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If at first you don’t succeed… it’s impossible.

July 12, 2010

How many times have you tried something, got either an error or unexpected results, and decided what you were trying to do was not possible? Have you later on discovered someone quietly doing the impossible?

I think this phenomenon is a form of the “correlation-implies-causation” fallacy.

Unfortunately, this seems to happen too often, if the kind of questions I see quite often are any guide. A recent example is: “Why cannot I select from more than one table in Oracle?”. Here, the author seems to have followed the following thought process:

  1. “SELECT * FROM table1″ returns some rows.
  2. “SELECT * FROM table1, table2″ returns no rows.
  3. Therefore, you can’t query more than one table in one SQL statement in Oracle.

In this case, the writer had not realised that table2 had no rows in it; what complicated things somewhat was that in one session, the second query was returning rows – because he’d inserted some rows into table2 in that session but hadn’t issued a COMMIT, so those rows were not visible by other sessions.

For a person inexperienced in SQL or Oracle, this sort of mistake is forgivable; but I suspect we all make this sort of mistake quite often. I know I have!

When trying something new, it takes diligent research and testing to determine whether one’s approach is simply wrong, or if unrelated factors (e.g. getting the syntax wrong, or the environment is not set up correctly) are causing failure. This gets more tiresome and frustrating (a “gumption trap”, in Persig‘s parlance) when one was halfway through solving some other problem, and this unexpected problem gets in the way.

Sometimes you just have to go to bed and see if it becomes clearer the next day. If the problem persists, ask a question on StackOverflow!

P.S. if a Google search reveals “doing X is impossible”, ask “Why?”

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