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Stupid stumpers and good questions

by ELISHEVA (Prior)
on Sep 07, 2009 at 13:11 UTC ( #793947=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

Today we finally had a run of "real questions".

I don't know where the recent batch of "interview/homework questions" came from, but it was a relief to see some questions whose answers I actually cared about. Maybe ssandv is right and those tiresome questions really were interview questions asked either during a take home quiz or after the interview. Maybe they were part of a "are you a real programmer/how well do you know Perl" quiz that is making the rounds on a programming site or email circuit not generally frequented by the regulars here. Maybe some professor or team leader was handing out problem sets and told the students/team members to check out Perl Monks if they got stuck. Whatever the source, they all fell into the category of questions I call "stupid stumpers".

So what makes a "stupid stumper" different from a real question? For me, "real questions" are connected in some visible way to a person, their passion, their learning process or their work responsibilities. Or it has significance in the wider world, for example, a bug to report, or a chance to show the PM community at its best.

In a stupid stumper, there is nothing beyond the question and answer. The OP (original poster) hasn't bothered to tell you what they think the answer is or why they know it doesn't work. The sample data says nothing about the life outside of the question. The preamble doesn't tell you why the OP even cares about the answer. Even if it isn't a quiz question, it stands on its own like a page from a quiz book.

A good answer to a good question leaves one with an ego boost: "Hey! I know that!". But with a stupid stumper all I'm left with is a dull nagging feeling. If the answer is obvious, the question seems so unmotiviated that I wonder why I even spent time on it. If the question really stumps, the answer is usually so remote from a real use case, I wonder if this is the geek version of "Stupid Dog Tricks" and I've just become the dog. Since I don't like either feeling, I mostly ignore stupid stumpers.

Here are some examples of questions I consider "real".

"I thought this should work, but it doesn't...": I like these questions because they are really three questions in one. (a) why might the person be assuming that lead him or her to think X should work? (b) what really will work? (c) how do you get the person from the old way of thinking to the new way of thinking so they don't make the same mistake again? What I also like about these questions is answering them requires a healthy measure of both human and technical skills and the ability to integrate the two. Sometimes making the connection between someone's misunderstanding and the "right way" can be educational in itself - it can help jog me out of standard ways of thinking.

"Is this a bug or is it me?" If you've gotten beyond "it's broken" and come to this question, it means you've thought about the way things do work and the way things might work. Sometimes a second pair of eyes will quickly see a mistake the OP has made. We've all been there and it feels good to help someone get unstuck. But just as often, these turn into discussions about documentation, design, and sometimes a bug report or two. When it really does look like a bug, these questions give us a chance to work together as a team to solve a problem. I love watching that. One monk will contribute benchmarking. Another will try write up some more scenarios and post code. A few monks with different versions of Perl will try to reproduce it. Someone will mine the bug reports and Perl release notes.

"Why is this design better than that one and what are my other options?" These questions can win or lose for me. If they are asked purely in the abstract, I'm not much interested. But if the poster also mentions a real life problem, or some area of design they are learning and trying to get a better handle on or spends time synthesizing diverse opinions and real life experiences into a well-written essay, then my interest perks. A little bit of grounding can start a really great discussion and I get to see the perspectives of many different monks, building on and offsetting each other.

There are, of course, many other types of "real" questions.

The recent run of stupid stumpers has made me realize how much PerlMonks depends on the quality of its questions. Good questions let PerlMonks develop as a community. They keep the teachers-in-spirit among us engaged. They keep the learners (which are often one and the same) growing. Too many of the wrong sort of questions would likely have the reverse effect, causing people to eventually drift away and look elsewhere for entertainment and learning.

It also makes me realize that good questions and "stumping" people have little to do with each other. So the next time you think your question is too "dumb" to ask, think twice. If it is *your* question tied to a real problem and you made a fair effort to check whatever documentation you feel is within your experience level to read, there is a good chance, we'll enjoy answering it. And if you have a "clever" question, think twice. Unless your question is motivated by something more than "This stumped me", it is likely to end up being just another "stupid stumper".

Best, beth

Replies are listed 'Best First'.
Re: Stupid stumpers and good questions
by Old_Gray_Bear (Bishop) on Sep 07, 2009 at 22:19 UTC
    "In the Dojo we are all students" -- Posted over the door of the Nippon Kan in Denver, circa 1980.

    The "Stupid Stumper" always has seemed to me to carry an implicit message: "I'm so much better than you; I know the answer to this. You Dont." This sniggering-up-the-sleeve attitude is at odds with my feelings of the Monastery's collegial goals and ambiance.

    I find that it telling that the "Stupid Stumper" questions most often never have any follow-up from the OP. A "Good Question" almost always starts a dialog between the Monastery and the OP. I learn a lot from the Hegelian interplay of Question and Answer. I enjoy watching the way my fellow Monks think. It stretches my Mind to follow their thought-processes.

    I do not get that from a "Stupid Stumper". There may be three or four replies to the Stumpee, but we never find out anything further about the problem. Which of the Answers was acceptable to your teacher/interviewer? What happened when you applied the Answer? What follow-on questions did it generate? Inquiring Minds Want to Know.... A "Stupid Stumper" almost always seems to be a waste of mental CPU cycles.

    On the other hand -- while the Original Question is all to often a piece of slock, the Answers sometimes are Gems ....

    I think the real hallmark of a "Stupid Stumper" question is that it irritates folks. Irritated People start getting Clever. I have seen responses to a Stupid Stumper that are positively brilliant -- in a Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson kind of way. These Answers often cause an extended expedition into the Camel, Ram, Wolf, and The Pearl and also my Stevens, Lyons, and Nemeth, et al. My Colleagues can be purely Amazing (in a 30 degrees off of normal kind of way).

    I am in the Monastery to improve my Art. I hone my talents reading the Questions; I learn from the Answers.

    We are all learning -- or we wouldn't be here.

    Post Script:
    To paraphrase J.S.B. Haldane, "Biologists have a word for people who have stopped learning; that word is 'Dead'."

    I Go Back to Sleep, Now.


Re: Stupid stumpers and good questions
by BrowserUk (Pope) on Sep 07, 2009 at 22:58 UTC

    There are two types of questions, each with two sub-categories:

    • Those that interest me;
      • Those I know the an answer to;

        Of these, I only take an interest if either no answer is forthcoming, or I believe my answer to be in some way better, than those that are.

      • And those I do not;

        These are the best ones. These cause me to think and learn. These I pursue for my own benefit. If that pursuit happens to benefit the OP, that's cool--but it is not a pre-requisite.

    • Those that don't interest me.

    I've stated it before at greater length, but I'm here to learn, not teach; to offer, not impose; to be stimulated, not revered. If anything, I am more frustrated by stock answers--and stock non-answers--than stock questions.

    The really interesting thing about the questions asked by non-Perlers and non-programmers, is that they often ask the stock questions in really interesting ways. With these, the best bit is not the answer to the question, but rather the best phrasing of the stock answer to best serve the questioner. In that respect, this place has probably done as much to improve my analytical & language skills as it has my programming skills.

    Examine what is said, not who speaks -- Silence betokens consent -- Love the truth but pardon error.
    "Science is about questioning the status quo. Questioning authority".
    In the absence of evidence, opinion is indistinguishable from prejudice.
      wow, I just realized I subconsciously break them down that way as
Re: Stupid stumpers and good questions
by graff (Chancellor) on Sep 07, 2009 at 18:27 UTC
    There is an interesting common attribute of the three types of question you like: they all come from people who already have some decent amount of Perl knowledge -- enough to have formed some idea of how things should work and what sorts of solutions they can choose from. Yes, it's always good when people already know things.

    I've been noticing that a lot of SoPW posts are coming from people who admit to being new to Perl and/or new to programming in general. (Maybe it's just me, but it seems like there are more of these lately than there used to be, thinking back over the years.) And sometimes, they present a fourth kind of question: "I need to do this particular thing with this sort of data, and I don't know how."

    That kind can be really "good", when a reply can show a pseudo-code solution, and point out how short and easy the transition can be from coherent pseudo-code to a working perl script. Of course, this often gets confounded by the OP not having any initial code, and replies saying "show us what you've tried", and so on. And of course, sometimes it's just homework or a FAQ. But sometimes it's "real."

      You can usually tell whether the person "knows no Perl" or "has no programming experience whatsoever". The first are usually fine, no matter what language did the person work with before. Except for an occasional "how do I do foo in Perl" where "foo" is not a task, but rather the name of a function in some (often unknown) other language. I generally hate those. I'm pretty certain I could help the person, if only he told us what the heck he wants to do. But I can't know all functions from all languages.

      An example in that other language TOGETHER with the explanation is great, a single function name is useless.

      The questions asked by people with no programming experience are usually ... either so vague that I do not have any idea what is the actual question or requests for a complete script doing something vaguely defined. And I tend to ignore them.

      Enoch was right!
      Enjoy the last years of Rome.

Re: Stupid stumpers and good questions
by ack (Deacon) on Sep 08, 2009 at 17:46 UTC

    At work we commonly use a phrase that, in my opinion, is so overworked that it is basically annoying. I hope it doesn't annoy our monks, but it says "There are no stupid questions; just stupid answers."

    It seems to always be used to try to get folks to be willing to contribute in meetings, seminars, etc. But, in my opinion, it is tiersome and overused.

    Recently, I've been thinking about it...for some reason, whenever ELISHEVA posts it seems to uncannily always be somenthing or other that I've been thinking about. Thinking about the phrase, I realized that I don't agree with it at all. It seems to me that there really can be "stupid questions." I just couldn't put into words what was rambling through my brain. Thanks ELISHEVA for yet again putting into such elegant and wise words what has been on my mind.

    As a couple of the other responders noted, I, too, have been trying to figure out how best to respond to what I consider "stupid stumpers." I have been working on several ideas that have least they have helped at least somewhat.

    The most successful so far for me is that I try to make myself get past the "stupid stumper" overtones/content and try to see if there is still some meaningful and useful part(s) of the question that I can help with or gain from. If I can find such, then that becomes the kernel that I'll try to tackle (and I try to ensure that I note in any response that it is the part(s) that I'm responding to.

    If I can't find any kernels then I try to just ignore the inquiry without flaming.

    As several others have noted, however, I love the /witty/ironic/clever responses that bring a one-up-manship sort of reply to the questions...questions that I can't find kernels of utility to address. I am so impressed with the wit/cleverness of the monestary and it is fun to read those types of responses.

    It tends to make me wish I were more witty/clever...but I can at least live vicariously through the plethora of witty/clever monks in our monestary.

    ack Albuquerque, NM

      I've used that phrase many times at work myself. But that fails to give it proper context. For over 12 years now, I've told new hires, students, and others, something along the lines of: "You may have heard that there is no such thing as a stupid question. I don't subscribe to that view. There are stupid questions. Those are the questions that are asked without effort or understanding." This has generally been part of my "don't be afraid to ask questions" speech for new team members. I want to encourage them to ask questions, but mostly as a way to become unstuck in their efforts. If I'm answering all the questions for my subteam, I'll never get any other work done. I want them to find that fine line between pestering me and getting work done (it doesn't do me any good for them to spend 2 hours deciphering something I can answer in 2 minutes, so long as they aren't asking me something every 10 minutes).

        Thanks Tanktalus, I love the context that you subscribe to. Very nicely and succinctly put. I will try adjust my approach to provide that distinction " encourage them to ask questions, but mostly as a way to become unstuck in their find that fine line between pestering and getting work done...." I love that. Thanks, again.

        ack Albuquerque, NM

      Maybe we need a new category of questions "Stupid Stumpers" and move those questions that qualify over there.

      You know the questions like, "I need to parse XML, please show me your scripts!"

Re: Stupid stumpers and good questions
by arun_kom (Monk) on Sep 08, 2009 at 09:54 UTC
    I am just a lowly monk here, maybe that is why i was a little annoyed at some of the posts of last week ... especially those that seemed like being posted without any effort at all on the poster's part to phrase the question properly or to apply the answers to their previous questions to their very similar new problem. So I very much admired the patience and understanding of the monks who still replied to such posts ... may be qualities a monk needs to cultivate.

    However, i seriously thought that some of those questions deserved nothing more than a pointer to "How do I post a question effectively?" as a first reply, perhaps by the moderator. If they really cared to learn, they would read it and get back with the questions better phrased, or better still, would probably search and find the answer in the archives here. And if they didn't care to, they are better gone.

      ...perhaps by the moderator

      We don't have a moderator. At least, not in the sense that you seem to be thinking. And there's no way for a, um, "user with power" to pin a specific reply above the others. It's all a matter of timing. We can just hope that the first person to reply to the OP says something smart and useful (such as what you suggested).

      Between the mind which plans and the hands which build, there must be a mediator... and this mediator must be the heart.
Re: Stupid stumpers and good questions
by sierpinski (Chaplain) on Sep 08, 2009 at 13:59 UTC
    Having just become "comfortable" with Perl within the last few months, I can definitely appreciate this type of comment. I have two children at home (8 and 5) who are constantly asking me questions about what this is, or how this works, or why this, or why that, etc. I love the fact that they are inquisitive, but I encourage them to ask themselves to see if they can figure out (or even guess) what the answer is, and half the time they end up getting it right.

    I think that there will always be those 'I need to do X and I need someone to tell me how', but when I see the 'Here's what I tried and here's why I think it doesn't work' (which is what I try to do) posts, it seems like someone is honestly trying to make it work first, then when it doesn't, asking the experts for help.

    Great comment, I agree with everything you said!
Re: Stupid stumpers and good questions
by vitoco (Friar) on Sep 08, 2009 at 15:59 UTC

    Ouch! You hit me... Why?

    • When I need help to solve a problem, I tend to isolate it from the context. Maybe too much!
    • When I think that someone should already have the same problem than me, I search CPAN for a module or google the web for use cases. But if I get hundreds of hits, many different modules, I need some kind of filter, then I ask for a hint for the proper module or a common one. Is there a better place than SoPW? My mistake is not to try one or two possibilities first (or fail at the first attempt).
    • I've been using perl for more than 15 years, but got stuck in 4.036's syntax. I may need many lines of code for something that can be written with one statement in perl 5. I could call "code hacking" (or "coding hacks"?) questions to these. Sometimes is fun to learn how flexible perl is, and sometimes get annoyed with oneliners! Is context needed?
    • OOP is new to me, and my first tries in perl 5's modules where based only in theirs examples, which sometimes confuses me on how perl objects work. And RTFMing only confuses me more because of a previous misunderstand of some concepts, and that could lead to a stupid question.
    • English is not my "mother" language. Sometimes is hard to explain what I want to say, and trimming the post to the minimum is the result. (BTW, I'm sorry for my grammar in this post)

    I'm not trying to justify me, just saying that there are many situations that could turn a "real" or "clever" question into a "stupid"-like one.

    Thanks for the post and the replies in this thread, them showed me what I was doing wrong. I'll do my best on next posts... Even if it takes me half of a day to write one!!! ;-)

Re: Stupid stumpers and good questions
by biohisham (Priest) on Sep 24, 2009 at 14:33 UTC
    One of the best features of Perl Monks is this equilibrium with which the imposition of this self-disciplined nature is exercised. It's this practice that keeps the Monastery vibrant and dynamic, you see some node not qualifying enough to the silently agreed upon consensus and you direct the OP to "How to post a node" or tell them to use a certain tag or disable another one, or remind them of The Mantra... etc.

    The reputation of this Monastery wouldn't be blemished for the fact that an influx of NOOBs asking all sorts of questions, call them whatever you may, is taking place. I say this because of the equilibrium state dynamics involved and the push-pulls states that occur from time to time like ssandv's post with regard to interview questions and many other corrective actions that spring up from time to time. Perl Monks is there to stay and flourish and so are the NOOBs once they've caught a whiff of that equilibrium and they can be productive afterwards too, of course there're exceptions for there're those who seek plate-offerings of solutions and they'd ask the same question they sought answer for after a while rather than try expand the logic of. Worse still are those who elect to log in as Anonymous Monks and practice another level of stupidity mixed with misconceptions about the Monkeys being judgmental on them had they logged in with their real identities.

    Now, to the main issue, the observant of the patterns of nodes can tell that ELISHEVA skillfully justified many points as well as the rest of all those who replied. However, I'd like to add that, It is in the human nature to be impatient but many of those ELISHEVA spoke about practice this impatience with a mixture of arrogance, argumentation or a flood of unrealistic questions that may seem to be unrelated to the normal course someone would follow while learning Perl, they question the essential-being of some established rules like they were shooting at Larry Wall for not having presented something or the other according to their capricious whims. It is just like they know better maybe or perhaps that they want to test the Monkeys capabilities rather than find answers, salutes to ssandv for having posted the node about interview questions, salutes to ELISHEVA for having nurtured this interaction from us and hail Perl Monks.

    Excellence is an Endeavor of Persistence. Chance Favors a Prepared Mind.

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