[BALUG-Talk] Go back and record raw symptom data (was: BALUG list(s) unsubscribe)

Rick Moen rick@linuxmafia.com
Sun Jun 10 22:48:49 PDT 2018

Expanding audience beyond just the balug-admin mailing list.

----- Forwarded message from Rick Moen <rick@linuxmafia.com> -----

Date: Tue, 15 May 2018 15:46:49 -0700
From: Rick Moen <rick@linuxmafia.com>
To: Michael Paoli <Michael.Paoli@cal.berkeley.edu>
Cc: balug-admin@lists.balug.org
Subject: Re: BALUG list(s) unsubscribe
Organization: If you lived here, you'd be $HOME already.

Michael, let me recap points I made in our offlist discussion involving
trying to help the guy who insists unsubscribing 'doesn't work'.  In the
case of such a user:

1.  It's useless merely asking the subscriber 'What steps you're
following?', because the subscriber doesn't remember.

    Comment:  If you're serious, stress the need to _reproduce_ the problem
    and take accurate notes.

2.  It's useless merely asking the subscriber 'The error diagnostic(s)
(if any) you're getting', because the subscriber doesn't remember.

    Comment:  As above.

3.  It's useless merely asking the subscriber to provide 'FULL EMAIL
HEADERS of an example message', because the subscriber has no idea how.
(Shouting doesn't clarify.)

    Comment:  The user may not even know what a 'header' is, at all.
    If he/she does, the current ones look pretty 'full'; what does
    'full' mean?  They've probably never seen full headers, and wouldn't
    know them from an anaconda.  If you're serious, best solution would
    be to provide two image files, showing the same message with truncated vs. 
    full headers, and say 'See how the full version has many your mailer 
    normally hides for simplicity?  Notice the ones starting with
    Received?  Those and more are needed for diagnosis.  Dig in your 
    mailer for a means to reveal them that might be called "Show
    original" or "Show source", but might be called something else.'

4.  It's pointless to admonish the subscriber to never furnish his/her
subscription password to the listadmins, as the listadmins have full
power to do mischief if they're Bad People, without such passwords.  
And telling 'I can't unsubscribe' people that is just a pointless
distraction from their real problem.

   Comment:  Seriously, users haplessly mailing their subscriptions
   around the Internet is very close to harmless to them.  Them mailing
   those to listdmins is _totally_ harmless.  Neither risk is worth
   dwelling on, especially in an instructional mail the user is already
   going to find both challenging and a little offputting.

On points 1-3, I'm very, very much reminded of hard lessons learned from
CABAL's long history running public installfests.  When we started doing
that in 1998, we brightly and optimistically hoped and expected
attendees would download and fill out a simple hardware questionnaire,
e.g., how much RAM, what CPU, how big hard drives.

As other 1990s LUGs around the world also found out, this was a total,
whopping flop.  I think it flopped so hard that we deleted the
questionnaire out of sheer disgust, though some other early CABAL materials 
survive here:  http://linuxmafia.com/pub/linux/cabal/  Note in
particular the CABAL FAQ that Don Marti and I co-wrote:  Some of that
excess optimism about attendees being able to pony up information about
their computers survives in parts of the FAQ.

The hard lesson was:  They don't know.  Which means, if you're serious 
about getting that information accurately out of them, you need to
either teach them or furnish an automated software tool to gather it.

The best answer we got (to the questionnaire) was no answer.  But some
attendees figured they needed to write down something to make the
organisers happy, so they took wild guesses about, say, how much RAM
their machines had, and tended to be hilariously wrong.  (Needless to
say, guesses were worse than lack of answers.)

Why don't they know?  Because they never bothered to figure out how
to get those answers, and didn't know where to start.  Even though, 
say, the POST RAM count whizzed by their eyes every time they booted
(well, until OEMs started hiding the POST process behind pretty
pictures), they lacked the curiosity to poke at the machine and
investigate to answer obvious questions.

But, the subtler problem:  Sometimes they _once_ knew, but forgot what
they used to know, and figured a retrospective attempt to guess from dim
and fading memory was good enough.  _You and I_ know that getting
reliable information from a computer means producing it
contemporaneously and capturing / writing it down _then_.  But amateurs
make the error of trying to just remember this stuff -- _all the time_.

I had been co-author of 'How to Ask Questions the Smart Way' for untold
years when the insight of people totally failing to capture
contemporaneous diagnostic data hit me like a ton of bricks.  I had kept
on, for years, trying to convey the right message to readers through
cute, clever word tricks like this 'Missouri' one in the essay:

  Describe the problem's symptoms, not your guesses
  Since the preceding point seems to be a tough one for many people to
  grasp, here's a phrase to remind you: "All diagnosticians are from
  Missouri."  That US state's official motto is "Show me" (earned in 1899,
  when Congressman Willard D. Vandiver said "I come from a country that
  raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy
  eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me.  I'm from Missouri. 
  You've got to show me.")  In diagnosticians' case, it's not a matter of
  skepticism, but rather a literal, functional need to see whatever is as
  close as possible to the same raw evidence that you see, rather than
  your surmises and summaries. Show us.

  Describe your problem's symptoms in chronological order

Users, even people familiar with the essay, kept posting their guesses
and not raw diagnostic data.  Why?  I figured it out:  Because the raw
data scrolled off the screen and into fading memory, and the user wasn't
smart enough to go re-acquire it.

If I'd been in the room with that user, I'd have said 'What?  Wait, you
_didn't_ go back and reproduce the symptom a second time so you can take
accurate notes?  What sort of crazy approach is that?  Why the hell not?'  
But they don't know -- and, being remote from them across the Internet,
we can't see them screwing it up, and are unaware of them flubbing the
ground-level basics.

My real epiphany involved the least competent poster to the OCLUG
(Orange County LUG) mailing list, a guy who's always posting vague 
requests for help and supplies about 70% of the mailing list's traffic.
At one point, he provided a supposed diagnostic message that was
_obviously_ grossly inaccurate for reasons including misspellings, and, 
suddenly realising the key problem, I asked 'You typed that from memory,
didn't you?'  He was a little cagey, but the answer was yes.  I
patiently pointed out that helpers would be attempting to Web-search the
diagnostics, so inaccurate transcription was fatal.  'Oh.'  And _why_ 
did he type it from memory?  Because it just never occurred to him to
reproduce the problem (taking accurate notes, this time) _before_ asking
for help.

Remember:  They don't 'get' these rock-bottom basics.  Just not.  If
they did, they wouldn't be in endless trouble.  And frankly, anyone who
cannot figure out how to unsubscribe given help in every posting footer
and bountiful help on the Web is self-selected in advance for exactly
that kind of haplessness.

----- End forwarded message -----

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