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I don't know how much of a question this is, but something I've noticed is that a lot of users spend a lot of time and effort in attempts to provide content to this site.

A lot of times, the solution is obvious to the puzzle-maker, but not the solvers. This leads to discussion about whether lateral thinking is good & if content quality is declining & wtf, technically, is a riddle.

I don't think there's anyone here that doesn't appreciate the effort that puzzle-makers put in to making puzzles. And, I think we all understand the innate frustration when an answer pops up that was way outside the intended scope of the puzzle.

As an example, this prime hidden in plain sight puzzle was produced in a specific way to elicit a specific answer. This is an approach I never would have considered. I did, however, post an answer. My answer generated a lot of discussion in the comments including the puzzle-maker's frustration -

I DO understand the problem and nuisance of ill-defined riddles, I really do, but it is equally annoying to be confronted with "If I tweak and bend every letter, then this is a valid solution as well" requests for each and every riddle.

Perhaps my answer wouldn't have been submitted if a lot of the puzzle discussion in the question's comments was available in the question when I first read it. I understand clarifications pop up and wording evolves, but when it happens in the comments, a user like me, trying to avoid any additional hints/help, will miss them.

I guess my point is, I don't want the frustration that seems to be building on this site to discourage users from making puzzles. This would be the worst thing that could happen here.

I don't mean to use my example as the only example of this to call out this situation in specific, I see it a lot on the puzzles. I see a lot of users defending their question against non-intended answers and a lot of users defending their answers. I hope this is just in the spirit of the site, but I'm worried it will go beyond that.

I want every user here to know that when you take the time and effort to produce content, answers and especially questions, it is appreciated by everyone. Like any SE site, the user-base is made up of users that dedicate their time and knowledge (for free!) to the whole of the site. Without this, I don't think any SE site would thrive in the way that they do.

I know it's bad form to ask a question or point out a problem without offering a solution, but what can we do to make it more clear to users that their efforts aren't in vain? That the puzzles are appreciated, even when a user arrives at an unintended answer. That when an answer is incorrect, that's just that, not the correct intended solution. It's not really up for debate, in my eyes, but that doesn't stop me from trying to solve puzzles that are beyond my areas of expertise. I find them fun - which is the point of this site, I think?

Sorry, rambling.

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  • $\begingroup$ "I know it's bad form to ask a question or point out a problem without offering a solution" No, it's not. As long as you do it politely, critique of someone's work (or SE post) does not have to include a suggestion for a fix. It's more helpful if it does, sure, but justifiable hole-poking is valuable too. In many cases, only the OP knows what can be done to fix the holes anyways. $\endgroup$ – jscs Nov 26 '14 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ What I intended as good-natured kidding (in the comments to the image/prime question) has obviously come over as annoying pedantry. Apologies to @BmyGuest. $\endgroup$ – A E Nov 26 '14 at 22:16
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I want every user here to know that when you take the time and effort to produce content, answers and especially questions, it is appreciated by everyone.

No.

The time and effort to produce good content is hopefully appreciated by everyone. Some of us are frustrated by the bad content that is produced.

Just because someone has produced an original puzzle doesn't give them a pass. I've been repeatedly frustrated by challenge questions where evidently the asker had a specific answer in mind, but a lot of different answers were possible, sometimes (like in the password question) any answer can be justified.

I DO understand the problem and nuisance of ill-defined riddles, I really do, but it is equally annoying to be confronted with "If I tweak and bend every letter, then this is a valid solution as well" requests for each and every riddle.

If you don't be confronted by “this is a valid solution as well”, make sure that those solution are not valid. A solution is not valid if there is something in the question that contradicts it. What's only in your mind doesn't count.

Designing good puzzles is hard. If you try your hand at it and fail, don't come whining. Learn from your failure.

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    $\begingroup$ "Designing good puzzles is hard" - exploring this is largely what this site is about, isn't it? As a community we are learning about "puzzle" even means (as trivial as that might initially seem), and even evolving ways to decide when they are good or not (when not e.g. purely math-based). $\endgroup$ – d'alar'cop Nov 26 '14 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ @d'alar'cop Exactly. So there will be good and bad ones. Bad puzzles should elicit constructive but negative feedback. $\endgroup$ – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 26 '14 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ I agree completely. I think this is the way forward. $\endgroup$ – d'alar'cop Nov 26 '14 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ Having unintended answers doesn't necessarily make a question or a challenge a bad question (unless it gains like 5 equally valid answers in a short period of time). I think what makes some of those challenges bad is when authors fail to give credit for thinking outside the box. (I do however give a bit of a pass to security questions because they are based on situations where getting the expected answered is important, but because of this I expect them to be thought out well enough that there are fewer reasonable solutions). $\endgroup$ – Warlord 099 Nov 26 '14 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Warlord099 Having unintended answers can be ok up to a point, as long as the author doesn't label them “wrong” rather than “unintended”. But riddles/brainteasers/whateveryouwanttocallthem where it takes all of 30 seconds to find a new surely-unintended-but-strictly-correct answer are not very interesting, and not suited to a Q&A format. $\endgroup$ – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 26 '14 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Gilles, why don't you just skip the ones you find uninteresting? You could set 'riddles' as an ignore tag. $\endgroup$ – A E Nov 26 '14 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Gilles, dog shit on the pavement is a hygiene and safety risk to you, because you can accidentally walk into it. I'm not clear how one accidentally walks into solving a riddle. I don't like most riddles; I find it pretty easy to ignore them. I don't find myself accidentally stepping in them. Also an ignore tag would actually make them disappear (for you), which (sadly) isn't an option with dog shit. $\endgroup$ – A E Nov 26 '14 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ I think the unspoken difference of opinion you and Gilles have here, @AE, is whether the puzzles you're talking about are actually bad content for the site. If they are, then ignoring them is not a satisfactory option, because bad content begets more bad content, by serving as an example. $\endgroup$ – jscs Nov 27 '14 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ Bad content can be found in all sorts of puzzles, not just riddles. $\endgroup$ – pacoverflow Nov 27 '14 at 8:11
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    $\begingroup$ @JoshCaswell, that's true to an extent. I tend to see puzzles which I dislike as being more like sprouts; I don't like them myself, but I don't try to prevent other people from eating them. I don't really buy the "bad content begets bad content" argument, particularly when the "bad" is one person's subjective opinion. And partly I think that if we take the line "anybody who doesn't produce excellent content should not contribute" then that kind of hostility is unwelcoming to everyone (experts as much as novices). Even experts like to experiment. $\endgroup$ – A E Nov 27 '14 at 9:37
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    $\begingroup$ @AE better yet, rather than complain why not just post good content yourself - as I know you personally do :) $\endgroup$ – d'alar'cop Nov 27 '14 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ @AE Actually I came so late the party (not the spaghetti one) that I was referring a little further back :p in particular, back to the point of people complaining about "bad puzzles" $\endgroup$ – d'alar'cop Nov 27 '14 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Gilles - How do you define 'good' and 'bad' for SE content? Surely this is subjective and something for the community as a whole to decide, which is what the upvote/downvote system is there for. $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Nov 27 '14 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ @randal'thor There are generic guidelines; in particular, good content helps future visitors. We refine these guidelines by voting on meta (not by up/downvotes on the main site). $\endgroup$ – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 27 '14 at 22:03
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    $\begingroup$ @AE: You're right, what I said only holds if you can find a category of question that can be clearly defined and that always garners poor responses (where "poor" is defined by the goals of the site). ["What X should I buy?" questions are an example](blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/qa-is-hard-lets-go-shopping, though not one that necessarily applies to this site. $\endgroup$ – jscs Nov 27 '14 at 22:36
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Pre-ramble:

In going about the business of being Puzzling.SE it seems we are going to need to address The Puzzling Philosophy of Puzzles - this is a larger issue than this one question though. But I think the problem you raise is philosophical in nature.

The exact same question (prime hidden in plain sight) also made me ask myself again about the issue of challenges as questions.

I left this comment on a now-deleted answer (paraphrased): "I'm feeling like the question is flawed in the sense that you can equally justify any of the 15 possible primes..." (the number of candidate answers had been quite constrained in hints).

The response was as follows: "Which is the reason for the extensive cross-check part of the question. The argument of 'you can always construct a reason around the solution' is valid for nearly all puzzles. Even things like 2 + x = 1. (Oh, MY solution is i-squared !) "

I left my objection there and wondered about the old riddle debate.

How is this image where there is some cleverly embedded prime number different from a poetic text where there's a cleverly embedded English word?

I'm seeing that the problem is not just with challenges. One can pose (or recast) any challenge cipher, riddle, logic puzzle, etc, as a non-challenge. So, any "normal" question on SE could equally be recast as a challenge. Clearly, the problem is not with challenges.


Answer:

If we as a community decide that a problem has many equally satisfying answers - meaning, as with almost all things, we must defer to a consensus reality - then we provide constructive criticism and consider closing until it is rectified.

If making it unambiguous means giving away the answer, then the problem is simply not a goer for Puzzling - a line needs to be drawn somewhere. It may be extremely brilliant, that doesn't mean it has a distinct unambiguous interpretation or is suitable for humble P.SE (this may be the case for many a riddle).

Speaking of the riddle; if there are so many equally satisfying answers, then please feel free to come up with one and post answer. I hear the claim "there are an infinite number of answers!" to which the response should be "very well then, keeping in mind the satisfaction and explanation of all clues, come up with one!".


Additional Material (tiny philosophy):

I'm afraid the issue of many possible answers will not just be an issue for Puzzling. Frankly, any question you may ever ask anyone anywhere has an infinite number of answers. It all depends on the interpretations. Any word can be interpreted however you like. "Gift" means "something given" in English, but means "poison" in German. Does that make our/their dictionary incorrect? Everyone must fall into some consensus reality when dealing with such matter. Even precious holy mathematics is not immune to this.

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    $\begingroup$ Relevant, and very interesting reading: Making anything mean anything $\endgroup$ – Joe Nov 26 '14 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Joe Thank you. Yes, this is exactly what I was getting at. Anything can be made to mean anything. Even something you'd like to think of as well-defined enough like mathematics or language of any kind. $\endgroup$ – d'alar'cop Nov 26 '14 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ @joe thanks for the link, it is always nice to have some background knowledge. $\endgroup$ – BmyGuest Nov 27 '14 at 8:17
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    $\begingroup$ Re "consensus reality" - it's a particular problem for 'puzzling' though because the puzzle context is often different from that which it appears to be. That's the nature of a brainteaser. 'Puzzling' doesn't provide a subject context in the way that 'Parenting' or 'Physics' does. Also in puzzling the medium is sometimes part of the puzzle, which is not a problem that other sites have. $\endgroup$ – A E Nov 27 '14 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ @AE Perhaps. This is why we a philosophical problem of our very own. There will never be an objective measure objective or agreeable enough to create policy for anything. I say: "Let Puzzling be unique!" - there are other cases of unique SEs. $\endgroup$ – d'alar'cop Nov 27 '14 at 12:52
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I think the root of the frustration, on both sides, is a failure to distinguish between "correct vs. incorrect" and "intended vs. non-intended". Most good puzzles will have exactly one well-defined intended solution, but very few puzzles have exactly one correct solution. Given how few such puzzles exist, and how difficult it is to create new ones (on top of how hard it is to create any puzzle in the first place), I think restricting questions to that latter class of puzzles would quickly bring the death of this community.

I think the better approach is just to be more graceful in handling ambiguity, and disentangling "correct" from "intended" would allow us to do this. Currently, questioners work very hard to align the two concepts, invariably fail, and get frustrated at what they perceive as bad faith efforts to rules-lawyer and exploit unintended loopholes. Meanwhile, answerers become frustrated that their clever, compliant solutions are rejected as "wrong" for reasons they couldn't have anticipated. This doesn't have to happen, as long as we can agree on two things:

  1. Alternative solutions are neither wrong nor useless.

  2. The existence of alternative solutions does not represent a failure on the part of the question writer.

That's not to say there's no value in questioners continuing to engage with unintended answers and offering clarification on what they meant -- for well-constructed puzzles (a group I would put "Hidden in plain sight" in, though I may be biased) I think the intended answer is usually the most satisfying one. (Sometimes someone will come up with an ever better answer than the questioner intended, but for the most part, I think alternative answers make you go "hmm, that could be it" and intended answers make you go "ah, that must be it".) So there's nothing wrong with the puzzler revealing that there's another, perhaps more satisfying solution waiting to be found -- we just need to change the terms on which we have those conversations.

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  • $\begingroup$ A wise answer IMO. $\endgroup$ – A E Nov 27 '14 at 9:58
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    $\begingroup$ It is probably true that "restricting questions to that latter class of puzzles would quickly bring the death of this community", but since the community was originally conceived as a Q&A site about puzzle creation and solution rather than a place to do puzzle creation and solution it isn't the simple dichotomy that that sentence seems to presuppose. The third way would be to try to return to the original concept. $\endgroup$ – Peter Taylor Nov 27 '14 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterTaylor That's true, though I think the question of whether the site should have puzzles-as-questions at all is a separate (and much larger) issue. I suspect the SE as originally conceived is too narrowly focused to be viable, but I'm probably biased there -- that version of the community would be much less interesting to me personally. $\endgroup$ – Curtis H. Nov 27 '14 at 19:10
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I don't necessarily have any issues with broad challenge questions such as Figure out the list of words and Prime hidden in plain site themselves. What I do find annoying is when the authors completely dismiss other acceptable answers because it isn't how they did it.

In the case of the "Prime hidden in plain site" example I thought 313 should have been an acceptable answer given the question. I will go on to further state that answers should NOT have to meet the standards of "Hints/Spoilers". If it is a rule, then it should be stated in the question.

In the example of "Figure out the list of Words" I thought the question was too broad (probably should have had one rule to get from List A to List B), but my main problem with it was the author stating that there was one "perfect" solution. I took it as a challenge to come up with a solution that I knew was not the author's original intent of the question. But I give kudos to the author of that puzzle for taking my answer as the accepted answer despite it not being the intended answer.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I admit it was a mistake to say there was only one perfect answer to my puzzle. $\endgroup$ – pacoverflow Nov 26 '14 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ Depends on what you mean by dismiss. Ignore?Or just not accept as the (seemed for) answer? I hope you didn't feel I ignored you suggestions. They were not what was searched for - and I did not agree your solution fit as well as you thought.Opinions will always differ. $\endgroup$ – BmyGuest Nov 26 '14 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ @BmyGuest You are missing the point. It isn't that pacoverflow accepted my answer. It was more that he accepted the possibility of an alternate solution given the way the question was presented. $\endgroup$ – Warlord 099 Nov 26 '14 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ I would have just as easily accepted a response of "Not what I am looking for, but it was an interesting attempt". It is responses such as "Nope" or "Your wrong" that have negative connotations that discourages people from trying. $\endgroup$ – Warlord 099 Nov 26 '14 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Warlord099 I can accept that criticism. I ll try to do better with this regard in future. (Which was your answer?) I thought I commented all of them more thoroughly, but obviously not. $\endgroup$ – BmyGuest Nov 26 '14 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ @BmyGuest On your question it wasn't my answer I was referring to. I was referring to Raystafarian's answer. $\endgroup$ – Warlord 099 Nov 26 '14 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Warlord099 ah, okay then. I do agree that one should positively acknowledge serious attempts. $\endgroup$ – BmyGuest Nov 26 '14 at 20:41
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As the author of one of the mentioned puzzles, I can not keep back adding to this discussion here. Let me first say, that I am absolutely not disappointed by any of the answers or comments the puzzle received, and that this particular puzzle was sort of an experiment which actually went better than I thought. Why? Because I knew not all readers will be able to solve it, as it requires usage of tools and maybe even some background which is far from being well-spread knowledge. As such, the puzzle was doomed to cause certain frustration with some users. The problem for me was, that any clue making the answers very well defined would have given away the real challenge of the puzzle. I basically wanted to know to what level of abstract data-analysis people here would go without being guided to it. In this, I am rather positively surprised an answer was provided within few days.Impressive.

Anyway, I also don't mind getting "different" answers. I think they are good, but I think posters should equally easy accept "Sorry, not the solution ( I am after)" and the fact, that they won't get the "accepted" check. if you like the riddle, try again, if you don't think it's well enough defined for you, move on...

Again, none of the submitted answers was bad, and I hope nobody felt I was insinuating that. But equally, I did not feel that all answers where logically as sound as the poster thought, and I was trying to argue this in the counter-comments. I did not try to prove my riddle was completely unambiguous - it isn't - but that I thought the given solution was equally flawed. No hard feelings.


In general, I appreciate postings that highlight ambiguity, and if possible, I make edits (like in the tomb puzzle) to iron those out, but I think a site like this should also have room for some less stringently defined riddles. After all, nobody has to look into it, and if a puzzle author gets no reaction for a long time, he'll notice that something is wrong anyway.

Personally, I am not good at those, but there are many very good puzzles and riddles which require rather an intuitive/creative approach to be solved than a mathematical-logical one. It would be a shame to neglect them.

As for puzzles which are just really, really ill-defined (in my opinion), well, ignoring them is the best, I think. I may revisit them weeks later and be surprised, somebody might have nevertheless "solved" them and I learn something new... Or not, in which case they don't bother me and are quickly forgotten. If the author asks why nobody tried to solve it, I can comment about the ambiguity. If not, no action seems the best.

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    $\begingroup$ "any clue making the answers very well defined would have given away the real challenge of the puzzle" - I've had the same problem. $\endgroup$ – A E Nov 26 '14 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ I just wanted to add a comment here to ensure you saw it - I'm glad you posted a puzzle that sparked some debate, it's good for a beta site to grow. That being said, I never meant to make your question the center of discussion, so that is something that I'm not glad about. $\endgroup$ – Raystafarian Nov 27 '14 at 10:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Raystafarian I don't mind having additional Attention here. But I am thankful to Chris to have proven it can be solved first! ;c) $\endgroup$ – BmyGuest Nov 27 '14 at 10:53

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