How to get the best results from FreeBSD questions
by Greg Lehey
This page was written in 2000 and is now obsolete. I am leaving it here for historical
purposes. Check the web site for the
This is the HTML version of a regular posting to the FreeBSD questions mailing list.
FreeBSD-questions is a mailing list maintained by the FreeBSD project to help
people who have questions about the normal use of FreeBSD. Another group,
FreeBSD-hackers, discusses more advanced questions such as future development
Note that the term “hacker” has nothing to do with breaking into
other people's computers. The correct term for the latter activity is “cracker”,
but the popular press hasn't found out yet. The FreeBSD hackers disapprove strongly of cracking
security, and have nothing to do with it. For a longer description of hackers, see Eric
Raymond's How To Become A
This is a regular posting aimed to help both those seeking advice from FreeBSD-questions
(the “newcomers”), and also those who answer the questions (the
Inevitably there is some friction, which stems from the different viewpoints of the two
groups. The newcomers accuse the hackers of being arrogant, stuck-up, and unhelpful, while the
hackers accuse the newcomers of being stupid, unable to read plain English, and expecting
everything to be handed to them on a silver platter. Of course, there's an element of truth in
both these claims, but for the most part these viewpoints come from a sense of frustration.
In this document, I'd like to do something to relieve this frustration and help everybody
get better results from FreeBSD-questions. In the following section, I recommend how to submit
a question; after that, we'll look at how to answer one.
FreeBSD-questions is a mailman mailing list, so you need web and mail access. Access
the subscription page at http://lists.freebsd.org/mailman/listinfo/freebsd-questions
and follow the instructions.
You unsubscribe from FreeBSD-questions in the same way that you subscribed: Access the
subscription page at http://lists.freebsd.org/mailman/listinfo/freebsd-questions
and follow the instructions. If for some reason that doesn't work (probably because you
subscribed under a different name from the one you're trying to unsubscribe), contact the
moderators via the link at the bottom of the page. Don't send a message to
FreeBSD-questions: they can't help you, and you'll just make yourself unpopular.
Two mailing lists handle general questions about FreeBSD, FreeBSD-questions and
FreeBSD-hackers. In some cases, it's not really clear which group you should ask. The
following criteria should help for 99% of all questions, however:
There are also a number of other specialized mailing lists, for example FreeBSD-isp,
which caters to the interests of ISPs (Internet Service Providers) who run FreeBSD. If you
happen to be an ISP, this doesn't mean you should automatically send your questions to
FreeBSD-isp. The criteria above still apply, and it's in your interest to stick to
them, since you're more likely to get good results that way.
If the question is of a general nature, ask FreeBSD-questions. Examples might be
questions about intstalling FreeBSD or the use of a particular UNIX utility.
If you think the question relates to a bug, but you're not sure, or you don't know how to
look for it, send the message to FreeBSD-questions.
If the question relates to a bug, and you're sure that it's a bug (for example,
you can pinpoint the place in the code where it happens, and you maybe have a fix), then send
the message to FreeBSD-hackers.
If the question relates to enhancements to FreeBSD, and you can make suggestions about
how to implement them, then send the message to FreeBSD-hackers.
When submitting a question to FreeBSD-questions, consider the following points:
Remember that nobody gets paid for answering a FreeBSD question. They do it of their own
free will. You can influence this free will positively by submitting a well-formulated
question supplying as much relevant information as possible. You can influence this free will
negatively by submitting an incomplete, illegible, or rude question. It's perfectly possible
to send a message to FreeBSD-questions and not get an answer even if you follow these rules.
It's much more possible to not get an answer if you don't. In the rest of this document,
we'll look at how to get the most out of your question to FreeBSD-questions.
Not everybody who answers FreeBSD questions reads every message: they look at the subject
line and decide whether it interests them. Clearly, it's in your interest to specify a
subject. “FreeBSD problem” or “Help” aren't enough. If you provide no
subject at all, many people won't bother reading it. If your subject isn't specific enough,
the people who can answer it may not read it.
Format your message so that it is legible, and PLEASE DON'T SHOUT!!!!!. We appreciate that
a lot of people don't speak English as their first language, and we try to make allowances
for that, but it's really painful to try to read a message written full of typos or without
any line breaks.
Don't underestimate the effect that a poorly formatted mail message has, not just on the
FreeBSD-questions mailing list. Your mail message is all people see of you, and if it's
poorly formatted, one line per paragraph, badly spelt, or full of errors, it will give
people a poor impression of you.
A lot of badly formatted messages come from bad mailers or badly
configured mailers. The following mailers are known to send out badly formatted
messages without you finding out about them:
Microsoft Internet Mail
As you can see, the mailers in the Microsoft world are frequent offenders. If at all
possible, use a UNIX mailer. If you must use a mailer under Microsoft environments, make
sure it is set up correctly. Try not to use MIME: a lot of people use mailers which don't
get on very well with MIME.
Make sure your time and time zone are set correctly. This may seem a little silly, since
your message still gets there, but many of the people you are trying to reach get several
hundred messages a day. They frequently sort the incoming messages by subject and by date,
and if your message doesn't come before the first answer, they may assume they missed it and
not bother to look.
Don't include unrelated questions in the same message. Firstly, a long message tends to
scare people off, and secondly, it's more difficult to get all the people who can answer all
the questions to read the message.
Specify as much information as possible. This is a difficult area, and we need to expand on
what information you need to submit, but here's a start:
In nearly every case, it's important to know the version of FreeBSD you're running.
This is particularly the case for FreeBSD-CURRENT, where you should also specify the date
of the sources, though of course you shouldn't be sending questions about -CURRENT to
With any problem which could be hardware related, tell us about your hardware.
In case of doubt, assume it's possible that it's hardware. What kind of CPU are you
using? How fast? What motherboard? How much memory? What peripherals?
There's a judgement call here, of course, but the output of the dmesg command
can frequently be very useful, since it tells not just what hardware you're running,
but what version of FreeBSD as well.
If you get error messages, don't say “I get error messages”, say (for
example) “I get the error message 'No route to host”'.
If your system panics, don't say “My system panicked”, say (for example)
“my system panicked with the message 'free vnode isn't”'.
If you have difficulty installing FreeBSD, please tell us what hardware you have. In
particular, it's important to know the IRQs and I/O addresses of the boards installed in
If you have difficulty getting PPP to run, describe the configuration. Which version
of PPP do you use? What kind of authentication do you have? Do you have a static or
dynamic IP address? What kind of messages do you get in the log file?
A lot of the information you need to supply is the output of programs, such as
dmesg, or console messages, which usually appear in /var/log/messages. Don't
try to copy this information by typing it in again; it's a real pain, and you're bound to
make a mistake. To send log file contents, either make a copy of the file and use an editor
to trim the information to what is relevant, or cut and paste into your message. For the
output of programs like dmesg, redirect the output to a file and include that. For
$ dmesg > /tmp/dmesg-output
This redirects the information to the file /tmp/dmesg-output.
If you do all this, and you still don't get an answer, there could be other reasons. For
example, the problem is so complicated that nobody knows the answer, or the person who does
know the answer was offline. If you don't get an answer after, say, a week, it might help to
re-send the message. If you don't get an answer to your second message, though, you're
probably not going to get one from this forum. Resending the same message again and again
will only make you unpopular.
If you want to send a new question, send a new message: don't reply to an existing message.
Even if you remove all reference to the original message, it will still contain an
In-reply-to: header, and a number of MUAs will put it in the same thread as the
original message. With mutt, the result looks like this:
Here, message 99 was about sendmail, but it was sent in answer to a reply about
routing. Apart from the fact that you can annoy people if you do this, you also risk having
your message overlooked if somebody sees the routing thread and decides to delete the
To summarize, let's assume you know the answer to the following question (yes, it's the same
one in each case :-). You choose which of these two questions you would be more
prepared to answer:
I just can't get hits damn silly FereBSD system to workd, and Im really good at this tsuff, but I have never seen anythign sho difficult to install, it jst wont work whatever I try so why don't y9ou guys tell me what I doing wrong.
Subject: Problems installing FreeBSD
I've just got the FreeBSD 2.1.5 CD-ROM from Walnut Creek, and I'm
having a lot of difficulty installing it. I have a 66 MHz 486 with 16
MB of memory and an Adaptec 1540A SCSI board, a 1.2GB Quantum Fireball
disk and a Toshiba 3501XA CD-ROM drive. The installation works just
fine, but when I try to reboot the system, I get the message “Missing
Often you will want to send in additional information to a question you have already sent. The
best way to do this is to reply to your original message. This has three advantages:
You include the original message text, so people will know what you're talking about.
Don't forget to trim unnecessary text out, though.
The text in the subject line stays the same (you did remember to put one in, didn't
you?). Many mailers will sort messages by subject. This helps group messages together.
The message reference numbers in the header will refer to the previous message. Some
mailers, such as mutt, can thread messages, showing
the exact relationships between the messages.
Before you answer a question to FreeBSD-questions, consider:
A lot of the points on submitting questions also apply to answering questions. Read
Has somebody already answered the question? The easiest way to check this is to sort your
incoming mail by subject: then (hopefully) you'll see the question followed by any answers,
If somebody has already answered it, it doesn't automatically mean that you shouldn't
send another answer. But it makes sense to read all the other answers first.
Do you have something to contribute beyond what has already been said? In general,
“Yeah, me too” answers don't help much, although there are exceptions, like when
somebody is describing a problem he's having, and he doesn't know whether it's his fault or
whether there's something wrong with the hardware or software. If you do send a “me
too” answer, you should also include any further relevant information.
Are you sure you understand the question? Very frequently, the person who asks the
question is confused or doesn't express himself very well. Even with the best understanding
of the system, it's easy to send a reply which doesn't answer the question. This doesn't
help: you'll leave the person who submitted the question more frustrated or confused than
ever. If nobody else answers, and you're not too sure either, you can always ask for more
Are you sure your answer is correct? If not, wait a day or so. If nobody else comes up
with a better answer, you can still reply and say, for example, “I don't know if this
is correct, but since nobody else has replied, why don't you try replacing your ATAPI CD-ROM
with a frog?”.
Unless there's a good reason to do otherwise, reply to the sender and to
FreeBSD-questions. Many people on the FreeBSD-questions are "lurkers": they learn by reading
messages sent and replied to by others. If you take a message which is of general interest
off the list, you're depriving these people of their information. Be careful with group
replies; lots of people send messages with hundreds of CCs. If this is the case, be sure to
trim the Cc: lines appropriately.
Include relevant text from the original message. Trim it to the minimum, but don't overdo
it. It should still be possible for somebody who didn't read the original message to
understand what you're talking about.
Use some technique to identify which text came from the original message, and which text
you add. I personally find that prepending “> ” to the original
message works best. Leaving white space after the “> ” and leave
empty lines between your text and the original text both make the result more readable.
Put your response in the correct place (after the text to which it replies). It's very
difficult to read a thread of responses where each reply comes before the text to which it
Most mailers change the subject line on a reply by prepending a text such as “Re:
”. If your mailer doesn't do it automatically, you should do it manually.
If the submitter didn't abide by format conventions (lines too long, inappropriate subject
line), please fix it. In the case of an incorrect
subject line (such as “HELP!!??”), change the subject line to (say) “Re:
Difficulties with sync PPP (was: HELP!!??)”. That way other people trying to follow
the thread will have less difficulty following it.
In such cases, it's appropriate to say what you did and why you did it, but try not to
be rude. If you find you can't answer without being rude, don't answer.
If you just want to reply to a message because of its bad format, just reply to the
submitter, not to the list. You can just send him this message in reply, if you like.
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