Reading the Comics, September 6, 2016: Oh Thank Goodness We’re Back Edition


That’s a relief. After the previous week’s suspicious silence Comic Strip Master Command sent a healthy number of mathematically-themed comics my way. They cover a pretty normal spread of topics. So this makes for a nice normal sort of roundup.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic In A Minute for the 4th is an arithmetic-magic-trick. Like most arithmetic-magic it depends on some true but, to me, dull bit of mathematics. In this case, that 81,234,567 minus 12,345,678 is equal to something. As a kid this sort of trick never impressed me because, well, anyone can do subtraction. I didn’t appreciate that the fun of stage magic in presenting well the mundane.

Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s Zits for the 5th is an ordinary mathematics-is-hard joke. But it’s elevated by the artwork, which shows off the expressive and slightly surreal style that makes the comic so reliable and popular. The formulas look fair enough, the sorts of things someone might’ve been cramming before class. If they’re a bit jumbled up, well, Pierce hasn’t been well.

'Are you okay, Pierce? You don't look so good.' Pierce indeed throws up, nastily. 'I don't have a stomach for math.' He's vomited a table full of trigonometry formulas, some of them gone awry.
Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s Zits for the 5th of September, 2016. It sure looks to me like there’s more things being explicitly multiplied by ‘1’ than are needed, but it might be the formulas got a little scrambled as Pierce vomited. We’ve all been there. Fun fact: apart from a bit in Calculus I where they drill you on differentiation formulas you never really need the secant. It makes a couple formulas a little more compact and that’s it, so if it’s been nagging at your mind go ahead and forget it.

Jeffrey Caulfield and Alexandre Rouillard’s Mustard and Boloney for the 6th is an anthropomorphic-shapes joke and I feel like it’s been here before. Ah, yeah, there it is, from about this time last year. It’s a fair one to rerun.

Mustard and Boloney popped back in on the 8th with a strip I don’t have in my archive at least. It’s your standard Pi Pun, though. If they’re smart they’ll rerun it in March. I like the coloring; it’s at least a pleasant panel to look at.

Percy Crosby’s Skippy from the 9th of July, 1929 was rerun the 6th of September. It seems like a simple kid-saying-silly-stuff strip: what is the difference between the phone numbers Clinton 2651 and Clinton 2741 when they add to the same number? (And if Central knows what the number is why do they waste Skippy’s time correcting him? And why, 87 years later, does the phone yell at me for not guessing correctly whether I need the area code for a local number and whether I need to dial 1 before that?) But then who cares what the digits in a telephone number add to? What could that tell us about anything?

As phone numbers historically developed, the sum can’t tell us anything at all. But if we had designed telephone numbers correctly we could have made it … not impossible to dial a wrong number, but at least made it harder. This insight comes to us from information theory, which, to be fair, we have because telephone companies spent decades trying to work out solutions to problems like people dialing numbers wrong or signals getting garbled in the transmission. We can allow for error detection by schemes as simple as passing along, besides the numbers, the sum of the numbers. This can allow for the detection of a single error: had Skippy called for number 2641 instead of 2741 the problem would be known. But it’s helpless against two errors, calling for 2541 instead of 2741. But we could detect a second error by calculating some second term based on the number we wanted, and sending that along too.

By adding some more information, other modified sums of the digits we want, we can even start correcting errors. We understand the logic of this intuitively. When we repeat a message twice after sending it, we are trusting that even if one copy of the message is garbled the recipient will take the version received twice as more likely what’s meant. We can design subtler schemes, ones that don’t require we repeat the number three times over. But that should convince you that we can do it.

The tradeoff is obvious. We have to say more digits of the number we want. It isn’t hard to reach the point we’re ending more error-detecting and error-correcting numbers than we are numbers we want. And what if we make a mistake in the error-correcting numbers? (If we used a smart enough scheme, we can work out the error was in the error-correcting number, and relax.) If it’s important that we get the message through, we shrug and accept this. If there’s no real harm done in getting the message wrong — if we can shrug off the problem of accidentally getting the wrong phone number — then we don’t worry about making a mistake.

And at this point we’re only a few days into the week. I have enough hundreds of words on the close of the week I’ll put off posting that a couple of days. It’s quite good having the comics back to normal.

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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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