Reading the Comics, December 30, 2014: Surely This Is It For The Year Edition?


Well, I thought it’d be unlikely to get too many more mathematics comics before the end of the year, but Comic Strip Master Command apparently sent out orders to clear out the backlog before the new calendar year starts. I think Dark Side of the Horse is my favorite of the strips, blending a good joke with appealing artwork, although The Buckets gives me the most to talk about.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets (December 28) is about what might seem only loosely a mathematical topic: that the calendar is really a pretty screwy creation. And it is, as anyone who’s tried to program a computer to show dates has realized. The core problem, I suppose, is that the calendar tries to meet several goals simultaneously: it’s supposed to use our 24-hour days to keep track of the astronomical year, which is an approximation to the cycle of seasons of the year, and there’s not a whole number of days in a year. It’s also supposed to be used to track short-term events (weeks) and medium-term events (months and seasons). The number of days that best approximate the year, 365 and 366, aren’t numbers that lend themselves to many useful arrangements. The months try to divide that 365 or 366 reasonably uniformly, with historial artifacts that can be traced back to the Roman calendar was just an unspeakable mess; and, something rarely appreciated, the calendar also has to make sure that the date of Easter is something reasonable. And, of course, any reforming of the calendar has to be done with the agreement of a wide swath of the world simultaneously. Given all these constraints it’s probably remarkable that it’s only as messed up as it is.

To the best of my knowledge, January starts the New Year because Tarquin Priscus, King of Rome from 616 – 579 BC, found that convenient after he did some calendar-rejiggering (particularly, swapping the order of February and January), though I don’t know why he thought that particularly convenient. New Years have appeared all over the calendar year, though, with the start of January, the start of September, Christmas Day, and the 25th of March being popular options, and if you think it’s messed up to have a new year start midweek, think about having a new year start in the middle of late March. It all could be worse.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater (December 29) has a cute numeral-representation joke and a kind of soup I’m a little surprised doesn’t actually exist.

Eric the Circle (December 29, this one by ‘Mandle Brat’, who did something I see what there) riffs on the urban legend of a state legislature trying to set the value of pi by legal decree. I would expect anyone reading an article around here has heard it, but, in case you haven’t Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope provided a summary I find pretty satisfying of the whole comically-sad mess; in short, Arkansas didn’t, it was Indiana, and they didn’t either. I like the dialogue, though.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts (December 29) uses a panel of mathematics as symbol for “stuff that’s hard to think about”. The expression is a little confusing to look at, since it seems to be muddling together a couple different notations for multiplication. It’s normal to use the x symbol or, if that would be confusing, a * or a vertically-centered dot to mean “multiply the symbol on the left by the symbol on the right”, but it’s also normal to place two symbols adjacent to one another and take the multiplication as implicit, if it’s unambiguous: “5a” means “five times a”, and “5(a + 2)” means “five times the quantity you get from adding a and 2”. The first line, though, includes “12 12/1000”, which is normally taken to mean “twelve plus twelve-thousandths”, except that later on in the same line is “15 \frac{47}{31} ”, which would be odd to read as anything but 15 times 47/31; but, then, why on the last line write “14 * \frac{22}{19} ” unless you would want “14 \frac{22}{19} not to be read as fourteen times that fraction?

Anyway, as best I can make out the symbols, the first two lines are one expression equal to approximately 6794.6. The bottom line is an expression equal to about -1067.8.

Doug Bratton’s Pop Culture Shock Therapy (December 29, rerun) is (as the name implies) a pop culture joke, this one about the Muppet who makes counting seem so relentlessly fun. I’m a little surprised the stake driven into his fabric heart wasn’t a + symbol.

Max Garcia’s Sunny Street (December 29) is an anthropomorphic-numbers gag, simple and cute as that.

Michael Fry’s Committed (December 30) is a rerun from 1999, so you know before you click what it’s about. And it features the abacus which serves as the iconic model for Computers In The Old Days, probably because it reads more obviously as a computing device than do slide rules, which just look like funny rulers, or rectangles, in artwork.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse (December 30) builds from counting sheep to different ways to represent numbers to an invading army of Roman sheep surprisingly quickly. It’s kind of amazing anybody gets to sleep like that.

Corey Pandolph’s Toby, Robot Satan (December 30, rerun) brings us back around to a marginally mathematical topic, that of measuring units. How to measure things is a challenge since we need to measure stuff for different purposes, and different amounts: we want base units that don’t require us to deal with too large or too small numbers most of the time — thus the continuing failure of both the cubic parsec and the cubic angstrom as measures of flour in ordinary recipes — but we also want them to be convenient to what we’re trying to measure — so measure blueberries by weight or volume and not by counting them, while measuring eggs by the number put in — and it’d also be nice if the relative numbers can be scaled up or down slightly from the base recipe without too much hassle, in case we want a double or a half portion. And, historically, pretty much the only need for standardizing units came when someone wanted to trade, which is why it used to be that basically every town had its own units about equal to a pound or a gallon or a mile, and any report about the quantity of things in a town requires an extra subtle layer of translation. As nations developed stronger identities typically the units of the capital suppressed local variations, but never quite smoothly.

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