This question is one of the most important and memorable parts of Puzzling.SE history:

How to get to an island with a tree in the middle if all you have is rope?

Oh, sorry, maybe you can't view that link, if you don't have the requisite 10,000 reputation. Screenshot here for the curious, or click here for a link to the Wayback Machine. My main point is less about the content of the question itself and more about its historical significance.

  • The first three Great Answer badges on the site were awarded for answers to that question.
  • The sheer hilarity of some of the answers make this probably the single PSE post that I most often tell people IRL about.
  • Back in 2014 it was considered one of the main landmarks of the site (for better or worse).

OK, the question and the answers it invited aren't great, and nowadays they wouldn't receive that kind of reception in terms of votes. But that's what a historical lock is for. From the help centre:

An extremely popular question which is now considered inappropriate for the site may be locked for "Historical Significance": this alters the appearance of the question, automatically locks all answers as well, and disables flagging completely. This lock should be reserved for cases where a cherished cultural artifact would otherwise be deleted; do not use it for any other purpose.

Surely this is, perhaps more than anything else on PSE, an extremely popular question which is now considered inappropriate for the site. I'm often referring to it in chat, and needing to dredge up screenshots or links in order to tell lower-rep users what I'm on about.

Please can this question be undeleted and historical-locked?

Of course it should remain closed, so that new answers can't be posted - just visible to site users, and with a notice that it's no longer considered an appropriate question.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What was the answer? I'm curious because the answer proposed by the asker seems like the most reasonable. (My best guess is that your infinite rope can fill as much volume as you want and just make a bridge, far less reasonable or practical than the original answer) $\endgroup$
    – WindowsNT
    Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 7:57
  • $\begingroup$ @WindowsNT there are multiple answers, none is accepted $\endgroup$
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 11:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Glorfindel Question deletion cancels out acceptance. I think one of them was accepted at some point. Not sure which though. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 11:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Randal'Thor ah, you're right. The answer by LCIII was accepted. $\endgroup$
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ Which is essentially equivalent to what @WindowsNT suggested. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 11:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Why? It's funny, sure, but what makes it valuable? The "great answer" badges were for answers that were not "great"; and the reason it was a landmark was because it was bad. I don't think any of this is reason to undelete in favor of a historical lock; there's nothing there worth preserving. $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 2:10
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Deusovi Your opinion is that there's nothing worth preserving, but at least thirteen meta users disagree with you. As mentioned here, this is the single PSE post that I most frequently want to tell people about, both IRL and on SE. If the mods refuse to carry out the undeletion/locking, I can save screenshots and put them in my profile, but it'd be a lot of effort, and I'm not the only one who'd appreciate this being done. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:42
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I joined right around the time of that question (heck, maybe I even made my way here via it and HNQ), so maybe I missed something more "historically significant" about it, but to me it just seems(ed) like an open ended question with a bunch of mediocre joke answers rather than anything in particular worth preserving. Seems more like it was "popular" in the same way that open ended questions to this day reach the HNQ and get lots of answers and upvotes before being squashed. $\endgroup$
    – Alconja
    Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 0:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "nowadays they wouldn't receive that kind of reception" [citation needed]. VTRO +1 $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 19:25

2 Answers 2


Moderators' final decision

We have had extensive discussion in our Secret Moderators' Cabal, and I'm afraid the overall sense of the mod team is that it isn't appropriate to undelete the island question.

The reasons are largely those articulated by Rubio in his answer here:

  • the question itself is (as everyone agrees) bad
  • some of the answers are indeed funny but they aren't particularly high-quality PSE answers as such (and while indeed some of those answers got huge numbers of upvotes, we're all agreed that they wouldn't get nearly so many now).
  • So the reasons for preservation come down to (1) "it's fun" and (2) "it's historically important".
    • #1 is true but not really enough reason to keep it around, especially as it's fun largely by being a bad question.
    • On #2, the official line is that historical locking is for "cherished cultural artifact[s]" that are "extremely popular", and while of course we will gladly accept that Rand cherishes it, evidence for extreme popularity and continued wider cherishing is scant.
      • The question was controversial (not "extremely popular") from the outset, enough so that it got closed quickly and re-closed after it was reopened. The majority opinion of the PSE community at the time -- the very same people Rand appeals to in claiming that the question is historically significant -- seems to have been that the question was bad and should be closed. Despite all those upvotes.
      • Rand says he's often referred to it in chat, but before the recent discussion the last time was in 2017, when it came up a few times, and then before that the previous mention was in 2015.

One other possible reason for undeletion has been proposed (in TSL chat): "The People have spoken". After all, this question got a lot of upvotes and Rubio's explanation of why he didn't want to got a lot of downvotes. But it's far from unanimous -- right now the question is at +40-6 and Rubio's answer is at +8-16 -- and in any case the role of the moderators is not just do do Whatever The People Want. (And, further, votes on a particular question don't even really measure What The People Want; the great majority of PSE users, probably even of highly active PSE users -- though I don't have any way to know who voted on what -- have not voted on this question or Rubio's answer at all. What the votes show is that a substantial majority of users who happened to look at this question like the idea of undeletion. That's not nothing but it's not sufficient to make an otherwise-wrong decision right.

So: Our apologies for any distress, disappointment or dismay, but we're leaving the island question deleted. The Wayback Machine remains a reasonably convenient way to point people at it if required. (Rand kindly provided a link near the start of this very question.)

There's also one comment on Rubio's answer, rather hostile and accusatory in tone, that I'd like to address separately, not least because it led to another highly relevant bit of historical evidence.

  • "The community never had a choice to historically lock anything ... the option of historical locking was raised ... but it was never implemented. Now the community is asking mods to implement it, and you are refusing".
    • The option was raised -- and then no one thought it was worth pursuing further. That fact seems like relevant information: even after attention was drawn to the possibility, it wasn't used.
    • Perhaps, I hear you say, that's because it was just mentioned in a comment, and it's easy for comments to be overlooked? Nope, it turns out that there was another meta question, a follow-up to the one where that comment was made, specifically asking "Should we historically lock highly-upvoted but low quality and off-topic questions?". That question mentions two specific questions, one of which is the island question. The person who wrote the accepted answer to that question, saying "Only in truly exceptional cases", was the same person who asked the earlier question. And that person was a moderator at the time.
      • To recap: a mod was wondering what should be done with a certain kind of bad question (of which the island question was an example). They asked about it in meta. Someone suggested historical locking. There was a followup question a couple of days later, specifically about that. The same mod thought about that, and answered the followup question: no, that should only be done in exceptional cases. And that mod didn't historical-lock the island question, and no one suggested that they should. (Nor did anyone downvote the mod's answer.)
    • All of which seems like good evidence that the option of historical-locking the island question was considered around the time of its deletion, that no one saw fit to say "we should totally do that for this question because of its historical significance", and that at least one moderator considered whether to do it and decided not to.
    • Yes, we are refusing. Again, the purpose of the moderators is not simply to do whatever the community prefers. If that were all, we wouldn't need moderators! So, how can we identify classes of action on which moderators shouldn't just be surrogates for The Will Of The People? One way is by looking at actions that can only be done by moderators and not (as e.g. closing and reopening can be) by the votes of non-moderator users. Guess what? Historical-locking is one of those.
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I feel like this is the right response, +1. However, I'm mainly commenting here to explicitly give nods to the mods for how things were handled. I'm impressed with the calm, polite and rational handling of a somewhat controversial (if trivial in the grand scheme) situation. Clearly a carefully considered and well rationalised response. Thanks for taking your stewardship of this site seriously. :) $\endgroup$
    – Alconja
    Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 2:29
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the kind words @Alconja! We do our best... $\endgroup$
    – Gareth McCaughan Mod
    Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ Apologies for the very late response - I didn't want to respond immediately and angrily, so I left this page open in a tab and sort of forgot about it for months. But I still want to express my disappointment that mods refused to enact a community consensus. I think your final bullet-point is exactly the wrong way round. For actions like closing and reopening, mods sometimes have to step in and overturn a community decision if it was wrong. For mod-only actions, the community cannot express itself in any other way than asking the mods "please do this", in which case the mods should do it. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ For the record, I practise what I preach, as I've been on the other side of this. On SFF I suggested deleting an off-topic-but-popular question, but the votes said lock it, so I did that, despite my personal disagreement. I'm still surprised at the decision here. You guys are normally a good team making decisions for the good of the site, but here I never saw any reason not to undelete-lock, only attempts to rebut my reasons for doing so. Would anything be harmed by undelete-locking? It seems like a strange out-of-character stubbornness. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 9:31
  • $\begingroup$ Can this be reconsiderd, every stack site locks such questions. And them being bad is no reason to keep them deleted. In contrast actually, i have learned more about what sites allow by seeing such "bad" questions, as the questions are labeled as such. $\endgroup$
    – Alex bries
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 23:25

The Island question has come up before. See What criteria did people use to delete this question, and should it be applied to other similar questions? where it is #3 on a short list of 4 questions which the poster suspected might also warrant deletion. Notably, the existence of historical locks and their possible applicability was raised in the comments, but none of those questions had it applied: two were left alone, and the other two ended up deleted largely due to that post—including the Island question, which picked up its final 3 deletion votes in the few days following its appearance on the list. Bailey M explains why deletion was proper.
Faced directly with this question, and the choice to do nothing, historical lock it, or delete it, the community made its choice, and I believe it chose correctly.

Not all puzzling questions are puzzles

This particular interview question “works”, if you believe that sort of thing, in that it gives the interviewer a chance to observe how the candidate thinks and approaches problems with no straightforward solution. Indeed there isn’t any particular “right” answer to this question, no hidden clues to find that guide the solver along an intended path, no smaller puzzles to solve along the way. In short, it’s not a scenario designed to elicit a certain solution from a solver crafty enough to reach it, as it isn’t actually designed around any solution at all.

My usual guidance today would say,

Puzzles with no "right" answer are generally discouraged; you should have some objective criteria, even if arbitrary, for determining the "best" or most "right" answer, so that we're not just assembling a collection of valid solutions. Open-ended questions that impose no practical limitations on what kinds of answer will be accepted are, pretty much by definition, Too Broad and very likely to be closed as such.

A historical lock does not seem appropriate

The description for a historical lock says (emphasis added):

An extremely popular question which is now considered inappropriate for the site may be locked for "Historical Significance

It shouldn’t be used for questions which, as here, were never on-topic.

Within 3 hours of being asked this question had already piled up 10 answers. Within 10 more hours, close votes had started coming in. An initial close review failed (3 to 2), but before the question was 36 hours old it had accumulated over 25 answers (of which 3 were promptly deleted by moderators), at least one moderator flag, and enough close votes to close it. Yes, the answers were varied and amusing, but this question was clearly problematic from the beginning.

5 days later, it accumulated enough votes to be reopened.
5 days after that, it accumulated enough close votes to close it once again. And so it would remain until, many months later, it started drawing deletion votes, eventually accumulating delete votes by 7 site members and a moderator, and was deleted from the site.

In short, it was recognized to be off-topic almost immediately, and handled almost entirely by community members’ votes, not Moderator action.

Mere historicity or entertainment value aren’t sufficient

This very old Meta post asks for an archive to be set up for “legendary” deleted questions — including probably the most legendary question ever posted on Stack Exchange: the (in)famous Boat Programming question, which was—no joke—hard-deleted from the database.

The person petitioning for this archive noted that

[while] most of those contributions don't have "lasting value" in the sense of the law - you can't just throw them away. They contain brilliant ideas, humour, some strokes of genius, and show what rampant creativity and artfulness is present in the programming community.

That argument seems like it applies to our own Island question. And it has a certain appeal; certainly there are amusing answers that it would be fun to share with others.

Having said that, the Boat Programming question remains very much hard deleted, and of the other “legendary” questions that plea sought to bring back to some archive, all but one remain deleted. And despite quite a bit of thought put into what an appropriate archive might look like or how it could be maintained, no official archive has ever been created for this kind of thing.

These questions, our example included, were appropriately closed and deleted. They do not represent good questions, and were never on-topic. Historical locks are a good choice to keep content that was once considered a good fit for a site but has now fallen out of favor as time has passed and rules and community thinking have evolved and refined. That’s not the case here, so using a historical lock to preserve content that was not a good fit even historically seems unwarranted.

But I really want to see it! or share it!

10,000 rep on a site grants visibility to deleted questions. It’s a nice reward for sticking with a site and contributing enough to earn the privilege, and (presumably) by the time one has earned it, one also knows enough about the site to recognize why deleted content was deleted - that is, the “broken windows” effect should no longer affect a 10k user. The danger of letting just anyone see our old broken windows is that less experienced users often do not appreciate why such content is a bad fit here, historical-lock banner notwithstanding, and the last thing we need is someone getting bright ideas from seeing content that was, is, and always will be off topic here.

For those who have earned the privilege of seeing deleted content, there’s generally no objection to taking and sharing screenshots of it; but this should be done with due care, as (again) we don’t want users pointing at deleted content as evidence that their own problematic creations should be fine because people have posted similar things in the past. If you share something, make sure the people you share it with understand that it’s been deleted and why, please.

  • 8
    $\begingroup$ -1: whether or not a question was ever considered on-topic has no impact on the appropriateness of a historical lock. This question was extremely popular - check. It is now considered inappropriate (off-topic) for this site - check. The historical lock is specifically to send a message of "even though this has a good score, don't take it as a good example or post others like it" - which is exactly what's needed here. If having the site's first 3 Great Answer badges isn't historically significant enough for you, what is? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 20:23
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ I'm honestly surprised this should be controversial. It seems like a pretty clear-cut case: extremely popular question, massive historical significance for the site, but we don't want to encourage others like it. The voting on this meta suggests plenty of others agree. But instead you're coming up with far-fetched arguments like "now considered inappropriate means it must have been on-topic at some point" or "Jeff Atwood hard-deleted the boat programming question". Of course "we want to discourage other questions like it" is a good argument, but that's exactly what a historical lock is for! $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 20:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to mine. :) $\endgroup$
    – Rubio Mod
    Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 20:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Randal'Thor That "message" doesn't need to be sent if the question is deleted. If the question was worth preserving, or had answers that were worth preserving, then it would warrant a historical lock. But the only argument I see for preserving it appears to boil down to "it's bad, and I like to point out how bad it is". As far as I can tell, that question doesn't have any value to give us reason for a historical lock over a deletion. $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 2:12
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "the choice to do nothing, historical lock it, or delete it, the community made its choice" - this is a false/misleading statement. The community never had a choice to historically lock anything, since that can only be done by moderators. And I'd guess Bailey M didn't know about it to suggest it when answering the meta post you linked. In fact, the option of historical locking was raised in comments there, after someone suggested the question(s) should be undeleted and just closed, but it was never implemented. Now the community is asking mods to implement it, and you're refusing. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:46
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Deusovi Maybe you guys don't appreciate how historically significant it was due to not being around back then :-) I keep mentioning the vote counts and Great Answer badges as a quantitative indication of its significance, but I also remember its significance. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 9:48
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, I'm one of the upvoters behind Rand's proposal. I don't feel as strongly about this as he does, but being one of the people who went through the first (pumpy) months of self-finding process of PuzzlingSE (some of which is reflected in my early puzzles) I appreciate the historic significance of that question. Until today, I didn't know of a "historic lock", so I wouldn't have asked for one. But if such an option exist and is meant for this purpose, then I think Rand points to a worthy candidate. $\endgroup$
    – BmyGuest
    Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 13:18
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Another point worth mentioning: literally no harm would be done by the proposed action. In a chat conversation Gareth mentioned the riddle sandbox's consensus, but as well as (a) sandbox rushing into operation after 1-2 days, unlike the 2-week consensus here, and (b) opposition to the sandbox being even higher voted, unlike this answer's dismal score, there's also (c) sandbox rules had a massive effect on the site's ongoing operation, whereas undeleting-locking one old question wouldn't affect anything except easier linking to it. Opposition here seems to be purely rules-lawyering. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 0:01

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