Reading the Comics, February 28, 2015: Calendar Reform Edition

It’s the last day of the shortest month of the year, a day that always makes me think about whether the calendar could be different. I was bit by the calendar-reform bug as a child and I’ve mostly recovered from the infection, but some things can make it flare up again and I’ve never stopped being fascinated by the problem of keeping track of days, which you’d think would not be so difficult.

That’s why I’m leading this review of comics with Jef Mallet’s Frazz (February 27) even if it’s not transparently a mathematics topic. The biggest problem with calendar reform is there really aren’t fully satisfactory ways to do it. If you want every month to be as equal as possible, yeah, 13 months of 28 days each, plus one day (in leap years, two days) that doesn’t belong to any month or week is probably the least obnoxious, if you don’t mind 13 months to the year meaning there’s no good way to make a year-at-a-glance calendar tolerably symmetric. If you don’t want the unlucky, prime number of 13 months, you can go with four blocks of months with 31-30-30 days and toss in a leap day that’s again, not in any month or week. But people don’t seem perfectly comfortable with days that belong to no month — suggest it to folks, see how they get weirded out — and a month that doesn’t belong to any week is right out. Ask them. Changing the default map projection in schools is an easier task to complete.

There are several problems with the calendar, starting with the year being more nearly 365 days than a nice, round, supremely divisible 360. Also a factor is that the calendar tries to hack together the moon-based months with the sun-based year, and those don’t fit together on any cycle that’s convenient to human use. Add to that the need for Easter to be close to the vernal equinox without being right at Passover and you have a muddle of requirements, and the best we can hope for is that the system doesn’t get too bad.

The cause of calendar reform isn’t hopeless, if you’re worried about the calendar, but public discussion of ways to make the system better is at a relative low ebb. In the wake of World War I the idea of making a better world at least by making time-keeping better had some currency. The World Calendar Association published a Journal of Calendar Reform from 1931 to 1955. The League of Nations maintained a Committee of Inquiry into Calendar Reform for three years. In 1923 the Eastern Orthodox church adopted modified leap year rules to make its calendar a bit more precisely matched to the seasons; in 1928 Britain passed the Easter Act, which would allow an Order of Council to set the date of Easter to the Sunday after the second Saturday in April, rather than allowing it to drift around the calendar.

I admit I don’t expect a groundswell of calendar reform energy to appear anytime soon, since it seems like the messiness of the Gregorian calendar doesn’t rate the top 2,038 problems people have to face on any given day, but then I go back to doing some database work and remember how nice it would be to have a calendar that wasn’t an awful hack.

Among more obviously mathematics-based strips, Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (February 25) has (presumably) bad news presented in a cheery light by “rethinking the X axis”. There can be fair, non-deceptive reasons behind presenting charts in novel or unusual ways. The most popular kinds of charts are probably line and bar charts, and pie charts. Remarkably, all these methods of data visualization are credited to the same engineer/political-scientist, William Playfair, 1759 – 1823. The various graphs gained popularity at different points — the pie chart, particularly, came into its own after Clara Barton used it to explain to Parliament how people died in the Crimean War — but add the geographic map to that set and you have probably all the most-needed types of graph even to this day. And to point out the sort of tangled, interconnected world Playfair lived in, he had been a draftsman and personal assistant to James Watt, was one of the militia that stormed the Bastille, adapted the (semaphore) telegraph for use in England, and oversaw the 1806 edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

Andertoons pops back into my pages on the 27th with fractions haunting a student. I can’t offhand think of a way that fractions would sneak into an English class, but there’s probably something somewhere. Anyway I like the kid’s look of wide-eyed despair.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal makes its required appearance around these parts on the 25th of February with a bit of absolute-value humor. Actually, the punch line postscript — “this is one reason why [ no one likes mathematicians ]” — is something I do. I think that’s more a grammar-nerd habit, though. The normal form, for me, is to start talking about (say) “the reason why” and realize I can imagine several valid reasons, so I trim the article down to “a reason why” instead.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (February 27) is an anthropomorphic-numerals joke that makes me wonder if the comedian wasn’t drawn sideways by accident. Could go either way, really.

Richard Thompson’s Richard’s Poor Almanac (February 27, rerun) includes a correction that “we’re sorry we ran that sudoku with all the transposed numbers. Hope it didn’t ruin your day, ha-ha!” A sudoku would be ruined only if the numbers were incompletely transposed, though; if you swapped out (say) every appearance of 1 for a 2, and 2 for a 1, the puzzle would still be as solvable, and not any harder. Remember that sudoku is a logic puzzle, not arithmetic; all that matters is that the symbols are distinguishable.

The last entry I have for this appearance, and this month, is an unusual one, and I admit it’s marginal in mathematics content but the drawing is hard to ignore. Peter Maresca’s feature Origins of the Sunday Comics on February 27 ran a February 1907 page titled Animaldom, by the cartoonist, painter, sculptor, and cowboy Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora. This entry, titled “The Wise Cat and the Fool”, establishes that you know the wise cat to be learn’d by his study of “French, Astronomy, Mathematics and the Classics”, and if you weren’t sure about his intelligence he’s shown with compass in hand, so you know he does geometry and stuff too. It’s an early-for-the-comics illustration of “does mathematics” as shorthand for “is really smart”. And for all his intelligence this doesn’t lead him to wealth, which matches my experience too, for what that’s worth.

From this bunch of strips I think the funniest is the second of the Andertoons and the poor kid finding fractions in all his classes. But the Animaldom is by far the best-drawn and the most interesting of them, even if it’s stodgy in that way I associate with children’s books from before Dr Seuss.