Andy Lester

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Mark Jason Dominus on the importance of giving fish

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By Mark Jason Dominus, from a talk in 2003, reprinted here with permission. Sadly, it’s still relevant today.

The #perl IRC channel has a big problem. People come in asking questions, say, “How do I remove the first character from a string?” And the answer they get from the regulars on the channel is something like “perldoc perlre“.

This isn’t particularly helpful, since perlre is a very large reference manual, and even I have trouble reading it. It’s sort of like telling someone to read the Camel book when what they want to know is how to get the integer part of a number. Sure, the answer is in there somewhere, but it might take you a year to find it.

The channel regulars have this idiotic saying about how if you give a man a fish he can eat for one day, but if you teach him to fish, he can eat for his whole life. Apparently “perldoc perlre” is what passes for “teaching a man to fish” in this channel.

I’m more likely to just answer the question (you use $string =~ s/.//s) and someone once asked me why. I had to think about that a while. Two easy reasons are that it’s helpful and kind, and if you’re not in the channel to be helpful and kind, then what’s the point of answering questions at all? It’s also easy to give the answer, so why not? I’ve seen people write long treatises on why the querent should be looking in the manual instead of asking on-channel, which it would have been a lot shorter to just answer the question. That’s a puzzle all right.

The channel regulars say that answering people’s questions will make them dependent on you for assistance, which I think is bullshit. Apparently they’re worried that the same people will come back and ask more and more and more questions. They seem to have forgotten that if that did happen (and I don’t think it does) they could stop answering; problem solved.

The channel regulars also have this fantasy that saying perldoc perlre is somehow more helpful than simply answering the question, which I also think is bullshit. Something they apparently haven’t figured out is that if you really want someone to look in the manual, saying perldoc perlre is not the way to do it. A much more effective way to get them to look in the manual is to answer the question first, and then, after they thank you, say “You could have found the answer to that in the such-and-so section of the manual.” People are a lot more willing to take your advice once you have established that you are a helpful person. Saying perldoc perlre seems to me to be most effective as a way to get people to decide that Perl programmers are assholes and to quit Perl for some other language.

After I wrote the slides for this talk I found an old Usenet discussion in which I expressed many of the same views. One of the Usenet regulars went so far as to say that he didn’t answer people’s questions because he didn’t want to insult their intelligence by suggesting that they would be unable to look in the documentation, and that if he came into a newsgroup with a question and received a straightforward answer to it, he would be offended. I told him that I thought if he really believed that he needed a vacation, because it was totally warped.

Mark Jason Dominus has been doing Perl forever. He is the author of Higher Order Perl which belongs on the shelf of every Perl programmer. Follow him on Twitter at @mjdominus.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: The ScatterBrain Chronicles » I agree 100%

  2. If you want to answer the question correctly:

    1. Provide the correct answer.

    2. Provide the reference to the correct section in `perldoc perlre`.

    Anything less is a disservice.

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