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Based on these proposals, it seems that the developers of Stack Exchange are trying to prevent "bad questions" from getting into the system:

The first stops those users who try to game the rep system by asking lots of mediocre questions, while the second attempts to prevent those users who consistently ask poor questions from continuing to ask (note that these are different).

These are two classes of bad askers, but there are bound to be more examples. What kinds of question askers are parasitic on the Stack Exchange network?

(The main reason I ask this is that in order to have successful changes to the question or rep system, we need to know just what kinds of users we wish to discourage)

EDIT: Most of the answers so far are great for Stack Overflow, but not so much for other sites on the SE network (why do those on Cooking need to have debugging skills? :P). Anything that is more network-general would be a much better answer to this question....

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If people answering weren't always falling over themselves to post same-same answers instead of admonishing poor quality and duplicate questions, it wouldn't be so bad –  random Apr 6 '11 at 19:52
    
@James: What are you calling me? ;) Obligatory link: despair.com/cluelessness.html –  Billy ONeal Apr 6 '11 at 19:57
    
    
@random: Indeed. It's hard to know whether to downvote otherwise-reasonable answers on terrible questions. I usually don't. I assume there's already been a meta discussion on that topic, though. –  Josh Caswell Apr 6 '11 at 20:29
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The real idiots are the ones who pity upvote such downvoted questions... –  Aryabhatta Apr 6 '11 at 21:07
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@Josh, you shouldn't judge the answers on the merit of the question. –  Lance Roberts Apr 6 '11 at 21:52
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@Lance: You're right, of course. I just have a reflexive "Why are you 'helping' this idiot?!" / "This doesn't really help anyone." reaction to the answerers of poor questions sometimes. –  Josh Caswell Apr 6 '11 at 22:15
    
Should this be tagged "bad-questions"? –  Andrew Grimm Apr 6 '11 at 22:51
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@Billy so you are proposing to understand the problem before looking for the solutions? Mhhh.. interesting... –  Aleadam Apr 6 '11 at 23:33
    
@Aleadam: Yes -- my only concern is that this process stinks of "the waterfall model" :P –  Billy ONeal Apr 7 '11 at 6:25
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closed as not constructive by animuson, jonsca, Martijn Pieters, ChrisF, Bo Persson Nov 15 '12 at 15:25

As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. If you feel that this question can be improved and possibly reopened, visit the help center for guidance.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

15 Answers

up vote 42 down vote accepted

Ones who ask-and-forget.

Usually it's unregistered users with 1 whole question in their entire history. Sometimes they have multiple unregistered accounts. They never post comments and never accepts answers. It's especially the lack of feedback which strikes me. I personally try to avoid posting answers on this kind of users because it would be a waste of effort (unless it's an interesting question which is not been asked before yet, of course).


Update: since september 2011 it's no longer possible to ask a question without registering the account first. This has dramatically changed the statistics in a positive way. I'm experiencing this myself as well.

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Most of these questions also need some clarification, so I've started leaving comments on questions that look like they could be of this type. Then I check back over the course of the next day or two. If the user's been logged in over that time, and there's no reply, I don't bother with the question any more. –  Josh Caswell Apr 6 '11 at 20:11
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@Josh: exactly. On this kind of questions, I usually post a comment for clarification rather than editing the question. No feedback == no answer. –  Chichiray Apr 6 '11 at 20:15
    
I dunno, I kind of like these users. Some of my highest-rated answers are from these poor, confused, forgetful folks. Maybe I'm biased? –  Charles Apr 6 '11 at 20:37
    
@Charles: If you answer one of these "orphan" questions and someone else finds your answer useful enough to upvote, then I think that's great. It means there's value being added to the information repository. I've just decided not to bother answering myself. (Though I do sometimes answer good, old, unanswered questions that I have a solid answer to.) If you find it good to do, then please carry on! –  Josh Caswell Apr 6 '11 at 22:09
    
An example: stackoverflow.com/questions/5580827/… –  systempuntoout Apr 7 '11 at 13:06
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@system: Yes, a potential good example. The question is poor. The account is unregistered and the last visit was the exact post time of the question. The user didn't bother to peek around at the site to smell the culture and read other questions, etc. –  Chichiray Apr 7 '11 at 13:08
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Users who don't know what debugging is.

They paste a huge block of code, point out that it doesn't do what they want, and they believe that, by the sheer magic power of their skill, an "expert" is able to spot the problem, even if the problem is not in the code at all.

These users usually really don't know better; they often didn't have any training in programming.

They don't deserve to be treated badly, but their questions are a problem. They take up a lot of the community's time - you essentially have to show them how to debug their code step by step. There will be long comment threads like:

  • Does text.txt exist?
  • Ah, okay. When you read it, how many lines do you get when you do a count() on it?
  • Does the call to xyz work out?
  • Does xyz return errors?
  • Does abc actually return a or b? What does def contain?

apart from taking up a lot of time, their questions are usually way too localized to be of any value for future generations.

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Then perhaps you should consider writing a decent blog post explaining these newbies how to do so properly and come back if it still doesn't work ;P –  Ivo Flipse Apr 6 '11 at 21:06
    
@Ivo it's an interesting idea. It would need detailed tutorials on a per-language basis. –  Pëkka Apr 6 '11 at 21:17
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On top of that, users claim that their code block "does not work" - many of them don't mention how it doesn't work, post an error message or even realize the difference between syntax errors and a runtime errors. –  Kobi Apr 6 '11 at 21:18
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That said, I don't see a big problem with this type - they do take some work, but I don't think that's exactly the problem the question id trying to deal with. They really do need help, they aren't just trying to score some points. –  Kobi Apr 6 '11 at 21:21
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@Kobi yeah, they don't need any punitive measures - although if they don't get it the first few times, I will eventually start downvoting them. –  Pëkka Apr 6 '11 at 21:23
    
@Pekka, you can try and set up a community maintained blog, it would be a nice way to have users sent of to read these posts first when their questions are closed. ;-) –  Ivo Flipse Apr 6 '11 at 21:24
    
That would include 80% of devs out there! ;-) –  IrishChieftain Apr 6 '11 at 21:28
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I disagree somewhat with this one. The real problem is that the person doesn't know what the right question is. It's perfectly possible, though, as you note, some work, for members to address the implicit question of debugging. The asker is really only "bad" if e refuses to accept help on that and insists "i know what im doin, just show code plz" or the like. I think the solution is just to try to address the implicit problem, the way we do now. Those members who are willing to do this kind of tutorial work do so, and others simply don't. –  Josh Caswell Apr 6 '11 at 22:23
    
@Josh I see your point, and it's clear these are absolutely not pathological "help vampire" cases. But in my experience - I've been in many a one-on-one session - people don't learn debugging from these sessions. At least, that's my impression - I can be wrong. There certainly are those who say "ah, cool" and return a week later with a similar problem. Also, the sheer number of these kinds of askers is somewhat tiresome. Maybe I'll write up a debugging tutorial one of these days, and start sending everybody there ... although I'm sure there already exist good ones. –  Pëkka Apr 6 '11 at 22:28
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@Josh - While some people legitimately have a difficult problem in their code and no idea where it is or how to ask about it, most that I've seen just seem to be lazy developers who throw up their hands at the first sign of difficulty. When they get a good response, it just encourages others to have people here do their thinking for them. Also, the lack of identifying information in the question means that it probably will benefit no one else, because others won't have a means of finding it in a search. –  Brad Larson Apr 7 '11 at 2:12
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Example –  SLaks Apr 10 '11 at 16:52
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Copy-and-paste, "Give me a tutorial or complete example"

These users don't seem to understand simple coding tasks like conditionals, loops, and, well, plain old logic. They don't seem to understand what they are doing, and why the code they're "writing" works (or breaks). As a result, they come off as either new coders, lazy coders, or coders that are entirely over their head and lost. These are not students, and their tasks are not homework.

They seem to operate via copy-and-paste. They need hand-holding tutorials with plenty of example code in order to perform their tasks, because everything they do is based entirely off of that example code. "Tutorial or complete example" is effectively a code word for "give me the codes."

The questions are usually complex, multi-step odysseys that are hard to actually accomplish. They usually arrive in the form of "How do I write this complete application? Please send me a tutorial or complete example." When asked to show their progress so far, they are frequently unable to do so, usually again insisting that they need an example/tutorial.

While there is nothing wrong with asking for or providing example code, the frequently broad nature of the user's questions makes them extremely difficult to answer. Pointing the user to the documentation, even when the documentation contains examples is ineffective for various reasons.

While I'm not sure that I'd classify this type of user as a "parasite," the low-quality nature of their questions causes many of them to be closed or downvoted, though this rarely serves as an effective deterrent. (Further, it seems that the worse the spelling and grammar, the faster the close. I'm not going there.)

The "require minimum reputation" proposal would impact these users directly, as they rarely earn upvotes and almost never answer other questions.

The "cap rep from questions" proposal would not impact these users as frequently, as most of them don't seem to be in it for the rep, and would take a very, very long time to reach a sane cap given their low-quality, downvote-ridden questions.

Further, outside of more aggressive closing and downvoting of this type of question, I'm not sure that there can be any deterrent. These users either do not want to learn, or are unable to learn. Manuals are useless. Links to reference material are futile efforts.

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No, you're right, they're parasites. –  random Apr 6 '11 at 20:35
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Literally, yes. To the site, I'm not so sure, as they do get shut down regularly. (I have also fixed my post, stupid copy/paste...) –  Charles Apr 6 '11 at 20:39
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Unfortunately I know this type very well. Their motto is "just try until it seems to work". That's how they end up with stuff like int param = new Integer( Integer.parseInt( req.get( "param" ) ) ).intValue(); –  biziclop Apr 6 '11 at 21:35
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@random: That's the appropriate word IMHO: I've had a colleague like that, who managed to keep their programming job for a year, despite being completely unaware of loops and utterly confused by the simplest conditionals ("what do you mean, if (DEBUG){ blah(); }?"). My guess was they had some powerful blackmail up their sleeve. I'm convinced they C&P'd their problems back and forth between a newsgroup and their IDE (this was before SO), with a dose of cargo-cult programming thrown in. –  Piskvor Apr 7 '11 at 9:11
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Broken Design Traps

Often I read questions, even simple ones, that when accompanied with code shows that the user needs more than just how to do concatenation or whatever else they're asking. They need an architecture review. They don't understand how to combine 2 strings, and you could show them, but they want to combine those strings in order to create a dictionary of integers to use in some obscure math function in order to access a delegate method in some class that makes absolutely no sense. And they can't even fully articulate their goal anyway.

You can either answer their question and then face 14 more questions in the comments for all the edge cases they just created, or you can try and correct their design just to have them reject it because they don't understand inheritance, code blocks or something else.

Either way, I really want to help these guys, but I'm just answering individual questions not providing consulting/design services.

The worst is when this isn't obvious from the beginning. You answer their question and then they slowly expose more of what they are doing and why your solution doesn't fully work in their bizzaro code and you just want to run away. But now you're trapped! So you constantly reply and edit your answer trying to guide them to the light. Then they post/accept their own answer which is still incredibly wrong but is along the lines of "I decided not to do that awful thing but instead misuse this other library and it kinda works!"

And you shed a tear for their users.

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These askers are much like the ones @Pekka mentioned, except that I'm not sure it's possible to help them. At some point, I guess you just have to say "This is way outside the scope of your original question. Please post a new one." –  Josh Caswell Apr 6 '11 at 22:43
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It's ​a trap! –  SLaks Apr 7 '11 at 15:25
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I'll start with the easy one: homework copy-pasters.

Neither of these measures are likely to stop them, as they're unlikely to hang around for long and there are only so many assignments they can be given in a semester.

Update: I really thought this was the most obvious one, so obvious that I forgot to give a reason. Well, here we go then.

Putting all my ethical concerns aside, it doesn't help in building a useful database of programming knowledge. As problems, they are highly artificial, and they often come with artificial constraints, which means that the chance of their later usefulness is practically nil. They're usually so basic anyway that even if they were applicable to other situations, the value of information gained from the answer would be very little.

I'm quite keen on helping people who are stuck with their homework, but I have very little time for those who literally just paste the assignment without even a single word of "please help me", or "I'm stuck" and expect an answer. And unfortunately the latter outnumber the former by 10 to 1 at least.

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Hey, they're better than the ones who ask us to do their homework without copy-pasting anything! –  Gabe Apr 6 '11 at 19:53
    
@Gabe True, but those questions are at least closed quickly. –  biziclop Apr 6 '11 at 19:54
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@biziclop Can you elaborate on why you think that a homework copy/paste is bad for Stack Overflow? I know why it's bad for the user, and why it's bad for the school, but I don't know what trouble arises from Stack Overflow getting a wealth of clearly-worded and prepared problems with accompanying answers. –  Phrogz Apr 6 '11 at 20:27
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Homework copy/paste is bad. "I'm having trouble with my homework, here's the task and here's my progress. I goes wrong on line four..." is a perfectly answerable question, because it opens the door for a great answer that will help the user understand. It's basically the polar opposite, and I wish it happened more. "Halp it's broken" and "this is what I need to do, help!" are useless and unanswerable. –  Charles Apr 6 '11 at 20:35
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@Charles I think we have different ideas about what the copy/paste is. If it's people copy/pasting their terrible, broken code and asking why it doesn't work, I agree that this doesn't provide much benefit to SO. If we are talking about students copy/pasting the homework question itself and asking for help on solving the problem, I don't see an issue (for SO). –  Phrogz Apr 6 '11 at 20:42
    
@Phrogz, I was just going for clarity there. We don't want to lump the rare good homework question in with all of the rest. –  Charles Apr 6 '11 at 20:44
    
@Phrogz Fair point, I updated my answer. Silly me. –  biziclop Apr 6 '11 at 20:48
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@Phrogz: It's a big red flag when the author doesn't show he's put any effort into solving or even understanding the assignment. But rather than continuing that discussion here, I encourage you to read: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/10811/… –  Shog9 Apr 6 '11 at 20:49
    
@Charles At least they make the effort to type a sentence while asking the question. That's a start. Not a very good start, but a start. Most of them can't even be bothered to do that. –  biziclop Apr 6 '11 at 20:53
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People who ask overly broad and non-detailed questions about basic topics.
Example

Good questions should be at least a little bit more specific than a Google search for csharp sqlserver.

A better beginner-lever question might ask how to do some non-trivial task in SQL Server with C# (eg, updating 100s of records per second) or add some obscure limitations (eg, .Net Micro Framework, or no non-HTTP network access).

By contrast, here is an example of a poorly-asked, but useful question.

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  • those that belong to the Emperor,
  • embalmed ones,
  • those that are trained,
  • suckling pigs,
  • mermaids,
  • fabulous ones,
  • stray dogs,
  • those included in the present classification,
  • those that tremble as if they were mad,
  • innumerable ones,
  • those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
  • others,
  • those that have just broken a flower vase,
  • those that from a long way off look like flies.

source

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+1 At last! Now I finally understand the role of fantastical magic-realism in one or two decisions around here... ;) –  MarkJ Apr 14 '11 at 11:34
    
As for #6, I have yet to see a bad-question-asking unicorn. (OTOH, on SO, nobody knows you're an unicorn) –  Piskvor Apr 14 '11 at 14:53
    
Discriminating against mermaids? My lawyer's will hear about this! –  Arda Xi Sep 23 '11 at 21:27
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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  Rosinante Sep 23 '11 at 21:37
    
+1 for this one! believe it or not, this taxonomy was in my research methodology textbook! =) –  aL3xa Sep 24 '11 at 1:51
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The one how think they know English, but don't.

Somewhen, the do it by Google translator, Somewhen the do even worst and translating it themselves and It nut problem as it-self, but it kinda cross some line where a question was so not much poorly as phrased that it is harder to understand it as ti was, or maybe even worst, it is much easier to miss-understand it as it should be.

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Best answer for make benefit glorious website of Stackoverflow. –  Basel Shishani Dec 2 '11 at 16:21
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Somewhen is actually a real word. It's Middle English and still in common usage on the central South coast of England, mainly Southampton, Portsmouth and Chichester. –  ben is uǝq backwards Aug 26 '12 at 22:36
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NEED HELP! URGENT!

I DONT KNOW HOW TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION!!!!! PLEASE POST A COMPLETE ANSWER ASAP

Above all, these are the ones that get on my nerves. They ask something usually broad, ask for complete working code, don't give a clue of what they did until now (probably nothing) and, above all, think that their time is much more valuable than the time of the rest of the users.

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You obeyed the rule where something making fun of someone else's grammar has a grammar mistake in it. :) –  Andrew Grimm Apr 7 '11 at 3:35
    
To be honest, I don't think they're lazy, as googling is less effort than asking a question. I think they're too stressed out to be thinking straight. –  Andrew Grimm Apr 7 '11 at 3:36
    
Which one was it? I'm full of grammar errors! Although I've been living in the US for six years now, English is not my first language. –  Aleadam Apr 7 '11 at 3:38
    
I agree, I don't think they're lazy, I truly think they believe that their time is more important than anybody else's –  Aleadam Apr 7 '11 at 3:40
    
In your quotation section, "DONT" without an apostrophe is bad English, and you can see the grammar error you made by looking at the answer's edit history. –  Andrew Grimm Apr 7 '11 at 3:41
    
Ah, OK. That was intended! How can I see the history? Nevermind. I found it. Shame on me ;) –  Aleadam Apr 7 '11 at 3:42
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Also: the idiom (at least where I live) is "get on my nerves". Also also: "code" is a mass noun, so you should say they "ask for complete working code". Usually I don't mention these things but it sounds like you're interested. –  intuited Apr 12 '11 at 2:14
    
@intuited fixed! Yes, of course I'm interested: It's the only way to improve my English. Thanks :) –  Aleadam Apr 12 '11 at 4:14
    
The classic "PLZ GIVE ME TEH CODEZ" approach :-) –  Daniel Serodio Sep 23 '11 at 21:01
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People who don't say (or, worse, don't know) what language, server, UI framework, or other system they're using.

Example (now deleted)

This is especially common in C#, where people frequently don't say what UI framework they're using. (Although it's usually WinForms in such cases)

Worse example

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It's irritating, but don't you find it can usually be fixed with a little discussion in the comments? In the context of this question, this answer is veering towards completely excluding beginner questions from StackOverflow, which seems harsh. –  MarkJ Apr 14 '11 at 11:27
    
@Mark: The askers do not always answer. I don't think this is veering towards completely excluding beginner questions; only relatively few beginner questions have this issue. –  SLaks Apr 14 '11 at 11:55
    
Maybe 10% (from roughly random sampling) of questions tagged visual-studio aren't about Visual Studio but one of the many languages programmable with it. It's like tagging notepad for HTML problems. –  MPelletier Sep 23 '11 at 20:28
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Similar to the broken design trap mentioned already -- which I call the chameleon questioner because the question keeps changing -- is the pipeline questioner whose most recent answer feeds his next question.

When you look through the pipeline questioner's question history, you will see each step of their project. We all need help on things, but this user isn't taking the time to research their own project and asking the community to do it for them essentially start to finish. What makes these users dangerous is that since their code example are based on other people's work, they really don't fully understand the code they give you nor the surrounding code you don't see: it appears as if they understand more than they do.

Each of their questions individually look legitimate, but when taken as a whole and seen as a pattern, I wish something could be done to discourage people from essentially tricking the community to write their project for them.

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We're never going to totally rid SO of nuisance questions. Capping reps one way or another is not an answer. Karma is an amazing thing; next time we go to slap someone on the wrist for seeking a quick fix for their homework, it might be worth remembering that they could one day be the programmer who sinks the project we're attempting to manage!

SO is give and take like everything else in this life. So, instead of hitting out, bear in mind that we could be talking to a one-day great programmer (best of whom are the laziest creatures on planet Earth anyway).

I propose we all read the following two SO Question and Answer guides by Jon Skeet:

http://msmvps.com/blogs/jon_skeet/archive/2010/08/29/writing-the-perfect-question.aspx

http://msmvps.com/blogs/jon_skeet/archive/2009/02/17/answering-technical-questions-helpfully.aspx

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The people I'm talking about would sink my project whether I solve their homework for them or not. In fact, they're more likely to do so if they pass their exam. –  biziclop Apr 6 '11 at 23:27
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Moreover, great programmers aren't lazy at all. Or at least they're only lazy in a specific sense of the word: "There's no way I'm gonna do this, I have to find a simpler solution." is the laziness of a great (or even just a decent) developer. "There's no way I'm gonna do this, I'll get someone else to do it." will only earn you a promotion to management. –  biziclop Apr 6 '11 at 23:32
    
It's the repeat offenders I'd like to offload - we're all guilty of lucking for a quick fix when under pressure, not to mention that some guys' native tongue isn't English? –  IrishChieftain Apr 6 '11 at 23:33
    
@biziclop +1 for the management gag ;-) –  IrishChieftain Apr 6 '11 at 23:34
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Your proposal is not particularly helpful. We already know how to ask good questions. They (the people who ask poor questions) would never read those links, and I would question whether or not they're even capable of understanding their content. –  Aarobot Apr 6 '11 at 23:47
    
@IrishChieftain Mine isn't either, so I know how it feels. Well, sort of. But I don't think this should be about slagging off people who annoy you. I try to be as helpful as anyone, but there are people who only see this as a point-scoring game or just don't seem to put in any effort in a question at all. –  biziclop Apr 6 '11 at 23:53
    
@Aarobot, one of those links deal specifically with how to answer questions. As for the other, I would argue that if we don't know how to ask an SO question, we don't know how to answer one - consequently the two links. My main point is that I am as guilty as most devs on SO of losing patience with the user when a little understanding goes a long way. We're not the SO police, nor should we ever be. –  IrishChieftain Apr 7 '11 at 0:20
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@bizclop, I agree. I think the root of the problem is that anyone with an email address can set up a temp account and bombard the system. We really need an innovative (and universal) auth sytem. We could throw in an IQ test but that would be construed as discriminatory against would-be politicians ;-) –  IrishChieftain Apr 7 '11 at 0:29
    
Isn't discrimination against would-be politicians mandatory? –  Chris Walton Apr 14 '11 at 19:31
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Sooner or later we will receive something like this:

Good Day,

My name is Dr Adam Linx, a staff in the Research Section of a well-known software vendor, here in San Francisco, U.S.A. One of our machines, contains 2700 MLOCS of extremely valuable software codez. But the original developer, named Frank Mills, died of a stroke on the 9th of March 2009 without providing us with the passwords.

Since then, nobody could have done anything with these codez because we are unable to retrieve the passwords and as such the machines keep their secrets from us.

Because we don't have the right equipment to decode the password, I have decided to find a reliable foreign partner to deal with. I therefore propose to do business with you. You give us access to your fastest machines, so we can use your sophisticated equipment to decode the password and give us the codez. In return you get 1% of the codez, which is 27 MLOC filled with highly usable and valuable codez.

Because of the confidential nature of this transaction, we ask you to delete all logging (especially those of the mail server) and leave the machines on 24 hours a day.

This transaction is totally free of risk and troubles as the transfer is legitimate and does not originate from hacking, illegal downloads, terrorism or any other illegal act.

On your interest, let me hear from you URGENTLY.

Best Regards, Dr Adam Linx Program Manager [Phone Number Removed]

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...and it will be deleted within 90 seconds. –  SLaks Apr 7 '11 at 15:08
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Not really relevant. –  Andrew Grimm Apr 9 '11 at 1:12
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The ones who don't give enough context.

Type 1: "Is it true that (random factoid)?" Why do you think it might be? Where did you hear this? What similar facts/factoids have you compared it to already? (This isn't likely to come up on SO, but we get it from time to time on Mi Yodeya where, for example, someone will describe a practice we've never heard of and ask a question about it.)

Type 2: Omits important details. We see this on The Workplace sometimes -- "what should I do in such-and-such circumstance?" and the answer depends on your role, how long you've been there, what your manager actually asked you to do, etc, and none of that is mentioned.

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Here's a simple one

Askers who tell you that there's a problem or error in their code, but they don't tell you what the problem or error is.

They don't tell you whether it's a compilation error or a runtime error, or whether they're just not getting the output they want.

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