[Tutor] Civil discourse from a newbie's perspective

Steven D'Aprano steve at pearwood.info
Tue Oct 2 07:53:02 CEST 2012

On Mon, Oct 01, 2012 at 08:34:03PM -0500, boB Stepp wrote:
> I have been following the discussions here since middle-May of this
> year. I have gathered that the volunteers strongly value precision of
> speech and proper formatting of posts 

Some more than others, but yes.

> and especially making a strong
> effort to solve one's problem(s) before bringing it(them) up here for
> help.

Certainly! Many beginners don't realise that the most important skill to 
learn is not programming syntax, or programming libraries, but the skill 
to fix your own code. The reason that experienced programmers rarely ask 
for help is not because they don't make mistakes, but because when they 
do so, they have the skills to fix the mistake themselves.

Skills such as:

- read the traceback that Python gives you, it is chock-full of useful 

- learn how to interpolate from the error to the cause of the error

- learn how to work backwards from the immediate cause of the error to 
  the original cause

- test code snippets at the interactive interpreter or IDLE

- insert calls to print in your code

- how to use the Python debugger.

> I think I understand the frustrations that can arise when
> newcomer after newcomer continue to repeat the same basic posting
> errors, seemingly without end (May I never do the same!).

Thank you :)

> However, I
> think that extra care may be needed in dealing with newbies who may
> only be taking a programming course using Python because of curriculum
> requirements. I'm sure I am stating the obvious to most of you, but,
> nonetheless, I think it is still worth saying (Again?). How one of you
> phrase your meant-to-be-helpful response can inadvertently prove
> crushing to someone who is very insecure in their programming
> knowledge, and in some instances, apparently, incite them to
> profanity.

What you say is very true. But I want to give you a different 
perspective on volunteer-based help.

On another mailing list I subscribe to, one where I am a beginner, 
somebody asked a question about clearing the mail indexes used by Kmail 
so they would be regenerated when he next opened the mail program. It 
was a pretty simple question, and one of the regulars replied, 
sympathizing with his problems, wishing that her software problems were 
as easy to solve, and giving him the answer he was looking for.

He turned around and sarcastically thanked her for helping him with his 
"trivial" problem, gave her permission to ignore his posts in the 
future, and declared that he too would ignore hers as he was filtering 
them straight to the trash.

What a dick, right?

So you'll understand if I'm a tad underwhelmed by suggestions that 
volunteers should moderate their behaviour to make it easier for 
ungrateful wretches like this person. Not everyone deserves free help -- 
it is a privilege, not a right.

There are more people who need help than those who are willing and able 
to give help. When there is more demand for help than there is supply of 
it, how can we ration assistance?

- by charging for it?

- by lottery?

- first come, first served?

- how about by being uncompromisingly strict on those asking for help 
  and insisting that they make it easy for us to help them?

If they get offended and abuse us, they're sent to the back of the 
queue. If they get upset and go away, that's one less person who is 
asking for help. Only those who demonstrate sufficient humility, 
intelligence and dedication to accept criticism and learn from that 
criticism will hang around to ask for, and be given, help.

Does that sound harsh? Well, perhaps a little, but what's the 

"You volunteers have to spend all your time and energy trying to 
decipher the mysterious ramblings and cries for help from people too 
lazy to write in complete sentences, and they probably won't listen to 
your advice anyway, if they don't abuse you for helping."

Screw that. It's about give and take. Both sides have to give a little 
to take a lot.

> In my first post here I inappropriately used the phrase, "begs the
> question." I soon was informed of the error of my ways!

I should certainly accept so! The correct use of idiom is unvalued for 
communication, otherwise we will all be hoist up by the petard.


> But I DO want to say, that I greatly value the efforts of the
> volunteers who strive to be so helpful and demonstrate repeatedly
> great patience in the face of what clearly must, at times, be
> extremely frustrating. But please exercise precision in your
> communications with overly sensitive, frustrated or tentative newbies!

And thank you for saying so, and thank you for your frank expression of 
your opinion.


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