Wednesday, April 19, 2006

What should everyone know?

What should everyone know? This is something I’ve thought about in the past – many times, when speaking I assume “everyone of course knows this fact, they have to – everyone knows”. I think we all have that idea – the idea that there are just some things that “of course, everyone knows this”.

I bring this up because of a “quiz” I took over the weekend. A quiz on what some Nobel Prize winning scientists thought “every high school graduate should be able to answer”. I was happy to see that I would have gotten an 85% on it approximately. I thought some of the questions were pretty complex – I gave myself an 85% because of question 8 – only got half of it. Question 9 – I had no clue.

I didn’t like question 9 – not because I didn’t know (well, there was that…) but because it required such a precise answer – a factoid type of answer. I’m not sure that one should have made the list personally. Something that needs a very precise answer like that, it just seems to specific, too “factoid”. Sort of like knowing the exact release when Advanced Replication was introduced (7.1.6), or when bitmap indexes where first production (7.3.3 – there were beta in 7.3.2 and could be enabled via an event). Factoids like that are things I remember – but don’t expect anyone else to have memorized.

Anyway, that quiz just got me thinking about how what we think everyone must surely know probably affects how we talk and interact with them. Have you ever had a conversation where the other person just didn’t seem to “get it” and then figured out that they didn’t have a crucial piece of information you assumed “everyone knows”. I’ve had lots of those – mostly surrounding Oracle the database of course. When someone would say “Yeah, I’m an Oracle developer” – I used to assume a certain level set of knowledge. I no longer do that. A favorite example of this happened way back in 1994 or 1995. A sales person I worked with at Oracle asked me to have a conference call with their customer and go over the newly introduced Advanced Replication feature. No problem – I did it and they sat in on the call. Many times while talking to the DBA’s and Developers on the other end of the phone during this call – I made a reference to ROWID (used heavily way back when in replication). After the call ended – my coworker looked at me and said – “this ROWID thing, what is that, is that a new feature of the database?”. Sound of jaw dropping. I was still relatively new at Oracle back then and sort of assumed “everyone would know certain things about the database, regardless”. That just drove home the point that just because something seems “second nature” to you – it might be completely new to someone else.

So, what is the point – just to point out that we shouldn’t assume a level set of knowledge for anyone on anything – not until we get to know them of course. You have to be careful of course – some people might feel insulted, but they shouldn’t (I don’t, not anymore at least – maybe when I was more of a newbie and thought I knew more than I did). I take the conversation up or down a level after trying to figure out what people really know (or not). That is why I really want questions during my technical session – that is the only barometer I have to judge the audiences “level”. Am I speaking too high or too low, their questions help me figure that out.

Just to close up on a fun note – check out this flow chart (warning, yes, there is certain language on it – and now you know that before you click on it). I really liked the infinite loop in it.


Blogger Bill S. said....

Tough quiz. Some of my recollections from high school were apparently not very accurate ;-P. But I have to admit, the flow chart at the end of your blog was a nice reminder. I have a version of that one floating around, always liked the continuous loop. :-D

Wed Apr 19, 10:24:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Tony Andrews said....

I found the "correct" answer to the second half of question 5 unsatisfactory somehow. If I had had to write down an answer on paper I would probably have got it "wrong" - it seems like a trick question!

Wed Apr 19, 11:05:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Gary S said....

I agree with Tony about the answer to the second half of question five. It's circular. The day and year are based upon physical phenomena (completion of 1 revoltion about the earth's axis; completion of 1 revolution about the sun). The hour is simply a subdivision of the day, and I'm not aware of any celestial phenomena that it relates to. 24 is a good number because it's highly factorable (so you can express parts of a day as rational fractions). I remember reading something about how the Babylonians used a 12-based number system, and how that is where some of our calendar measurements came from.

Cool quiz though (I got a 90, I missed the fossil question by .8 billion years)

Wed Apr 19, 11:16:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Robert Vollman said....

I like the way you made that argument. It's true, in technical circles you can't always assume the person you're speaking with his particular knowledge, regardless of his experience.

I was asking someone why they read my blog when everyone else seems to know Oracle better than I do. He answered that it's sometimes more helpful to read an article by someone who is closer to your level of knowledge because they don't assume you know anything, and they show you all the steps.

I guess that's one of the reasons your sites are so popular. You have both a very high level of expertise in Oracle, AND a way of writing that doesn't assume the reader has the same level of knowledge.

Wed Apr 19, 11:28:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Niall said....

I also missed the fossil question by .8bn years.

I was just thinking about this at the weekend, there was a correction to a previous answer in the motoring section of my daily newspaper. ( search for boost the chemist). The journalist originally asserted that nitrogen molecules were about 10 times larger than oxygen molecules, and apparently linked this to the probability of the gas escaping tyres. Now, I don't expect everyone to know the periodic table of the elements - but I do expect them to know of it, and what the atomic number of an element means. Is this too much to ask?

Wed Apr 19, 11:29:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Niall said....

oh and I'd suggest that knowing what genes are is a vital piece of information.

Wed Apr 19, 11:30:00 AM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

Genes - I wear them every weekend and most weeknights, absolutely. very comfy.


Wed Apr 19, 12:12:00 PM EDT  

Blogger shrek said....

actually, the answer to 5 is womewhat incorrect. the division into "days" and "hours" depends on our division and measurment of time. it we had decided that an hour was 90 minuites long ther wouldn't be 24 of them in a day now would there?

and given my current situation, i could use some of those 90 minuite hours.;-)

Wed Apr 19, 12:24:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

geans != jeans

Freudian ?

wv : qwewl (sounding like German language "source")

Wed Apr 19, 12:50:00 PM EDT  

Blogger William Robertson said....

I was off by over a billion years with the fossil question as well (I should have guessed better after watching Walking with Monsters last night), but I still think it's important that people have a rough idea about the age of the Earth and the life on it.

Niall - the nitrogen tyre theory was also mentioned by Jeremy Clarkson in Top Gear magazine last year and I thought it extremely unlikely then. For one thing air is 78% nitrogen anyway (another thing everyone should know), so we put quite a lot of it in our tyres already, and if oxygen were to leak out faster than nitrogen (which it doesn't), then over time the nitrogen proportion would increase on its own.

What has always bugged me though is why no ancient civilization ever took the trouble to invent text messaging.

Wed Apr 19, 12:59:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

geans != jeans

not freudian, tongue firmly in cheek (it was a "joke")

Wed Apr 19, 01:10:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Rachel said....

Niall -- well, since I just took biochemistry last semester I do know the relationship between atomic number and size of the atom. BUT.... it's been about 35 years since I took high school chemistry and if you had asked me that question before the BioChem class, I'd have gotten it wrong.

Why assume (the old Odd Couple joke) that "everyone knows" about the periodic table of elements. If you have no need for the information contained therein, there's no reason for you to know about it.

I've learned over the years to say "if this is too basic, let me know, I'm not sure how low-level you want this" and then start talking. Also looking for that glazed eye look in the listener seems to help too :)

Tom -- neat quiz, I didn't do as well as you on it, then again I don't think you'd do as well as I did on my latest lab (mice) quiz -- but "everyone knows" how to handle mice and rats, right? (tongue FIRMLY in cheek)


Wed Apr 19, 01:18:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

but "everyone knows" how to handle mice and rats, right? (tongue FIRMLY in cheek)

with very thick, elbow length gloves I presume :)

Wed Apr 19, 01:23:00 PM EDT  

Blogger jimk said....

I punted on 9 and was off by 500 million years.

I like the following quote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert Heinlein in "Time Enough For Love"

I haven't done the die gallantly, set a bone, planned an invasion, write a sonnet.

Wed Apr 19, 01:31:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Rob Zijlstra said....

Good answer on 10 (salt & water):

Adding salt to snow or ice increases the number of molecules on the ground surface and makes it harder for the water to freeze. Salt can lower freezing temperatures on sidewalks to 15 degrees from 32 degrees.

This is a very good answer indeed: next time I will just throw water on the ground, that will surely increase the number of molecules...
Maybe snow will be even better.

Wed Apr 19, 01:37:00 PM EDT  

Blogger jimk said....

I haven't handled rats. But in Biology class decades ago in High School we handled mice by capturing the tail with our pinky and sliding the fingers up the back to the back of the skull. Then you grasp the loose skin on the back of the neck. This allowed you to handle the mouse without harming it or yourself. (It couldn't bite you and you weren't hurting it. The teacher was highly displeased if you did it wrong and the mouse was able to bite you. What usually ended up happening in those cases was the mouse going flying across the room - the student who was bit shook their finger violently and the mouse would go flying off to parts unknown.)

Wed Apr 19, 02:54:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Rachel said....

Jimk -- close enough, someone give that man a cigar! However, since I'm in a research animal techniques class, the "mouse flying" is frowned on. We're supposed to consider the animal first, ourselves second. We are allowed the expletives of our choice though :)

Now, how would you catch the "NASCAR mouse" I had to work on? Darned thing did laps around his cage to prevent me from catching him

And, Tom, "everyone should know" how to

a) cook a meal
b) hold a baby
c) make some sort of clothing
d) read -- doesn't matter what you read, just read


Wed Apr 19, 03:03:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Niall said....

word verification pigrgi, presumably some sort of non-kosher disease Rachel?

oh yes, the point.

Thanks William, its jeremy clarkson's fault then. Never trust a middle aged man with curly hair. That's my motto:)

I still think knowing what the periodic table is is just basic. not which has the higher number of any two elements, but what elements are.

I'd love to see what 10 leading CEO's thought every high school grad should know, and indeed what 10 leading teachers thought as well.

Wed Apr 19, 03:27:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

Rachel -

I got a) covered (did you know, that if you microwave a hamburger it comes out grey but is quite edible with enough mustard), b) and d). C - that is what the stores are for...

Wed Apr 19, 04:30:00 PM EDT  

Blogger jimk said....

Oh yes, the teacher really frowned upon flying mice. Complete agreement.

I got a,b,c,d covered. glad you didn't say have a baby. (not equiped to carry, hold not carry)

Avid reader. Just finished Guns, Germs, and Steel.(Tipping Point before that) Fantastic book. It really delves into the whol question of how we got to where we are today. Why did particular socienties conquer or subsume whole other societies in history? (eg Pizzaro and Central America) Very scientific, lots and lots of great research. (and no the answer isn't racial) I think it should be one of those books people read in high school for world history.

Wed Apr 19, 04:58:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Rachel said....

Tom -- what if there were no stores? Please note I said "some sort of clothing", that would include a poncho from a garbage bag! And yes, I know that grey food from the microwave is edible. Barely :)

I just read (finally) Blink. Couldn't put it down. I have an unfortunately long backlog of books in the "to be read" queue as textbooks are taking up most of my time these days.

I used to think "everyone knows" the basic commutative properties of arithmetic.

(A x B)/C is the same as
(A/C) x B

Until my class started doing dosage calculations and solution dilutions (doesn't that sound like something Sesame Street would put on?). And I found that most of my classmates "hated" math and couldn't get the concepts.

I'm doing a bunch of teaching these days....

Niall -- sounds like one of the parasitic diseases we've been studying :)

Wed Apr 19, 07:45:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Joel Garry said....

Dinosaurs are still alive, they're called "birds" now.

5 is completely wrong, they asked "Why?" and answered "What."

10 is a non-sequitur, the answer talks about freezing water and the question is about water that is already frozen.

Wed Apr 19, 08:37:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Tony Ackley said....

You're right about question 9 - everyone doesn't need to know that.

Doing a simple google "oldest fossils on earth" - it seems that some sites are stating that the oldest fossils are up to 3 billion years old???

If google can't agree, should it be something that everyone should know :)

Also, question 9 wasn't fair in that wasn't the oldest fossil only 20 billion waaaayyyy back when you went to high school :)

Have a great day.

Thu Apr 20, 08:38:00 AM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

adding fuel to the fire:

here is one that I take issue with:

5/ The Earth spins at 1,000 mph but it travels through space at an incredible 67,000 mph.

(rotational, translational)

The speed of the earth spinning at its axis would be zero. The speed that the earth is spinning at the equator is approx 1,000 mph at sea level.

Obviously, the writer is not of an engineering background, or he/she would have stated their assumptions.

That is my point out of this:

state your assumptions.


Thu Apr 20, 03:31:00 PM EDT  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

I live in a desert, number 10 was dificult to me.

Fri Apr 21, 10:04:00 PM EDT  

Blogger Tharg said....


so many things to grrr about in this quiz. First off, it shoots itself in the foot. One question mentions the theory of evolution, courtesy of Mr Darwin, but then goes on to state fossil age as stone cold fact. Errr, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that kind of logic a bit Irish?

Question 5 is just plain wrong, the year isn't 365 days, neither is the day 24 hours. In case these illustrious academicians haven't noticed, we have leap seconds, minutes hours etc. which once every four years add up to an entire day! Those of us born on the 29th of February will be able to provide ample clarification methinks....

Finally, a last grrr, this whole thing shows the need for good clear specifications and documentation in the whole of the software industry. Assuming that the other guy thinks the way you do is how software (including Oracle databases) stuffs up so spectacularly sometimes. See S. Feuerstein's blog on untested software for further classic samples.
::Descends from soap box, dusts off jacket, ambles off into the sunset::

::Faint grrrings are heard by passers by::


Sat Apr 22, 05:37:00 PM EDT  

Blogger William Robertson said....

Tharg, I'm not clear about your grrr-point regarding the evolution and fossil questions. Why is the word "theory" in italics? In a phrase like "Theory of Evolution" the word refers to a formal scientific theory, and not to the informal "I have a theory about where you might have left your spectacles" sense. It is therefore not conjecture or hypothesis or something you just thought up on the way to the coffee machine. A formal theory has to explain phenomena, make predictions, stand up to repeated testing and so on. Also, although obviously a great many generations are required for species change, AFAIK the theory of evolution does not depend on, or make any predictions concerning the age of the earliest fossils, surely something that depends amongs other things on the chance movement of mud and sediment giving the right conditions for preservation. I would agree though that the question should probably have been "How old are the oldest known fossils on Earth?" because there are doubtless other slightly older ones still to be discovered.

Tue Apr 25, 12:09:00 PM EDT  


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