Reading the Comics, May 26, 2014: Definitions Edition


The most recent bunch of mathematics-themed comics left me feeling stumped for a theme. There’s no reason they have to have one, of course; cartoonists, as far as I know, don’t actually take orders from Comic Strip Master Command regarding what to write about, but often they seem to. Some of them seem to touch on definitions, at least, including of such ideas as the value of a quantity and how long it is between two events. I’ll take that.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (May 23) does the kid-resisting-the-question sort of joke (not a word problem, for a change of pace), although I admit I didn’t care for the joke. I needed too long to figure out how the meaning of “value” for a variable might be ambiguous. Caulfield kind of has a point about mathematics needing to use precise words, but the process of making a word precise is a great and neglected part of mathematical history. Consider, for example: contemporary (English-language, at least) mathematicians define a prime number to be a counting number (1, 2, 3, et cetera) with exactly two factors. Why exactly two factors, except to rule out 1 as a prime number? But then why rule that 1 can’t be a prime number? As an idea gets used and explored we get a better idea of what’s interesting about it, and what it’s useful for, and can start seeing whether some things should be ruled out as not fitting a concept we want to describe, or be accepted as fitting because the concept is too useful otherwise and there’s no clear way to divide what we want from what we don’t.

I still can’t buy Caulfield’s proposition there, though.

Steve Boreman’s Little Dog Lost (May 25) circles around a bunch of mathematical concepts without quite landing on any of them. The obvious thing is the counting ability of animals: the crow asserts that crows can only count as high as nine, for example, and the animals try to work out ways to deal with the very large number of 2,615. The vulture asserts he’s been waiting for 2,615 days for the Little Dog to cross the road, and wonders how many years that’s been. The first installment of the strip, from the 26th of March, 2007, did indeed feature Vulture waiting for Little Dog to cross the road, although as I make it out there’s 2,617 days between those events.

At a guess, either Boreman was not counting the first and the last days of the interval between March 26, 2007, and May 25, 2014, or maybe he forgot the leap days. Finding how long it is between dates is a couple of kinds of messes, first because it isn’t necessarily clear whether to include the end dates, and second because the Gregorian calendar is a mess of months of varying lengths plus the fun of leap years, which include an exception for century years and an exception to the exception, making it all the harder. My preferred route for finding intervals is to not even try working the time out by myself, and instead converting every date to the Julian date, a simple serial count of the number of dates since noon Universal Time on the 1st of January, 4713 BC, on the Julian calendar. Let the Navy deal with leap days. I have better things to worry about.

Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse (May 26) sees Horace trying to count sheep to get himself to sleep; different ways of denoting numbers confound him. I’m not sure if it’s known why counting sheep, or any task like that, is useful in getting to sleep. My guess would be that it just falls into the sort of activity that can be done without a natural endpoint and without demanding too much attention to keep one awake, while demanding enough attention that one isn’t thinking about the bank account or the noise inside the walls or the way the car lurches two lanes to the right every time one taps the brake at highway speeds. That’s a guess, though.

Tom Horacek’s Foolish Mortals (May 26) uses the “on a scale of one to ten” standard for something that’s not usually described so vaguely, and I like the way it teases the idea of how to measure things. The “scale of one to ten” is logically flawed, since we have no idea what the units are, how little of something one represents or how much the ten does, or even whether it’s a linear scale — the difference between “two” and “three” is the same as that between “three” and “four”, the way lengths and weight work — or a logarithmic one — the ratio between “two” and “three” equals that between “three” and “four”, the way stellar magnitudes, decibel sound readings, and Richter scale earthquake intensity measure work — or, for that matter, what normal ought to be. And yet there’s something useful in making the assessment, surely because the first step towards usefully quantifying a thing is to make a clumsy and imprecise quantification of it.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts (May 26) kind of piles together a couple references so a character can identify himself as a double major in mathematics and theology. Of course, the generic biography for a European mathematician, between about the end of the Western Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution, is that he (males most often had the chance to do original mathematics) studied mathematics alongside theology and philosophy, and possibly astronomy, although that reflects more how the subjects were seen as rather intertwined, and education wasn’t as specialized and differentiated as it’s now become. (The other generic mathematician would be the shopkeeper or the exchequer, but nobody tells jokes about their mathematics.)

And, finally, Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens (May 28) brings up the famous typing monkeys (here just the one of them), and what really has to be counted as a bit of success for the project.

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