Reading the Comics, February 11, 2016: Apples And Pointing Things Out Edition


I didn’t expect quite so many mathematically themed comic strips so soon after the last round. Most of them just highlight one or another familiar joke. So this edition is mostly just noting that yeah, the joke is there and has been successfully made. There’s an exception, though. Enjoy.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 7th of February is a cute chart. It’s got an unusual label to the x-axis. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m surprised not to see more jokes constructed this way.

Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 7th of February was this essay’s Schrödinger’s Cat mention. I’m considering putting a moratorium on Schrödinger’s Cat strips, at least for a little while. I need to find something fresh to say about them.

Russell Myers’s Broom Hilda for the 8th of February inspires a Fermi problem. These are named for the great physicist Enrico Fermi, who often asked problems of estimation and order of magnitude. Given a few pieces of information, can you say about how big something might be? In this case, how many hours of work are spent peeling labels off grocery store apples? If we had the right information it would be easy to answer. How long does the average label take to peel off? How many apples get peeled each year? I admit not knowing either offhand. I would guess the average label-peeling time to be under five seconds, but if I wanted to be exact I’d get a bag, a stopwatch, and a sheet of paper for notes.

How many apples get peeled each year? That’s tougher. We might be able to get the total number of apples sold. But not every apple is sold with a label on it. A bag of apples doesn’t need individual labels, after all. But we might estimate what fraction of apples are sold loose and thus with labels by looking in local supermarkets. That requires assuming the turnover of apple stock is about the same whether the apple’s labelled or unlabelled. It also assumes our local supermarket is representative of the whole nation’s. But if we’re just looking for an idea of how big the number should be, or if we’re looking for what further information we have to determine, that’s good enough.

Wikipedia says the United States produced 4,100,046 metric tons of apples in 2012, the last year they have records for. If an apple is about a fifth of a kilogram, then, that implies something like 2,050,230,000 apples got sold in the United States that year. Let’s guess that three-quarters of them go right to industrial uses, into the hands of the Apple Pie Trusts and other corporate uses that don’t need labelling, while the remaining quarter go to consumers. That’s a wild guess on my part, but, industry is big. And of those, I’ll guess two-fifths get sold individually, with labels on. The rest can be sold in bags or whatnot. I’m basing that on what I kind of remember from my last trip to the farmer’s market with the free coffee bar and the bag-your-own candies.

So this implies something like 205,023,000 apples could be sold with labels. And if each label takes an average of five seconds, then this implies a total of 17,085,250 minutes spent unpeeling apple labels. That sounds like a big number, but it’s really only over 284,754 hours, or not quite 11,865 days. Of course, divided up among all the apple-eaters it’s not so much per year.

My number is wrong. I picked important bits of information out of thin air. But if I want to be more precise, I have an idea of what I need to learn. And I have an idea of how big I should expect the right answer to be. I can go from this to a better estimate, if I think now it’s worth being more exact.

Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine tries picking a fight with mathematicians on the 8th of February, with Rat boasting how he’s never used algebra. I’m not sure why bragging about not using algebra is supposed to be funny. The strip says it’s cathartic. I suppose. But it’s a joke that’s been told many times over and this doesn’t feel like a fresh use.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup To Nutz for the 8th of February is a fractions joke. Royboy perceives a difference between one-half of an orange and four-eighths of an orange. I can’t say there isn’t a difference in connotation between the two representations.

Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 9th of February (a rerun from sometime 1928) shows Sookie with a ball. Well, a ball with a hole in it. A topologist would agree. If you’re interested in how the points on, or inside, an object connect to each other then a hoop like this is the same as a ball with a hole through it or a doughnut or bagel. This is my favorite for this group, because of the wonderful convergence of kid logic and serious mathematics.

Larry Wright’s Motley Classics for the 10th of February (a rerun from that date in 1988) is a joke about the terrors of word problems. I’m not convinced an authentic child would have trouble adding up all those cookies.

Hector D Cantu and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo for the 11th of February reveals they have a week’s more lead time than most of the comics on the page.

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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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