Is curiosity allowed on the various stackexchange sites or does every single question need to be a question about a precise problem to solve?

For example, are the two following questions valid questions:

"When did Huffman discover his minimum-redundancy-code?"

(not that the answer to that one is hard to find, but I'd like to know if that would make for a valid question on a SE site)

Or the following (asked by me):

What was the earliest use of cryptographic tokens in URLs?

I mean, to me they're interesting question in themselves but a mod pointed to me that:

"(the question) may be interesting but it's not what this site is about"

I think a case could be made that knowing the "history" of algorithm, data structure and techniques is interesting in any case: it helps understanding how things evolved and may give insight as to why some other things were made this or that way.

But even without taking that into account: are interesting question just made out of curiosity not allowed on SE?

(just to be clear: I made the above question because I'm currently working on implementing said tokens and I wanted to read material on the subject and figured out starting from the oldest material available would provide good insight on the topic: that old Usenet post from 2003 I found was certainly a good read, for example)

  • 1
    As a lesson from history.stackexchange, I think the questions outlined here are invalid as they ask for pieces of trivia, which are most definitely encouraged there since they are 1) easy to find outside of here, causing us to be merely a redirection, and 2) indicative of a lack of basic research before asking the question.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 20:12
  • 1
    @glowcoder: but I did research and information is hard to find and I figured out there were probably people on the SE sites knowledgable on that subject. I did quote a part of a Usenet post I did find from 2003 on groups.google.com. Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 2:02

4 Answers 4


Are interesting question just made out of curiosity not allowed on SE?

I think we should distinguish between types of curiosity. Some questions fall in the "trivia" category. Those may be accepted one some sites (for example, I believe Gaming allows trivia questions about various games), but I don't think they'd do well here for the reasons Oded described.

Other questions are made out of curiosity but are still entirely on-topic. For example, I could ask my question How can we reduce downtime at the end of an iteration? even if I myself was working in a waterfall environment. Although at its core, that question still solves that problem - it'd just happen to not be mine in that scenario.

Let's look specifically at your question:

what are the oldest know usage of this technique you know of?

This is somewhat different from asking "what is the earliest usage of this technique?". The latter suggests that a good answer would require proof. You version reads more like you want to build a list of occurrences of cryptographic tokens in URLs. That would make for an interesting discussion, but it's not a question that fits well into the Q&A model we have here.

I'll close with a line from the FAQ:

If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about ______”, then you should not be asking here. However, if your motivation is “I would like others to explain ______ to me”, then you are probably OK. (Discussions are of course welcome in our real time web chat.)

P.S. I'm checking with moderators on Cryptography.SE to see if they'd welcome the question since it's more directly in line with their subject matter.

  • 1
    +1 I love the answers here and I'm a bit surprised by the 6 upvotes but in all honesty I'm more confused than before. I'm not interested in a discussion: if several people answer what's the oldest usage they know of and I ask what's the oldest, it's obvious that the one answer with the earliest usage is the "most correct" answer (altough I'd upvote every answer). I'm still confused :-/ Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 1:54
  • 1
    @Cedric: 1) "although I'd upvote every answer" tends to back up the idea that you're just after discussion - any response is a good response. 2) Anna's suggesting ways you could improve or clarify your question to make it clear you're not just after discussion. 3) Noting that you're implementing tokens and looking for information regarding their development in the question would actually improve it.
    – Shog9
    Commented Nov 12, 2011 at 16:06

The first part of the programmers FAQ is pretty clear on what it is about:

Programmers — Stack Exchange is a site for professional programmers who are interested in getting expert answers on conceptual questions about software development. If you have a question about…

  • algorithm and data structure concepts
  • design patterns
  • developer testing
  • development methodologies
  • freelancing and business concerns
  • quality assurance
  • software architecture
  • software engineering
  • software licensing
  • So given that FAQ, are the two example questions I asked about allowed or not? Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 17:46
  • I would say not. They are asking for information that is historical rather than conceptual.
    – Oded
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 17:47

Crypto-mod here. See how amazing moderators are with all this cross site effort we put in to make sure we don't close something when it might have a home elsewhere?!

Unfortunately I've had a chat with both the other cryptography moderators and whilst we do accept questions on "historical" algorithms (which we take to mean algorithms used pre the computing era), the consensus was as it stands it wouldn't be a good fit for us. We tend to focus on the details and workings of the algorithms and their consequences for implementation. We'd also be concerned that, in our current context, it might get a bit discussion-y.

That said, I'd be happy to have a post raised about history questions on our meta, if only to see what people think.

Our chat is fairly quiet sometimes, but someone there might know the answer. Similarly, Thomas Pornin made the observation:

There is an underlying crypto question, which is: how would I generate and verify a "token" embedded in the URL, destined to filter out non-genuine URL ?

Questions of that nature, or questions you face when doing this:

I made the above question because I'm currently working on implementing said tokens and I wanted to read material on the subject

Would definitely be good, on-topic questions, possibly for crypto or security. The difference is summed up (again by Thomas) as:

The rule of thumb, here, being that you should post to crypto.SE if you want to understand the internals, and to security.SE if you want to know what you should do now.


The FAQ reports the following sentence:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face.

I take it means you should not ask a question just for curiosity, but only if it is pertinent with an actual problem you are facing, and trying to resolve.

The FAQ also says:

Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

This means that if the question is too generic, the question should be avoided. Make the question less generic, and more scoped. The more details you add to your questions, the better it is.

For example, if you are asking about a method to do something, and you say you want to avoid a specific method, you should report why you want to avoid the specific method, and which other methods you eventually used; details about why you discarded the methods you tried, or the reason why you find them not helpful for you.
To make a comparison with cooking, your question should not be "How do I prepare a cake?" but "How do I prepare a St. Honoré Cake like the one I have eaten when I was in Paris?"

  • But what if you don't know what you don't know and say: "What are other ways to solve problem X besides SimpleMethodForX?" Is that ok? It's exploratory, certainly, but I don't think it's out of line. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 23:15
  • If you are asking it because a real problem you have, then it is fine, even though I would suggest to make the question more scoped, and more specific. For example, you can report in the question why you are trying to avoid SimpleMethodForX, and what other methods you have already tried, and eventually why they didn't work for you, or why you chose to avoid them.
    – apaderno
    Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 23:58
  • But what if you don't know whether there are other solutions to problem X, such as different approaches, etc? Instead of googling for 2 hours, why not ask here? Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 0:47
  • As I said, if you don't make the question very specific, then it should not be posted. You probably don't know if there are other solutions (otherwise, you would not be asking the question), but you know exactly the problem you are trying to resolve; give all the details you can about your problem.
    – apaderno
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 0:53
  • Ok, Thanks........ Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 1:09