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I recently voted to close this question because it seemed to me that it didn't ask about a world, but the engineering of a specific item that could have been part of any world (and, by definition, appeared to be of Earth since no other conditions were given).

@Samuel has made some good points in the question's comments, but I still wonder. I've been thinking about some of the issues for a while, which led me to ask this previous meta question.

@Samuel and I have different interpretations of the on-topic page. What he sees is justification for the question. I see exclusion, principally because asking to engineer an object outside of the conditions of a fictional world is, to me, simply an "historical fact about the real world."

Side note: I have been personally drawing a line between these two questions ("how does this technology affect my world?" and "how can my world develop this technology?") and this question: ("how do I build this?"). I believe the first two are about developing a consitent fictional world. The second is an engineering question that may or not have any bearing on a fictional world depending on context, which wasn't provided.

Part of my concern is that we've had what seems to be a large number of closed/hold/duplicate questions since March 30 (about 31%). (I don't have access to the overall stats, so this perception may be subjective.) Are we seeing an increase in barely-on-topic questions, or am I being overly strict?

Thus, I would appeciate your insight into whether or not I voted too strictly to close the linked question.

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  • $\begingroup$ The on-topic criteria include worldbuilding elements. The question in question was clearly about an element in a world. You do realize 'principally because asking to engineer an object outside of the conditions of a fictional world is, to me, simply an "historical fact about the real world."' doesn't make sense. The trap in the question is clearly a fictional device and fictional devices belong in fictional world. How does that make it a historical fact about he real world? $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 11 '18 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ On the other hand you not alone in becoming too strict in closing questions. $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 11 '18 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android, Perhaps my problem is that because the trap doesn't exist today doesn't make it "fictional" from the perspective of building a fictional world. Where do we draw the line between worldbuilding and "we'll answer any question at all so long as it isn't too broad or POB?" Should we draw such a line? $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 11 '18 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ Fictional worlds are full of entities that don't or even can't exist. This is part of what makes them fictional. If a question is answerable and doesn't fall under a VTC reason, why not answer it? This is granting the benefit of the doubt. With borderline, why not err on the side of generosity? Sometimes it isn't necessary to draw lines. If we devise how something could exist, but which hasn't existed, then that is building a world. $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 12 '18 at 5:48
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    $\begingroup$ There is no close reason based on the criterion on drawing the line you postulate. I suggest if a question doesn't fall under the VTC reasons for which WB has criteria, then it should be answered should someone wish to do so. The arbitrary extension of new criteria for closure is a danger to the quality of this SE or any other. $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 12 '18 at 5:51
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android I'd argue that a lack of enforcement of existing criteria or slackness in applying said criteria is the larger danger to quality $\endgroup$ – Aify Apr 17 '18 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Aify I agree it's a danger, however, what I see too often is a completely arbitrary criteria for VTC are being applied. WBers applying spurious or baseless criteria is a bigger danger. You may argue, but my observation is based on knowledge and experience. $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 18 '18 at 8:25
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android that's interesting because my observations are also based on knowledge and experience on this site. Over the last 3+ years, I have noticed more and more questions that should be closed slip through because a couple people are being "nice", or questions being reopened even though the edit changes nothing simply because they thought "this shouldn't be closed." What you said about WBrs applying spurious and/or baseless criteria for deciding whether or not a question stays open is the same, if not a worse level of danger. $\endgroup$ – Aify Apr 18 '18 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ simple answer: yes $\endgroup$ – Redwolf Programs Apr 18 '18 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ @RedwolfPrograms, while I appreciate your simple answer, I wonder if, having been a member of this site for only six days, whether you have enough insight into both the rules of the site and the development of those rules to render so simple a judgement. Can you provide a complete answer with citations demonstrating how I have become too strict? $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 18 '18 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Aify One major problem with baseless criteria as VTCs is that it has the potential to shift VTC standards in ways they weren't intended to be. I have been here long enough to observe that drift. Ideally the help centre should have all criteria for VTC listed there. One lives in hope. $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 19 '18 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ Why aren't the VTC standards listed in the help center? I've always wondered about that. They have to be hunted down in Meta posts over years of commentary. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 19 '18 at 13:14
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I do agree that (subjectively at least) there appear to be more closures of late. That said (and again subjectively), I haven't noticed a considerable increase in 'off-topic' closures. There have been more duplicates, and more 'unclear what you're asking' closures, and I think there have also been a few more 'too broad' closures as well.

I would also like to see some stats to support one position or another, but the simple fact is that most of the posts from the questioners on Meta, and most of the discussions in question comments appear to be around whether a question is distinct from another question (duplicate testing) or what the OP was really getting at (unclear questions). There has been increased frustration from newer members of our august body trying to ask questions that will get past the VTC process but relevancy has not been brought up anywhere near as much IMHO as these other two points.

The duplicate question problem is one that I expect to only increase. We have nearly 16k questions on the site at the time of writing this; that means that a lot of the 'good' questions have already been asked and writing a new good question is similar in scope (but not in scale) to writing a PhD thesis in a well researched area. How does one create something unique AND significant when all the 'framework' research is already complete? Creating a new good unique and significant question on this site is only going to get harder and there is a strong argument for direct editing by people with sufficient experience on the site to make these questions stand apart if the OP lacks the linguistic skills to do so. That same approach may also work for 'unclear' questions, provided intent or purpose can be established by someone competent at framing questions to assist the newcomer.

That said, I digress. The core question goes to relevancy of question and I think that the linked question was certainly a margin call. Yes, it's an engineering question, but it's also a 'missing ingredient' question.

How do I do X when Y (a critical ingredient of X) is missing?

In this case, the question is asking if there is a simple technology that's understandable by an ancient Aztec / Mayan style culture, that's workable with their current tools and artisanry, that can replicate the equivalent of an infrared door sensor.

Your other question about us being a catch-all is entirely relevant here, but so is the point that we have the capacity of being a catch-all because of the subjective nature of our topic rules. As such, we can't have the penny and the bun; either we accept that our rules are too subjective and tighten them up (removing a lot of potential margin call questions) or we leave it as is and accept that we have additional maintenance on the back end (so to speak) to clean up prospective questions, either through working with the OP to tighten them up or by direct closure. Essentially, we have to pick one approach.

Personally? I prefer the latter. Just because some of our newer folk have trouble articulating their question it doesn't follow that the question itself is poor. I'd rather have a pool of candidates that I filter through to find the gems than miss a good opportunity to increase our body of knowledge but I do completely understand that this is a high maintenance approach, and will not be favoured by all.

In so doing, we not only solve the on topic problem, but it also serves as a way to solve the unclear and duplicate question issues at the same time.

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    $\begingroup$ On duplicate questions: as you say, the bigger the site becomes, the more likely are duplicates. But is that so bad? Because also, the bigger the site, the less likely I am to find “my “ question that has already been asked. Especially when the AI to suggest them just doesn’t work (not that I ever expected it to). $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Apr 10 '18 at 7:48
  • $\begingroup$ @WGroleau while the AI may not be perfect in that regard, if you've done some initial research on your question online, any potential duplicate question on SE should have appeared in your search list. There is a compelling argument that as scientific understanding and technology develops, newer reframings of old questions should be allowed from time to time to attract updated answers, but as a rule I do think that duplicates should be discouraged, if for no other reason than to keep those doing the answering engaged. Repetitious questions devalue the answers already provided. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Apr 10 '18 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ "should have appeared" almost every time I open up three to seven seemingly likely items and none of them fit. Sometimes, as soon as I post, the actual duplicate appears in the related list on the right. Sometimes, someone else promptly notes the duplicate. And sometimes, someone promptly alleges a duplicate that isn't even close. But I am not really surprised that the "suggester" doesn't work well. If I interpret "artificial intelligence" literally, it does not exist. I agree that duplicates are undesirable, but perhaps for different reasons. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Apr 10 '18 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ "This question already has an answer here" helps to find the other (when true; sometimes isn't). But the value is indeed reduced if we let the answers be divided up, some here, some there. But if it is deleted, its value in searching is reduced. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Apr 10 '18 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ This answer appears to talk about Ancient Light Trigger Mechanism, but the question linked in the OP and which generated the discussion was How to build a trap to last the ages?. I think there's a significant difference between the two. $\endgroup$ – Kamil Drakari Apr 10 '18 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ @KamilDrakari you're right; I was looking at the wrong question when I wrote this. Too many tabs open at once. :) While they're different, both were subject to similar statements so I think the answer stands but happy to be corrected. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Apr 10 '18 at 23:25
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the engineering of a specific item that could have been part of any world

The engineering of a specific item that is part of the setting of the world is Worldbuilding. That it might be part of any world simply makes it more useful.

(and, by definition, appeared to be of Earth since no other conditions were given).

There is no requirement that the world not be a representation of our current Earth. While we often talk about worlds as if they were planets being built, the site is broader than that. We help authors (of books, screenplays, games, etc.) to build fictional settings or worlds.

It's true that literal world building is part of our scope. But it's not all of our scope. We have many questions where it's only one detail in the world.

because asking to engineer an object outside of the conditions of a fictional world is, to me, simply an "historical fact about the real world."

No. That's a very aggressive interpretation. First, there is no evidence that this is outside a fictional world. The tone of the question screams author at me, because real people do not need to create traps that last multiple generations. They particularly don't need to create traps hundreds of years ago that are still in operation today. That's inherently part of a fictional world.

And an item that didn't exist historically is not a historical fact about the real world. Historical facts about the real world are things that actually existed or happened. E.g. "How were real murder holes built?" However, "How should murder holes have been built, given what we know now?" is a different, on-topic question.

That's not to say that this question is fine. It could be considered Too Broad for example. But it's not off-topic. I don't even see it as particularly borderline. Compare to How might modern humans leave a message for 50,000 years? Same basic problem. Someone wants to do something in a way that will last through the ages. So something that was easy becomes complicated through the need to make it last.

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I don't think you voted too strictly. The question is borderline, and in particular I would say it's borderline in a way that some people could easily consider the ways it's off-topic to be the most important ones for the site, while others could consider the ways it's off-topic to be least important.

To make a comparison, imagine a question "How do I get my dog to stop barking?" In many ways this would be similar to the referenced How to build a trap to last the ages?: In both questions there would be no background information that makes it distinct from the real world, no technology constraints or additions that cause real-world answers to be invalid, no magic or hand-waving allowed. There are only two major differences I can think of: the dog one has a clear alternative stack exchange, and the trap one did list a worldbuilding-related justification, even if he made the question itself more broadly applicable.

To me, I think there are some very minor alterations that would make the trap question fall very clearly on one side or the other of "on-topic". For example, if the question instead asked

My world has trap-filled ancient ruins, but it was pointed out to me that the traps I have in them would in reality fail quickly without maintenance. What can I do to have traps that would believably be operational centuries later?

then it seems much more clearly to be a world building question!

On the other hand,

I am trying to build some traps, but I've noticed that they tend to go bad if I leave them set for too long. What can I do to make my traps last longer?

would seem very clearly off-topic - it's literally asking for suggestions on something the user is physically trying to construct.

Despite one of those phrasings being (to me) clearly on-topic, while the other is clearly off-topic, both questions (given a bit of extra finagling to get the allowed technology aligned) would end up with basically the exact same answers, those answers also being essentially identical to the ones in the actual question.

Hopefully this demonstrates just how borderline the question is, and how thinking of it as off-topic isn't really a matter of being "too strict" so much as seeing it closer to the off-topic versions than the on-topic ones. I don't think the line can really be cleaned up unless all questions reliant on currently-known technology and physics with no extra restrictions (e.g. only ancient tools) or additions (e.g. magic) are considered off-topic.

That said, it certainly is a popular question, so maybe others have a different idea than I do about how close to the border it is...

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  • $\begingroup$ What you pose here, though, could readily be replicated be prefixing the question with 'In my world, where cats can talk...' - the addition does very little beyond informing us that the author is indeed worldbuilding. Surely that can be taken as implicit in asking a question here? $\endgroup$ – Pingcode Apr 23 '18 at 5:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Pingcode Surely there needs to be a limit though? Otherwise everything is on topic because it could be worldbuilding even if the asker can't provide a reason that it wouldn't be better served in a different Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$ – Kamil Drakari Apr 23 '18 at 14:18

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