Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Can Mathematicians Fix Iphones? Can anyone?

In my last post I noted that if I am asked (since I am a CS prof)

Can you fix my iphone


No, I work on the math side of CS

Some readers emailed me (I told them to comment instead but they were worried that other readers would argue with them) that NO, this is a tired and incorrect stereotype. Here are some samples:

1) People in Mathematics are no better or worse at fixing iphones, fixing cars, programming their VCR's, etc than the public.

2) For that matter, people in academica, even in practical sounding fields like Systems, are no better.

3) Is your nephew Jason who used to fix forklifts for a living better at these things then the general public? I asked him. Answer: No, though he is better at fixing forklifts.

I think something else is going on here. Lets look at fixing your own car. I think this is the sort of thing that some people used to be able to do but now very few can do it. Cars have gotten more complicated.

Iphones are not quite there yet but its getting that way.

Of course somethings have gotten easier--- programming a DVR is much easier than programming a VCR. And people can easily use WORD or write programs without having to know any hardware.

OKAY, after all these random thoughts, here is the question: What do you think?

Are people in CS or Math or CS theory better at X than the general public where X is NOT CS, Math or CS theory, but something like fixing their cars?


What has gotten harder? What has gotten easier?


  1. Coming from a more applied CS field, computer security and working in industry, I feel qualified to answer.
    Most++ "can you fix my computer" cases I get fall into a binomial distribution (time needed to successfully resolve), it takes either <3 minutes and I could work on it three days and possibly not figure it out. The latter cases I decline, the former cases I do immediately.
    So I am only 'better' w <3 minutes cases (bc I have encountered them before). I may in theory be better with the "have to figure it out" cases but my own experiences indicates o/t.
    I also have to explain to people that I am not a web/CSS designer.

  2. I think that we are better than the general public because we are used to looking up how to do complicated things online, and can follow step-by-step instructions (algorithms). Note that the general public includes many people, so the bar is low. We are definitely worse than many other groups, say, engineers.

  3. Yes, for two reasons (but first is BY FAR the most important).

    The primary reason people can’t fix their iPhones is the same as the reason most calc students can’t seem to manage basic reasoning that isn’t an algorithm.

    They think they are bad at it, that makes them find spending time thinking about it the problem and trying creative options unpleasant. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent time doing something you think you suck at but you tend to want to do the absolute minimum, throw it aside and spend as little time as possible thinking about it.

    Mathematicians and CS profs etc tend to think they are smart and thus have been conditioned to see intellectual problems (including figuring out how their phone works) as fun and something which makes them look good.

    As such where my mom will throw her iPhone aside after 2 minutes and feel frustrated and scared I find working through the options and trying to figure it out gratifying.

    2) to some minor extent we do have greater familiarity with systems that respond in predictable but perhaps unintuitive ways.