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Thread: What would be the first thing to fail?

  1. #1
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    What would be the first thing to fail?

    Suppose a strange and terrible new disease breaks out, affecting the brains of the species Homo sapiens. It has the unfortunate consequence of dramatically reducing the capacity of the affected brains to 'do math', and it spreads 'like wildfire', infecting all individuals within, say, 24 hours.

    What would be the first things to fail?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid View Post
    What would be the first things to fail?
    Students taking math tests.
    0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 ...
    Skepticism enables us to distinguish fancy from fact, to test our speculations. --Carl Sagan

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    All home loans become fixed rate because otherwise the maths is just too hard. Mathematicians make big money doing long division for companies. Just how much money they make they're not sure because they can't count that high. Programmers who work in machine language do well because they only have to count to two. Vaccine against virus fails to work because someone made a mistake with a few zeros and they try to inject people with one liter of the stuff.

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    The Internal Revenue Service would fail. They'd have to go back to the old method of collecting taxes, sending the army around to take stuff.

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    and then eventually, life, the universe and everything would fail, but first any scheduled maths competitions would fail

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    I'd say the markets would be some of the earliest things to fail - stocks, commodities, and so forth. Calculators and computers help, but there is a limit.

    "The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity." Abraham Lincoln

    I say there is an invisible elf in my backyard. How do you prove that I am wrong?

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    If doing maths becomes harder we will:

    1. Put more resources into doing maths.
    2. Do less maths.

    Eventually a new equilbrium will be reached. Some things would "fail" as say power plant engineers suddenly became unable to determine just how much power they should generate, but as their instincts would generally be to play it safe we would probably have power outages rather than exploding transformers. In general things would slow down as people learned to cope with their new limitations.

    "Do you have this month's sales figures yet?"
    "No, it's just too hard!"
    "Okay, call in the entire accounting department. We're going to work through the weekend and get this sorted out. I want your team to take addition, we'll handle subtraction. Once that's sorted we'll tackle divsion."

    People would learn to get by on rules of thumb, similar to what many people do already.

    "How many bottles of milk do we have to deliver?"
    "One truck load."
    "Big truck or small truck?
    "Small truck."

  8. #8
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    What time is it again?

  9. #9
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    The big hand is on the four, the little hand is on the six. It must be forty-six o'clock.

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    Re: What would be the first thing to fail?

    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid View Post
    Suppose a strange and terrible new disease breaks out, affecting the brains of the species Homo sapiens. It has the unfortunate consequence of dramatically reducing the capacity of the affected brains to 'do math', and it spreads 'like wildfire', infecting all individuals within, say, 24 hours.

    What would be the first things to fail?
    Nothing significant, based on my experience in my career, and trying to buy something for $1.17 while tendering $1.27.

    It's all in the computers now, so 99% of us don't have to think mathematically.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maksutov View Post
    Nothing significant, based on my experience in my career, and trying to buy something for $1.17 while tendering $1.27.

    It's all in the computers now, so 99% of us don't have to think mathematically.
    Ah, but 1% of us do ... and we can't all be fixing the computers, figuring out why the power grid failed (especially those darn nuclear power stations), collecting taxes, making sense of the stock markets, checking the 'account records' of everyone who has money in the bank, repairing the 'telephone' systems, ...

    More seriously, there are lots of things which are engineered to be quite robust, and lots of maintenance that can be done by 'reading the manual', but there is also a great deal that depends on 'just in time', or which has a safety margin that assumes mathematically-minded monitoring.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ronald Brak View Post
    ...It must be forty-six o'clock.
    Thanks---just in time to file for bankruptcy...

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    Cash money would take a bit of a dive.

    Cashiers would have trouble figuring out what notes and coins would be required to make up your change.
    And you would have to take their word for it was the right change. We would probably go all plastic.

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    Assuming people still have the ability to compare prices and decide which number is larger it would be possible to manage finances, but prices might need to be rounded to the nearest round number by law to help people deal with change. Picture charts could be put up in shops explaining in pictorial form various transactions. For example: Cost $7 = Pay $10 get $3 change!

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    Weird. I was thinking, briefly, about almost this same question
    just yesterday. I was wondering what people would do if we
    realized that those now alive would be the last people ever born
    with sufficient intelligence to support civilization. As in the short
    story 'The Locusts' by Larry Niven and Steve Barnes.

    -- Jeff, in Minneapolis

  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid
    there is also a great deal that depends on 'just in time', or which
    has a safety margin that assumes mathematically-minded monitoring.
    Can you cite some examples? I can't think of anything obvious.
    Although most people would probably discover their reduced math
    ability within a few days, some could probably go for weeks or
    longer. I doubt that anything would break down. Some people
    would have to do things differently, and some would no longer
    be able to do what they had been doing, but I think that any
    operational technology would remain operational.

    Oh! Another story connection: 'Brainwave' by Poul Anderson.

    -- Jeff, in Minneapolis

  17. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid View Post
    Suppose a strange and terrible new disease breaks out, affecting the brains of the species Homo sapiens. It has the unfortunate consequence of dramatically reducing the capacity of the affected brains to 'do math',
    Looks like that disease is already among us.

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    Looks like that disease is already among us.
    That's a relief. I thought you were going to link to mathematical errors I had made in this forum.

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    Commercial aviation would fail on the spot. Even if you could program your GPS from a pre-established chart, then leave the rest of the navigation job to the autopilot, you still need to be able to compute how much fuel you're going to need to make the trip and/or how much you have left. Then you have to make sure the weight of the cargo won't unbalance the aircraft.

    These are all things you pretty much have to be able to do in realtime.

    Without math, we'd be back to coastal sea travel on rafts or dugout canoes within a generation.
    "Words that make questions may not be questions at all."
    - Neil deGrasse Tyson, answering loaded question in ten words or less
    at a 2010 talk MCed by Stephen Colbert.

  20. #20
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ronald Brak View Post
    That's a relief. I thought you were going to link to mathematical errors I had made in this forum.
    We still could, you know.
    "Words that make questions may not be questions at all."
    - Neil deGrasse Tyson, answering loaded question in ten words or less
    at a 2010 talk MCed by Stephen Colbert.

  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Root View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid
    there is also a great deal that depends on 'just in time', or which
    has a safety margin that assumes mathematically-minded monitoring.
    Can you cite some examples? I can't think of anything obvious.
    Although most people would probably discover their reduced math
    ability within a few days, some could probably go for weeks or
    longer. I doubt that anything would break down. Some people
    would have to do things differently, and some would no longer
    be able to do what they had been doing, but I think that any
    operational technology would remain operational.

    Oh! Another story connection: 'Brainwave' by Poul Anderson.

    -- Jeff, in Minneapolis
    These may not be very good examples:

    - load balancing in power grids; I don't think it's anywhere near automatic, especially in the face of unpredicted events (storms, major feeder failures, ...)

    - most retail supply chains; many stock/re-order systems are automatic, but there is also considerable 'manual intervention', both in various parts (e.g. not all suppliers run JIT software) and to handle unexpected events

    - ditto, manufacturers' supply chains

    - many electronic markets (e.g. stocks, futures, forex) have triggers which 'pull the plug' on automated trading, when certain bounds are exceeded; if traders had to revert to 'manual' trading in these circumstances, they'd quickly have to 'do the math', especially in derivatives trading (esp options)

    - air traffic control; Moose has touched on one aspect of this, another example: how much math was needed to 'clear the skies' on September 11th?

    - harbour pilots; in busy waterways, ships are moved around by (ultimately) a teamwork effort between controllers and pilots ... and math plays a very big part in that movement not resulting in gridlock or worse

    - pesticide, herbicide, fertiliser, etc application in agriculture; much of the measuring and some of the calculating may be automatic, but much is still calculated 'manually', and the margin of safety relatively small (only a few tens of percent too much, or too little, can be devastating).

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    If it happened now, it would only be a matter of weeks before your computer automatically reset your clock to standard time, and you wouldn't be able to figure out why half of your clocks were an hour different from the other third.

    High-precision clocks and timekeeping would eventually fail, and with it goes GPS and communication.

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    A major conflict would break out between the United Knigdom and the United States over whether they were doing 'math' or 'maths'.

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    the solution is to make the leaf the standard for all currency, and then WE COULD ALL BECOME INCREDIBLY RICH!!!!!

    edit-ref. to H2G2 of course.
    ................................

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    Skydivers might get a few grey hairs, as would mothers with lots of kids.

    Any activity that requires a head count would have to be scrapped for saftey reasons. Hmmm, lots of tourists forgotten by dive boats??

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    Forget any kind of space program. At the same time, ballistic missile forces would be offline in a few days because their computations require a pretty complex jumble of parabolic math, along with a reasonable ability to compensate for the Earth's rotation under it.

    New building construction would have to be halted as structural engineers lost the ability to compute design loads on their frameworks. Good luck EVER getting an air conditioning system properly balanced again, and you don't even want to think about the issues that'll occur with the electrical systems.

    Oh yeah, careful when you flush that toilet...

  27. #27
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid
    - load balancing in power grids; I don't think it's anywhere
    near automatic, especially in the face of unpredicted events
    (storms, major feeder failures, ...)
    What math would be involved?

    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid
    - most retail supply chains; many stock/re-order systems are
    automatic, but there is also considerable 'manual intervention',
    both in various parts (e.g. not all suppliers run JIT software)
    and to handle unexpected events
    Three scenarios, in order of increasing complexity:

    1) "Were'e out of twiddlythickers. Order another box."

    2) "The box of twiddlythickers is more than half empty.
    Order another box."

    3) "According to the new sign we got from the Department of
    Commerce Office of Mathematics Assistance, which is sitting
    beside the calculator, the number of days until we run out of
    an item is the number of items we have left divided by the
    average number sold per day. I don't quite follow that, but
    it sounds about right. The sign also says the average number
    sold per day is the total number sold in a period of several
    days, divided by the number of days in that period. The tally
    shows that we sold twelve twiddlythickers this week. I know
    there are five days in a week, so twelve divided by five is...
    two point four, according to the calculator. There are sixteen
    twiddlythickers left in the box, so 16 divided by 2.4 is...
    six point six six six, and more sixes, all the way across.
    That's the number of days until we run out. Somewhere between
    six days and seven days. According to the supplier, it takes
    three to five days to get a new box. So we don't need to order
    a new box yet, but I expect it will be sometime real soon."

    Quote Originally Posted by Nereid
    - pesticide, herbicide, fertiliser, etc application in agriculture;
    much of the measuring and some of the calculating may be automatic,
    but much is still calculated 'manually', and the margin of safety
    relatively small (only a few tens of percent too much, or too
    little, can be devastating).
    "The instructions say 'One cup of Zxathianixor Plus in two
    gallons of water.' But according to the table, our rutabegas
    need eight gallons. So how much Zxathianixor Plus do I put in?
    Well, the instructions say to divide the number of gallons
    needed by two, and that gives the number of cups of Zxathianixor
    Plus. Where's the calculator? Okay... eight divided by two...
    is four. So four cups of Zxathianixor Plus in eight gallons of
    water."

    Things might slow down a bit. They wouldn't be broken.

    -- Jeff, in Minneapolis

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    Quote Originally Posted by Moose
    Commercial aviation would fail on the spot. Even if you could
    program your GPS from a pre-established chart, then leave the
    rest of the navigation job to the autopilot, you still need to be
    able to compute how much fuel you're going to need to make the
    trip and/or how much you have left.
    The fuel guage shows how much fuel is left. No computation
    needed for that.

    You compute the fuel needed to complete the trip before
    the trip starts and whenever conditions change significantly.
    Just get the numbers you require, plug them into the formula
    which is on the card in your pocket as well as taped to the
    instrument panel and on the back of the calculator and inside
    the front cover of your flight log... and there you are. You
    don't need to understand why the numbers work.

    Quote Originally Posted by Moose
    Then you have to make sure the weight of the cargo won't
    unbalance the aircraft.
    You use math to do that??? How???

    Quote Originally Posted by Moose
    These are all things you pretty much have to be able to do in
    realtime.
    A pilot calculates cargo weight distribution in real time
    during a flight to be sure it won't unbalance the aircraft???

    He doesn't just say, "The left wing is low, and I'm having a
    hard time correcting for it. Obviously there is excess weight
    on the left side. I think you'd better announce that the Grand
    Canyon is visible out the right-side windows, too." ???

    Quote Originally Posted by Moose
    Without math, we'd be back to coastal sea travel on rafts or
    dugout canoes within a generation.
    I don't see why. If you need to do a calculation in-flight,
    you read the formula, read the instruments, and calculate with
    a calculator. It isn't necessary to do any math in the head.

    Designing new planes might be a challenge. Building planes
    on existing assembly lines shouldn't even slow down.

    -- Jeff, in Minneapolis

  29. #29
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Root View Post
    I don't see why. If you need to do a calculation in-flight, you read the formula, read the instruments, and calculate with
    a calculator. It isn't necessary to do any math in the head.
    *snips the rest of Jeff's rather collosal strawman*

    Nereid's proposition says nothing about being impared doing math "in the head". It says that everybody is "dramatically" impared doing math. Period. It doesn't matter who or what crunches the numbers, it's knowing what to crunch and how to apply the result that really counts.

    You use math in just about every field that is even remotely technical, including all forms of transportation. About the only form of non-footmobile transportation you don't need math for to use over the long term is building coastal rafting, dugout/birchbark canoes, and riding animals.

    Navigating requires math. Coming up with a flight plan requires math. Knowing how much fuel your plane consumes in a stiff headwind requires math. Knowing how far you're going to be travelling requires math. Knowing how much weight you're putting on the plane (and where) requires math. ATC requires math. Building the parts and tools needed to maintain your plane requires math. Knowing how much food to stock given the number of passengers requires math. Doing all of that when your airline wants to minimize the turnaround and maximize profits requires a great deal of realtime or pseudo-realtime math.

    Suppose I were to give you a computer and ask you to compute an eigenvalue (assuming you don't know how to calculate an eigenvalue. If you do, pretend you don't.) It can certainly be done on a computer, or by hand slowly, but if you don't know how to do it (anymore?), you can't do it no matter what tool you have to hand...

    ... Unless it's an existing idiot-proof device with the task hardcoded. Which will work until the moment the device breaks down.

    That's really the point: air travel will break first, while animal husbandry and rudimentary coastal or river trade are about the only transportation options that don't require math to build, breed, or use over the span of a generation.

    If you redefine the premise in the OP and assume everybody can still do math anyway, then you have status quo and a question that's been nerfed into meaninglessness.
    "Words that make questions may not be questions at all."
    - Neil deGrasse Tyson, answering loaded question in ten words or less
    at a 2010 talk MCed by Stephen Colbert.

  30. #30
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    Originally Posted by Moose:
    Then you have to make sure the weight of the cargo won't unbalance the aircraft.
    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Root View Post
    You use math to do that??? How???
    This suitcase weighs 20 pounds. That box weighs 25 pounds. How much does the cargo weigh so far?

    What's the volume of the cargo? How much torque will it apply to the left side of the plane if I put it there, and how far to the right of the centerline do I have to place (non-uniform) weight to counterbalance that torque?

    If I have five hundred suitcases and 300 pax of varying weights and volumes, and so many tons of fuel, have I overloaded the max takeoff weight of the plane, and will it all fit?

    How can you not use math to do this sort of thing?
    "Words that make questions may not be questions at all."
    - Neil deGrasse Tyson, answering loaded question in ten words or less
    at a 2010 talk MCed by Stephen Colbert.

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