Miscellaneous ephemera…

Asking for Help

Another great peristaltic movement in Arch’s rolling release digestive system happened over the last couple of weeks, the move of all binaries to /usr/bin. This move had been foreshadowed for several months and, despite announcements on the front page of the Arch website, the mailing lists and the release going through [testing] and the resulting thread on the forums, there was still a surprising amount of carnage1 in it’s wake.

In the aftermath (although I expect that it will take some months for it to completely pass through the system), what struck me was not so much the variety and ingenuity of the ways people had managed to break their installs2 as how they approached the community seeking help afterwards.

There are already some fine guides on how to do this, notably ESR’s How to ask Questions the Smart Way and—specifically for Arch—zendeavour’s troubleshooting for newcomers; this isn’t an attempt to add or expand on that genre. Rather, it is a look at a subset of attitudes that some people adopt3 as they seek the assistance of the community.

The first is the blamer. The proponent of the “all-guns-blazing” approach. I’ll paraphrase, but there are enough examples on the boards to illustrate the point: “my system can’t boot, it’s not my fault and I am here to let you know that I am unhappy and demand recourse.” This is, unquestionably, the most puzzling of all the strategies. It is often coupled with the (sadly almost always empty) threat to abandon the distro and it’s apparently beleaguered community.

Puzzling because I have yet to encounter a single situation in life, online or off, where opening with hostility and blame is an intelligent approach to seeking assistance. If you are going to adopt this approach, please supersize to “rage quit” and expend your energy actually delivering on your threat.

The next is the wheedler. Less objectionable than the incendiary approach, it is nonetheless similarly ineffective. Wheedlers are distinguished by peppering their posts liberally with declarations of their ineptitude and “noobness”, in the mistaken belief that this will engender a wave of sympathy prior to soothing hand-holding and spoon-feeding. There is a strong correlation between this behaviour and the various types of help vampirism.

Wheedling won’t lead to quicker, or more informed, advice and assistance; in all likelihood it will just discourage others from helping because they can see that rewarding this sort of behaviour has a longer-term deleterious impact on the health of the community.

Then there is the Vulcan. A curiosity more than an annoyance, these people seem to inhabit some sort of adolescent fantasy land where the Internet is a venue for them to revel in their almost superhero-like powers of technical awesomeness; said powers manifesting to others as a sort of benign cluelessness.

Their posts are invariably brief and completely devoid of relevant detail to the point of cryptic because, “hey, we all know what this issue is,” and are littered with smilies and that stupid emoticon with the sunglasses. Rather than actually describing their problem, they want people to think that, by a process of mind-melding, other “hackers” will intuit the subtle depth and intricacy of the issue and then type out a detailed step-by-step guide of how to solve it.

Finally, there is the conspiracist. These malcontents see every significant change in Arch as being part of a wider agenda to corrupt the purity of the UNIX® philosophy. They also tend to blame Lennart Poettering for everything. These unfortunates are clearly already suffering such mental anguish trying to reconcile their obsessiveness about the past with a rolling release that they deserve our pity more than our contempt (but I am equally happy providing either)…

As I said, these are fortunately just a subset and very much represent the minority of attitudes. The vast majority tend to be aware that, at one time or another, everyone will need some help to solve a problem. Therefore it is best to approach it in a matter-of-fact way, using the practical guidance on asking questions on a technical forum, and with a degree of humility and a willingness to learn from the people who are prepared to share their knowledge and experience.


  1. Where “carnage” should be understood as a minor PEBKAC epidemia…
  2. From shutting down mid-update (because a reboot fixes everything) to still using consolekit, initscripts and grub-legacy: all deprecated some time ago.
  3. I resisted linking to specific posts on the boards to provide actual examples, the more motivated among you will find them without difficulty.

Flickr Creative Commons image by Buddhist Fox.