John Floren

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Posted 2012/4/27

9fans Newbie Syndrome

(9fans is the Plan 9 mailing list)

I recently read a “generic letter to 9fans” which pretty thoroughly encapsulates the experience of someone new to Plan 9:

Hi! I’m new to Plan 9. I’m really excited to work with this new Linux system.

I hit some questions.

  1. How do I run X11?
  2. Where is Emacs?
  3. The code is weird. It doesn’t look like GNU C at all. Did the people who wrote Plan 9 know about C?
  4. I tried to run mozilla but it did not work. How come?

2 days later … I want to simulate the internet. I’m having trouble making an array to hold all the IP addresses. I declared unsigned long a[2^128] but it’s not working?

2 days later …

You people are all so stupid.

2 days later …

I don’t know why you’re so rude when I just ask a few questions. You’re going to have to do without me, I’m going to go learn the FreeBSD version of Linux now.

Now, this hypothetical poster has some obvious problems–he comes in completely uninformed about the system, didn’t even bother to read the FAQ, and acts in a thoroughly entitled manner. It may seem like a strawman, but I’ve actually seen variants of those first 4 questions asked on 9fans over and over.

Everybody has been a clueless newbie at some point. The puppydog enthusiasm, naive questions, I’ve certainly written my own version of that message. And the truth is, if you really want them, Plan 9 actually has X11, and by combining X11 and the Linuxemu package, you can also get Emacs and Mozilla. However, setting those things up is going to require some familiarity with the system first.

In any case, these excited intro posts come up on 9fans all the time. It’s an epidemic. I think many if not most of the old-timers on the list don’t mind pointing the occasional clueless newbie in the right direction, giving friendly guidance, and helping with the dumb mistakes everybody makes to start out. However, when you get somebody coming in like this every week, it’s easy to get jaded. “It’s all right there on the FAQ, and written all over the Wiki, and if you look at the archives you’d see your same questions repeated over and over!”

In the later “emails” above, we see what happens when you bring that overexcited newbie into contact with guys who have seen the same thing every week for the last 10 years. The new guy ignores the advice offered, the old-timers mock him, he gets defensive and starts a flamewar over something stupid (the use of the mouse is a classic). Delusions of grandeur are probably involved too–the most recent one was “I need a 64-bit kernel because I’m going to do computations!“, but I’ve also seen plenty of “I’ll write a newbie guide to explain everything about Plan 9 to new users, now can somebody please tell me how to make a file?” and “The way you guys are doing (something) is just wrong, let me show you the way, I’ll part the Red Sea and lead Plan 9 to the promised land! Now the first thing we do is implement macros to add object orientation to C…”

Eventually this guy leaves. Yeah, he was dumb, but I posted some dumb things when I started using Plan 9 too. He tells all his Internet friends that the Plan 9 people are jerks, plus they don’t even have Emacs! A more updated FAQ would help with some of the, err, frequently asked questions. I also think the website could do with some more extensive information on how Plan 9 is used, who uses it, what you can do with it, what you can’t do with it, etc. It’s not good to be constantly driving away people who are interested in your project, even if all they want to do is win bragging rights in a geeky hipster contest (“Yeah I run Plan 9, it’s pretty underground, you probably haven’t heard of it”)