Oracle Scratchpad

March 29, 2010

Philosophy – 9

Filed under: Philosophy — Jonathan Lewis @ 6:54 pm BST Mar 29,2010

There is an old joke about an engineer, a mathematician, and a philosopher sitting together in a train travelling from London (England) to Cardiff (Wales) ***

As the train crosses the border, the engineer glances out of the window and exclaims: “Oh, look! Welsh sheep are black”.
The mathematician responds: “No; all you can say is that there is at least one sheep in Wales that is black.”
The philosopher corrects both of them: “Gentlemen, all you can claim is that there appears to be a sheep in Wales that seems to be black on one side.”

(Trust me, in 1970, this was quite funny).

The point of telling the tale is this: the best viewpoint to take when trouble-shooting an Oracle database is that of the mathematician – don’t, as the engineer did, leap to extreme conclusions based on just one observation , but don’t, as the philosopher did, get so stuck into such tiny details of theoretical correctness that reasonable assumptions are swept aside.

*** Footnote: for those not familiar with the geography of the UK: “The UK” is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and “Great Britain” is the union of England, Scotland (most of the top half of the island), and Wales (the lump at the left hand side, excluding the thin pointy bit at the bottom).

[The Philosophy Series]


  1. I can’t remember the last time I saw a lone sheep in Wales…****

    I think that ability to hit that middle ground of not going with immediate ideas but also avoiding thinking of all potential issues is the trickiest part to solving issues, be they Oracle performance, a dead database or the TV not coming on. If you can get the knack of considering all the likely causes first and then working down to less likely ones, then even if you currently know just a little about solving problems in that area, you are more likely to make progress and learn more.

    ****Footnote: For any Geographers, I would like to point out that by “top half” Jonathan means North and “Lump at the left” he is refering to the West of the island. Scotland is not balancing on top of England. Oh it is so obvious he was a Mathematics teacher, not a Geography teacher…
    {It’s OK! Jonathan knows me, he will extract his terrible revenge on my next technical blog posting!}

    Comment by mwidlake — March 29, 2010 @ 7:55 pm BST Mar 29,2010 | Reply

  2. Jonathan,
    I agree with you that the position to take is the one of the mathematician, though I am under the impression that you sometimes tend to take the one of the philosopher :-)

    Comment by Uwe Hesse — March 29, 2010 @ 8:31 pm BST Mar 29,2010 | Reply

    • Uwe,

      But there’s also an important distinction between how I work and how much I happen to know. My instinct is mathematical, but on the client site I introduce a bias towards the engineer and in the “lab” I adopt a more philosophical bias.

      Comment by Jonathan Lewis — March 31, 2010 @ 10:22 pm BST Mar 31,2010 | Reply

  3. So is Northern Ireland still considered a part of the UK, even though devolved government returned to Northern Ireland a few years ago?

    Comment by Jimmy Brock — March 29, 2010 @ 8:32 pm BST Mar 29,2010 | Reply

  4. Yes, Northern Ireland is still part of the UK, just like Alaska is part of the US. Some government functions are at the devolved level, others are at a ‘federal’ level.

    Comment by Gary — March 29, 2010 @ 9:44 pm BST Mar 29,2010 | Reply

  5. Yes, this was funny

    Comment by Eslam — March 29, 2010 @ 10:02 pm BST Mar 29,2010 | Reply

  6. Reminds me of another mathematician joke.

    A physicist, a biologist and a mathematician are sitting in a street café watching people entering and leaving the house on the other side of the street. First they see two people entering the house. Time passes. After a while they notice three people leaving the house. The physicist says, “The measurement wasn’t accurate.” The biologist says, “They must have reproduced.” The mathematician says, “If one more person enters the house then it will be empty.”

    (thanks Wikipedia)

    In the version I heard it originally the biologist was a “Programmer” and it was a bug in the code.

    Comment by Christo Kutrovsky — March 30, 2010 @ 8:48 pm BST Mar 30,2010 | Reply

  7. At the next table, a woman is babbling in French about how she is a PC and she invented Windows 7…

    Nowadays, I think the engineer would want to instrument a sheepcam.

    Comment by joel garry — March 30, 2010 @ 9:45 pm BST Mar 30,2010 | Reply

  8. a bit of a “deja vu” for me (but probably a off-topic anyway):

    when I (a continental European) first crossed the border from England to Wales (some 15 years ago to visit my relatives in Ireland – and from then on quite regularily), I took the M48 und had to pay toll for the Severn Bridge.
    From that, I (I call myself a mathematician because I studied this subject with some success) deduced, that you have to pay toll for this bridge everytime you cross it.

    How big was my surprise when we travelled back and there was no toll station at all !
    Next time we did this journey, I discovered that it still costs to go from England to Wales whereas it is free to go from Wales to England.

    You were right, as a mathematician, I should have stated “this bridge costs money at least in one direction” (though I nowhere in Europe no of a comparable case, and I have quite done a lot of travelling here by car)

    Because I am nosey, I tried to figure out *why* one direction is free and the other not.
    I asked the lady collecting the toll. She was quite surprised and I think, she never thought about it herself before.
    All she said was “it was always like this.”
    I was not content with this answer and stopped at the first filling station in Wales and asked the domestics there if they knew the reason.
    Nobody knew and no one could explain this to me.

    I still think my story does not explain the difference between an engineer and a mathematician (yours does!), but I have the suspicion that
    people from the UK have a kind of different way of thinking than Continental people sometimes.
    when I tell the story here at my home, the answer “it was always like this” is always a great joke, in England it seems to be a satisfying explanation

    Comment by Sokrates — March 31, 2010 @ 11:40 am BST Mar 31,2010 | Reply

    • According to Wiki:

      “Originally, tolls were charged in both directions, but the arrangements were changed in the early 1990s to eliminate the need for a set of toll booths for each direction of travel and the potential for traffic waiting to pay the toll backing up onto the bridge itself.”

      Traffic waiting on the bridge? Sounds silly. There are two ends of the bridge.

      Comment by Timur Akhmadeev — March 31, 2010 @ 1:17 pm BST Mar 31,2010 | Reply

      • Traffic on a bridge is not silly at all Timur, come see the bridges over Bosphorus in Istanbul :-)

        Comment by Yas — April 1, 2010 @ 8:14 am BST Apr 1,2010 | Reply

    • Sokrates,

        ‘the answer “it was always like this” is always a great joke, in England it seems to be a satisfying explanation’

      And that brings us back to computing – and the frequency with which you hear the comment “I’m doing it that way because that’s the way that I’ve always done it.”

      There is a simple explanation for the one-way toll. Given the geography and roads in that area, if you use the Severn Bridge to go into Wales, you are very likely to use the Severn bridge to come back out. So setting a charge based on a round-trip means lower running costs.

      Comment by Jonathan Lewis — March 31, 2010 @ 6:37 pm BST Mar 31,2010 | Reply

      • Jonathan, the same explanation applies to us in Istanbul too. People cross the bridges to go to work and come back in the evening back home. The question “Why do you live and work in opposite sides of the city?” has lots of answers.

        Comment by Yas — April 1, 2010 @ 8:16 am BST Apr 1,2010 | Reply

      • as always: when you explain it, it is as clear as ice !

        Comment by Sokrates — April 1, 2010 @ 8:21 am BST Apr 1,2010 | Reply

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