Reading the Comics, January 31, 2018: Workload Edition


I thought my new workflow of writing my paragraph or two about each comic was going to help me keep up and keep fresher with the daily comics. And then Comic Strip Master Command decided that everybody had to do comics that at least touched on some mathematical subject. I don’t know. I’m trying to keep up but will admit, I didn’t get to writing anything about Friday’s or Saturday’s strips yet. They’ll keep a couple days.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classicsfor the 29th of January reprints the strip from the 5th of February, 1996. (The Classics reprints finally reached the point where Amend retired from daily strips, and jumped back a dozen years to continue printing.) It just mentions mathematics exams, and high performances on both is all.

Josh Shalek’s Kid Shay Comics reprint for the 29th tosses off a mention of Uncle Brian attempting a great mathematical feat. In this case it’s the Grand Unification Theory, some logically coherent set of equations that describe the fundamental forces of the universe. I think anyone with a love for mathematics makes a couple quixotic attempts on enormously vast problems like this. Or the Riemann Hypothesis, or Goldbach’s Conjecture, or Fermat’s Last Theorem. Yes, Fermat’s Last Theorem has been proven, but there’s no reason there couldn’t be an easier proof. Similarly there’s no reason there couldn’t be a better proof of the Four Color Map theorem. Most of these attempts end up the way Brian’s did. But there’s value in attempting this anyway. Even when you fail, you can have fun and learn fascinating things in the attempt.

Carol Lay’s Lay Lines for the 29th is a vignette about a statistician. And one of those statisticians with the job of finding surprising correlations between things. I think it’s also a riff on the hypothesis that free markets are necessarily perfect: if there’s any advantage to doing something one way, it’ll quickly be found and copied until that is the normal performance of the market. Anyone doing better than average is either taking advantage of concealed information, or else is lucky.

Matt Lubchansky’s Please Listen To Me for the 29th depicts a person doing statistical work for his own purposes. In this case he’s trying to find what factors might be screwing up the world. The expressions in the second panel don’t have an obvious meaning to me. The start of the expression \int exp\left(\frac{1}{N_0}\right) at the top line suggests statistical mechanics to me, for what that’s worth, and the H and Ψ underneath suggest thermodynamics or quantum mechanics. So if Lubchansky was just making up stuff, he was doing it with a good eye for mathematics that might underly everything.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup to Nutz for the 29th circles around the anthropomorphic numerals idea. It’s not there exactly, but Andrew is spending some time giving personality to numerals. I can’t say I give numbers this much character. But there are numbers that seem nicer than others. Usually this relates to what I can do with the numbers. 10, for example, is so easy to multiply or divide by. If I need to multiply a number by, say, something near thirty, it’s a delight to triple it and then multiply by ten. Twelve and 24 and 60 are fun because they’re so relatively easy to find parts of. Even numbers often do seem easier to work with, just because splitting an even number in half saves us from dealing with decimals or fractions. Royboy sees all this as silliness, which seems out of character for him, really. I’d expect him to be up for assigning traits to numbers like that.

Zippy, in front of the Wein-O-Rama Restaurant: 'Different parts of Einstein's theory of relativity are being proven true all th'time ... hmm ... what about th'idea that an exact DUPLICATE of everything exists at th'same time on th'other side of th'universe? Or, in this case, on 'th'other side of th'the Wein-O-Rama restaurant!' Other Zippy, at the other end of the the Wein-O-Rama restaurant: 'What happens in Rhode Island stays in Rhode Island! Yow!'
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 30th of January, 2018. The the Wein-O-Rama is in Cranston, Rhode Island, and I do hope that this strip is now part of the “In Pop Culture” segment of Cranson’s Wikipedia page. DuckDuckGo’s search for Wein-O-Rama pops up, for me, this sentence from a TripAdvisor.com review: “When we go to Weinorama its [sic] always for the wieners [sic], that `RI-only’ treat. I’ll always order them all the way, but my wife always says ‘no onions’.” Thus does reality merge imperceptibly into Zippy the Pinhead comics, evoking the surrealist character’s ancient dictum, “Life is a blur of Republicans and meat”.

Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 30th mentions Albert Einstein and relativity. And Zippy ruminates on the idea that there’s duplicates of everything, in the vastness of the universe. It’s an unsettling idea that isn’t obviously ruled out by mathematics alone. There’s, presumably, some chance that a bunch of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and other atoms happened to come together in such a way as to make our world as we know it today. If there’s a vast enough universe, isn’t there a chance that a bunch of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and other atoms happened to come together that same way twice? Three times? If the universe is infinitely large, might it not happen infinitely many times? In any number of variations? It’s hard to see why not, but even if it is possible, that’s no reason to think it must happen either. And whether those duplicates are us is a question for philosophers studying the problem of identity and what it means to be one person rather than some other person. (It turns out to be a very difficult problem and I’m glad I’m not expected to offer answers.)

Tony Cochrane’s Agnes attempts to use mathematics to reason her way to a better bedtime the 31st. She’s not doing well. Also this seems like it’s more of an optimization problem than a simple arithmetic one. What’s the latest bedtime she can get that still allows for everything that has to be done, likely including getting up in time and getting enough sleep? Also, just my experience but I didn’t think Agnes was old enough to stay up until 10 in the first place.

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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. He/him.

20 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, January 31, 2018: Workload Edition”

    1. This is true. And it’s one of those little things that can be strangely calming. At least, in my experience one of the sounder cures for homesickness is familiar smells and tastes and a fast-food place you went to as a child, or that you go to all the time anyway, is really good for that. Can be symbolically nice too; there’s some sandwiches that remind me of when I was living in Singapore and when I get them now, I have that bit of memory-touching of those pretty happy times.

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      1. Hey, McDonalds could use an endorsement like this! Talking of food, we once took the kids to a Paris restaurant – the waiter looked nervous and warned us the food was ‘very French’ – we ordered anyway and they ate hardly anything. Next day we took them to, yup, McDonalds!

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        1. I realize, and embrace, that I do sound a little silly singing the praises of mass-produced fast food. But I do take it seriously. Ritual and familiarity and comfortable, easy surroundings are part of how we build our mental reserves. And, like, each time I taste a White Castle burger a part of me thinks of all the times my father was giving the kids a treat for doing so well at the dentist’s, or the end of the long week working that summer job at the gunpowder factory, or those brief holidays or vacations when I was visiting my parents while living in Singapore; the taste binds me to many moments of my past, and I’m never quite eating alone.

          And also, yes, after venturing into a strange land and strange foods and strange smells and strange languages, something so easy and familiar and ordinary can be a joy. I’m thinking also of my first weeks in Singapore and feeling overloaded and retreating back to watch Cartoon Network because oh, my, that Popeye is easy to watch.

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          1. Haha, yes, Popeye takes me right back to my childhood home where us kids used to watch it religiously. Our favourite, as I recall, was where he goes to that island inhabited by the Goonies (?). This particularly tickled us because the UK Goons were our radio comedy heroes. And I quite agree, the little rituals of life are a handy comfort-buffer when change and uncertainty alter our equilibrium. It seems to be childhood associations that work best. Hmm, must Google Popeye for a hit of nostalgia …

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            1. The Goons, yes. That was one of the best Popeye cartoons ever made. And Alice was a great character; one of the odd missed chances of the Fleischer studios is that they didn’t do more with Alice the Goon. And nothing at all with the Sea Hag. They came back in those 1960s cartoons that were, to put it kindly, god-awful but sometimes in interesting ways. And then later shows, but by that point Popeye was leaving the pop culture and the cartoons weren’t all that wild.

              The UK Goons, those I came to know later in life. One of the old-time radio channels I liked listening to would have them often, but not always, on the Friday program rotation. They were a lot to take in at once.

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              1. Interesting to get your perspective on this. Those later Popeyes weren’t a patch on the originals, really, but the biggest mistake I think was the human version with Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall – both dead ringers for the characters but the film itself lacked charm and, well, point. The UK Goons weren’t always funny, frankly, but they were so quick-fire it didn’t seem to matter …

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                1. The 60s Popeyes were often, really, abysmal. But there were a surprising number that get that so-bad-it’s-good fascination where yes, they don’t make sense, but they’re compelling because of that. They at least get unpredictable and weird and exciting for that; I’m reminded of one plumbing cartoon that gets to the point that Popeye’s flooding the city and in danger of “dousing the flame on Lady Liberty’s torch!” It’s this strange dream-logic plotting and that’s better than, like, those 1950s Famous Studio cartoons where everybody’s just sitting around their suburban ranch house and Bluto is messing with Popeye’s vegetable garden.

                  The Popeye movie, now, that I love. I think its biggest mistake is that the fact it’s an Origin Story is so underplayed (there’s, like, one mention of how Popeye doesn’t want to buy a can of spinach, but why would he need to buy something that he’s always got already?) that it isn’t until an hour in you realize what the story is, and that’s narrative danger. And a lesser problem is that it’s got 70s Movie Audio, everybody mumbling while speaking at once, but it’s not like they hid Robert Altman’s involvement.

                  The Goons, yeah, sometimes I’m not sure if I’m more amused by what’s actually going on or by the speed with which it is. To an extent it doesn’t quite matter, I guess.

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                    1. I would very much like to agree, but he did direct Countdown, a late 60s movie showing off the (real!) daft plan to land a person on the Moon, in case Apollo completely fell apart, by using a Gemini capsule and a supply depot. And this ought to be so designed for me, but it’s literally got a five-minute tight shot of (James Caan?), sitting in a Gemini capsule, flipping switches. This was really early in his career, though, which is probably why there’s only the one scene that’s actually directed like an Altman Movie, and that’s the bit that’s actually alive through the whole thing.

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                    2. Wait, wait, now I’m having an idea for a comedy that’s about the practical problems of faking the moon landings on a studio set. I don’t mean the problems of faking stuff like low gravity and atmosphere, that’s easy. I mean like the impossibly complicated politics of, like, getting union hires for jobs that won’t be credited and stuff like that.

                      This is why nobody should ever let me organize any kind of public entertainment, ever. Ask me about my anti-marketable video game concepts sometime.

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                    3. You put your finger on why conspiracy theories never stack up – no way of keeping everybody quiet! I think you’d be great at organising public entertainments. And those anti-marketable video game concepts – how bad can they be? :)

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                    4. OK, so, a Civilization-type 4X game based on how in the 19th century observatories would sell time, as observed by the stars. Thanks to the telegraph they could sell their local time to towns often quite far away, thanks to the need of railroad companies to maintain a uniform time anywhere they were sending stock. So, for example, you’d get these competing patches of time all over the Northeastern United States as, like, Albany and the Harvard Observatory and the National Observatory all did what they could to get subscribers and establish regions where their time was the time.

                      And a game where you’re an observatory trying to dominate the commercial standard for when it is in a pre-time-zone world is the least ridiculous idea that’s come to my head. Well, that or Roadside Attraction Tourist Trap Tycoon.

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                    5. Ah well, they say time is money … this ingenious idea of yours certainly brings home how relatively recent standardisation is. The railway companies in the UK were still squabbling over track gauge too.
                      Your Roadside Attraction game idea sounds to have creative potential!

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                    6. Oh, now, railroad track gauge is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen simulated in any infrastructure sim. There are whole worlds of extraordinarily niche games to be made for people who are interested in setting standards, and the audience for those is entirely “people who own more than one book by Brian J Cudahy”. It’s not a sustainable market but it is such a nice one to imagine.

                      I was also thinking about a grand strategy game where you’re the Minister of Finance, trying urgently to get enough tax dollars and treasury bills to support what the Ministry of Defense insists they need, without setting off economic catastrophe, and getting enough people into defense industries to support the front without wrecking the remainder of the economy. But if Time Zones: The Game'' was ridiculous surelyWar Production Board: The Game” is hilariously ridiculous.

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                    7. Never heard of the guy you mentioned so looked him up, as you can so easily do these days. “Brian Cudahy was born in Brooklyn, New York, and it was there that he developed a life-long fascination with subway trains … Cudahy left the academic world in the mid-1970s and spent the rest of his career working in the field of mass transportation, first with Boston’s MBTA, then with the RTA in Chicago, and finally with the U.S. Department of Transportation.” Also wrote some niche books that achieved perhaps surprising popularity. Hmm, sounds an enviable kind of life … and as for your strategy game idea, sounds far too much like real life – the powers-that-be are sure to ban it!

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                    8. Yeah, that is exactly the guy. I am impressed that he could get a niche in writing these exceedingly narrow-focused books. Many of them are just dumps of technical statistics and I can only imagine how thrilled his agent was to get a proposal of, say, “all the changes of registry for each containerized cargo ship operated by Sea-Land Services through its independent existence”. But he sold the book, and it came out in hardcover, so he knew something.

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