GLENDOWER. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
HOTSPUR. Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?
- Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1
Recently a dear friend invited me to join them as they took their wedding photos, at the Palace of Fine Arts. There's a pond next to the structure, and across the pond we saw one of the swans who reside there. Someone observed that it would have been nice to take a picture with the swan. So I called out, in a loud and clear voice, "Excuse me! Would you come over here?" and beckoned. Repeatedly.
I was pretty sure that it wouldn't work. Swans don't understand spoken language. Even if they did, as far as I could tell they have no plausible motive to respond.
The swan turned towards us and swam halfway across the pond. As it slowed down, my companions thought of more ways to get its attention, ways that seemed more likely to work on a swan, like tossing things into the water. But my plan did more than nothing.
It's an important skill, to be able to come up with plans like that. Sometimes you need to notice when things are impossible, and give up. But other times, it's worth at least trying the plan "yell at the swan."
What heuristic was I using? I'm not sure, but I think it has to do with noticing that my model of the world is incomplete. Continue reading