Oracle Scratchpad

January 7, 2013

Philosophy 20

Filed under: Philosophy — Jonathan Lewis @ 6:52 am GMT Jan 7,2013

It’s important to revisit the questions you think you’ve answered from time to time. You may find that your previous answer was wrong or incomplete; you may find that looking at your past answers may give you ideas for new questions.

I had this thought while staring out of the window earlier on today. When I’m working at home I spend most of my time in a room that looks onto my back garden – and I have five different bird feeders in the garden and a pair of binoculars by my computer. Today I was watching some (Eurasian) Jays that tend to appear fairly promptly when I put out a handful of peanuts.

There’s clearly some sort of pecking order among these jays (and I think there are two different families), and one of the jays is clearly very aggressive and tends to frighten off the others, but a common behaviour pattern when two are down is that the less aggressive jay hops a few steps away from the more aggressive one and turns its back.

For years I’ve assumed that this is just a typical “underdog” behaviour – i.e. “I’m not a threat, I can’t attack, I’m not even looking at you” – but today it suddenly dawned on me that there was another possibility that simply hadn’t crossed my mind: if you’re a bird and thinking about running away you won’t want to take off towards your opponent, the best direction to point in is the direction that’s going to move you away from trouble as quickly as possible.

My point, of course, is that it’s easy to believe that you understand something simply because you’ve accepted a reasonable explanation – coming back to the issue some time later may allow you to come up with other ideas, whether or not those ideas arise by you deliberately questioning your belief, or by an accident of intuition.

Footnote: If this was an example of Oracle behaviour I’d be doing some serious research on it by now; but my birdwatching is only for casual pleasure, so I’m not going to start trawling the internet for theses on Jay behaviour.


  1. A good advice for sure – and a nice example from the world (there is one!) outside of Oracle :-)

    Comment by Uwe Hesse — January 7, 2013 @ 8:04 am GMT Jan 7,2013 | Reply

  2. Your phrase “accident of intuition” in this post is beautiful; I’ll remember it for the rest of my days. Thank you!

    Comment by Hans Henrik Krohn — January 7, 2013 @ 12:29 pm GMT Jan 7,2013 | Reply

  3. I have some empathy for the bird scientists community. Poor they, will never have the chance to read “Practical Jays” or “Bird Feeding Fundamentals” :)

    Comment by Todor Botev — January 7, 2013 @ 6:52 pm GMT Jan 7,2013 | Reply

    • In the end I couldn’t resist spending a little time to see if either of my hypotheses were correct – and it’s amazing how much work has gone into studying Jays. One of the first paper abstracts I came across described how they seem to be capable of limiting their current actions to be better able to cater for two possible future outcomes – i.e. if I do A now it doesn’t give me the best immediate payoff, but it gives me a better payoff in the future whether X or Y happens. If only we could train them to understand Oracle !

      Comment by Jonathan Lewis — January 12, 2013 @ 10:19 am GMT Jan 12,2013 | Reply

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