There's a question on the front page:


I'm looking for any neat tricks/hacks you have come across in your careers.

I can think of two offhand:

  1. A digital multimeter in continuity test mode can be used to check an LED.

  2. An LED can act as both a source of light and a detector of light. With proper amplification circuitry an LED can be used as a photodiode.

which I believe doesn't belong. However, it has three upvotes, three answers, a lot of activity, and users are clamoring for community wiki status.

I think it's obvious that the question violates the Don't Ask section of the FAQ and fits the "bad subjective" category as laid out in the blog post on subjective questions. See also the recent Is there a place for opinion on the electronics.stackexchange? question.

Normally, I'd close this as "Not Constructive":

This question is not a good fit to our Q&A format. We expect answers to generally involve facts, references, or specific expertise; this question will likely solicit opinion, debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion.

but I'm hesitant because there's so much community support.

The above guidelines are neither written in stone nor able to be derived from basic principles, but they're constant across all SE sites and seem to work pretty well.

I have two questions:

  1. Why is this question getting so much community support?
  2. Why (or why not) should this question be exempt from the above guidelines?
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Are there any examples of a 'good' question for community wiki? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kellenjb
    Jul 12, 2011 at 13:03

4 Answers 4


First off, I don't care for these sorts of questions. They don't fit the Q&A model at all well, and if not handled carefully can balloon into an unreadable mess of everyone's Favorite Things.

That said, there is precedent for them. But it is not, as JGord suggests, questions like this. Have a look at the accepted, top-voted answer there: even if you don't understand what it means - heck especially if you don't understand what it means - there's little mistaking the uselessness of it to someone looking to learn more about the topic.

The closest questions on Stack Overflow are probably the hidden features questions:

What are the lesser-known but useful features of the Python programming language?

  • Try to limit answers to Python core.
  • One feature per answer.
  • Give an example and short description of the feature, not just a link to documentation.
  • Label the feature using a title as the first line.

These are among the most popular questions on the site, and house a wealth of uncommon knowledge on their respected topics. A reader of intermediate skill could do worse than spend a few hours reading through these answers...

They're also almost always a mess. Answers describing stuff everyone knows about, answers that don't answer the question at all, answers fail to be detailed enough to be useful... If you're gonna recommend reading something like this to someone, it pretty much has to come with the caveat, "But look, feel free to stop reading once you get past page two..." - folks with stuff to do don't have time to wade through that much cruft. And moderators rarely relish the task of stepping in to clean it up.

So... useful, but dangerous! It's wise to have some guidelines to follow... Questions attempting to fit this model would do well to,

  • Avoid broad questions when multiple specific questions will do

    This is the most important. If you end up collecting answers to a whole bunch of specific questions that folks will actually end up searching for, you're shooting yourself in your collective feet by smashing them all together under one banner. FAQs are always entising to the experienced, because they save time explaining things to the kids for the umpteenth time... But this whole site should be a FAQ! If the question title looks suspiciously like a description of the site itself, then advise the author to simply ask a bunch of questions instead of trying to get the site to write a book for him.

  • Use Community Wiki

    CW is rarely necessary or even useful these days, when everyone can suggest an edit pretty much anything. But for questions intended to collect large numbers of comprehensive answers that should be familiar to most expert readers, it's worth using simply to encourage contributors to improve existing answers over posting new ones. Better to upvote and edit an existing answer than force two similar ones to compete. Note that a moderator will have to enable this on the question, providing an excellent opportunity to vet the topic and ensure the rest of the guidelines are followed.

  • One suggestion per answer

    With CW in place, voting becomes nothing more than a means to ensure the most useful tips float to the top. This falls apart if writers start throwing multiple tips together (note that writing a comprehensive answer is normally a very good thing indeed - but as I said, these questions don't really fit the normal Q&A model).

  • Encourage lengthy explanations of why, backed up by experiences and external references

    One of the worst fates that can befall such questions are the proliferation of empty opinions. Experienced readers will tend to have some strongly-held opinions on any given topic, and love to up-vote them... even when the rationale that drives them isn't necessarily obvious to less experienced readers. Discouraging these in favor of answers that explain why is probably the single biggest motivation behind The Six Subjective Guidelines. Referencing these in the question itself isn't a terrible idea...

I realize this is a fairly negative answer. I've seen too many instances where these questions have been asked and devolved into noise to be overly positive, I'm afraid. But you should be - take heart that you have a community willing to share its "tricks of the trade" with less experienced users! Make the most of the opportunity, and you'll all benefit...


Questions like these are fun, unlikely to lead to arguments, on-topic, ...

If you look at Bob Pease's famous book about troubleshooting analog circuits, there's an entire section on the topic of this exact question, and it absolutely belongs into a book of this nature.

The question is close to polling, but not in the sense an Atmel vs. Microchip shopping question would be: There is no "What's your favourite _?" involved.

There is a good chance it will become a nice resource for guerilla-style troubleshooting techniques or a useful collection of tips and tricks for the low-budget experimenter.

It would hurt to have dozens of duplicates of this question, but this seems to be the first question on this topic, and whenever someone asks a good open question, I see no reason why we should close it.

We should keep an eye on quality, but this is not wikipedia. Besides the wiki nature, SE is mainly a Q&A site, where it should be o.k., to a certain degree, to collect information without a "citation needed" behind every piece of information as long as common sense would make you generally agree a question doesn't look like it will encourage arguments or get only very chatty answers. This particular questions looks like it may indeed lead to a useful list in the answers.

There may be some less useful answers, too, but as of the time of writing this, the votes have started doing their job and everyone is invited to just stop reading once the score becomes < z, with z being your individual limit.

Moderators, please consider that electronics.SE still doesn't have a whole lot of traffic, and by closing popular questions that are not dangerous to the goal of this site (which is becoming a good resource for many people), you may turn off quite a number of new users who may also contribute questions of the highest standard if they don't feel like they're being chased away by some elite. This isn't some special club of the very best only, this is a site that wants above-average to great contribution. Closing lots of questions that are just a bit below the standards of a nomination for the Nobel prize will not make this site popular at all, but accepting some interesting and fun questions might get us closer to becoming really well-known and valuable.

After all, our front page is not everything. Regular users might look at it, but the majority hits a question directly from a search engine or after looking for certain topics/tags.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Who downvoted? I completely agree... +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – NickHalden
    Jul 12, 2011 at 13:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @zebonaut, you would be amazed what "common sense" will make people agree to. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kortuk
    Jul 12, 2011 at 14:05
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ My issue with this answer is I fail to see a point being made. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kellenjb
    Jul 12, 2011 at 14:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kortuk, you may be right about common sense. I've replaced that part with some details, the most important of which is: "will not lead to arguments" because this is what makes me hit Alt-F4 on a lot of Q&A sites. @Kellenjb, I've tried to explain my points a bit better. Hope I make more sense now. \$\endgroup\$
    – zebonaut
    Jul 12, 2011 at 19:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kellenjb The point being made is that you have to make a choice between two principals (1) strict adherence to a set of rules, (2) maximizing the value of this site to its community by judging individually each contribution based on reason. The point is being made that option "2" is the way to go. Frankly speaking, I have little respect for people in this world with zero critical thinking skills who always opt. for "1" rather than "2". Rules never work entirely within the intentions of their creators. The question that should be asked is: "Is this question of value?" \$\endgroup\$ Dec 14, 2011 at 17:06

I guess the better question here is not if the question is subjective, but rather, what benefit does it provide to the site? I have a hard time finding how that question will provide any benefit to site. Although some of the answers might be interesting the likelihood of someone actually benefiting from them is relatively small.

The only 'good' answers I can imagine that type of question getting are answers that only someone who has been in industry for many years would come across, except that none of our experts (People like Olin Lathrop, David Kessner, Leon Heller, endolith, etc) have chimed in, and they usually chime in pretty fast if they have anything to add.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Did you see the answer about using a o'scope probe as a loop antenna for determining sources of EMI? \$\endgroup\$
    – NickHalden
    Jul 12, 2011 at 14:50
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I didn't answer because I don't consider myself using "tricks". Tricks are sortof magic, a hueristic when you don't know what you're doing. When you do know what you're doing, it's all just common sense and application of basic principal. By the way, Stevenvh definitely belongs on your list. I don't think this question has technical benefit to the site, but people are having fun and exchanging thoughts, which I think is a benefit. I've been watching it with amusement myself. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 12, 2011 at 15:08
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Olin I put the "etc" because I figured I had missed someone. Steven does indeed fall in that group. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kellenjb
    Jul 12, 2011 at 15:17
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Olin "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." What is common sense and application of basic principal to you might appear magic to some of us less experienced engineers. If it's an uncommon technique that you think might not be taught in school I would highly encourage you to share it. Hell, it might even push me to understand said basic principal. \$\endgroup\$
    – NickHalden
    Jul 12, 2011 at 22:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jgord I think the point is that it will be magic to you with out knowing the background behind it. With open ended questions like this there is no way for all of the background to be explained. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kellenjb
    Jul 12, 2011 at 23:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kellenjb I don't disagree with that, but I have little trouble learning the background when I know what to look for. The most difficult thing for me is learning what I need to type into wikipedia's search bar... It might sound like I'm kidding, but I assure you I am not. Learning mathy details and coding paradigms is easy for most people on this site. The hard part is getting exposed to enough material, and learning how it is all connected. I would argue that my question helps with at least the first, if not the second. \$\endgroup\$
    – NickHalden
    Jul 13, 2011 at 1:25

I'm the asker of the question. Here is my take on the issue:

I realize that SE sites are supposed to be Q & A sites where a person asks direct questions which have correct answers. However, more than anything they act as learning resources for both amateurs just getting our feet wet, and experts who pick up a little tidbit here or there.

I know that StackOverflow has similarly subjective questions which garner a ton of community support such as this one. Now obviously two wrongs do not make a right, but we see that they can still work towards the larger goal of SE sites: providing information.

I believe the reason this kind of subjective question gets so much activity is because it is subjective in a way that allows answerers to 'show off' almost. It's hard to explain since I'm not a psychology major but it definitely allows one the ability to both help the asker while simultaneously illustrating the breadth of one's own knowledge.

As for why it should be exempt I think it's obvious: it is providing good information which countless people will probably find use for in the future. You said yourself the guidelines aren't written in stone so I don't see why you would close it as "Non-constructive" when it is clearly quite the opposite.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ With respect to the popularity of subjective questions, you're correct that a lot of our 'soft' questions are upvoted more than hard questions. I think this, for example, is a fantastic question, while our highest-voted questions are not nearly as challenging. It's an interesting psychological problem. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 11, 2011 at 21:11
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Also, I think you're using "non-constructive" outside of the provided definition. In this context, "non-constructive" means not a good fit to our Q&A format because it doesn't consist of facts, references, or specific expertise; likely to solicit opinion, debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 11, 2011 at 21:15
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Kevin That's my point exactly. Why remove a constructive question (constructive being used as it is in the english language) simply because it perhaps strays from the NOT set in stone guidelines? Furthermore, I don't believe my question will solicit debate nor arguments. It will more than likely end up as a conglomeration of 'gotchas.' \$\endgroup\$
    – NickHalden
    Jul 11, 2011 at 21:32
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this site should be about "showing off" at all. I also don't think a question like this is providing good information and even if it has good information, because of the polling type format it would be hard to find the good information when needed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kellenjb
    Jul 12, 2011 at 14:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kellenjb, the polling type format alone would likely not help. The polling type format together with the votes could very well turn into a good list for an engineer or hacker who is interested in some simple tricks for her or his lab. \$\endgroup\$
    – zebonaut
    Jul 12, 2011 at 20:32

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