Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Linux Newbie Replies: WFM?

I published this one at, I think, in 1999. * * * * *

The Linux Newbie Replies: WFM?

Skilled computer users nowadays often tire of newbies asking questions that are fully answered in the available documentation. "Why are you asking me this?" they ask. "Why don't you Read The Fricking Manual?" That phrase, oft repeated (usually with a stronger F word), has formed a rut in the earth and is now known simply by the acronym RTFM. For more detailed documentation of this acronym, see

This acronym deserves a second look, however. Let us think back to its roots. Some of us may remember the corporate heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, when managers would put programmers on the spot with their own famous acronym, DYRTM (short for "Didn't You Read The Memo?"). In those days, many managers were liberal arts majors, journalism graduates, lawyers, and other verbose individuals who could easily crank out memoranda twice as fast as the programmers would read them, and about four times as fast as any ordinary individual could understand and apply them. So it was child's play for such managers to concoct new policies and procedures, and then yell at the programmers for failing to memorize and worship these endless piles of engraved dogma.

Yet observe how the worm turns! With the aid of this snide DYRTM acronym, management won the battle -- but it lost the war. Computer people took careful note of the way in which a simple, honest question could thus be turned aside with a smart-ass bureaucratic response. And now that the rug is getting worn out in the other direction, with managers traipsing down the hall for advice from computer gurus, we hear the mighty response: Ha! Take that, capitalist pig! RTFM!

Of course, programmers are generally more reasonable and logical than their managers. So rather than get dragged into another generation of tug-o-war with the so-called managerial elite, the discriminating programmer might consider several regards in which RTFM somewhat overshoots the mark. The general idea, here, is to observe that cute phrases, like profanity, are only useful when they are reserved for radical souls who know how to make a point with them. When everyone starts saying "Way, dude!" or "Go to hell!" or "RTFM!" indiscriminately, these terms begin to lose their impact, and someone must think of new verbal devices to take their place.

Let us consider, then, the following instances in which a newbie, upon being accosted with a shout of RTFM, might validly retort by saying WFM:

1. What Fricking Manual? In the late 1980s and early 1990s, WordPerfect had a marvelous manual and excellent tech support. By contrast, Microsoft assigned the production of manuals to a separate division, which would charge a separate price for them. This had great efficiency from the producer's point of view, but most users predictably did not wish to spend $30-50 or more for a manual in addition to the already high prices they were paying for Microsoft software. (Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the so-called online help files that accompany Microsoft programs are often not as helpful as the books that Microsoft would like to sell you.) So for casual users of many Microsoft programs, and for other software that follows Microsoft's concept of documentation, it became much less obvious that a person could or should find and consult a manual.

2. Which Fricking Manual? The documentation for Linux and its affiliates, associates, parents, subsidiaries, siblings, friends, neighbors, and offspring (including Unix, Emacs, X-windows, and four bazillion other Linux-related programs and operating system variations) would now fill Yankee Stadium; and for newbies staring at a Linux command prompt, it is not always clear which of those commands, shells, or programs is (or should be) at work. Given that, RTFM is often inefficient advice. Users will reasonably resist the idea that they should spend four days seeking the answer to a relatively trivial question. It is not crazy to suggest that the expert who has the answer should provide it -- or, better yet, should point to the best source of documentation for questions like that one. Indeed, RTFM may aggravate the problem in some cases, where the user is asking dumb questions because of some emotional problem (e.g., lack of confidence that s/he really can make this program work). In such cases, a harsh reply is worse than none at all. It's worth pointing out that everyone's a newbie in one way or another.

3. Why not write a real Fricking Manual? After fifteen years of assembling PCs, I am here to testify that few things are more amusing than being told, by a native Arabic speaker at some PC clone shop, that I should just RTFM, which happens to have been written by a native Chinese speaker. Even today, amazingly, there are still producers of computer hardware who have not yet discovered that journalism majors -- the type who used to become managers -- are available cheap, and in many cases would be delighted to justify their liberal arts eductions by rewriting the company's impenetrable, alien manuals and Web pages in scintillating, entertaining, thoroughly absorbing English.

4. Where's the Fricking Manual? By this point in the game, I may not have succeeded in installing a working version of Linux, but I certainly have accumulated a list of 916 Websites containing tons of useful information, often phrased in ways I do not understand (probably because they do not tend to parallel the concepts that, for better or worse, I inherited from Microsoft). Call me crazy, but I begin to suspect that not every software engineer in this world is half as good with the written word as s/he may think. Let us learn from the example of lawyers: someone can use complicated terms about subjects that other people have never heard of, but that does not prove that this person knows what they're doing, that they make any sense, or that they are providing a genuine service to humanity.

5. Who needs a Fricking Manual? It is remarkable that, in an era of holograms, high-quality video, and million-color graphics, people still think we should all be learning by reading words scratched on parchment. Just imagine how you'd feel if someone required you to communicate by spelling out every word you say, one letter at a time! I mean, you could do it, but you'd probably refuse to. Similarly, we appreciate users who are excited about computers, who develop a taste for extremely rapid, hands-on learning -- but then we yank them up short and say, "OK, now it's time to read the manual and become bored and confused." Small wonder they balk! Many times, when we hear RTFM, we are dealing with a computer expert who will not, or cannot, understand and respond to the reactions that a piece of hardware or software is generating in a human mind.

No manual -- not even the Bible -- is written so well that it can keep its readers from forming their own sensible or nutty ideas about what it says. RTFM -- like "No way" and "Go to hell!" -- is sometimes a valid and reasonable response; but often it is a revealing comment on the personality of the speaker, or at least on the existence of some bad bureaucratic influences in the speaker's past. I regret that we had so many DYRTM-spouting MBAs floating around our corporate corridors in the 1980s; I only hope we can get over them.

It does seem bizarre, I agree, that developments in software (both the actual complexity of the programs and the ways in which players like Microsoft market them) should produce a situation in which people no longer know how, when, and where to consult the relevant manual; but that does seem to be the case at present. I hope it doesn't stay that way, though. I say that because, at this moment, I need some answers about Linux and I really have no idea where to get them, other than to write to this one helpful guy named Igor.