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Retrocomputing has struck me, over the last six months, as being particularly unfriendly to novices. It's now reached the point where a new user (both to RC.SE and SE in general), probably a non-native speaker of English, comes in and gives the only correct answer to a question, and in less than a day it's deleted, leaving only information (in the question and other answer) that's greatly misleading.

My go-to example of the worst of this is "what is DMA and how does it work?". DMA invariably is used in modern computers, to the point where nobody even thinks about it any more, which is exactly why it's a good question in the context of '80s micros, where it would be a key selling point and worthy of discussion because it's rare. We managed to get that one re-opened, but only after quite the struggle against its almost-instant closing.

But there are plenty of other examples of situations where the context was so different from modern computing that the OP hardly knew what to ask, and all to frequently our response is not, "here is an introduction to the background you need to start to comprehend this entirely different universe of computing," but "You should have already had the background to have asked the question better for those who do already know all this."

Except, of course, as above when we start deleting correct answers.

I have no idea what to do about this at this point. Personally, I'm feeling like I should just move on to other places to document old computers. (You may note that after six months or so of fairly intense activity that lifted me from nowhere to #4 last year in reputation gain I've slowed down.)

Can this be fixed? Or has the community settled into into a state where the "in group" is going to do its thing and outsiders, even those with better information than anybody here, are simply not welcome?

And oh, yeah; I cannot undelete that one correct answer above because it's been deleted by a moderator. Maybe a mod could reconsider and undelete it? Though I suspect we've lost that user (again, the only one here who actually gave an answer anywhere close to being correct) forever.


Update: It's now a week later, another moderator restored the answer, and it's since gotten upvotes from people other than me (the OP) as well. So that's good, as far as it goes. However, the new user appears to have abandoned the site, and I'm also pretty disappointed that the moderator responsible for driving him away had not even owned up to what they've done, much less helped to fix the issue they created.

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  • Note: you can always flag answers deleted by moderators for undeletion – make a custom flag, and explain why you think the deletion was unwarranted. – wizzwizz4 Feb 16 at 12:44
  • Unrelated to this issue, the user who got their answer deleted is an unregistered user and last seen 1 hour later after posting it. The user might have lost access to their account at that moment (e.g. by clearing their browser cookie). They might not even realize their answer got deleted (1 day later) and undeleted, upvoted, and commented. – Andrew T. May 14 at 7:04
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It's not just novices.

We have some documentation here on meta describing the site's norms and expectations (e.g. scope), but our culture has drifted since then. Our unwritten rules have drifted, and not always in (what I see as) a good way. What's worse, each user's expectations have drifted separately.

Right now, (by my reckoning,) the expectations of the top 36 users by reputation differ widely. Everybody wants a site focused on retrocomputing, but… what is retrocomputing? Early in the site, we had a lot of ideas about that, but one (the then-CM Robert Cartaino's) generally won out. Two-and-a-bit years later, and the perceived consensus had changed

And while the most favoured answer back then focuses on the fact of real, every day usage of otherwise outdated systems, todays concensus incooperates a wider range of outdated systems, but especially theoretical and research questions about old software, hardware and culture in general.
Raffzahn's answer

This is one of the best summaries I've seen, and yet I still disagree with it; for instance, the answer declares questions like SheepShaver won't open after reboot – which has received no close votes ever despite my repeated use of it as an example – off-topic. Are these on-topic? Well…

Disagreements about what's acceptable on the site can lead to users seeing completely different sets of rules applied, depending on which high-activity users happen to be around at the time. It can lead to one group closing a question while another group is trying to answer it, or a moderator deleting an answer that others consider fine. (Though I've never done this. *burns evidence*) Who's right? Who knows?

There are even places where the behaviour of (what I see as) the average community member is in conflict with not just network norms, but the Stack Exchange model itself. Take commenting, for example. If you'd all just use comments “properly”, it'd make moderation a lot easier – the tools are insufficient for how most sites use the software, but very insufficient for how we use it. But, as the comments to that meta post show:

[…] my little addition isn't what I would regard as full featured Answer, not even a partial. It is .. well .. more of a comment regarding one (of several) details. […] Hell, doesn't that very much highlight the issue with comment vs. answer? Not every valid information forms an reasonable answer nor should be handled so, but at the same time it might be a useful addition.Raffzahn Dec 11 '18 at 17:28

(I know I keep quoting Raffzahn – that's a coincidence! Lots of other people besides Raffzahn disagree with me, and each other, about this kind of thing.)

How can we possibly start treating novices nicely if we can't even agree on how we are to behave?

Canonical Q&A pairs

That being said, it might be a good idea to write some canonical Q&A pairs for simple things (e.g. “what is a floppy disc?”) so that we can point newbies there instead of just getting cross with them. Build the tools you often find yourself in want of.

But how do we co-ordinate producing these canonical Q&A pairs (that anybody could, and so probably would answer), so that they have one or two stellar answers instead of five or six mediocre ones? Same way as we co-ordinate tagging: we use meta.

To conclude:

Use meta more.

Both of these problems can be solved that way, and a lot more besides. It's not the best tool, but it's the best one we have.

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  • You're abolutely correct that there's disagreement about what's on-topic and a large grey area there. That will never go away, but how much of a problem off-topic questions are is not a property of individual off-topic questions but also their quantity. I see the SheepShaver question alone as not being very problematic; if the site became flooded with similar questions I'd probably start voting to close them becuase the loss to the site of discouraging novice users (who may become expert users over time) would be outweighed by the loss to the general usefulness of the site. – cjs Feb 17 at 1:32
  • And I think that canonical Q&A pairs are an excellent idea; that seems to me the best way to address both the "novices hardly even know what to ask" and "keep such novice questions from proliferating and overwhelming the site" issues. I think these can easily arise naturally, as with the "What is DMA" question. Except that we've had a huge fight to keep that open; there are clearly a number of people on the site who, if you don't already know what DMA is, think you should not be posting on our site at all. – cjs Feb 17 at 1:36
  • As for "more use of meta," well, that doesn't seem to be working. It's days later, and we still have, for a question full of greatly misleading assumptions, an upvoted answer that carries on with the misleading assumptions and nobody who is able and willing to undelete the answer that explains that the question and answer have both gone off the rails in an entirely wrong direction. – cjs Feb 17 at 1:38
  • @cjs More use of meta would've meant we agreed on what was acceptable. Three users who interacted with it reckoned that the answer wasn't good, whereas only two thought it was good. I'm going to bite the bullet and overrule them, because you've made good points. – wizzwizz4 Feb 17 at 10:37
  • Thanks a lot for fixing that. I've accepted that answer (for the moment anyway) to get it up to the top since the other answer (not particularly through the fault of that answer poster) and the question are so misleadingly wrong and requested that the correct answer poster expand on his answer in any way he can, though I suspect at this point he's long gone. – cjs Feb 18 at 0:17
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As a novice user, who mostly browses the site, it seems to fulfil three distinct purposes:

  1. Computer history, both documented and anecdotal. This might include systems, software, programming languages and social or business history.

  2. Maintaining old systems in the present. This includes programming retro systems, or using languages that have fallen out of favour. It can also include adding to or replacing parts with modern equivalent and emulating.

  3. Nostalgia, often for home micros, game systems, or games. Often trivial, but usually fascinating to read!

I note that each of these purposes could overlap with other SE sites, for example coding could fit into Stack Overflow and games or game systems into Arqade.

My own interests overlap as well. I was once a coder/developer, and have worked with VMS systems, DOS, Unix, Fortran, Pascal, C, Logo and other systems and languages in the past. I did use Zx Spectrum, C64, Amstrad CPC and PCW systems as a child. I still have and use a Sinclair ZX81 and CPC6128, though I rarely code on them. I often use emulators.

The breadth of the site is its strength. When policing the boundaries, it would be best to include whatever cannot be better fitted elsewhere. If the site comes out of beta, it should become a destination for questions from other sites. If it is hard to call, the presumption should be that questions remain.

The only way for the site to grow is to make it more inclusive. Edge cases should be allowed wherever possible. If the answer to “would this question get a better answer on another SE site?" is no, then it would be better to remain, even if it stretches the intended domain of RCSE.

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  • FWIW I do not consider the site particularly unfriendly, and the detailed answers I have received to my questions do make me more likely to post more. – Mark Williams Feb 29 at 10:34
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You've picked two great examples.

In the first case, I may be as unhappy as you, as it may really have been a useful answer - if it wasn't for it's quality issue. Even if true, as of now, it isn't really helpful, as it fails to give any details or explanation. I would love if the author could add some substantial information. But I feel it's way too easy to blame some 'unwelcoming' nature. The way Stackexchange works offers only a limited set of tools to handle this. For an issue like here, there are essentially only three options:

  • The author improves the answer
  • Someone else, who can explain the correctness/background, does so
  • It gets turned into a comment

(Important side note: it did not get deleted, but put into a comment - it's still visible to readers of the question.)

Here the last has been chosen. Maybe a bit premature, still the only valid way to handle it without the ability to add information. After all, while there may be many points moderation can be critizised for, not being all-knowing is not one of them. By the rules, it doesn't pass the threshold for a valid answer, as it just states something with next to no explanation, reference or background. Turning it into a comment is appropriate.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not happy with the moderation here, and personally may have tried to brush up the wording, but I can very well understand why it was handled that way.

Now, for the second example, I have to start by making clear that I do not understand in any way why this question has been reopened. Having said that, you picked a great example for this part - one that even contradicts your primary stance about RC.SE being unwelcome. A decision against a question because it's clearly off topic, has nothing to do with being "friendly". And this one is as clear off topic as it ever can get.

Try for yourself and replace DMA with CPU. Don't laugh, just do it. You'll notice that your argument about being 'so basic noone uses it anymore' works as well, after all, some mystic 'cores' are listed in tech specs of modern devices. The same can be done with next to any other basic item about computers. Like 'what is a bit'. Isn't it?

But again, this example hits an important point: Retrocomputing is a _sub_domain of computing (hence the need of an adjective) thus RC.SE wrestles with this basic dichotomy that next to all topics of computing happen in old computers and their usage, but not all topics are specific to old computers. It creates the need to distinguish every time between issues which are specific to the use with old computers and everything else.

Bottom line: It's mandatory to keep that line - unless we want to replace any other computing related SE area (including SO) - RC.SE for World Domination :)

So far the definition side. But then there's a spin of 'welcomeness' which in my opinion shows an assumed mission of RC.SE:

But there are plenty of other examples of situations where the context was so different from modern computing that the OP hardly knew what to ask, and all to frequently our response is not, "here is an introduction to the background you need to start to comprehend this entirely different universe of computing," but "You should have already had the background to have asked the question better for those who do already know all this."

First of all, I guess the second 'quote' is worded in an unfair way on purpose, to make a point. After all, the reply to the DMA question, as well as others alike, is not suppressing it, as implied, but redirecting it to a more fitting area. In this case one that is about generic computing.

Now this brings up one of the real issues RC.SE (and, as far as I can tell its moderators) wrestle with: The missing ability to reroute questions. As far as I understand this, they can't forward a question to a more appropriate area, as long as RC.SE stays in Beta. Leaving Beta may relieve this a lot. I think RC.SE is ready for this already since quite some time, even though it does not fulfil the numeric criteria. IIRC others have been promoted without passing the numeric criteria - so wouldn't it be a good idea if moderation (or whoever is in the relevant position) could make this their prime mission?

Back to order. Trying to give an answer to everything within RC.SE, like implied with the first 'quote', would mean to eventually tug every topic into RC.SE. As far as I can tell that's not what RC.SE is meant for. Since retrocomputing is a _sub_domain of computing, an area about it needs to restrict content to exactly that. Its content can only be relevant if restricted to its topic.

Or in more hands-on terms: A question needs to have a concrete RC specific anchor, even if it's answer may end up being a more generic one. Just mentioning that a term has been heared in relation to some old hardware does not satisfy it.

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  • 1
    "....it may really have been a useful answer - if it wasn't for it's quality issue." Really? How about asking the OP about that? Because for him, that answer was actually by far the best insight into the problem, and he preferred to get even just a "poor qualtiy" answer saying "it doesn't work how you assumed it does" to, "this is enitrely inapplicable and misleading, but despite being entirely wrong, it's the only answer we're going to let you see." – cjs Feb 15 at 20:53
  • @cjs Hmm, I'm not really sure why you're attacking me here? I did not move/delete it. /me is just a user like any other here. It would as well help if you quote (and read) in full. Doing so would show that I support your point about way to early moderator move - including mentioning (in the list) that improving the question would be one way instead of turning into a comment - which BTW also includes improvement by you. After all, it seams as if you have enough understanding of the issue to judge that the answer is a (as you say the) valid one. – Raffzahn Feb 15 at 23:37
  • What can I say? "[S]till the only valid way to handle it without the ability to add information" is technically correct, except that it's utterly divorced from the reality that we did have that ability until a moderator deleted the one correct answer to a question and probably drove away the new user who knew far more about this topic than anybody else on RC.SE. – cjs Feb 16 at 3:03
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    And that's part of the general attitude (by you, the moderator who deleted the answer, and the guy who commented on the answer) that clearly says you all feel that your opinion that there's a "quality issue" or the answer is "[not] very useful" is more important than the OP (me) actually being able to interact properly with the guy who gave me the information that I needed. – cjs Feb 16 at 3:06
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    I begin to see that I'm been put among the "bad guys", because I got the nerve to take a step back and analyze the situation? @cjs, is that so? Interesting, as to m understanding Meta is about discussing issues (of any kind) and finding a common resolution - not a blame game. Also, what you're criticising is the exact way of peer review the whole SE site is build upon. Isn't it? And since it wsn't deleted, but moved into a comment, you still had the very same tool to communicate with the OP as before: writing a comment directed to him. None of the information got lost, only the form changed . – Raffzahn Feb 16 at 8:13
  • To be honest, I haven't noticed that you've been the OP as well. This makes me wonder how you'd know it's the correct answer? 'Proper' interaction stayed the same. An you did react the same way as with an answer, didn't you? So what would have been different if it stayed in answer form? – Raffzahn Feb 16 at 8:24
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    "Reroute"? You mean 'migration'? That is perfectly possible now. It's just that the dialog offered has only site-meta on offer for users trying that. But comment and flag for mod attention should accomplish that now. (If the quality of the post makes it indeed a good one on the target site. Often migration just shovels some sh… around…) // But I agree quite much on this post: 'friendly' is often conflated with quality-ignorance. My Q on that would be: Why can't we SE users get newbies to stay and improve (their posts)? – LаngLаngС Feb 16 at 15:56
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    @Raffzahn No, you're not being put amongst the bad guys becauase you "have the neve to take a step back and analyze the situation." You're there because you are prioritizing strict rules over helping posters get correct answers to their questions and training new users to write good answers. – cjs Feb 17 at 1:41
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    As to what would have been different had the answer stayed in answer form: a) I would have accepted it, since it's far more accurate and useful than any other answer, and b) the new user would have been encouraged to learn about how to make better answers and improve his answer, rather than being driven away, hopefully bringing to the site some very welcome (to me, anyway) expertise on 1980s Japanese microcomputers. – cjs Feb 17 at 1:44
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    The DMA question is relevant IMO to retrocomputing because in that era it was not the case that you always got computers with DMA. Today, even <5$ microcontrollers have DMA channels built-in, but then, it was frequently a separate chip that the computer (or peripheral!) had to include at extra expense and so you had some computers/peripherals that could do it and some that couldn't and it had a noticeable performance impact (duh!) that affect the way software was written and what you could do with it. None of those considerations are interesting now, but were then. – davidbak Feb 28 at 17:13
  • IMO the (formerly-) deleted answer on the nature of the pinouts of the floppy disk port pinout was definitely not a low quality answer. It wasn't a wikipedia style answer - SE has a unnecessary bias for that - but it was correct and complete and satisfied the OP's needs especially as the OP said he had a scope and could look at the pins. With the answer given that it is 3 8-bit data lanes plus ground OP can write simple programs and look at waveforms and figure out what he wants to know. If that isn't sufficient, he could ask for clarification. But the answer as it stands is fine. – davidbak Feb 28 at 17:21
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    Oh, and one more thing: The question made it clear the OP had in mind using a "floppy emulator" hardware thing to connect to his oddball retro gear. The answer definitely tells the OP that that's impossible using the Shugart-style interface (and may be possible using the thing's "PC compatible mode" whatever that is) and otherwise he can't do it going down that path. Which, I'm guessing, is extremely useful information to the OP! – davidbak Feb 28 at 17:27
  • @davidbak I wouldn't call that answer "complete," but it was certainly extermely useful in that it pointed out how I (and no doubt through me, the other answer) had gone dramatically wrong in our conception of how the interface worked. Especially given that it was the first post ever to any SE site by that user, it was certainly worth saying "here's how you could improve it" rather than "go away; we don't want you here." I'm still hoping he'll come back and post a link or two (even in Japanese) to some further documentation on this. – cjs Feb 28 at 19:02
  • (And yes, just the information in that answer alone can easily save me, or anybody else trying to 'scope this out, a dozen or more hours in debugging time. Not to mention a hundred bucks on a floppy emulator that would be useless with this system.) – cjs Feb 28 at 19:03

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