How to get best results from FreeBSD-questions

Greg Lehey grog at FreeBSD.ORG
Fri Apr 28 17:02:00 UTC 2006

How to get the best results from FreeBSD questions.

Last update $Date: 2005/08/10 02:21:44 $

This is a regular posting to the FreeBSD questions mailing list.  If
you got it in answer to a message you sent, it means that the sender
thinks that at least one of the following things was wrong with your

- You left out a subject line, or the subject line was not appropriate.
- You formatted it in such a way that it was difficult to read.
- You asked more than one unrelated question in one message.
- You sent out a message with an incorrect date, time or time zone.
- You sent out the same message more than once.
- You sent an 'unsubscribe' message to FreeBSD-questions.

If you have done any of these things, there is a good chance that you
will get more than one copy of this message from different people.
Read on, and your next message will be more successful.

This document is also available on the web at



I:    Introduction
II:   How to unsubscribe from FreeBSD-questions
III:  Should I ask -questions or -hackers?
IV:   How to submit a question to FreeBSD-questions
V:    How to answer a question to FreeBSD-questions

I: Introduction

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").

       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.

In the past, there has been some friction which stems from the
different viewpoints of the two groups.  The newcomers accused the
hackers of being arrogant, stuck-up, and unhelpful, while the hackers
accused 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.

II:  How to unsubscribe from FreeBSD-questions

When you subscribed to FreeBSD-questions, you got a welcome message
from freebsd-questions-request at FreeBSD.ORG.  In this message, amongst
other things, it told you how to unsubscribe.  Here's a typical

  Welcome to the freebsd-questions at mailing list!

If you ever want to unsubscribe or change your options (eg, switch to
or from digest mode, change your password, etc.), visit your
subscription page at:
(obviously, substitute your mail address for "me at").  You can
also make such adjustments via email by sending a message to:

  freebsd-questions-request at
with the word 'help' in the subject or body (don't include the
quotes), and you will get back a message with instructions.

You must know your password to change your options (including
changing the password, itself) or to unsubscribe.
Normally, Mailman will remind you of your mailing list
passwords once every month, although you can disable this if you
prefer.  This reminder will also include instructions on how to
unsubscribe or change your account options.  There is also a button on
your options page that will email your current password to you.

  Here's the general information for the list you've
  subscribed to, in case you don't already have it:

  FREEBSD-QUESTIONS               User questions
  This is the mailing list for questions about FreeBSD.  You should not
  send "how to" questions to the technical lists unless you consider the
  question to be pretty technical.

Normally, unsubscribing is even simpler than the message suggests: you
don't need to specify your mail ID unless it is different from the one
which you specified when you subscribed.

If Majordomo replies and tells you (incorrectly) that you're not on
the list, this may mean one of two things:

  1.  You have changed your mail ID since you subscribed.  That's where
      keeping the original message from majordomo comes in handy.  For
      example, the sample message above shows my mail ID as
      grog at  Since then, I have changed it to
      grog at  If I were to try to remove grog at from
      the list, it would fail: I would have to specify the name with
      which I joined.

  2.  You're subscribed to a mailing list which is subscribed to
      FreeBSD-questions.  If that's the case, you'll have to figure out
      which one it is and get your name taken off that one.  If you're
      not sure which one it might be, check the headers of the
      messages you receive from freebsd-questions: maybe there's a
      clue there.

If you've done all this, and you still can't figure out what's going
on, send a message to Postmaster at, and he will sort things
out for you.  Don't send a message to FreeBSD-questions: they can't
help you.

III: 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:

     If the question is of a general nature, first check whether this
     isn't a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ).  There's a list of these
     questions at,
     and also on your own system (once you've installed it) at
     /usr/share/doc/en/books/faq/index.html.  Check there, and if you
     don't find an answer, ask FreeBSD-questions.  Examples might be
     questions about installing 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

     If the question relates to a bug, and you're almost 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.  You should also enter a problem
     report with the send-pr utility.

     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.

     If the question is of particularly technical nature, such as
     implementation details or suggestions for improvements, then send
     the message to FreeBSD-hackers.

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.

IV:  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

  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.  When sending a new message, well, send a new message.  Don't
      reply to some other message, erase the old content and change
      the subject line.  That leaves an In-reply-to: header which many
      mail readers use to thread messages, so your message shows up as
      a reply to some other message.  People often delete messages a
      whole thread at a time, so apart from irritating people, you
      also run a chance of having the message deleted unread.

  4.  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.  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.

      For further information on this subject, check out

  5.  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

  6.  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.

  7.  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:

         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
         your machine.

         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?

  8.  If you don't get an answer immediately, or if you don't even see
      your own message appear on the list immediately, don't resend
      the message.  Wait at least 24 hours.  The FreeBSD mailer
      offloads messages to a number of subordinate mailers around the
      world, and sometimes it can take several hours for the mail to
      get through.  And once it gets through, the one person who might
      know the answer will probably just have gone to bed in his part
      of the world.

  9.  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.

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: (none)

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".


V: 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,

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.

VI: 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

    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

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.

$Id: Howto-ask-questions,v 1.6 2005/08/10 02:21:44 grog Exp $

Thanks to Josh Paetzel for updating this document to describe mailman.

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