Sunday, August 25, 2019

`Are you a math genius?' `Can you fix my Iphone?' `What do you think about Facebook and Privacy?'

When I meet non-math people and tell them I am a computer science professor I get a range of responses. Here are some and my responses.

1) Are you a math genius?

Here is the answer I give:

I know some things in math, frankly obscure things, that most people in math don't know. On the other hand, I probably can't help your teenage daughter with her trigonometry homework. Academics, like most people, forget what they don't use, and there are some things in math I rarely use, so I've forgotten them.

I wonder how a Fields' Medal winner would answer the question.

Although the above is the answer I give I really think its an ill defined and pointless question. Its very hard to measure genius or even define what it means (there are exceptions). After a certain age, what you've done is more important than how smart you allegedly are.

2) Can you fix my iPhone?

That's an easy one: No. I work on the math end of computer science. I don't elaborate.

3) What do you think of Facebook and privacy?

This is an odd one. I DO have opinions on this but they are NOT better informed just because I'm a comp sci professor. Since I don't have a Facebook account my opinions might be worse informed. So how do I respond? I show them

this Onion News Network Video about how the CIA created Facebook

Some think it's real. They may be right.


  1. > 1) Are you a math genius?
    > Here is the answer I give:

    Why don't you just say "Yes"? Compared to them, you are. Or, you could say, "Compared to the average person, Yes. Compared to professional math people, No."

    > On the other hand, I probably can't help your teenage daughter with her
    > trigonometry homework.

    I'm sure you could help their teenage daughter. You could read the textbook and help their daughter figure out how to learn the material and do the homework. I'm assuming there is a textbook. Some elementary schools seem to teach math without a textbook, which is just bizarre. If there was no textbook, you could use Google. Of course, it is very likely that you (and I) couldn't do the homework without doing some reading, but it is homework, not a closed-book exam.

    > After a certain age, what you've done is more important than how smart
    > you allegedly are.

    Sure, what a person has done is important, and is related to how smart they are. When we list great people in any field, we are interested in what they did, not what they could have done.

    Since 98% of people can't think conceptually, compared to the average person, all math people are geniuses, in the sense that when given a new problem or project to work on, they will probably make quicker progress. (That is also the sort of thing that IQ tests try to measure.)

    Once at work, I overheard one colleague trying to help another with a customer issue. At one point, the first one said something like, "Stop writing down what I say and just understand it." Good advice, but since the recipient of the advice couldn't think conceptually, impossible for the person to do.

    1. Yes, though I’d qualify that I think most people’s difficulty with both math and iphones has more to do with fear, anxiety and a deep seated desire not to spend time doing something that makes them feel bad.

      Have you ever tried to really try at something you know you’re bad at, dislike doing which makes you feel stupid when you do it? It’s like your mind slips out from under you.

      All you can do is force yourself to trudge through it memorizing things word by word. It’s disturbingly difficult to convince your brain to just think for a moment about something you’re sure you’ll do badly and hate.

      It’s why our math education system is so fundamentally broken. After addition and multiplication the only thing we should really be bothering with is convincing people math can be fun, creative and they can be decent at it. Succeed at that and even relatively unintelligent people will absorb math up through calculus. Fail and they won’t learn enough to ever use algebra.

  2. AH- I should have pointed out that while I may answer as in my post it may not be what I believe.
    1) Genius- I DO believe that this is a hard to define concept, but YES compared to non-math people I am a math genius, whatever that may mean. Still, my answer is more modest and funnier.

    2) Trig HW. Hmmm. Okay, could prob look up stuff and help in Trig. But would be an effort.

    3) YES, many people cannot think conceptually. When I teach Discrete Math some students memorize proof templates without really understanding. But that has been, and will be, the topic of past and future blogs.

    1. I was rather shocked to discover that most students were memorizing math instead of understanding it. It just seemed so much easier to understand it. In high school, I never memorized the quadratic formula, since I could derive it (saved the effort of memorizing it, and if I derived it, I knew I had the correct formula). If a classmate asked me for the formula, I'd say give me a minute. They thought I was weird. Of course, eventually I remembered it from using it so often.

    2. Such things stopped shocking me a long time ago.

      When I learned the quadratic formula I rederived it once a month to make sure I could. I thought it was IMPORTANT to be able to derive it.

      When I took Freshman Physics (for majors, even though I wasn't a major) I made sure I could derive every formula.

      But yes, some students memorize instead of deriving. And there is a midpoint where you sort-of memorize and sort-of derive. Thats actually OKAY, and on the way to understanding.

  3. I enjoyed your response to the "Can you fix my iPhone?" question. It almost seems like they are challenging you. I get a similar approach of "You own a computer, right? Can you help me with setting up a webcam?". I usually just point them in a direction of a How To article on that. Like the one on my blog @ about ensuring it is secure from hackers.
    Thanks for the article and insight! Looking forward to the next ones.

  4. I do think being a CS professor does make a substantial difference in understanding the privacy issues regarding facebook and similar sites. In particular, I think you know (but most people don’t) that a huge range of companies have access to sufficient information to infer the kind of things about you that tend to concern people.

    More broadly, I don’t think people without some CS experience/understanding realize just how difficult it would be to really stop companies from inferring things like your sexual orientation, whether you are having an affair, drug use in college and the other stuff that people really care about getting out. You would either have to somehow restrain the general human tendency to talk about themselves, post pictures etc.. etc.. OR somehow stop companies from indexing the internet (even in relatively small pieces) OR somehow manage to define and effectively police the use of sophisticated ML techniques that allow things like face identification.

    Any of these solutions have huge costs and still leaves everyone subject to privacy invasion by foreign corporations and governments.

    My conclusion is that we need to accept that we can’t keep details like that secret (at a reasonable level of effort) and that, as such, we are far better off making control of that tech and info as widely shared as possible so that it becomes a less effective means of blackmail/pressure.

  5. Some people don't even make a minimal effort to keep details secret:

  6. Was it missed since ancient times or it is
    well-known fact?