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How To Ask Questions About Lightwave 3D The Smart Way

 

Introduction

This guide will teach you how to ask questions in a way that is likely to get you a satisfactory answer in the Lightwave-related mailing lists, user forums and newsgroups.

The first thing to understand is that the experienced animators actually like hard problems and good, thought-provoking questions about them.

Despite this, sometimes simple questions are answered with what looks like hostility or arrogance. It sometimes looks like people are reflexively rude to newbies and the ignorant. But this isn't really true.

What they are, unapologetically, is hostile to people who seem to be unwilling to think or do their own homework before asking questions. People like that are time sinks — they take without giving back, they waste time that could have spent on another question more interesting and another person more worthy of an answer.

Answering questions is tuned for people who do take an interest and are willing to be active participants in problem-solving. That's not going to change. Nor should it; if it did, we would become less effective at the things we do best.

We're (largely) volunteers. We take time out of busy lives to answer questions, and at times we're overwhelmed with them. So we filter ruthlessly. In particular, we throw away questions from people who appear to be losers in order to spend our question-answering time more efficiently, on winners.

If you decide to come to us for help, you don't want to be one of the losers. You don't want to seem like one, either. The best way to get a rapid and responsive answer is to ask it like a winner — to ask it like a person with smarts, confidence, and clues who just happens to need help on one particular problem.

 
 
 

Before You Ask

Before asking a technical question by email, or in a newsgroup, or on a website chat board, do the following:
    Try to find an answer by reading the manual.

    Try to find an answer by reading the FAQ:s.

    Try to find an answer by searching the Web.

    Try to find an answer by asking a skilled friend.

When you ask your question, display the fact that you have done these things first; this will help establish that you're not being a lazy sponge and wasting people's time. Better yet, display what you have learned from doing these things. We like answering questions for people who have demonstrated that they can learn from the answers.

Prepare your question. Think it through. Hasty-sounding questions get hasty answers, or none at all. The more you do to demonstrate that you have put thought and effort into solving your problem before asking for help, the more likely you are to actually get help.

Beware of asking the wrong question. If you ask one that is based on faulty assumptions, J. Random Animator is quite likely to reply with a uselessly literal answer while thinking "Stupid question...", and hoping that the experience of getting what you asked for rather than what you needed will teach you a lesson.

Never assume you are entitled to an answer. You are not; you aren't, after all, paying for the service. You will earn an answer, if you earn it, by asking a question that is substantial, interesting, and thought-provoking — one that implicitly contributes to the experience of the community rather than merely passively demanding knowledge from others.

On the other hand, making it clear that you are able and willing to help in the process of developing the solution is a very good start. "Can someone provide a pointer?", "What is my example missing?" and "Is there a site I should have checked?" are more likely to get answered than "Please post the exact procedure I should use." because you're making it clear that you're truly willing to complete the process if someone can simply point you in the right direction.

 
 
 

When You Ask

Choose your forum carefully


Be sensitive in choosing where you ask your question. You are likely to be ignored, or written off as a loser, if you:

    post your question to a forum where it is off topic

    cross-post to too many different newsgroups

Peolpe will  blow off questions that are inappropriately targeted in order to try to protect their communications channels from being drowned in irrelevance. You don't want this to happen to you.
 
 
Write in clear, grammatical, correctly-spelled language


We've found by experience that people who are careless and sloppy writers are usually also careless and sloppy at thinking and working (often enough to bet on, anyway). Answering questions for careless and sloppy thinkers is not rewarding; we'd rather spend our time elsewhere.

So expressing your question clearly and well is important. If you can't be bothered to do that, we can't be bothered to pay attention. Spend the extra effort to polish your language. It doesn't have to be stiff or formal — in fact, we value informal, slangy and humorous language used with precision. But it has to be precise; there has to be some indication that you're thinking and paying attention.

Spell, punctuate, and capitalize correctly. Don't TYPE IN ALL CAPS, this is read as shouting and considered rude. (All-smalls is only slightly less annoying, as it's difficult to read.)

More generally, if you write like a semi-literate boob you will very likely be ignored. Writing like a Anim8r d00d  is the absolute kiss of death and guarantees you will receive nothing but stony silence (or, at best, a heaping helping of scorn and sarcasm) in return.

If you are asking questions in a forum that does not use your native language, you will get a limited amount of slack for spelling and grammar errors — but no extra slack at all for laziness (and yes, we can usually spot that difference). By writing in English you minimize your chances that your question will be discarded unread.

 
 
Send questions in formats that are easy to understand
 
If you make your question artificially hard to read, it is more likely to be passed over in favor of one that isn't.

So:

    Send plain text mail, not HTML. (It's not hard to turn off HTML.)

    Attachments are a no no - except in the binaries group.

    Don't send mail in which entire paragraphs are single multiply-wrapped lines. (This makes it too difficult to reply to just part of the message.) Assume that your respondents will be reading mail on 80-character-wide text displays and set your line wrap accordingly, to something less than 80.
     

Use meaningful, specific subject headers


On mailing lists or newsgroups, the subject header is your golden opportunity to attract qualified experts' attention in around 50 characters or fewer. Don't waste it on babble like "Please help me" (let alone "PLEASE HELP ME!!!!"; messages with subjects like that get discarded by reflex). Don't try to impress us with the depth of your anguish; use the space for a super-concise problem description instead.

Stupid:

HELP!  Lightweave sux!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Smart:

Motion Designer can't scan objects error - LW7.0b, Win2000

Smarter:

You already read the FAQ and found the answer.

If you ask a question in a reply, be sure to change the subject line to indicate that you are asking a question. A Subject line that looks like "Re: test" or "Re: new bug" is less likely to attract useful amounts of attention. Also, pare quotes of previous messages to the minimum consistent with cluing in new readers.
 
 
Be precise and informative about your problem
    Describe the symptoms of your problem or bug carefully and clearly.

    Describe the environment in which it occurs (machine, OS, application, LW version, whatever).

    Describe the research you did to try and understand the problem before you asked the question.

    Describe the diagnostic steps you took to try and pin down the problem yourself before you asked the question.

    Describe any recent changes in your computer or software configuration that might be relevant.

Do the best you can to anticipate the questions you will be asked, and to answer them in advance in your request for help.

Simon Tatham has written an excellent essay entitled How to Report Bugs Effectively. I strongly recommend that you read it.

 
 
Volume is not precision


You need to be precise and informative. This is useful for at least three reasons. One: being seen to invest effort in simplifying the question makes it more likely that you'll get an answer, Two: simplifying the question makes it more likely you'll get a useful answer. Three: In the process of refining your question, you may develop a fix or workaround yourself.

 
 
Describe the problem's symptoms, not your guesses


You will be best off telling the raw symptoms of what goes wrong, rather than your interpretations and theories. This way others can do the interpretation and diagnosis.

Stupid:

I think my lightwave's scene file isn't saving correctly, as every time i reload  the scene some of the things are just plain gray and i have to surface them all over again. I'm sure this is because i use Win 95 and it's not listed as supported platform... oh well, my mom will buy me a new machine for christmas anyway.

Smart:

When i am done with my scene i save it. Next time i load it all my surfaces are lost.  What am i doing wrong?

Smarter:

You already read the FAQ and found the answer
 

Describe your problem's symptoms in chronological order


The most useful clues in figuring out something that went wrong often lie in the events immediately prior. So, your account should describe precisely what you did, and what the machine did, leading up to the blowup.

 
 
Don't ask people to reply by private email


Solving problems should be a public, transparent process during which a first try at an answer can and should be corrected if someone more knowledgeable notices that it is incomplete or incorrect. Also, the gurus get some of their reward for being respondents from being seen to be competent and knowledgeable by their peers.

When you ask for a private reply, you are disrupting both the process and the reward. Don't do this. It's the respondent's choice whether to reply privately — and if he does, it's usually because he thinks the question is too ill-formed or obvious to be interesting to others.

There is one limited exception to this rule. If you think the question is such that you are likely to get a lot of answers that are all pretty similar, then the magic words are "email me and I'll summarize the answers for the group". It is courteous to try and save the mailing list or newsgroup a flood of substantially identical postings — but you have to keep the promise to summarize.
 
 

Be explicit about the question you have


Open-ended questions tend to be perceived as open-ended time sinks. The people most likely to be able to give you a useful answer are also the busiest people (if only because they take on the most work themselves). People like that are allergic to open-ended time sinks, thus they tend to be allergic to open-ended questions.

You are more likely to get a useful response if you are explicit about what you want respondents to do (provide pointers, give critique, whatever). This will focus their effort and implicitly put an upper bound on the time and energy a respondent has to put in to helping you. This is good.

To understand the world the experts live in, think of expertise as an abundant resource and time to respond as a scarce one. The less of a time commitment you implicitly ask for, the more likely you are to get an answer from someone really good and really busy.

So it is useful to frame your question to minimize the time commitment required for an expert to field it — but this is often not the same thing as simplifying the question. Thus, for example, "Can you give me a pointer to a good explanation of X?" is usually a smarter question than "Would you explain X, please?". If you have a scene that isn't working, it is usually smarter to ask for someone to explain what's wrong with it than it is to ask someone to fix it

 
 
Courtesy never hurts, and sometimes helps


Be courteous. Use "Please" and "Thanks in advance". Make it clear that you appreciate the time people spend helping you for free.

To be honest, this isn't as important as (and cannot substitute for) being grammatical, clear, precise and descriptive, etc. However, if you've got your technical ducks in a row, politeness does increase your chances of getting a useful answer.

 
 
Follow up with a brief note on the solution


Send a note after the problem has been solved to all who helped you; let them know how it came out and thank them again for their help. If the problem attracted general interest in a mailing list or newsgroup, it's appropriate to post the followup there.

Your followup doesn't have to be long and involved; a simple "Howdy - it was a failed network cable! Thanks, everyone. - Bill" would be better than nothing. In fact, a short and sweet summary is better than a long dissertation unless the solution has real technical depth. Say what action solved the problem, but you need not replay the whole troubleshooting sequence.

Besides being courteous and informative, this sort of followup will help others searching the archive of the mailing-list/newsgroup/forum to know exactly which solution helped you and thus may also help them.

Last, and not least, this sort of followup helps everybody who assisted feel a satisfying sense of closure about the problem. Trust us that this feeling is very important to the gurus and experts you tapped for help. Problem narratives that trail off into unresolved nothingness are frustrating things; we itch to see them resolved. The good karma that scratching that itch earns you will be very, very helpful to you next time you need to pose a question.

 
 
 
 

How To Interpret Answers

RTFM and STFW: How To Tell You've Seriously Screwed Up


There is an ancient and hallowed tradition: if you get a reply that reads "RTFM", the person who sent it thinks you should have Read The Fucking Manual. He is almost certainly right. Go read it.

RTFM has a younger relative. If you get a reply that reads "STFW", the person who sent it thinks you should have Searched The Fucking Web. He is almost certainly right. Go search it.

There's also RTFLWFAQ, which means the writer tells you to Read The Fucking Lightwave FAQ. He is almost certainly right. Go read it.

Usually, before things get to RTFM stage, there are multiple more or less polite notes telling you that the info can be found in the manual - resist your urge to answer with witty remarks, you just can't win here.

Often, the person sending either of these replies has the manual or the web page with the information you need open, and is looking at it as he types. These replies mean that he thinks (a) the information you need is easy to find, and (b) you will learn more if you seek out the information than if you have it spoon-fed to you.

You shouldn't be offended by this; He is showing you a rough kind of respect simply by not ignoring you. You should instead thank him for his grandmotherly kindness.

You should realize that RTFM or RTM is a good advice, it tells a few
important things even though it's just 3 or 4 letters:
 

1. This problem i have is widely known, and there obviously is a simple
answer.

2. I really should have been able to figure it out myself.

3. The answer can be found in a book i have.

4. The person who told me to RTM did me a favor by telling me where to
find the answer.

5. I will try to find the answer myself first before trying to steal
his/her time again.

6. Next time i have a question, i will mention that i couldn't find an
answer in the book.

7. By doing so, if i get RTM again, there will probably also be a page
number.

8. If i got RTFM instead of RTM i obviously fucked up big time when
asking the question ;-)

The thing is, usually the people that know the answers are rather busy and writing a long reply will take a way from their already absent free time. Writing any kind of reply is a favor - the writer is giving away
time/knowledge that usually is considered worth money - you got it for free.
 
 
If you don't understand...


If you don't understand the answer, do not immediately bounce back a demand for clarification. Use the same tools that you used to try and answer your original question (manuals, FAQs, the Web, skilled friends) to understand the answer. Then, if you still need to ask for clarification, exhibit what you have learned.

For example, suppose I tell you: "You will need to set up an incidence gradient" Then:

Here's a bad followup question: "What is a incidence gradient"

Here's a good followup question: "OK, I read the man page and  there's light incidence and incidence angle gradients. Is it one of these or am I missing something here?"

 
 
Dealing with rudeness


Much of what looks like rudeness is not intended to give offence. Rather, it's the product of the direct, cut-through-the-bullshit communications style that is natural to people who are more concerned about solving problems than making others feel warm and fuzzy.

When you perceive rudeness, try to react calmly. If someone is really acting out, it is very likely that a senior person on the list or newsgroup or forum will call him or her on it. If that doesn't happen and you lose your temper, it is likely that the person you lose it at was behaving within the community's norms and you will be considered at fault. This will hurt your chances of getting the information or help you want.

On the other hand, you will occasionally run across rudeness and posturing that is quite gratuitous. The flip-side of the above is that it is acceptable form to slam real offenders quite hard, dissecting their misbehavior with a sharp verbal scalpel. Be very, very sure of your ground before you try this, however. The line between correcting an incivility and starting a pointless flamewar is thin enough that most people not infrequently blunder across it; if you are a newbie or an outsider, your chances of avoiding such a blunder are low. If you're after information rather than entertainment, it's better to keep your fingers off the keyboard than to risk this.

In the next section, we'll talk about a different issue; the kind of `rudeness' you'll see when you misbehave.

 
 
 
 

On Not Reacting Like A Loser

Odds are you'll screw up a few times on community forums — in ways detailed in this article, or similar. And you'll be told exactly how you screwed up, possibly with colourful asides. In public.

When this happens, the worst thing you can do is whine about the experience, claim to have been verbally assaulted, demand apologies, scream, hold your breath, threaten lawsuits, complain to people's employers, leave the toilet seat up, etc. Instead, here's what you do:

Get over it. It's normal. In fact, it's healthy and appropriate.

Community standards do not maintain themselves: They're maintained by people actively applying them, visibly, in public. Don't whine that all criticism should have been conveyed via private mail: That's not how it works. Nor is it useful to insist you've been personally insulted when someone comments that one of your claims was wrong, or that his views differ. Those are loser attitudes.

There have been forums where, out of some misguided sense of hyper-courtesy, participants are banned from posting any fault-finding with another's posts, and told "Don't say anything if you're unwilling to help the user." The resulting departure of clueful participants to elsewhere causes them to descend into meaningless babble and become useless as technical forums.

Exaggeratedly "friendly" (in that fashion) or useful: Pick one.

Remember: When you are told that you've screwed up, and (no matter how gruffly) told you not to do it again, it's done out of concern for (1) you and (2) the community.

It would be much easier for him to ignore you and filter you out of his life. If you can't manage to be grateful, at least have a little dignity, don't whine, and don't expect to be treated like a fragile doll just because you're a newcomer with a theatrically hypersensitive soul and delusions of entitlement.

 
 
 
 

Questions Not To Ask

Here are some classic stupid questions, and what people are thinking when they don't answer them.
 
Q: Where can I find a crack for Lightwave?
A: You can't. People in this forum paid for theirs. Piss off.
 
Q: XXXXXX doesn't work
A: This is not a question, and I'm not interested in playing Twenty Questions to pry your actual question out of you — I have better things to do. On seeing something like this, my reaction is normally of one of the following:
    do you have anything else to add to that?

    oh, that's too bad, I hope you get it fixed.

    and this has exactly what to do with me?

 
 
 

If You Can't Get An Answer

If you can't get an answer, please don't take it personally that we don't feel we can help you. Sometimes the members of the asked group may simply not know the answer. No response is not the same as being ignored, though admittedly it's hard to spot the difference from outside.

Also remember that the groups are world wide, so wait at least 24 hours before getting desperate...