Stack Overflow Considered as a Grimoire or Trove

Back in the day, when I came upon a particularly juicy tip/hint/trick/kludge/etc. I would write it down somewhere (way back -- in a paper notebook; more recently, somewhere like TiddlyWiki). But I don't do that anymore -- why?

The answer is Stack Overflow. When I have a question, a web search often has 1 or more Stack Overflow answers at the top - answers that usually help me fix (or work around) the problem I have. It really is impressive how often Stack Overflow has just the answer I need and in just enough detail. (Disclosure: I answer questions on Stack Overflow on a semi-regular basis.)

Stack Overflow could be considered as a grimoire (in the "Wizard did not seem to be a career choice, so I chose programmer" sense). Many dusty, ill-lit corners of languages and systems have been brought to light by the helpful folks at Stack Overflow in both the answers and the comments. I don't know much about the beginner's questions on Stack Overflow or on the other Stack Exchange sites, but the questions I have day-to-day on programming are often answered in full on Stack Overflow. The breadth and depth of coverage is a quite an astonishing feat, especially having achieved this coverage in such a relatively short time.

But Stack Overflow is better than an old-fashioned spellbook. "You can't grep dead trees", as the saying goes, but with Stack Overflow you can search it through its built-in search, or using whichever search engine you are comfortable with. Stack Overflow questions are also tagged in multiple categories to make it easier to find just what you are looking for. This is crowd-sourced categorization, which means it is both useful and not nearly as powerful as it might be - but my impression from the librarians that I know is that complete categorization is a highly resource-intensive process (and IMHO not necessary for the categorization to be useful). If you need an answer on JavaScript external sorting, Perl statistical functions, C# command-line build incantations, or many other questions, the contributors at Stack Overflow are generous with their time and (almost always) gracious with their answers and comments.

A shout-out is also deserved by the other Stack Exchange sites -- Superuser, Ask Ubuntu,, etc. etc.

Somewhere around our house is a picture of my cubicle circa 1995 - strewn with magazines and articles comprising a badly-organized and incomplete treasure trove of tricks, kludges, hints, clues, inklings, indications, etc. etc. necessary for quickly solving the problems whose solutions are not in the back of the programming book(s). Nowadays, my workspace is clean and uncluttered due in no small part to Stack Overflow and the other members of the Stack Exchange family of websites. This is not just a Good Thing - this is an advancement of the state of the art, and ask your local Ph.D. just how easy that is. Just as a little photography and a little materials science led to the Computer Revolution, a little amateur sociology, a little Information Retrieval, and a little programming led to the English-speaker's worldwide knowledgebases - Stack Overflow Kudos and laurels to the Stack Exchange team along with the many, many contributors.


Double posted?

Stackoverflow is my alchemy recipes library.

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About Mark Leighton Fisher

user-pic Perl/CPAN user since 1992.