On Good Questions

Someone sent me an email this morning thanking me for answering his questions over the years. It happened to be someone whose name always
makes me perk up, because even though he nearly always asks questions and rarely answers, he nearly always asks really GOOD questions.
If you're not addicted to answering questions on USENET, then this may not have occurred to you, but there are certain people who mostly or entirely ask questions, yet are still welcome names to me when they pop up.
So, even though the subject has been gone over in length, I thought I'd publish _my_ guidelines for what makes a good question to me, and why I appreciate seeing them. I'm about to push "send" and I'm not entirely happy with what I've written -- but what the heck, it's drooled out of my cerebrum, through my fingertips and onto my editor screen, and I don't want to just delete it now. So here goes:
1: Ask questions that can be answered:
"How much string do I need to bind up a 50-pound bale of alfalfa?" is a useful question, compared to "how much string do I need for a bale?"
Mostly, asking a question that can be answered means supplying enough information to the experts so that they can give you a meaningful answer. Counter-examples would be things like:
"Should I use and IIR filter or an FIR filter" (this doesn't anything about the available processing power, or about performance constraints that may put more weight on one filter or another -- it's like asking if a motorcycle is better than a car).
"What emitter resistor should I use with a 2N3904?" (without knowing the circuit it's in, any answer would be meaningless).
"Is H-infinity control the best design approach?" (without knowing how much information you have about your plant, whether it's strongly nonlinear, how much it'll vary in practice, and a host of other factors, there's no way to tell).
2: Ask for guidance, not for your work to be done for you:
"My boss wants me to implement a left-handed franowitz by Tuesday. Please respond with schematics and code." Personally, I'm happy to do the work that your boss needs done -- as long as I'm under contract to him, and as long as I get paid.
"Given a triangle with sides of lengths 8, 9 and 10, what is the area? Find an answer without using integration." I am absolutely, positively, not going to do your homework for you. "I'm having trouble finding the area of a triangle given the lengths of the sides, can you suggest an approach?" will get you lots of help. Barfing out homework problems and insisting on solutions won't.
Note that I (and many others) will NOT do your school work for you, even for money. I've had one person approach me about work that appeared legitimate, then turned out to be doing the core work for a graduate degree. I was not amused, except for the faint ironic humor of having him stop emailing me anything at all when I informed him that I'd be happy to get under contract if I had written authorization from his thesis advisor, and could he please supply me with contact details?
The reason that we won't do this is twofold. First, we're not rats. Second, even if our consciences had been surgically removed, most really competent engineers don't like working for incompetent managers, and intensely dislike working for incompetent managers who cheat. If you can't do your technical homework at all, then you probably aren't cut out for engineering. If you know this, and you try to get it done for you, then you'll only be fit for management, and then you'll only be the kind of manager with a reverse-midas touch who turns everything he touches into raw sewage.
3: Ask for specific answers
"I need to design a filter in the z domain. How do I do it?" You might think "take three years of signal processing courses at an accredited engineering school" or "read this pile of books" followed by "then do what comes naturally" is a facetious answer -- but it's not that far off track. Some questions just have answers that are book-length or longer, and you're not going to get an answer in a newsgroup posting.
When that happens you either need to narrow your question down, or go away and start studying. Incidentally, one good way to narrow down your question is to respond with "clearly I need to narrow down my question -- what do I need to tell you?"
4: Don't get too obscure/don't ask us to do too much work
Asking some specific question about a hearing-aid processor, or asking a question about equation 73 in some obscure scientific paper generally means -- unless you're very lucky -- two things: one, that no one knows the answer, and two, that figuring out the answer will take an inordinate amount of time.
If you can phrase the question in more general terms, then you'll bring it more in line with guideline 1.
5: Work with us
If you ask a question and someone comes back with a request for clarification, be polite and informative. Don't get all bent out of shape. Don't assume that everyone is against you -- we don't know who the hell you are, we're only judging by the questions you ask and your responses to our posts.
Sometimes you'll ask a question and it'll turn out to be entirely the wrong thing to ask ("how do I patch a hole in a tire", for instance, may have the answer FOR YOUR SITUATION to "stop driving over the spike strip"). I do this myself, and it can be frustrating to be told that I'm asking the wrong thing -- but on the other hand, finding out that I don't need $500 worth of electronics or machine tools that can be solved with a Popsicle stick and a whack with a big hammer really is to my benefit.
6: Stay engaged
This will get lost in the smoke, but one of the more frustrating USENET phenomena is when someone whose never posted asks a question, gets a bunch of responses on the order of "that's interesting, tell us these exact particulars", and then never responds.
We're working for you, but we're not working for money. We're working for satisfaction -- even coming back on and saying "thanks for your effort, guys, I found the answer somewhere else" will give us more satisfaction than not saying anything.
--

Tim Wescott
Wescott Design Services
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wrote:

Yes.
Good questions have value, because they make us look into things we might not have thought much about before; that sure works for me.
I agree about bad/fuzzy questions, and people who post once and never respond afterwards. Posting a schematic is immensely clarifying, both about the content and about the poster. You can tell a lot about a person from his schematic.
--

John Larkin Highland Technology Inc
www.highlandtechnology.com jlarkin at highlandtechnology dot com
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And don't ask questions that can easily be answered with google. Example - What is the maximum collector voltage of a 2N3904?
tm
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On Sat, 09 Aug 2014 16:08:40 -0400, Tom Miller wrote:

Good point! Google is your friend. lmgtfy.com is _my_ friend, at least when I'm feeling snarky.
--

Tim Wescott
Wescott Design Services
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I like Ixquick.com for searches. It uses google but no google hands in your pocket.
tm
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Example >-

Unless it is one of those where Google turns up three different values, differing by two orders of magnitude, and you need some explanation as to the differences!
Charlie
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On Sun, 10 Aug 2014 06:22:16 -0700, the renowned Charles Edmondson

Like SPICE model parameters for the same part.
Best regards, Spehro Pefhany
--
"it's the network..." "The Journey is the reward"
snipped-for-privacy@interlog.com Info for manufacturers: http://www.trexon.com
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Yes, that is a good point. But at least the OP has put some small amount of effort for his part.
tm
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On Sun, 10 Aug 2014 06:22:16 -0700, Charles Edmondson wrote:

By definition, then, it's not a question that can be easily answered by Googling.
I try to preface my questions in such cases with "I Googled but came up with all these contradictions".
What really leaves me shamefaced is when I Google for something that ought to be easy and don't come up with anything. Then I'll get on here with "I Googled, but..." I generally include my search terms, sometimes what I'll get in response is someone's _good_ set of search terms on the subject, and then I'll be off and running.
--

Tim Wescott
Wescott Design Services
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On 8/9/2014 2:39 PM, Tim Wescott wrote:

Very happy to have you guys around. SED is the reason I actually pay for usenet instead of using the free versions. best investment I make. I talk to my colegues and they dont even know what a usenet is.
Is it like facebook? :) yeah its like facebook without the pictures. :)
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You might know about this, but a guy named Eric Raymond has published a similar guide. It's a little bit more geared to programming and software questions (he writes a lot of open-source software) but lots of it applies to hardware design as well, IMHO. http://www.catb.org/esr/faqs/smart-questions.html
Jeff Liebermann in s.e.d has a short list of questions that is in this
or one of... https://groups.google.com/forum /#!original/sci.electronics.design/SLZkev2ZDwc/dsG89aacLUQJ <https://groups.google.com/forum /#!original/sci.electronics.design/SLZkev2ZDwc/dsG89aacLUQJ> http://is.gd/S6PEMF

One item I would add to any of these lists is to not be afraid to say if you're running up against non-disclosure agreements or similar legal things. Sometimes people can't supply too much detail for commercial reasons, but it can be hard to distinguish "I can't give you that detail because I don't know" from "I can't give you that detail even though I know it" without a statement like that.
Another piece of information that sometimes is helpful is volume. Are you making one or two widgets by hand for some special need, or maybe to learn how that widget works? Or are you going to make a couple hundred of these a year? Or are you selling it to GM or Dell, millions a year, and every nanopenny/square millimeter counts? (The guy doing one or two by hand probably doesn't want to know about a $300 FPGA that only comes in a 500-ball BGA package and needs $5000 of dev tools, and the guy counting nanopennies doesn't want to know how to do it with DIP op-amps and 74xx TTL.)
Matt Roberds
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On Sun, 10 Aug 2014 01:08:33 +0000, mroberds wrote:

SLZkev2ZDwc/dsG89aacLUQJ

SLZkev2ZDwc/dsG89aacLUQJ>

I knew that what I was writing had been done before, but I thought I'd throw out my own twist on it.
Your additions are on-point and welcome.
Your comment about volume is actually one of the first things that I'll ask a prospective customer -- if space and power consumption is unlimited, and they're building one, I tell them they'll get a very different answer than if they need to build 100,000 of them, or if they need to fit the whole solution into one cubic inch.
In fact, I recently wrote a chapter on systems design for a handbook on project management, and we made sure to devote some space to cost/benefit trade-offs for large-volume production vs. low-volume production.
(And I had this same sort of exchange with a customer recently, who shall remain nameless. They have a product that's going to have volumes in the tens or maybe hundreds a year, and they wanted to hand-build a PC board to do some heavy-duty number crunching, in a box where there was plenty of room for a PC-104 or similar board. We eventually all agreed that my algorithms would live on a PC, but only after investigating both custom- built hardware and semi-custom hardware.)
--

Tim Wescott
Wescott Design Services
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On 09/08/14 21:39, Tim Wescott wrote:

<snip for brevity>
Those are good guidelines.
I'd add another:
Ask in clear, correct English (or whatever language is appropriate for the forum in question) - or as close as you can manage. We are all aware that English is not everyone's first language, and are quite happy to make allowances for difficulties with the language. But when asking a question, you should do your best, and not make obvious mistakes - that means using a spell-checker, avoiding SMS abbreviations, and getting capitalisation and punctuation roughly correct. If the question is easy to read and understand, it will get more answers.
And ask politely!
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On Sun, 10 Aug 2014 14:10:43 +0200, David Brown

I still think that your requirements are a bit harsh.
I am working with companies with offices all over the world, in which practically none (including me) are native English speakers. The main point is getting the message through, not the linguistically correct constructs.
I would encourage to use simple item lists instead of trying to make correct sentences like
* the schematic is this kind (e.g a URL) * voltage is ... * current is ... * shall I do this ... * shall I do that ...
Also when answering such requests, avoid long and complicated sentences and idiomatic phrases, use numbered item lists etc instead. if the OP (original poster) is not very comfortable in English.
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On 10/08/14 15:01, snipped-for-privacy@downunder.com wrote:

I agree on that - but some people write in a way that very much hinders the message.

Lists like this are not a bad idea - and I agree that keeping things simple is a good plan for people who are not strong in English (or when replying to people with limited English). Some posters like long, rambling messages that are hard to comprehend for native speakers (I have probably been accused of that myself!).
What I /really/ detest is people who write things like:
i have a problm!!!! cn U pls help???
I don't care how much detailed information they give - when people write like that, the only help they will get from me is advice on writing correctly. Such posters could well be native English speakers.
It is a very different issue from not mastering the English language - I too deal with non-experts every day (and I live in Norway, speaking good but imperfect Norwegian). Occasionally a poster will write something incomprehensible because of language difficulties, and we should try our best to help out with that.
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On Sun, 10 Aug 2014 16:01:20 +0300, upsidedown wrote:

There's a wide, and easily detectable, gulf between someone who's native language isn't English and someone who grew up in an English-speaking country but can't be bothered to put a decent sentence together. The difference between a native English speaker who can't be bothered to write well and one who is just a poor writer is narrower, but (I think) usually still detectable.
Really crappy word choice, spelling, and syntax, embedded in a document that presents ideas in a clear, complete, and logical order is a lot easier to read than perfectly spelled, impeccably constructed language that can't keep to the same thesis from one sentence to the next.
--

Tim Wescott
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Whose* :-p
Tim
--
Seven Transistor Labs
Electrical Engineering Consultation
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On Sun, 10 Aug 2014 16:49:37 -0500, Tim Williams wrote:

Yes. Exactly. A non-native speaker would have almost certainly gotten that one correctly.
--

Tim Wescott
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On Sun, 10 Aug 2014 16:01:20 +0300, snipped-for-privacy@downunder.com wrote:

[Snipped by Lyons]
Hello mysterious upsidedown, Using correct language and using correct grammar *ARE* important!
Three days ago I bought a special bottle of German Hofbrauhaus beer. On the back of the bottle is a paper label that said, "This beer has a harsh aroma."
The word "harsh" has a negative, unpleasant, connotation. What they should have written was: "This beer has a strong aroma." or maybe "This beer has a powerful aroma." In any case, one wrong word, "harsh", sends the wrong message!!! Even punctuation is critical. For example, what's the difference between the following two sentences?
"Let's eat, grandpa."
and
"Let's eat grandpa."
Mr. upsidedown, set your standards high, not low.
[-Rick-]
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Absolutely. Or how about:
"Don't, stop, don't, stop!"
and
"Don't stop, don't stop!"
?
--
Randy Yates
Digital Signal Labs
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