Reading the Comics, April 6, 2015: Little Infinite Edition

As I warned, there were a lot of mathematically-themed comic strips the last week, and here I can at least get us through the start of April. This doesn’t include the strips that ran today, the 7th of April by my calendar, because I have to get some serious-looking men to look at my car and I just know they’re going to disapprove of what my CV joint covers look like, even though I’ve done nothing to them. But I won’t be reading most of today’s comic strips until after that’s done, and so commenting on them later.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (April 3) makes its traditional appearance in my roundup, in this case with a business-type guy declaring infinity to be “the loophole of all loopholes!” I think that’s overstating things a fair bit, but strange and very counter-intuitive things do happen when you try to work out a problem in which infinities turn up. For example: in ordinary arithmetic, the order in which you add together a bunch of real numbers makes no difference. If you want to add together infinitely many real numbers, though, it is possible to have them add to different numbers depending on what order you add them in. Most unsettlingly, it’s possible to have infinitely many real numbers add up to literally any real number you like, depending on the order in which you add them. And then things get really weird.

Keith Tutt and Daniel Saunders’s Lard’s World Peace Tips (April 3) is the other strip in this roundup to at least name-drop infinity. I confess I don’t see how “being infinite” would help in bringing about world peace, but I suppose being finite hasn’t managed the trick just yet so we might want to think outside the box.

Jerry Van Amerongen’s Ballard Street (April 3) shows off the convention that 1 is somehow a better number than 2. I’d mentioned this in the previous Reading the Comics feature, in discussing Strange Brew: we let the order of numbers serve two connotations. Most of us would rather have ten dollars than one dollar, but would also rather be ranked number one rather than ranked number ten. Somehow the context lets us keep straight which order is better and I admit not knowing how it does.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Working Daze (April 4) mentions how at the start of the baseball season “every team has an equal chance to win it all”. There’s a good discussion of the philosophy of probability to build around this. After all, surely some teams are better than others; don’t they by definition have better chances to win the season? But then how do we know which are the best teams? If we do not have the evidence to say that one team is most likely to be the strongest team, then isn’t that the same as saying every team is equally likely to be the strongest? Sabermetric-style analysis of how players and teams are likely to perform, based on how they have performed in the past, can give us some guidance about what seem most likely to be the best teams, so that we might not credit every team as being equally likely to win. But, then, thanks to the separation of the leagues into divisions it’s quite possible for a weak team to win an even weaker division and then get lucky in the postseason. Does that reflect an equal chance for every team?

Scott Adams’s Dilbert Classics (April 4, rerun) seems to me inspired by a weird little statistical urban legend that was passed around in the late 80s, the notion that a woman who’d reached the not terribly advanced age of 40 was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to marry. This produced a lot of hand-wringing about how could women hope to have it all in a world so arranged against them, and not nearly enough people pointing out that the conclusion was obviously deranged. The correct response was to say, “go back and double-check your work”.

Anyway, Dogbert tries to give Dilbert dating advice based on the demographics of his situation, the number of available women versus his age, and their age, and what they look likely to be in the future. So far as that goes, that’s fine enough: one of the uses of statistics that led its growth in the 19th century was in studying the populations of states and nations, and seeing what the rates of population growth implied for future economic and military potential. It’s the reference to women Dilbert’s age “all … dating married men or serial killers” that makes me think of the killed-by-terrorists legend.

Ben Zaehringer’s Berkeley Mews (April 6) does a joke based on the Jetsons as well as on the notion that since computers can be said to work in binary, communicating with them also has to be done in binary. Electronic computers don’t have to work in binary, though; it’s just a convention, albeit a nearly universal one, of their construction. Early electronic computers, with ENIAC the most famous example, were sometimes built to make decimal calculations; and even earlier computers might be analog ones, which couldn’t be said to really have a base.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains (April 6) makes me wonder if he completely lost track of when Pi Day was. It’s a cute one, though, and my favorite of today’s collection.

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics (April 6) sees the Tyrannosaurus Rex fascinated by trapdoor functions, ones that are are easy to evaluate, but hard to reverse, with a particular example of factoring large numbers, as used in cryptography. He does describe the idea well enough, and points out how there is this little gap between “being able to send a prime number” and “do stuff we’re particularly interested in doing”, but the enthusiasm is a good start.