The title says it all. Are impractical "brain teaser" questions inherently off-topic for SO, or are they considered to be legitimate?

The "practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face" clause of the FAQ seems to indicate that they should be considered off-topic, but when flagging questions like this, my flags have been declined. If these questions are off-topic, shouldn't the flags be acted on, or am I misunderstanding the flag system?

Can anyone clear this up?

Edit: Some of the moderator comments below indicate that the topicness of these questions is debatable ("borderline off-topic close decision", "if the community decides brain teasers are explicitily off topic"). ISTM that they are decidedly off-topic, given the line from the FAQ quoted above. Can someone who doesn't feel that these questions are decidedly off-topic elaborate a bit on why they think this section of the FAQ does not apply in these cases?

Edit 2: Both of the questions discussed here, which seem to be clearly off-topic according to the FAQ, are open again. Having already flagged and CVd each of them, I have no other recourse. So, please help me understand this... if these questions are off-topic, as the FAQ and the consensus here seems to indicate, why are they still open, and what can we do about it?

Is the FAQ wrong? Is the consensus here (indicated by votes) unimportant? Are we going to keep allowing these questions in favor of real, practical questions? If not, what can be done to fix this problem?

Edit 3: Apparently I am able to flag it again after all; maybe the flagging rules have changed? I've flagged one of the offending questions a second time, taking Bart's advice into account. Let's see what happens this time...

Edit 4: My followup flag was also declined, with a message reading:

declined - If it's off-topic by community consensus, then the community can close it.

So there we have it. It's off-topic according to the FAQ, but that apparently doesn't matter; apparently it's up to the community to close it, reopen it, and close it again, ad nauseam. Does anyone else feel like this policy should be changed so that the FAQ is unilaterally honored instead of arbitrarily ignored? Alternatively, should the FAQ be amended to allow these types of questions, if that's what the powers-that-be want for the site? Either way, something's got to give.

  • 5
    Do you have an example? Because based on your description I'd say they are off-topic indeed. And how did you flag them? – Bart Mar 21 '13 at 13:46
  • I have a two examples; one was the infamous sock-sorting thing from a few months back, the other is this thing from today. – The Community Mar 21 '13 at 13:47
  • 2
    The one from today I would personally see as "not a real question". (Or perhaps too localized, take your pick) Though I can see how a flag (without a custom explanation) might be rejected. At first glance it looks fairly decent. – Bart Mar 21 '13 at 13:49
  • 3
    Every programming question is essentially a brain teaser. If it's an on-topic, interesting and well researched question, I couldn't care less for its practicality. – yannis Mar 21 '13 at 13:50
  • I flagged it with a message indicating that it was "not constructive" ... I meant it in a literal sense, not the usual SO sense. Maybe I should have worded it better? – The Community Mar 21 '13 at 13:50
  • If you would have stated something along the lines of "This is not a practical programming problem the OP faces, but rather a brain-teaser", you might have found more sympathy for your flag. Though it might still not have made a difference. There are those in the community who find interesting questions like these perfectly valid and a great contribution. I don't follow that line of thought. I don't participate on the particular site, but I guess Code Golf might be a better location? (Perhaps someone can confirm/deny this?) – Bart Mar 21 '13 at 13:52
  • 5
    That flag could have been declined because the moderator didn't see why a flag was thrown when a close vote would have sufficed. The question is only 3 hours old right now. Moderators don't really need to get immediately involved in every borderline off-topic close decision. – Bill the Lizard Mar 21 '13 at 13:55
  • 2
    @Yannis Yes, but if you add an arbitrary constraint to a problem, the answers aren't useful in real life. For example, "How can I check if a user's input is less than a certain number, but only using regex"? – user200500 Mar 21 '13 at 13:55
  • I don't think code golf would work in this case, because the goal could be achieved much more succinctly without the silly rules. – The Community Mar 21 '13 at 13:55
  • @BilltheLizard, then maybe I'm misunderstanding the flag system, and need to be asking a different question. I figured I should just flag it right away instead of waiting. – The Community Mar 21 '13 at 13:57
  • Ah, @TheCommunity if you have the privilege to vote to close, why didn't you? (Or did you?). – Bart Mar 21 '13 at 13:57
  • @Bart, I did CV, just wanted to speed up the process a bit. This might be where I'm misunderstanding flags. Is there something already written that explains the proper use of flags in these situations? – The Community Mar 21 '13 at 13:58
  • 5
    In my vision a flag is something you use when you as a user can't handle it yourself. In this case a flag would be unnecessary, since you can vote-to-close. And this pushes the question into the appropriate queues, which should speed the process up sufficiently. – Bart Mar 21 '13 at 14:00
  • 1
    @Bart, I guess I didn't think of CVing as "handling it myself," since it requires the help of four other people. Flagging it seems closer to "handling it myself," since it only requires the help of one other person. – The Community Mar 21 '13 at 14:02
  • 4
    Let me abuse your username here: It's always better to let "the community" handle it. 1) because the community can handles such cases just fine 2) because seemingly unilateral actions by moderators (even when caused by flags) are not always appreciated. So just vote to close, give it some time. And if you really feel it should be closed but all votes have since expired, you could flag to see if something really needs to be done. – Bart Mar 21 '13 at 14:04

Referring to the specific question being discussed, I consider it a totally impractical question because of the arbitrary constraint on only using String.split. Arbitrary constraints are always red flags.

This violates the "people want holes, not drills" convention of asking questions; it's not practical or useful to a general audience because it's not actually solving a problem, it's simply presenting an incomplete solution and asking somebody else to complete it. Take your pick between Too Localized and Not A Real Question, they both apply here.

I would vote to close it, but unfortunately, we can't vote to close it anymore because the OP put a bounty on it. Which, given that the question already has 4 close votes, is hard not to see as more than a mere coincidence. The moderator who declined the flag should have realized that communities cannot vote to close bountied questions, so the flag was justified.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    I've just flagged it again as a case where a bounty is being used defensively. – Rosinante Mar 24 '13 at 23:45
  • @Rosinante, I'd be interested to know how that turns out if you don't mind following up after the flag is reviewed. :) – The Community Mar 25 '13 at 1:06

I don't really think these questions are legitimate, but I can only really assume that whenever I see one of these questions, I'm helping someone with their homework. I'd imagine that Mathematics gets a few of these types of questions a lot.

| improve this answer | |
  • I guess homework has been the subject of a lot of contention here, but ISTM if you're a student trying to complete an assignment, that qualifies as an "actual problem you face." You have a practical need to solve it; your grade relies on it. Maybe there's a loophole here; you could try to dress something up as homework to get around the rules. I think people here are savvy enough to tell real homework from "brain teasers," though. By their nature, "brain teasers" are going to be harder to answer than homework. Anyway, no reason to worry about loopholes until the rules are actually enforced. – The Community Mar 24 '13 at 9:54
  • I think posting questions about homework is fine, as long as you mention that it is homework. That way a member of the SO community can teach the user the concept required to answer the question, which is even better than giving an answer straight away. – user216620 Mar 24 '13 at 10:15
  • I don't have a problem with questions as long as they have context. Context to a question gives SO members a better understanding of what a user is trying to achieve so they can help the person who asked the question. – user216620 Mar 24 '13 at 10:18

My problem with this question is that it is stated as a puzzle. If the question was stated as something like:

"In order to better understand regular expressions, I've was trying to work out how to use them to accomplish the following ...", then I might find it tolerable, in spite of its artificiality. The practical problem would be 'understanding regular expressions better'.

As it is, however, it's stated as a brain-teaser, and I think that those have no home on stackoverflow.com.

Certainly the OP's rejection of the various simple, readable, practical alternatives for accomplishing the task with 'match' rather than 'split' are diagnostic of the how inappropriate the question is as written.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    I'm not convinced that qualifying it like that makes it any more on-topic. What, specifically, are they trying to understand about regex, and why can't they just ask that directly? – The Community Mar 25 '13 at 0:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .