[IAEP] Ask! Please! (Re: how to ask a question)

Edward Cherlin echerlin at gmail.com
Fri Oct 8 12:03:07 EDT 2010


Removing the parts we agree on, there remain these Frequently Asked
Questions. Of which one of the most frequent is, "Is it OK if I ask a
dumb question?" The traditional answer is, "Of course! The only dumb
question is the one you didn't ask." I like that, because dumb
actually means unable to speak, not stupid. It would make more sense
if the questioner knew to ask whether it is OK to ask an ignorant

What other kind is there, except the kinds asked by lawyers in court,
or teachers in the classroom?

You can't learn anything unless you are ignorant and know it, even if
you just discover your ignorance at the moment of learning. "You know
that thing you just did? Don't do that again."

Science textbook writers love answers, but what really gets scientists
up in the morning (or astronomers up in the evening, but the principle
is the same) is a good question, one that may take years, even decades
to answer, and then generates a multitude of new questions. They, and
you, have to practice by asking questions that others do have answers
for, and at some point reaching the edges of our knowledge.

On Fri, Oct 8, 2010 at 04:31, Bernie Innocenti <bernie at codewiz.org> wrote:
> Besides all the above, to which I  agree, we seem to have also the
> opposite problem: a lot of people in our community are afraid to ask
> questions on public mailing lists -- no matter how dumb or smart.
> It's not a language problem or a technical problem, it's really a
> cultural problem. I think there are a number of different factors:

In addition to the reasons you give, I blame schooling for teaching
children not to ask questions. Learn what is in the book and no more.
Obviously, this is not always true. But it is true enough for us to
discuss how to break that pattern, which is a large part of the reason
for me being in the OLPC and Sugar Labs projects in the first place.

I have a partial draft of a "textbook" on the subject at
http://www.booki.cc/discovering-discovery/ It encourages XO owners to
explore on their own and find out what questions they have before we
give them answers. It interleaves exploration, taking notes (including
both what has been understood and what is still mysterious), hints,
and outright explanations of features that mere button-pushing and
poking around will not reveal, documented at

> 1) Introversion: a lot of good engineers are naturally shy

I had that bad in my youth, but I got treated for it, and now anybody
will tell you that I am the opposite of shy. Loud, long-winded,
opinionated, never afraid to butt in. A knoker (Yiddish), the kind who
did math homework in pen. The Mad Educator, teaching a billion
children to take over the world! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

And you can, too. "You must be mad,  otherwise you wouldn't be here."

> 2) Public image: employees and contractors may be afraid their posts
> could compromise the image of their organization
> 3) NDA: some engineers may be explicitly forbidden by their organization
> to talk publicly about their job
> 4) Social fear: sometimes people respond aggressively or sarcastically
> to newcomers who aren't familiar with the netiquette.

I don't mind applying the clue-by-four to the truly clueless troll.
But not to the merely ignorant. Better to point to FAQs, or to write
one if needed. One of the essential forms of defensive documentation.

> 5) Force of habit: when they know who can answer a question, people
> often "forget" to cc the mailing list.

Or use Reply to All, in some mailers. Some conversations should be
taken private, particularly on personal matters, or where the details
of a discussion won't be of general interest.

> 6) Unawareness: grasping why public communication is so crucial in a
> FLOSS community may time some time to developers who have been working
> in proprietary shops.

It's not just essential in FLOSS. It is at the heart of our education
mission. Linking students around the world is going to be as important
as giving them access to information.

> As a result, this list has over 500 subscribers and only a tiny fraction
> of them have ever posted to it. Every day, I get plenty of questions by
> email and irc that could have been posted publicly. I bet the same is
> true for other Sugar/OLPC veterans.

To those who have never posted: Please introduce yourselves. What is
your part in our shared enterprise? Or what would you like to be your
part, if you can find out how? Can we assist you? What kinds of people
would you like to get into contact with? What questions do you have
that I have not covered?

But please check in the Wikis before asking detailed questions. If the
Wiki search turns up nothing on your query, or nothing relevant or
sufficient, it may suggest the best places to ask. Then when you get
your answer, please consider writing the appropriate Wiki page, or
adding your answer to an existing page.

At some point, we need to propose to teachers that they can assign a
class to write, rewrite, or translate Wikipedia pages and other
information of interest. The students can do their own research and
write individual versions, and the class can then edit them together
to produce a joint version. Any questions?

> When this happens, we should gently encourage them to prefer public
> communication. I reserve the stronger signals -- such as refusing to
> answer the question until it's posted publicly -- for those who are
> repeatedly ignoring this advice. I'm not running a free technical
> support line.
> --
>   // Bernie Innocenti - http://codewiz.org/
>  \X/  Sugar Labs       - http://sugarlabs.org/
> _______________________________________________
> IAEP -- It's An Education Project (not a laptop project!)
> IAEP at lists.sugarlabs.org
> http://lists.sugarlabs.org/listinfo/iaep

Edward Mokurai (默雷/धर्ममेघशब्दगर्ज/دھرممیگھشبدگر ج) Cherlin
Silent Thunder is my name, and Children are my nation.
The Cosmos is my dwelling place, the Truth my destination.

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