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 latest version.

This is the HTML version of a regular posting to the FreeBSD questions mailing list. Contents:


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 work.

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 Hacker

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 “hackers”).

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.

How to subscribe to FreeBSD-questions

FreeBSD-questions is a mailman mailing list, so you need web and mail access. Access the subscription page at and follow the instructions.

How to unsubscribe from FreeBSD-questions

You unsubscribe from FreeBSD-questions in the same way that you subscribed: Access the subscription page at 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.

Should I ask -questions or -hackers?

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.

How to submit a question

When submitting a question to FreeBSD-questions, consider the following points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 Exchange
    Microsoft Internet Mail
    Microsoft Outlook

    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.

  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

    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 example,

    $ dmesg > /tmp/dmesg-output
    This redirects the information to the file /tmp/dmesg-output.
  7. 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.
  8. 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:

    Threaded followup]

    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 entire thread.

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:

Message 1:

Subject: HELP!!?!??

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.

Message 2:

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
Operating System”.

How to follow up to a question

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:
  1. You include the original message text, so people will know what you're talking about. Don't forget to trim unnecessary text out, though.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

How to answer a question

Before you answer a question to FreeBSD-questions, consider:

  1. A lot of the points on submitting questions also apply to answering questions. Read them.
  2. 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, all together.

    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.

  3. 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.
  4. 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 information.
  5. 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?”.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 replies.
  10. 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.
  11. 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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