Reading the Comics, August 22, 2015: Infinite Probabilities Edition


It’s summer, so the rate of mathematically-themed comic strips slowed. That’s fine. I had a very busy, distracting couple of weeks and wasn’t able to keep up reading everything quite so faithfully. As it is you’ll notice I’m posting this without having read all my Sunday comics. They can fit in the next edition, surely.

Carol Lay’s Lay Lines (August 16) is a nicely mind-expanding story about the clash between incredibly unlikely events and an infinitely large universe. This is also my favorite of this week’s strips.

Infinity and probability interact in weird ways. Infinitely many chances for something to happen, for example, seem to imply that everything that is even remotely possible ought to happen. However … it doesn’t, really. For example, it’s imaginable that one might flip a fair coin infinitely many times and yet never see a streak where it comes up tails more than ten times in a row. Is that improbable? Sure. But impossible? And if it’s not impossible, then mustn’t it happen, given enough chances to? Mathematics and philosophy blend into one another. We see this often in logic. But probability is another of the fields that stands insistently with one foot in mathematics’s question of “what can we say about this model” and one foot in philosophy’s question of “what does it mean for something to be true”.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow (August 16) is about geometry. To study the real world we use straight lines and perfect circles and right angles and regular polygons and such. None of these things happen in the real world. Even things that could be like them, such as the path of a laser, or the area highlighted by a cone of light falling on the wall, are only close to the line or the ellipse or other shape in our ideal. But the abstractions are such very useful things. Well, Clare can rest assured that stacking the meal trays straight would not, in the end, produce a straight line anyway.

Johnny Hart and Brant Parker’s The Wizard of Id (Classics) (August 16, originally run August 15, 1965) is, as the punch line mentions, a variation on the monkeys-at-typewriters problem. The King is right that, given enough time, even Sir Rodney’s bound to hit a bullseye. But then see the talk about Lay Lines above.

'Professor, I ran out of round pans, do you mind if these pies are squared?'
Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 21st of August, 2015.

Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm (August 21) is the oft-made pun about the area of circles. Of course the blackboard with a lot of formulas is used as signifier for “mathematician” or perhaps “really bright person”. The writing on it is basically nonsense, although I’m curious why so many words are written out.

Mind, it is often very useful when setting out to write out, in plain English, what your variables represent. It helps set out what you think you’re doing, and check back that you’re doing things that are sensible. But, for example, “R” means “Radius” so very often that it’s silly to write that down. More useful would be “R = Radius Of [ something ]”. And then why write out circumference, and diameter, and circle twice on this board? … Besides the fact that what’s on the board is meaningless, that is, and we shouldn’t bother reading it. It exists and that is all it need do.

Bill Rechin’s Crock (August 22) is not exactly an anthropomorphized numerals joke. But it’s something in the field of turning numbers into physical objects. It’s cute enough.

The cannon fires one (ball), then fires two (the numeral). The artillery man says 'I've always wanted to do that.'
Bill Rechin’s Crock for the 22nd of August, 2015.

I am curious why the first two panels are duplicates, though. (Look at the hatching on the cannon, or whatever the scribbles are at the bottom of his shirt.) Actually, everything about Crock is a bit mysterious. Cartoonist Bill Rechin died in May of 2011, and his family decided to stop drawing new strips in May of 2012. However, for some reason, reruns were to be distributed for three further years. Still, the strips are dated 2015. I don’t remember seeing them before. Of course, I admit I don’t have many Crock strips committed to memory, but I’d have imagined at least some would have struck me as familiar. In short, there’s a lot I don’t understand about this comic strip.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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