[sf-perl] Getting Help (was Re: Debugging a CGI script - how)

Rick Moen rick at linuxmafia.com
Mon Mar 10 14:48:51 PDT 2008

Quoting David Fetter (david at fetter.org):

> You missed a great chance to let Mr. Raymond take the blame for this
> one.  Very sad, really.

Hmm, I though you knew me better than that, David.  I not only never
evade responsibility for what I write (or co-write); I insist on it.  

Particular passages in "How to Ask Questions the Smart Way" still evince
very much my own authorial "voice", one quite different from Eric's.  In
those passages, I aimed to tell readers some blunt, stark, and highly
useful, though widely resented and unpalatable, truths.  Why?  Because I
felt my target audience deserved to hear relevant truths as best I could
see and tell them.  

My point?  I suspect you'd cordially dislike -- resent -- the parts *I*
wrote, too.  Oh well; good  thing I wasn't trying to win any popularity
contests, just tell my intended audience what they needed to know.
Here's an example:

   Describe the problem's symptoms, not your guesses

   It's not useful to say 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 listing the raw
   symptoms of what goes wrong, rather than your interpretations and
   theories.  Let your helpers do the interpretation and diagnosis.

[snip examples of good and bad descriptions]

   Since the preceding point seems to be a tough one for many people to
   grasp, here's a phrase to remind you:  "All diagnosticians are from
   Missouri."  That US state's official motto is "Show me" (earned in
   1899, when Congressman Willard D. Vandiver said "I come from a
   country that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and
   frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me.  I'm from
   Missouri.  You've got to show me.")  In diagnosticians' case, it's not
   a matter of skepticism, but rather a literal, functional need to see
   whatever is as close as possible to the same raw evidence that you
   see, rather than your surmises and summaries.  Show us.

I've backed out Eric's reference to "hackers", which was his patch:  My
own target audience, when I started my own version of the essay (but
then found out that Eric was attempting approximately the same essay,
and we joined forces) was technical users who seem to wish to
understand, to learn, be competent, and _maybe teach others_ later on --
as opposed to merely wanting a free helpdesk.  Which in part repays my
own debt, to earlier people who tried to give me clue.

Nothing against people willing to serve as free helpdesks for endless
poorly thought out questions from net.random querents who are
fundamentally unwilling to learn.  I admire the former's saintliness,
and hope they have endurance to match their benevolence. 

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