On of the first things that was brought up on meta was whether simply asking a puzzle as a question was part of the scope of the site. The consensus seems to be a resounding "yes". However, I've noticed a class of questions that give me pause:

They remind me quite a bit of a segment on the Car Talk show:

The Puzzler

The Puzzler is a radio version of the sorts of questions I listed above. A variation of the rope burning puzzle makes an appearance, for instance. For some time, the Puzzler has also been available online dating back to 1996. This presents a number of problems for this community:

  1. There's a temptation to take classic (by which I mean "old") puzzles from sites like that and repackage them as questions for this site.

    Our plagiarism policy covers copyright concerns, so that's not what concerns me per se. But some people might be strongly tempted to go through the archives and ask each Puzzler one after another for the upvotes. Self answering them would boost the return on investment. Besides being annoying to those of us who have listened to the show regularly over the years, the practice would morally equivalent to becoming a content farm. The same argument would hold for any collection of puzzles.

  2. The radio or a custom website is a better format for posing puzzles than stock Q&A.

    One of the pleasures of hearing a puzzle is the time given to solving it. Whether or not you arrive at the correct answer, it's invigorating to noodle over it. But when the solution shows up shortly after the question, contemplation time is reduced. We might get around the issue with a spoiler blocks requirement.

  3. Once you know the answer, these puzzles become chestnuts.

    We might as well collect these for the benefit of future generations. It will probably be useful to close duplicates as they pop up. But it would be even better if we could advance the state of the puzzling art. Riddles in the Dark was great the first time I read it, but I was bored with them by the time Peter Jackson filmed the scene.

If you ask a chestnut...

Try to add a twist so that even people familiar with the problem have something to think about. That's what I tried to do when asking about the girl or boy paradox. Another possibility is to post the original puzzle and then suggest a variation. (Click and Clack did that with the rope timer problem, for an example.)

If you answer a chestnut...

Don't just stick the solution in the answer without commentary. Perhaps you can dig into the logic more deeply or point out why alternate solutions fail. Be creative. We aren't trying to duplicate content found elsewhere, but improve upon it.

If you see an answer or question that do not follow these guidelines...

Consider an edit or an alternate answer that demonstrates what we are looking for. Don't reflexively close chestnuts; try to improve them.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you; we definitely needed a policy like this but I wasn't sure exactly how to word it. I completely agree, and I'd like to add that puzzles that are similar in mechanics to these "chestnuts" should be closed as duplicate with all due haste, even if they're not exactly the same. For example, if there were animals racing instead of ropes burning (bad example, but you get the idea), it would still be a duplicate. $\endgroup$
    – Doorknob
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 20:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I hadn't even heard of The Puzzler until you said it here. $\endgroup$
    – user88
    Commented May 20, 2014 at 21:27
  • $\begingroup$ Great post. Only thing I don't agree with is the bold "moral equivalent of a content farm" reference. I think we're sometimes too quick to fear that curated content that's made more accessible to many a "content farm". Even if users are pulling the greatest hits from a radio show - which itself was often re-telling or modifying old gems - into an interactive, online format, it's hardly the same as a site that either wholesale reproduces another one, or a site that pays kids 15c an article for definitional claptrap that they think they can squeeze 20c in clicks from. $\endgroup$
    – Jaydles
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 1:21

1 Answer 1


Responses to specific points

I don't see a consensus that the answer is yes — (at this time) 18 people have acknowledged the question by upvoting it, but the answer with the most votes has only 7 and doesn't say what the answer should be.

I don't really get your point about being a content ram. Sure, there are plenty of puzzle collections out there. But it's not as if these collections had original puzzles either: most of them have very few if any. By the same token, you might be worried that someone would flood Mathematics Stack Exchange with exercises from every math textbook.

On posts that don't follow the guidelines: I will keep voting to close questions which I do not find to be suitable Stack Exchange questions (unless we establish a policy that declares these questions to be suitable). Generally, if someone posts a puzzle and nothing else, it isn't a question. What is the question about? Is it asking for the answer? For an explanation of the solution? If I find a way to improve the question, I will — but the problem is that usually the way to improve the question is to make it more specific¹. It's always better to judge questions based on their current state rather than hope that the problems will solve themselves — if the question isn't suitable now, close it, and vote to reopen if an edit has made it suitable.

My take on chestnuts

We're still in private beta (maybe not by the time you read this). I must say that I am strongly unimpressed by this private beta, because it seems that most of the questions are chestnuts. We're building a library of answers that are already on thousands of websites out there. This is completely pointless. I think that during the private beta, we should avoid chestnuts completely. Unfortunately, while the debate has been going on in meta and chat, people have kept posting chestnuts.

I wonder if we should keep the site in private beta for another week or so, and close all the chestnuts and delete them if they aren't fixed when the site goes public. The site won't improve if we don't do something.

Now the chestnuttery isn't the only problem with chestnuts — there is the more general problem of posting “questions” that consist solely of a puzzle. This reminds me a lot of homework questions on many Stack Exchange sites where the asker just copy-pastes² an assignment. These are often bad questions because the exercises are made-up problems which require an ad hoc series of steps to solve. A good homework question would ask for how to overcome a specific hurdle while solving a problem. That's the difference between a dump and a question: a dump is no-effort (which in itself is a reason to downvote but not to close), and does not call for a genuinely helpful answer. An answer that states “the solution is 3” may be technically correct, and answers the dump, but isn't actually useful (except to cheat on a take-home exam). On the contrary, if the question asks “Here's the exercise/puzzle: <problem description>. I tried <technique> but it didn't work because <whatever>. Is there a way to overcome this obstable?” — now we have a real question which calls for generally-applicable answers that tackle the principle that the exercise/puzzle demonstrates.

If you ask a question containing a puzzle, you should explain what you expect answers to be. If your expectation is just a solution, then the question should be declared off-topic for this site: this is a site for questions and answers, not a site for puzzle solving challenges. If your expectation is an explanation of a solution, then you should motivate the question — what is preventing you from solving the puzzle? What techniques have you already tried? If you've seen a solution, what part of it don't you understand?

¹ Example: asking for an explanation with as little math as possible, since the question linked to an explanation that required a bit of mathematical education, and the asker remarked that the solution skirted the limit of his mathematical ability.
² Or scans…

  • $\begingroup$ My phrase about content farms is another way of saying: "We're building a library of answers that are already on thousands of websites out there." Except for whether to close "puzzle dump" questions out of hand, I think we are on the same page here. $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2014 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ While I think that we should have the library of answers here anyway, I do agree that these shouldn't be the only questions on the site, or even the majority. I think the best site would have those questions available while at the same time primarily providing "expert" advice. $\endgroup$
    – user88
    Commented May 23, 2014 at 13:49

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