Reading the Comics, November 26, 2016: What is Pre-Algebra Edition


Here I’m just closing out last week’s mathematically-themed comics. The new week seems to be bringing some more in at a good pace, too. Should have stuff to talk about come Sunday.

Darrin Bell and Theron Heir’s Rudy Park for the 24th brings out the ancient question, why do people need to do mathematics when we have calculators? As befitting a comic strip (and Sadie’s character) the question goes unanswered. But it shows off the understandable confusion people have between mathematics and calculation. Calculation is a fine and necessary thing. And it’s fun to do, within limits. And someone who doesn’t like to calculate probably won’t be a good mathematician. (Or will become one of those master mathematicians who sees ways to avoid calculations in getting to an answer!) But put aside the obviou that we need mathematics to know what calculations to do, or to tell whether a calculation done makes sense. Much of what’s interesting about mathematics isn’t a calculation. Geometry, for an example that people in primary education will know, doesn’t need more than slight bits of calculation. Group theory swipes a few nice ideas from arithmetic and builds its own structure. Knot theory uses polynomials — everything does — but more as a way of naming structures. There aren’t things to do that a calculator would recognize.

Richard Thompson’s Poor Richard’s Almanac for the 25th I include because I’m a fan, and on the grounds that the Summer Reading includes the names of shapes. And I’ve started to notice how often “rhomboid” is used as a funny word. Those who search for the evolution and development of jokes, take heed.

John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for the 25th is the awaited anthropomorphic-numerals and symbols joke for this past week. I enjoy the first commenter’s suggestion tha they should have stayed in unknown territory.

'Can you help me with my math, Grandma?' 'Let me see.' 'It's pre-algebra.' 'Oh, darn!' 'What's wrong?' 'I'm post-algebra.'
Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 26th of November, 2016. I suppose Kirkman and Scott know their characters better than I do but isn’t Zoe like nine or ten? Isn’t pre-algebra more a 7th or 8th grade thing? I can’t argue Grandma being post-algebra but I feel like the punch line was written and then retrofitted onto the characters.

Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 26th does a little wordplay built on pre-algebra. I’m not sure that Zoe is quite old enough to take pre-algebra. But I also admit not being quite sure what pre-algebra is. The central idea of (primary school) algebra — that you can do calculations with a number without knowing what the number is — certainly can use some preparatory work. It’s a dazzling idea and needs plenty of introduction. But my dim recollection of taking it was that it was a bit of a subject heap, with some arithmetic, some number theory, some variables, some geometry. It’s all stuff you’ll need once algebra starts. But it is hard to say quickly what belongs in pre-algebra and what doesn’t.

Art Sansom and Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser for the 26th uses two ancient staples of jokes, probabilities and weather forecasting. It’s a hard joke not to make. The prediction for something is that it’s very unlikely, and it happens anyway? We all laugh at people being wrong, which might be our whistling past the graveyard of knowing we will be wrong ourselves. It’s hard to prove that a probability is wrong, though. A fairly tossed die may have only one chance in six of turning up a ‘4’. But there’s no reason to think it won’t, and nothing inherently suspicious in it turning up ‘4’ four times in a row.

We could do it, though. If the die turned up ‘4’ four hundred times in a row we would no longer call it fair. (This even if examination proved the die really was fair after all!) Or if it just turned up a ‘4’ significantly more often than it should; if it turned up two hundred times out of four hundred rolls, say. But one or two events won’t tell us much of anything. Even the unlikely happens sometimes.

Even the impossibly unlikely happens if given enough attempts. If we do not understand that instinctively, we realize it when we ponder that someone wins the lottery most weeks. Presumably the comic’s weather forecaster supposed the chance of snow was so small it could be safely rounded down to zero. But even something with literally zero percent chance of happening might.

Imagine tossing a fair coin. Imagine tossing it infinitely many times. Imagine it coming up tails every single one of those infinitely many times. Impossible: the chance that at least one toss of a fair coin will turn up heads, eventually, is 1. 100 percent. The chance heads never comes up is zero. But why could it not happen? What law of physics or logic would it defy? It challenges our understanding of ideas like “zero” and “probability” and “infinity”. But we’re well-served to test those ideas. They hold surprises for us.

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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.

15 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, November 26, 2016: What is Pre-Algebra Edition”

      1. A triumph of mathematics on the part of Sir Eustace Tennyson-d’Eyncourt and his colleagues – as I understand it the shape was calculated to match the diameter of a 60-foot wheel as a trench-crossing mechanism, but without the radius (well, a triumph of geometry, which isn’t exactly mathematical in the pure sense…). I probably should stop making appalling puns now…

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    1. I think we don’t have any instinct for probability. There’s maybe a vague idea but it’s just awful for any but the simplest problems. Which is fair enough; for most of our existence probability questions were relatively straightforward things. But it took a generation of mathematicians to work out whether you were more likely to roll a 9 or a 10 on tossing three dice.

      There are some betting parlors in the United States, mostly under the name Off-Track Betting shops. I don’t think there’s really a culture of them, though, at least not away from the major horse-racing tracks. I may be mistaken though; it’s not a hobby I’ve been interested in. I believe they’re all limited to horse- and greyhound-racing, though. There are many places that sell state-sponsored lotteries but that isn’t really what I understand betting shops to be about. And lottery tickets are just sidelines from some more reputable concern like being a convenience store.

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  1. Our betting shops are plentiful, several on every high street, and they are full of FOBTs – fixed odds betting terminals – which are a prime source of problem gambling in poorer communities. Looking this up, I’ve just watched a worrying clip of somebody gambling while convincing themselves erroneously that they’re on the verge of a big win … it’s been described as the crack cocaine of gambling and there are 35,000 machines in the UK. If we have any instinct for probability, it’s being abused …

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    1. I suspect the fixed odds betting terminals translate in the United States to ordinary slot machines. They’ve been creeping over the United States as Native American nations realize they can license casinos as they are, theoretically, sovereigns on the territory reserved to them. (The state and federal governments get very upset when Native Americans do anything that brings them too much prosperity, though, so casinos get a lot of scrutiny.) But they similarly are all about having a lot of machines, making a lot of noise, and making a huge payout seem imminent and making a small payout seem huge.

      Of course, my favorite hobby is pinball, which uses nearly all the same tricks and is the nearly-reputable cousin of slot machines. Pinball machines were banned in many United States municipalities for decades as gambling machines, and it’s a fair cop. Occasionally there’ll be a bit a human-interest news about a city getting around to repealing its pinball-machine ban, and everybody thinks it a hilarious quaint bit about how square, say, Oakland, California, used to be. But the ban was for legitimate reasons, even if they’re now obsolete.

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  2. Fascinating historical perspectives here and I’m completely with you on the thrills of pinball – the virtual versions don’t have the physicality of the real machines, do they, especially that bit where you jerk the machine to wrench back control? My favourite was table football, though, which helped me waste hours as an undergraduate – my defence game was pretty nigh impossible to get round! Of course, it’s all gone downhill since …

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    1. The virtual machines have gotten to be really, really good. But yes, there’s this lack of physicality that’s important. Part of it is just the table getting worn and dirty and a little unresponsive, which is so key to actual play and competitive play. The app for Zaccaria Pinball machines allow you to include simulated grime on the playfield, making things play less well and more realistically; it’s a great addition. But the abstraction of nudging really makes a difference. Giving the table just the right shove is one of the big, essential skills on a pinball game and I just haven’t seen anything that gets the physics of it right.

      We have table football and several of the bars with pinball machines where we play, but almost never see anyone using them. The nearest hipster bar even had a bumper pool table for months, but since nobody ever knew what the rules of bumper pool were it didn’t get much use. I printed out a set of rules I found on the Internet somewhere and left it on the table, but failed to laminate it or anything and the rules were discarded or lost after about a month. A relatively busy month for game play, too.

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  3. If one wanted a reason to reject the virtual world altogether, it could be the ‘clean’ aspect of the experience – perhaps we could throw in photography while we’re at it, and its dubious relationship with truth … or am I just being a grumpy old fart? Lifting the table in table football was a key tactic, as I recall …

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    1. The clean aspect is a fair reason, yes. Part of the fun of real-world things is that while they can be predictable they’re never perfectly consistent. And there is some definite skill in recovering from stuff that isn’t working quite right.

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