As mentioned, the lottery was a big thing a couple of weeks ago. So there were a couple of lottery-themed comics recently. Let me group them together. Comic strips tend to be anti-lottery. It’s as though people trying to make a living drawing comics for newspapers are skeptical of wild long-shot dreams.
T Lewis and Michael Fry’s Over The Hedge started a lottery storyline the 1st of February. Verne, the turtle, repeats the tired joke that the lottery is a tax on people bad at mathematics. Enormous jackpots, like the $1,500,000,000 payout of a couple weeks back, break one leg of the anti-lottery argument. If the expected payout is large enough then the expectation value of playing can become positive. The expectation value is one of those statistics terms that almost tells you what it is just by the name. It’s what you would expect as the average result if you could repeat some experiment arbitrarily many times. If the payout is 1.5 billion, and the chance of winning one in 250 million, then the expected value of the payout is six dollars. If a ticket costs less than six dollars, then — if you could play over and over, hundreds of millions of times — you’d expect to come out ahead each time you play.
If you could. Of course, you can’t play the lottery hundreds of millions of times. You can play a couple of times at most. (Even if you join a pool at work and buy, oh, a thousand tickets. That’s still barely better than playing twice.) And the payout may be less than the full jackpot; multiple winners are common things in the most enormous jackpots. Still, if you’re pondering whether it’s sensible to spend two dollars on a billion-dollar lottery jackpot? You’re being fussy. You’ll spend at least that much on something more foolish and transitory — the lottery ticket can at least be used as a bookmark — I’ll bet.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 4th of February picks up the anti-lottery crusade. Caulfield does pin down that lotteries work because people figure they have a better chance of winning than they truly do. Nobody buys a ticket because they figure it’s worth losing a dollar or two. It’s because they figure the chance is worth a little money.
Ken Cursoe’s Tiny Sepuku for the 4th of February consults the Chinese Zodiac Monkey for help on finding lucky numbers. There’s not really any finding them. Lotteries work hard to keep the winning numbers as unpredictable as possible. I have heard the lore that numbers up to 31 are picked by more people — they’re numbers that can be birthdays — so that multiple winners on the same drawing are more likely. I don’t know that this is true, though. I suspect that I could feel comfortable even with a four-way split of one and a half billions of dollars. Five-way would be out of the question, of course. Better to tear up the ticket than take that undignified split.
In Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 3rd of February features Ruthie tossing off a confusing pile of numbers on the way to declaring herself bad at mathematics. It’s always the way.
Breaking up a whole number like 4 into different sums of whole numbers is a mathematics problem also. Splitting up 4 into, say, ‘2 plus 1 plus 1’, is a ‘partition’ of the number. I’m not sure of important results that follow this sort of integer partition directly. But splitting up sets of things different ways runs through a lot of mathematics. Integer partitions are the ones you can do in elementary school.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 3rd of February — I believe it originally ran December 1928 — is a Roman numerals joke. The mathematical content may be low, but what the heck. It’s kind of timely. The Super Bowl, set for today, has been the most prominent use of Roman numerals we have anymore since the Star Trek movies stopped using them a quarter-century ago.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 7th of February seems to be in agreement. And yes, I’m disappointed the Super Bowl is giving up on Roman numerals, much the way I’m disappointed they’re using a standardized and quite boring logo for each year. Part of the glory of past Super Bowls is seeing old graphic design eras preserved like fossils.
Brian Gordon’s Fowl Language for the 5th of February shows a duck trying to explain incredibly huge numbers to his kid. It’s hard. You need to appreciate mathematics some to start appreciating real vastness. I’m not sure anyone can really have a feel for a number like 300 sextillion, the character’s estimate for the number of stars there are. You can make rationalizations for what numbers that big are like, but I suspect the mind shies back from staring directly at it.
Infinity, and the many different sizes of infinity, might be easier to work with. One doesn’t need to imagine infinitely many things to work out the properties of infinitely large sets. You could do as well with a neatly drawn rectangle and some other, bigger, rectangles. But if you want to talk about the number 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 then you do want to think of something true about that number which isn’t also true about eight or about nine hundred million. But geology teaches us to ponder Deep Time. Astronomy trains us to imagine incredibly vast distances. Why not spend some time pondering huge numbers?
And with all that said, I’d like to make one more call for any requests for my winter 2016 Mathematics A To Z glossary. There are quite a few attractive letters left unclaimed; a word or short term could be yours!