despise this document. Raymond spends roughly ten thousand words telling people what is expected of them when they seek help, including how not to react like a loser, but can't be bothered to write more than four hundred words on how to answer questions in a helpful way.

In an effort to remedy this glaring oversight, I share here some guidance I've learned over the last dozen years participating in open source communities, as both a novice and an expert.

Be Compassionate

Much of Raymond's treatise is predicated upon the assumption that the people providing answers are all Very Busy People, and their time is not to be squandered.

We take time out of busy lives to answer questions, and at times we're overwhelmed with them.

I counter that the people asking for help are equally Very Busy People, and deserve to be given the same respect that you expect.

Many times, people asking for help are frustrated. They may be under a deadline. They may have inherited a problem about which they know next to nothing. Solving the problem is not what they want to do: they want to do whatever it is that the problem is preventing them from doing.

The person asking for help is already taking time out of their busy day just to ask for help. Quite often in this day and age, the most expedient solution to an open source problem is to stop using open source. Anyone who takes the time to ask a question deserves our support.

Be Supportive

Raymond's second piece of advice about providing answers is "Reply to a first offender off-line." The very verbiage of this advice makes clear that he perceives a power differential, and that people who don't ask questions in The One True Way are offenders.

Are we, as a group, more interested in enforcing a specific set of behaviors or are we more interested in fostering a culture of respect, collaboration, and participation? To view interlocutors as "offenders" ensures the former. I'm much more interested in the latter.

So if someone doesn't follow every one of Raymond's pronouncements for asking a good question (or, God forbid, top-posts!) I say "Who cares?" Be nice to them. Demonstrate that they are amongst friends. Gently and positively encourage them toward preferred behavior, but do so in a way that makes sense. There's a history to many of the cultural elements of open source, and new members won't be privy to that history. To scold, reprimand or "correct" people, off-line or on-line, is to promote a culture of negativity, and to preserve the perceived power differential.

Why not share -- openly -- the history of why cultural norms are what they are? To do any less is to say that things are the way they are by simple fiat.

An important corollary exists: be willing to accept that times have changed and the original reasons for any specific culture behavior no longer obtain.

Be Responsible

If you subscribe to a mailing list with the intent of both asking and answering questions, take some responsibility for the fact that you have made a conscious choice. Other list participants aren't coming to you personally, begging for your wisdom. They're casting their questions into the ether, eagerly awaiting an answer from anyone. If you're too busy to deal with that, then perhaps you're a member of the wrong mailing list?

Be Patient

If you're a member of a technical mailing list, you must accept that there will be a steady stream of new participants joining the list. New members will be ignorant of the list's cultural norms. They may never have heard of Eric Raymond before, and so not realize the implied significance of your link to his screed.

You should be as patient with the first new member as with the ten thousandth new member. These are people who have taken their time to participate in the forum, just as you have. In time, they too will be expected to shepherd new members, such that the burden of cultivating culture is shared and distributed.

Be Involved

Successful communication requires real effort from all parties involved. It is not acceptable to put the entire burden for successful communication onto the person who is struggling to find an answer to a problem. If you want to help, you need to accept that there is a burden to you for doing so. You'll hear the same questions again and again. You'll have to repeat your answers again and again. You'll misunderstand people. People will misunderstand you.

The end result of your efforts will be a gradual increase in the number of like-minded people willing and able to help share the burden of providing help to those who need it. And isn't that community empowerment one of the reasons we all like open source to begin with?

OnePlus One

Published 2015-01-29

I've been using a Samsung Galaxy S3 on Verizon for the past two years. Shortly after I got the phone, I installed CyanogenMod onto it. I've been extremely happy both with the device and with the software. I've been less happy with Verizon, in no small part because of their complicity with domestic spying efforts by the US federal government; but also because of their customer tracking efforts. I've also been frustrated at the amount of our monthly Verizon bill, and the on-going battle between our teenage daughter and our "family plan" allotment of mobile data.

I installed CyanogenMod onto the phone originally for two reasons. First, I wanted more frequent updates from the upstream Android project. Carriers are notoriously slow to update the OS on their phones. Second, I didn't want any of the bloat that Verizon "helpfully" pre-installs on their phones. I didn't need an NFL application, or their silly Navigator application, or anything else they stuffed into the phone for me.

I read with interest Tim Bray's post about his acquisition of the OnePlus One phone. I wasn't exactly in the market for a new phone, but I was intrigued enough by this phone to investigate a little more. All the reviews I read gave it pretty high marks. The price was certainly competitive. The "vanilla" installation of CyanogenMod was extremely appealing.

The problem was the sales model: in order to purchase a OnePlus One, an "invite" was needed. As I opined on Google+, this may have been a clever inventory control mechanism, or might have simply been a marketing gimmick. Either way, it prevented me from engaging with the company. I poked around a little, trying to find an invite, but quickly gave up.

Then Dan alerted me to a special promotion scheduled for January 20: the OnePlus store would be open for two hours without the need for an invite! I was able to purchase two phones: one for me, and one for Jonah, who was in need of a newer device. The units shipped surprisingly fast.

The OnePlus is a GSM phone, though, which does not work on the Verizon network. That's fine, as I wanted off of Verizon anyway. I switched to T-Mobile. The transfer process was easy, though I admit to being absolutely perplexed by "cell phone economics". Case in point: the T-Mobile offer to pay my Verizon early termination fee. In order for this offer to be valid, I had to trade in an old phone (Jonah's), and buy a new phone from T-Mobile. I was bringing two of my own devices to T-Mobile, but in order to get the ETF payoff, I was required to buy a phone from them.

The ETF for my old phone was $180. I bought a $30 phone from T-Mobile, which I did not activate and will likely never use. T-Mobile paid my ETF. How does this work? I honestly don't know.

As for The OnePlus One itself, I am quite happy. It is a bigger phone than I'm used to, but not uncomfortably so. It's just about as thick as the Samsung Galaxy S3, but feels to weigh just a shade less. The 64GB "Sandstone Black" model that I purchased has an interestingly textured back cover. Everyone who has held the device has commented on it. It's not quite abrasive, but it's definitely not smooth. I've quickly gotten used to it. The 16GB "Silk White" model which I purchased for Jonah has no such texture.

So far, the battery has been nothing short of great: in my normal course of action, I end the day with more than 70% battery life remaining. The phone is snappy, the GPS is quick to lock, and the screen is nice. I'm not a smartphone aficionado, so I find the OnePlus One to be a nice step up from the Galaxy S3.

The version of CyanogenMod installed is 11.0-XNPH44S, which equates to Android 4.4.4. I'd like to get Android 5.0, codenamed "Lollipop", but I don't know how quickly OnePlus will offer that. The OnePlus is officially supported by CyanogenMod, so I may be able to get Lollipop on my own before the OnePlus distribution system provides an over-the-air update.

The one obvious drawback to the OnePlus One is that it is not a mainstream device, so accessories are not easily purchased. Cases and screen protectors are really only available from the OnePlus online store. Plan ahead if you get this phone, and order the case or screen protector at the same time.


Published 2015-01-12

Our family enjoys playing games, but sometimes it feels like our game preferences are best described by a Venn diagram. Angela likes casual party games. Tess likes those, plus a few others kinds of games. Jonah really likes deep strategy games, and a few of the games that Tess likes. I'm happy to play darn near anything, most of the time.

With this in mind, it was with some trepidation that I backed Monikers on Kickstarter. It's clearly a casual party game, so I was worried that Jonah would find it boring. I was also concerned that Angela might find it less casual than she would like.

The game arrived last week, and I revealed it to the family. The kids had a snow day the following day, so Tess and her friends took it for a spin. Angela reported much laughter from the group, so that evening we decided to give it a shot. We had to tweak the rules since with just the four of us the normal games' team concept wouldn't work. Nonetheless, we found ourselves laughing uncontrollably! We immediately made plans to host a game night with more friends specifically for this game.

The game itself is simple: each player is dealt 8 cards, from which they select 5. Each card has a title, and a small bit of explanatory text. Each player adds their five cards to the current deck, and their unused cards go back into the game box. Then the game is played in three rounds.

In round one, each player has 60 seconds to get their team to guess as many of the cards as possible. The player can say or do anything other than explicitly state the name of the card. When time is up, the stack of unread cards passes to the next team. This process repeats until all cards have been guessed. Cards are worth varying points, based on difficulty, so scores are calculated for round one.

Round two uses the same stack of cards, so all players should now know what's in the deck. The restriction this round is that players are only allowed to say one single word in order to get their teammates to guess the card. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes this is amazingly hard. When this round is complete, scores are again calculated.

Round three again uses the same stack of cards, so all players have now seen all the cards twice. This time the player is forbidden from saying anything: the round must be played as a regular game of charades.

The rounds system works extremely well. Players are given a chance to familiarize themselves with the cards, so that rounds two and three aren't too hard. Don't be fooled, though: they're still hard! What we've seen happen is that there is often sufficient similarity between at least two cards that the round two clues can be interpreted in several ways, causing no small amount of frustration to the active player!

Similarly, running jokes tend to emerge during rounds one and two such that the round three charades often have as much to do with the running joke as the actual name of the card. In our games, round three always has the most laughter.

The other really great thing about Monikers is the variety of subjects on the cards. There are famous historical figures, Internet celebrities like Doge and Grumpy Cat, as well as oddball things that defy explanation. For example, the card for Lisa Nowak does not mention her name, but rather says something like "That crazy astronaut who drove across the country in a diaper to kill someone".

The sheer variety of subjects makes it possible for players of most ages to participate. Players are encouraged to pass on cards during their turn, so being a trivia expert isn't a requirement. Additionally, each card's explanatory text can help provide the necessary clues during round one.

We found Monikers to be extremely well balanced, and everyone who has played it with us has had a wildly good time. We're all looking forward to the next opportunity to play. If you get the opportunity to play (or buy!) Monikers, I strongly encourage you to do so.

The Booksellers

Published 2014-10-14

This weekend Angela and I attended the 17th annual West Fork Road Highland Games, hosted at our friend's house in Cincinnati. The Games themselves are quite a tradition, and we're now developing our own tradition around them.

Angela's aunt lives in Cincinnati and she graciously keeps Josephine for us. This allows Angela and I to have a night to ourselves in downtown Cincinnati. We stay in a hotel, then wake up and have a leisurely morning before the Games kick off.

We've stayed in a number of different hotels over the years. By far our favorite is 21c Museum Hotel. This is a lovely hotel in which an art gallery exists. We've stayed here twice, and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition each time. There's something hard to explain about how the presence of art in a hotel changes the perception of that hotel. I don't often look forward to staying in hotels, let alone walking around inside them; but 21c is a real treat.

But my favorite part of our Cincinnati trips is our visit to The Booksellers on Fountain Square. This is a plain little bookstore with a small cafe inside. Their collection of books is not particularly expansive, and their prices aren't particularly noteworthy. But every single time we've gone in we've received excellent recommendations from the staff.

This, above all, makes The Booksellers stand out. Their employees are friendly and engaging, and take time to listen to us explain what books we like. They then make suggestions, and in every visit they've always made terrific suggestions.

Earlier this year we made a St. Patrick's Day trip to Cincinnati and stopped at The Booksellers. The book Skippy Dies caught my eye based solely on the title. The clerk saw me snapping a picture and came over to talk to me. He assured me the book was funny and enjoyable, and spoke intelligently about the author. How could I not purchase it? And he was right. The book was great!

This year, Angela shared a couple of titles she had recently completed and the clerk made his recommendation. He cautioned Angela that this book was complex, and that it took some effort to stick with; but everyone who finished it really liked it. I'm looking forward to hearing Angela talk to me about her journey with this title!

The clerk also cheerfully recommended some books for Josephine at our request. We've recently started reading Shel Silverstein's poems to Josie, so were looking for other kid-friendly poetry collections. Without any hesitation the clerk pulled out a volume and indicated that it had contemporary poems as well as classics. He also cheerfully praised our independent selection of The Book with No Pictures as a terrific choice.

(This latter has proven a real delight for me to read to Josie. I enjoy emoting the stories I read to her, and using silly voices. She looks forward to story time, and I look forward to her earnest giggles. "The Book with No Pictures" rewards us both in this regard!)

There are small, independent bookstores here in Columbus, and I'm sure we could get the same quality of personal recommendations from these local establishments; but there's something extra nice about having a gem like The Booksellers to look forward to as part of our Cincinnati tradition.


Published 2014-09-22

I took Josie to the playground the other day. She delights in climbing on and over the various playground structures, and has recently been doing a lot of independent creative play in this way. She wanted me to play with her, so I happily obliged.

I try to fight the Princess Industrial Complex that maligns young girls today, so I try to introduce gender neutral play elements whenever I can. In this instance, I suggested to Josie that she and I were astronauts on a mission to Mars. She immediately jumped to the helm and started piloting our ship.

I shouted "Oh no, the engine blew out! We're stranded in space!"

Josie said "Don't worry dad, I'll fix it." She then went to the imaginary airlock, donned an imaginary space suit, secured an imaginary helmet, affixed an imaginary tether, and then went out into deep space to fix the engine!

I stood agape as I watched my four year old daughter perform these tasks in the correct order. We've never talked about why astronauts wear space suits, let alone use a tether. Although I've watched a number of Nova and NASA TV episodes with her, I don't recall ever seeing an actual EVA documented such that she'd learn the importance of a tether; yet she knew to wear one so that she wouldn't float away!

I was a very proud parent that day.

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