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I have a very vague memory of a discussion about comments with links to pages of http://idownvotedbecau.se . It might not even have been about U&L; currently that site appears to only refer to Stack Overflow. My vague memory is that valid criticisms were raised about how this was being used, and the text of those pages at the time.

Relatedly, I have an opinion about a link that I've seen used a couple of times here. I'd like to suggest that starting an otherwise constructive comment with

Put down the chocolate covered banana and step away from the European currency systems.

is more confusing than entertaining. It seems unfortunate when the reason it is posted is because the situation is already confusing, and there are communication difficulties :-).

  • Is there a way to point out an "XY problem" without a citation title with chocolate covered bananas and European currency systems, which (I assume as part of the joke) sounds completely disconnected from whatever the question was?
  • Is it preferable to do so?
  • Is it reasonable to ask that it be done?

(and if so, can we persuade JdeBP of this?)

  • 1
    Possibly related: unix.meta.stackexchange.com/q/4791/117549 – Jeff Schaller Nov 3 '18 at 22:34
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    Thank you for sharing idownvotedbecau.se. This website exposes a stinking flaw in StackExchange, which muted me on Meta.Stackexchange.com after asking a question that had more upvotes than downvotes actually. And wasn't there the rule “Down-voting should be reserved for extreme cases”? – neverMind9 Nov 4 '18 at 21:26
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    Within the Stack Exchange network, there's also this Q&A about X-Y problems. Pointing to that might be better than pointing to an external site. – drewbenn Nov 5 '18 at 20:36
  • @drewbenn I see your point, but that Q&A seems pretty noisy :-(. Lots of comments. And the other issue with using Meta for FAQs - it seems people want to write their own answers... If I have a good answer that I use to describe the XY problem, I should link to the specific answer. Not link to the page as if I expect them to read the whole page, or expect them to guess that I was pointing to the text of the currently highest voted answer. – sourcejedi Nov 6 '18 at 18:44
  • So attribution of the chocolate-covered banana quote may be to Mark-Jason Dominus – Cœur Nov 7 '18 at 15:40
  • For reference, the chocolate-covered banana comparison was posted more than 20 years ago (in 1995) on a Perl programming newsgroup, at a time where Euro had not yet replaced ECU. It was immortalized as a joke in 2007. – Cœur Nov 8 '18 at 10:46
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    @Cœur, yep, the latter is the page linked to in the comments this Q is about. The original you linked to actually makes sense, the other doesn't. Saying "This sounds like trying to use a banana to fix a currency system; what are you actually trying to do in the end?" is not at all the same as saying "Put down the banana and the currency system". The first is obviously a satirical comparison, though probably a bit too absurd for the general public; while the latter is just totally disconnected from the subject (at least assuming an unix.SE subject, that is). – ilkkachu Nov 8 '18 at 10:48
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    @Cœur Yes, I am the originator of the chocolate-covered banana example. But I believe it was Greg Bacon who later named the phenomenon I described an "XY problem" and simplified the idea to "You wanted to know about X, but asked about Y instead” from my more elaborate version from 1995. – Mark Dominus Nov 8 '18 at 17:00
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Is there a way to point out an "XY problem" without a citation title with [bananas etc.]

Sure. One could say, for example: "What are you trying to achieve in the end? Are you sure that this is the best way to do it? I'm asking because this seems like an XY question." or something to that effect.

Here's a sample comment text you can copy and paste when required:

What are you trying to achieve in the end? I'm asking because this seems
like [an XY question](http://mywiki.wooledge.org/XyProblem).

Is it preferable to do so?

Definitely. Even if the linked-to page is sensible, the nonsensical link text does absolutely nothing to transmit the information, or even the point of the subject. It only works to confuse.

Is it reasonable to ask that it be done?

Definitely. See above.

I'd suggest flagging and deleting such comments. There's no distinct flag reason for "not useful", so "Something else" may need to be used. To be honest, a comment like that is even borderline unkind, in my opinion.


That said, I'm not entirely opposed to absurdist jokes in general, but they only work when there's no actual information to convey.

21

The best explanation of the X-Y problem I have seen is the one on the Wooledge Wiki:

The X-Y Problem, as it is sometimes called, is a mental block which leads to enormous amounts of wasted time and energy, both on the part of people asking for help, and on the part of those providing help. It often goes something like this:

  • User wants to do X.
  • User doesn't know how to do X, but thinks they can fumble their way to a solution if they can just manage to do Y.
  • User doesn't know how to do Y either.
  • User asks for help with Y.
  • Others try to help user with Y, but are confused because Y seems like a strange problem to want to solve.
  • After much interaction and wasted time, it finally becomes clear that the user really wants help with X, and that Y wasn't even a suitable solution for X.

The problem occurs when people get their train of thought stuck on one approach and become unable to take a step back. Remaining open to having a new look at the bigger picture, these people might find their way back to X and continue searching for alternative solutions.

This seems a much better explanation to me than the banana one because it is a) more succinct and, b) it avoids attempts at humour which can be lost on non-native speakers or those who are unfamiliar with the puckish tradition in Unix history.

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