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I do not wish to sound ungrateful as I am aware that without this AU I would be pretty much lost. However, sometimes the only answer has been "give up and reinstall" which might solve the problem but would not help me understand why the problem happened.

I understand that reinstalling would fix all sorts of things. I understand that I manage to find some pretty weird ways to break my system. However what I really want to know is what the true problem is. I want to fix it myself for two reasons.

  1. I want to learn.
  2. This isn't Windows.

I know it's broken, I figured that out; what I want to learn is what is broken and why (and what I did wrong so I can know better next time).

I can't help but feel that answers such as "reinstall and don't worry about it" do not fit with the goal of compiling a solid resource of domain specific knowledge. I appreciate that reinstalling can be a reasonable cure-all and alternative solution if someone is in a hurry but I'd like to know how to seek more specific answers.

I worry that either I am asking less than optimal questions or I just have a knack for breaking the most obscure possible parts of my system. If my question is very obscure and no one really knows, I am fine with being told that.

I've put off saying anything because I am aware that the experts who are able to answer my questions know a lot more than I do and, frankly, I don't want to sound ungrateful. There is always a chance that my communication is less than ideal and that is no-one's fault but mine.

What is the best way to ask questions such that I can clearly indicate that I have no intention of giving up and reinstalling but really want to understand the problem (and then fix it)? And, if I do get such an answer in the future, what would be the best and most friendly way to say "thanks, but that's not what I was asking"?

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    Could you maybe give example(s)? – Zanna Jun 5 '17 at 4:30
  • I hesitated to include the most recent one as it was not a clear-cut example and there is some dispute over the question itself (I feel that the duplicate flag is wrong, for example). However, it was what finally prompted me to enquire if I should ask better questions: askubuntu.com/questions/921175/… – Matthew Brown aka Lord Matt Jun 5 '17 at 14:47
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    hmm I may be wrong but I believe that just changing the sources list can cause package conflicts. I agree that installing afresh is better, because it's difficult to deal with a messed-up package-management system - but I guess if you are always prepared to reinstall as a last resort you can fill your boots when it comes to tinkering. Lots to learn that way. But if your system is broken in complex ways it's your playground; if others can't reproduce your situation, they can't have fun finding solutions. I think something like that is one reason some questions don't get the desired response – Zanna Jun 5 '17 at 15:15
  • There is every chance that you are right. – Matthew Brown aka Lord Matt Jun 5 '17 at 15:26
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    "I've used chmod on all my files". Reinstall it. "That's not a solution. I want to know what I can do to fix it". You can't fix it. In future, don't chmod all your files. Reinstall it. – user12753 Jun 7 '17 at 8:22
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    There's a fine line between a good answer and insanity, sometimes. The answer a person might want is the correct CHMOD values for every file in the system and how to apply them to in-use files, but that's also insanity as @DrEval points out. – music2myear Jun 7 '17 at 16:13
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    But unlike a complicatedly broken package manager, "oops I didn't mean to type a space before|after / in this chmod command!", is very reproducible. And sometimes the consequences are fixable without resorting to reinstall. It depends on the exact command – Zanna Jun 7 '17 at 18:10
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    @DrEval false. You can recover most of it with apt-get --reinstall How can I revert a chmod on the etc directory? – Braiam Jun 8 '17 at 18:16
  • @Braiam False? You seem to have confused me with someone who was talking about just the files in the etc directory! Whoops! – user12753 Jun 8 '17 at 18:22
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    @DrEval no... that's the second most important directory which has all those special permissions (/etc/shadow) which are crippling (can't login/startup the system). The other are the s/bin ones. I've been able to recover a system just by enabling the root user in ~30 minutes. – Braiam Jun 8 '17 at 20:44
  • @Braiam - interesting. You say 'You can recover most of it with apt-get --reinstall' this seems to suggest that the command fixes rather than a complete reinstall. Can you tell me more about this or point me to a good resource - thanks – kerry Jun 10 '17 at 1:45
  • @kerry no, it doesn't "fixes" anything... it just downloads and unpack/configure everything which has the effect of, well, setting brand new files with their correct dependencies, like new. – Braiam Jun 10 '17 at 2:09
  • @Braiam - thanks, sorry to be a pain, but is that just for OS, or applications or everything and is it safe. Thanks again – kerry Jun 10 '17 at 2:34
  • @DrEval walking a new user through restoring all permissions would be a nightmare, so I would not recommend that. Reinstalling is last ditch effort for sure. Instead, why not suggest the user restore from backup? Keeping regular backups is good practice and getting caught without backups is an event one must learn hard lessons from. Why not help users learn about backups before they lose something which can not be replaced? – takatakatek Jun 14 '17 at 12:36
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    @takatakatek if they have a backup, they would almost certainly have used it. There's nothing more annoying than being told to restore from your most recent backup while you're busy kicking yourself for not making a recent backup. I think rather a lot of us need to make that mistake (at least) once in order to reform our careless ways! – Zanna Jun 16 '17 at 11:42
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1 How to deal with this kind of answer

I usually see “reinstall and forget about it” in two types of situation:

  1. From inexperienced users.

    Like you said they're rarely helpful. Of course anyone can reset the entire system and pray the issue vanishes. Feel free to down-vote these into oblivion or even flag them as unsalvageably “low quality”.

    If the question asks for an explanation (on top or instead of a solution) or if the underlying issue is likely or even guaranteed to reoccur after a successful reinstallation you may also want to add a comment or even flag the post as “not an answer”.

  2. From experienced users when a fix would likely be more complicated than a reinstallation.

    These often contain at at least a short rationale why a fix would be unreasonably complex and/or time-consuming. I generally like to keep those because making good decisions about economy of time is an important part of technology and engineering.

    Of course you can ask for a more detailed explanation of the underlying issue explicitly if you want to rule out this type of answers.

2 How to ask questions that discourage this kind of answer

In general state clearly that you're not or not only looking for a solution but an explanation. This will render any reply that provides little more than a suggestion to reinstall “not an answer” (which you should flag as such, see above).


If you're looking for specific recommendations, can you please provide examples of questions that attracted such answers and where you would have liked to see more explanation? Maybe we can point out a thing or two that could be improved about the question(s).

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    I would recommend against flagging this type of answer though. Downvoting might make sense, but not flagging. "You will have no reinstall" is an answer and not just nonsense, which is mostly what the very low quality flag is for. – terdon Jun 5 '17 at 9:33
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    Here's an example of 2. – Zanna Jun 5 '17 at 9:39
  • @Zanna: I thought of the question but didn't want to put words into OP's mouth. – David Foerster Jun 5 '17 at 9:40
  • I must confess when I break things it is often a type 2 situation. Your line "not only looking for a solution but an explanation" is genius and, with your permission, I will deploy it liberally. – Matthew Brown aka Lord Matt Jun 5 '17 at 14:43
  • @MatthewBrownakaLordMatt: Watch out for answers that address the explanation part with "impossible to say without a lot more details". While that's no explanation it still addresses the question in a valid albeit unsatisfactory way. – David Foerster Jun 5 '17 at 15:22
  • I think OP has troubles with the answer example of your Situation 1. Those are quite useless and similar to the "just use Mint" attitude. – Andrea Lazzarotto Jun 5 '17 at 21:02
  • The "inexperienced" and "experienced" user is quite a subjective term. If we're judging only by reputation on the site, it's clearly says nothing about experience in the field. I've been blown away by couple answers in the past from low-rep users only to find out that they're professional developers/sys.admins with 20-something years of experience. I also agree with terdon. Flagging is for things that have problems in their content. If it's something that you read and don't like/agree with, vote it down. – Sergiy Kolodyazhnyy Jun 6 '17 at 10:40
  • @SergiyKolodyazhnyy: When I say "experienced" I mean with Ask Ubuntu (or Stack Exchange in general) and I use the term loosely and not inherently related to reputation. – David Foerster Jun 6 '17 at 10:41
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  1. I want to learn.

Great ! That's the right attitude.

  1. This isn't Windows.

That's not quite the right attitude.

I know it's broken, I figured that out; what I want to learn is what is broken and why (and what I did wrong so I can know better next time).

I can't help but feel that answers such as "reinstall and don't worry about it" do not fit with the goal of compiling a solid resource of domain specific knowledge.

Exactly, they don't. And that's exactly the point. While there's people that consider Ask Ubuntu a documentation site sort of like "wiki" (and over time I sort of submitted to this idea myself), but people often forget that on the other side of the screen there's a real person with a broken computer, and they need help. And sometimes the long route of "fixing" everything is just too troublesome.

Such answers are usually given as quick and dirty fix, or in cases where OP has messed up too much...so much that if this was their job they'd loose it in no time. So, instead of me giving you a lengthy lecture, here - that's a solution that will give you a working computer, and get you up and running.

I appreciate that reinstalling can be a reasonable cure-all and alternative solution if someone is in a hurry but I'd like to know how to seek more specific answers.

There's no special way. Just ask. Put in bold: People, I want to know why this happened and how to fix it. You know what is great about kids ? They ask "why ?" all the time. So be a kid, beat the answerer with "but why?" question over and over till they give it to you or confess that they've no idea.

And again, reinstalling isn't a cure all. It usually goes back to my previous point that it's all about getting the "customer" a working computer. So you need to tell people that you also want to learn. What you ask usually matches the answers you get.

I worry that either I am asking less than optimal questions or I just have a knack for breaking the most obscure possible parts of my system. If my question is very obscure and no one really knows, I am fine with being told that.

Breaking is part of learning. That's how I've learned the ropes around Ubuntu. Ask anybody in Ask Ubuntu General chat. And seeking help with breaking things is also part of that, which is why your questions are welcome on the site, but again - you also need to learn how to ask.

I've put off saying anything because I am aware that the experts who are able to answer my questions know a lot more than I do and, frankly, I don't want to sound ungrateful. There is always a chance that my communication is less than ideal and that is no-one's fault but mine.

What is the best way to ask questions such that I can clearly indicate that I have no intention of giving up and reinstalling but really want to understand the problem (and then fix it)?

Again, there's no best way. Just say so. Put it in bold. You'll get answers that give you the long lecture on how to fix it by hand, or you'll get an explanation of "Sorry, it's unfixable" or "Sorry, it will take ages to fix it by hand". Remember to beat the answerers on the head with "why?".

And, if I do get such an answer in the future, what would be the best and most friendly way to say "thanks, but that's not what I was asking"?

It's already friendly. Leave a comment that their answer isn't useful. That's what I usually do. Communicate with people. Downvote if you want to express that the answer isn't useful whatsoever. If you have a line in your question that asks about learning and avoiding reinstalling, point them to it and say "Hey,buddy, I think you missed this part of what I asked."

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    A useful additional bit of information is to say that you don't mind the computer being broken for a bit longer. Clearly stating that you have time to spend on this should help reduce "quick fix" answers AND should help make it clear to answerers that they might need to spend some time on it themselves, explaining everything. – Falc Jun 8 '17 at 6:21

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