Reading the Comics, July 30, 2016: Learning Tools Edition


I thank Comic Strip Master Command for the steady pace of mathematically-themed comics this past week. It fit quite nicely with my schedule, which you might get hints about in weeks to come. Depends what I remember to write about. I did have to search a while for any unifying motif of this set. The idea of stuff you use to help learn turned up several times over, and that will do.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue threatened on the 24th to resume my least-liked part of reading comics for mathematics themes. This would be Grandma’s habit of forcing the kids to spend their last month of summer vacation doing arithmetic drills. I won’t say that computing numbers isn’t fun because I know what it’s like to work out how many seconds are in 50 years in your head. But that’s never what this sort of drill is about. The strip’s diverted from that subject, but it might come back to spoil the end of summer vacation. (I’m not positive what my least-liked part of the comics overall is. I suspect it might be the weird anti-participation-trophy bias comic strip writers have.)

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics reprint for the 25th is about the end of the universe. We’ve got several competing theories about how the universe is likely to turn out, several trillion years down the road. The difference between them is in the shape of space and how that shape is changing. I’ve mentioned sometimes the wonder of being able to tell something about a whole shape from local information, things we can tell without being far from a single point. The fate of the universe must be the greatest example of this. Considering how large the universe is and how little of it we will ever be able to send an instrument to, we measure the shape of space from a single point. And we can realistically project what will happen in unimaginably distant times. Admittedly, if we get it wrong, we’ll never know, which takes off some of the edge.

Dinosaur Comics reappears the 28th with some talk about number bases. It’s all fine and accurate enough, except for the suggestion that anyone would use base five for something other than explaining how bases work. I like learning about bases. When I was a kid this concept explained much to me about how our symbols for numbers work. It also helped appreciate that symbols are not these fixed or universal things. They’re our creations and ours to adapt for whatever reason we find convenient. In the past we’ve found bases as high as sixty to be convenient. (The division of angles into 360 degrees each of 60 minutes, each of those of 60 seconds, is an echo of that.) But when I was a kid doing alternate-base problems nobody knew what I was doing or why, except the mathematics teacher who said I might like the optional sections in the book. We only really need base ten, base two, and base sixteen, which might as well be base two written more compactly. The rest are toys, good for instruction and for fun. Sorry, base seven.

Scott Meyer’s Basic Instructions rerun for the 27th is about everyone’s favorite bit of intransitivity. Rock-Paper-Scissors and its related games are all about systems in which any two results can be decisive but any three might not be. This prospect turns up whenever there are three or more possible outcomes. And it doesn’t require a system to be irrational or random. Chaos and counterintuitive results just happen when there’s three of a thing.

I remember, and possibly you remember too, learning of a computer system that can consistently beat humans at Rock-Paper-Scissors. It manages to do that by the oldest of game theory exploits, cheating. Its sensors look for the twitches suggesting what a person is going to throw and then it changes its throw to beat that. I don’t know what that’s supposed to prove since anyone who’s played a Sid Meier’s Civilization game knows that computers already know how to cheat.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains, yes, you can be in my Reading The Comics post this week too. Don’t beg.

Bill Schorr’s The Grizzwells for the 28th is a resisted word problem joke. It doesn’t use the classic railroad or airplane forms, but it’s the same joke anyway.

'My drive to solve this [ a pie chart of the relationships between current, voltage, resistance, and power in an electrical circuit ] keeps getting interrupted by my desire to order a PIZZA'.

Benita Epstein’s Six Chix for the 29th of July, 2016. The pie chart’s valid, in case you need it, in which case you’re doing the mathematics of electric circuits. Current, voltage, resistance, and power all relate to one another in ways the chart makes clear once you know how to read it. Each of the quantities — I, V, R, or P — is equal to each of the expressions outside it. Pizza, meanwhile, is just a naturally funny word and thus appears in comic strips to amuse you.

Benita Epstein’s Six Chix for the 29th is probably familiar to the folks taking electronics. The chart is a compact map used as a mnemonic for the different relationships between the current (I), the voltage (V), the resistance (R), and the power (P) in a circuit. When I was a student we got this as two separate circles, one for current-voltage-resistance and one for power-current-voltage. Each was laid out like the T-and-O maps which pre-Renaissance Western Europe used to diagram the world. While I now see that as a convenient and useful tool, as a student, I was skeptical that it was any easier to use the mnemonic aid than it was to just remember “voltage equals current times resistance” and “power equals voltage times current”. I’ve always had an irrational suspicion of mnemonic devices. I’m trying to do better.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s Chuckle Brothers for the 30th is a return of the whiteboard full of symbols to represent deep thinking. The symbols don’t mean anything as equations, though that might be my limited perspective. And that also might represent the sketchy, shorthand way serious work is done. As an idea is sketched out weird bundles of symbols that don’t literally parse do appear. In a publishable paper this is all turned into neatly formatted and standard stuff. Or we introduce symbols with clear explanations of what they mean so that others can learn to read what we write. But for ourselves, in the heat of work, we’ll produce what looks like gibberish to others and that’s all right as long as we don’t forget what the gibberish means. Sometimes we do, but the gibberish typically helps us recapture a lost idea. (I offer the tale of a mathematician with pages of notes for a brilliant insight which she has to reconstruct from a lost memory to would-be short story writers looking for a Romantic hook.)

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