The Answer Gang FAQ

Updated Wed Nov 6 EST 2002
Please send any corrections and additions to Ben Okopnik <>

I enjoy very much being on the list; I learn a great many things, burst 
out laughing well more than often and sometimes have an opportunity to 
contribute to the best of my ability.
 -- Didier Heyden in TAG

Table of Contents

  • About The Answer Gang
  • How do I join The Answer Gang?
  • TAG Members' Reference
  • Guidelines For Answering Questions
  • The TAG E-mail Markup Language
  • "What Do You Mean, This Is A List? I Want A Private Answer!"
  • The Answer Gang Knowledge Base

    About The Answer Gang

    The Answer Gang actually started as The Answer Guy - Jim Dennis did this job all by himself starting with issue #13 (the lucky issue for the Linux community, I suppose...) At a certain point, Jim found himself writing the equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica once a month; even with the Answer Gal (his wife, Heather Stern) putting her shoulder to the wheel, it was still too much work. So, in complete desperation (right around issue #55), they were forced to let a crowd of, erm, colorful characters (who immediately put their feet up on the furniture, drank all the beer, and went digging around in the refrigerator) invade their private domain. Most of us are still around - after all, Heather keep refilling the fridge (shhh... don't let her catch on!) - and the whole shebang keeps somehow rolling along.

    If you want more details, here is what the motley crew had to say for themselves (after all, they must have a fair trial before being put up against the nearest wall): The current TAG bios

    How Do I join The Answer Gang?

    OK, most important things first - the beer and the munchies are ours. You leave them alone. Got it? All right then. Chris Gianakopoulos was incautious enough to ask the same thing, back in issue #64 (poor deluded fellow, he's still here...) If you are brave enough to follow his example, here's the answer that he got (with updated links); read it, follow it, and you too may (eventually!) join the exalted ranks of those who have access to the chips and the pretzels. And may the Great Gnu have mercy on your soul.

    A Question About Answering Questions
    From Chris Gianakopoulos
    Answered By Mike Orr, Heather Stern, Dan Wilder
       (?) Where do these questions come from? Is there a central location from
       which all of you retrieve these questions (a repository of some sort),
       or when questions are sent to, does the
       message automatically get forwarded to the members of the Answer Gang?
         (!) [Mike] is a mailing list. The
         subscribers are people who want to answer questions. The public sends
         in a question, all the TAG members see it. Anybody who feels
         herself/himself qualified will send an answer, both to TAG and to the
         querent. We try to include TAG and the querent on any follow-ups to
         the answer; e.g., if another TAG member wants to contradict it or add
         additional information.  At the end of the month, Heather sorts the
         questions and answers, selects threads to publish, and distributes
         them to the Mailbag, 2-Cent Tips and The Answer Gang columns.
         If you want to join The Answer Gang, subscribe to the TAG list at 
         Anybody is welcome to subscribe and offer answers.
         (!) [Dan] Anybody in the world can post (which causes a certain amount
         of spam to clear the spam-filter), and postings are forwarded to all
         subscribers. The list admin may have to approve your subscription, and
         in any case the list server will send you a cookie in the mail with
         instructions for its return.  When the listserver gets your return
         mail (and maybe after the list admin approves your request), you're
         on. List members are asked to copy list responses to the original
         (!) [Mike] There is also an "inner circle" of TAG volunteers who
         have a greater commitment to keeping TAG functioning and also offer
         other technical advice to the Gazette. These people are listed on
         the LG home page.
       (?) When I once asked a friend how I could ever pay him back for some
       side jobs that he gave (software stuff), he told me "Don't pay back --
       pay ahead". So I am just attempting to pay ahead the gift of knowledge
       that all of those fine authors of textbooks, Linux Gazettes, and other
       stuff have given me.
         (!) [Mike] "Pay ahead" is exactly right, and I've never heard it
         expressed that way before -- thank you. We all volunteer what we know
         so that somebody will help us when we need it.
       (?) P.S. Keep up the good work! Also, let me know if this email has
       been sent as clear text -- I have set up my Microsoft mailer to do
         (!) [Dan] It arrived as clear text.
         (!) [Heather] Yeah, now if you could give us the steps you did for
         that so we can put it into the FAQ... hey Chris, welcome to the Gang!

    TAG members' reference

    You will receive questions from the querents, and answers and discussion from other TAG members. Feel free to jump in with your own answer at any time, or to add to an answer if you feel something is incorrect or missing. Anything you don't feel qualified to answer or don't have time to answer, just delete.

    Be warned you'll get a LOT of mail every month -- 200-400 messages currently. You may want to follow Ben's suggestions for setting up procmail to divert TAG mail to a separate folder.

    Also be warned that a certain amount of spam comes through. We have a spamfilter, but it's set more lenient than most because we don't want to take the chance that a desperate querent with a clueless ISP might not be able to get a question through. Never reply to spam. Replying just encourages them to send more since they know somebody's reading it. Do feel free to ridicule spammers on the list, though; the funniest spams and responses are published on The Back Page.

    There is also a second list, tag-admin. This is for people who want to take a more active role in Linux Gazette besides just answering questions (i.e., it's where the Editor posts appeals for volunteers). Tag-admin is also used for discussion which is not to be published, such as questions about whether to publish an item. All TAG members are invited to subscribe to tag-admin at Unlike the TAG list, tag-admin does not accept posts from non-subscribers.

    Web archives of TAG mail are at and The archives are password protected for the sake of querents who wish to remain anonymous. If you are an Answer Gang member and don't know the password, e-mail the LG Editor.

    Guidelines For Answering Questions

    Always check the To: and Cc: addresses when you reply. Always reply to both the querent and linux-questions-only at It's easy to accidentally drop off one or the other. Dropping off the querent means they'll have to wait up to a month for their answer, IF it gets published and IF they can find it among the three columns. Dropping off TAG means it won't be published--the Editor Gal can't publish what she doesn't receive. It doesn't matter whether you put both addresses in To: or put one in Cc:, just make sure you include both somehow. A few common scenarios:

    The mailing list software prepends a blurb to TAG messages:

    You've asked a question of The Answer Gang, so you've been sent the reply
    directly as a courtesy.  The TAG list has also been copied.  Please send all
    replies to <> so that we can help our other
    readers by publishing the exchange in our monthly web magazine Linux Gazette,
    +-+ Original question from: "Que R. Ent" 

    Leave this blurb in your reply. The reader may ignore it, but at least there's a chance they'll read it and realize what The Answer Gang is and that they're going to be published. As well, should the querent's address be lost somewhere in the process, it's easy enough to copy and paste from the above.

    If your mailer allows you to add custom headers you can help the script put the right name next to your answerbubbles. Add this to your outbound TAG mail:

    X-gazette-tag: yournick

    Replace "yournick" with your own preferred nickname; for instance, Jim Dennis is JimD.

    It's okay to answer something that you don't know all that well, but improved greatly if you tell the reader how it is that you're looking for the information, and give some juicy links where we can learn more about the subject at hand.

    Try to stick to answering Linux questions. We don't bother to publish non-Linux questions unless they are a lot of fun. (After all, LG's goal is to make Linux a bit more fun.)

    We're real people here, just answer conversationally, like you are right there with them.

    Remember, you're not just answering the querent, you're composing a message that will help thousands of others. So go ahead and throw in related information that somebody in that situation would want to know, even if the querent doesn't need it directly.

    It's perfectly fine to trim the original message down to only the fragments which you have an answer for. Definitely snip off any HTML attachment they might have accidentally provided. But it is okay and even desirable to leave the ">" quoting marks intact.

    Go ahead and use your own signature block as you normally would.

    The TAG E-mail Markup Language

    These are tricks for composing your text reply so that it remains readable as e-mail while also giving our Editor Gal's script some hints how to format it as HTML.

    What started it all: when you *emphasize* or _enhance_ words they get EM tags. It isn't too bright about _book_titles_ though.

    Use plain text. Wrap lines at 72 characters if your mailer has a setting for this. Put a blank line between paragraphs, and don't indent the first line of paragraphs.

    Leave the mailer's ">" marks in front of the querent's message fragments that you are replying to. This is used to determine when the speaker changes so the speakbubbles can be added. Avoid the quoting style of putting the other speaker's name at the beginning of every line!

    If you don't like the subject the reader used (for example, no subject, "Help me pls", or something equally generic) do not replace the Subject: line itself. Instead, in the body of the message, below the heading create a 2 or 3 line paragraph: 1. your replacement subject, 2. a row of two or more tilde (~) characters, 3. (optional) a short extra comment. These will be used to create the index entries. The Subject: line must remain intact because the Editor Gal's script threads by subject.

    Paragraphs that end in a colon (:) hint that the next paragraph should be indented.

    Bullet points which are *) ... asterisk paren ... at the beginning of a line are detected by the script.

    So are numerous types of smilies and unhappy faces.

    Sometimes it can detect small script fragments on its own by spotting comment lines, so commenting your scripts is good.

    Block styling - these hints are typed on a single line before the affected block, and on a single line after to close:

    program listings, log fragments, things to mark up as <PRE>
    Before: ``
    After: ''
    a dark blue CODE block with no hotlinks in it
    Before: `
    After: '
    To turn your example into an attachment
    Before: ===== CUT HERE optional-scriptname.language.txt =====
    After: ===== CUT HERE =====
    Replace "language" with sh, perl, bash, py, etc. as applicable. If you don't put a name it's okay, the Editor Gal will make one up.
    There must be at least five "=" at the beginning and at least three at the end.
    To turn your example into an attachment (but you think equals look ugly)
    Before: ----- snip here: filename.bash.txt -----
    After: ----- snip here -----
    It's treated just like the one above. The colon is optional.

    If you use angle brackets and ampersands they'll be properly transformed, so you can babble to the poor reader about HTML freely if you need to.

    Fully qualified URLs, like or, will be made into hotlinks automatically.

    E-mail addresses are detected by the script and made active -- most of these end up getting stripped back out, but you don't have to do anything special about them.

    A number of things which the Answer Gang often mentions get automatically marked up with their URL, if spelled correctly, but only once per message. If Gang members think something new should be automatically marked, they should mention it on the tag-admin list.

    "What Do You Mean, This Is A List? I Want A Private Answer!"

    If a querent writes back to you and demands "private service" - as some will - respond to them and Cc: Say that we are volunteers who answer Linux questions so that a large number of people can benefit from the answers. We will withhold their name and/or e-mail address if they request anonymity, but we will not help them if they refuse to allow us to publish the text of their message. (Of course, we are willing to cut out certain paragraphs at their request if the result is still a complete question or followup.) Allowing us to publish the thread is our "payment" for giving them advice.

    If they want a private consultant they should try LinuxPorts' Consultant Guide (, the Linux Documentation Project's Consultants-HOWTO (, or possibly seek paid technical support from the commercial Linux vendors related to their software. Redhat, Linuxcare, and many others offer business level professional services as well.

    If they complain that they didn't know it was going to be published, tell them we have made every effort to make this clear in Linux Gazette and in the replies themselves, and if they didn't read this or got our address from somebody that didn't tell them our policy, we're not responsible for that. Tell them we are very interested in knowing how they heard about the Gazette, so that we can follow up with the person or webmaster who gave them an erroneous impression of what the tag address is for.

    All TAG members--please submit a short description for yourself for the TAG Bios page, linked from The Answer Gang column of recent issues.