Reading the Comics, April 15, 2015: Tax Day Edition
Since it is mid-April, and most of the comic strips at Comics Kingdom and GoComics.com are based in the United States, Comic Strip Master Command ordered quite a few comics about taxes. Most of those are simple grumbling, but the subject naturally comes around to arithmetic and calculation and sometimes even logic. Thus, this is a Tax Day edition, though it’s bookended with Mutt and Jeff.
Bud Fisher’s Mutt And Jeff (April 11) — a rerun rom goodness only knows when, and almost certainly neither written nor drawn by Bud Fisher at that point — recounts a joke that has the form of a word problem in which a person’s age is deduced from information about the age. It’s an old form, but jokes about cutting the Gordion knot are probably always going to be reliable. I’m reminded there’s a story of Thomas Edison giving a new hire, mathematician, the problem of working out the volume of a light bulb. Edison got impatient with the mathematician treating it as a calculus problem — the volume of a rotationally symmetric object like a bulb is the sort of thing you can do by the end of Freshman Calculus — and instead filling a bulb with water, pouring the water into a graduated cylinder, and reading it off that.
Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends (April 12) uses Calculus as the shorthand for “the hardest stuff you might have to deal with”. The symbols on the left-hand side are fair enough, although I’d think of them more as precalculus or linear algebra or physics, but they do parse well enough as long as I suppose that what sure looks like a couple of extraneous + signs are meant to refer to “t”. But “t” is a common enough variable in calculus problems, usually representing time, sometimes just representing “some parameter whose value we don’t really care about, but we don’t want it to be x”, and it looks an awful lot like a plus sign there too. On the right side, I have no idea what a root of forty minutes on a treadmill might be. It’s symbolic.
Brian Walker, Greg Walker, and Chance Browne’s Hi and Lois (April 12) depicts something nearly universal: the same kind of work can be a delight or a drudge, based on why you’re doing it. This is also why people try to insist mathematics is worth learning because it’s so practical. The assumption is that something practical must be desirable. Pointing out where mathematics is fun, or beautiful, is probably a better motivation.
Randy Glasbergen’s Glasbergen Cartoons (April 12) shows a guy complaining that if a decimal point is important, why isn’t it bigger? And it’s a fair question. As best I can work out, the decimal point is a small thing because it just happened to work out that way. There were other possible notations. Simon Stevin, the 16th century Belgian who really made decimal notation popular, noted decimal points by writing a little circle with the number of digits past the decimal above them. That is, he would write something like this for 3.1415:
As I say, he used circles, although in English it was modified to parenthesis — much easier to typeset, even today — in superscripts, that is, something like 31(1)4(2)1(3)5(4) instead. Vertical slashes were also sometimes used, thus, 3|1415. If it weren’t for the chance of confusing the decimal bar with the numeral 1 I’d probably vote for that one. John Napier, famous for pioneering logarithms, combined this with commas to produce a notation kind of like:
Semicolons seem, if Florian Cajori’s A History Of Mathematical Notations is still reliable, to have been surprisingly underused. 3;1415 seems like it would make the position of the decimal point quite clear and unmistakable without risking confusion with a numeral or requiring any complicated penmanship or typesetting. Cajori also gives examples of not just commas, but inverse commas (3’1415), and even little triangles. The best I can say is that if we were to go back and re-do the practice of representing concepts with symbols, knowing what we know now, we might be able to do a little better.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater (April 13) takes a break from anthropomorphic numbers jokes to give an anthropomorphic geography joke.
John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith (April 14) puts forth as a silly idea writer’s block somehow spreading to mathematics. As I’ve often said, though, mathematics is a creative endeavor. To not know where to start a problem is something which can easily happen. But I grant the sort of problem likely to be assigned at Jughaid’s level probably would not require inspiration so much as skill at identifying what kind of calculation is supposed to be done and what information is needed for that calculation. Writer’s block would probably not come into play.
Art Sanson and Chip Sanson’s The Born Loser (April 14) presents lousy arithmetic as grounds for someone no longer being suitable for accounts receivable but a possible candidate for working on tax returns. The joke feels badly formed to me. Getting out of one’s taxes by creatively accounting for them is a matter of being cleverer than the auditor, or at least a matter of fooling oneself into thinking one’s cleverer than the auditor. This joke presents the idea of being stupider than the auditor, so it isn’t superficially plausible enough for me to buy into the joke.
Tim Lachowski’s Get A Life (April 14) name-checks sudoku in its joke about the arithmetic of taxes being so complicated people work crazily.
Mick Mastroianni and Mason Mastroianni’s Dogs of C Kennel (April 15) does a jokes about how it’s impressive to know a certain number of the digits of pi, although it’s tiresome to show them off. This is a good lesson about being a know-it-all in general. The part of the joke that isn’t obvious unless you happen to have memorized pi to just after the “653589” part — the next two digits are just where I drop off — is that Tucker, the dog reciting digits, has been doing on an extremely long time: the sequence “897232” doesn’t appear in the first 100,000 digits of pi. If he’s reciting two digits a second, then by the start of the second panel Tucker has been going on at least thirteen hours. Given that, I admire Will’s restraint. I got to liking this strip much better once I discovered that.
Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff (April 15, and see above comments about rerun and writer status) tells a joke built around pairwise relationships. Normally we think of distance as having a property known as symmetry: if a is a certain distance from b, then b must be that same distance from a. Many pairwise relationships enjoy that symmetry: equality, for example, or the distance between points in space, or less obviously mathematical concepts like “is the same color as” or “is a sibling of”. But not every interesting relationship is symmetric: if a is some number less than b, it doesn’t follow that b is some number less than a.
And Jeff sets up his punch line around how “separation in space” and “separation in time” do seem to have a qualitative difference. Modern physics understands space and time as a joint entity, but there is something different in the way space works from the way time works. That there’s a compelling orientation of time is one of those ways. That said I just know that as a kid I would argue that it’s equally true to say it’s one week or it’s fifty-one weeks from Christmas to New Year’s. I would have been a difficult child in vaudeville-style jokes.