My week got busier than I imagined, but it was in ways worthwhile. I apologize for running late, and for not having an essay I meant to put up here this week. But I should be back to something more normal next week. I keep saying that. Also, for what seems like a rarity, all the strips for this essay are comic strips. No panels. That won’t last, I know.
Johnny Hart’s Back to B.C. for the 14th features arithmetic as a demonstration of The Smartest Man in the World’s credentials. I understand using a bit of arithmetic as a quick check that someone has any intelligence at all. It seems to me that checking “two plus two” is more common than “one plus one”, and either is more common than, say, “one plus two” or “three plus five” or anything. I’m curious why that is, though. Might one plus one just seem too simple? Or is it the bias against odd numbers and feeling that two plus two is somehow more balanced? If only there were some smart person I could ask.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 14th has a blackboard full of arithmetic as the icon of “doing a lot of school work”. Can’t say it’s age-inappropriate or anything. It’s just an efficient way to show a lot of work that’s kind of tiring to do has been done. … Also somehow one of the commenters didn’t understand the use of ‘flag’ as meaning to lose energy or enthusiasm. Huh.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 15th is a percentages joke, built on confusion between how to go from percentages to fractions and back again. Must say that I had thought 50 percent was tied well enough to one-half in ordinary language (or in phrases like splitting something fifty-fifty) that someone wouldn’t be confused by that. But everyone does miss some obvious things.
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow for the 16th is a probability strip. It is based on what seems obvious, that the fact of any person’s existing is an incredibly unlikely event. We can imagine restarting the universe, and letting it all develop again. And we’re forced to conclude there are so many other ways that galaxies might form and stars might come into being and planets might form and life might develop and evolution might proceed and people might meet and children might be born, and only one way that gets us here. So the chance of any of us existing is impossibly tiny. This is all consistent with the “frequentist” idea of what probability means. In that, we say the probability of a thing happening is all the ways that it could happen divided by all the ways that something could happen. (There are a bunch of technical points to go along with this.)
But there are a lot of buried assumptions in there. Many of them seem reasonable. For example: could the universe unfold any differently? It seems obvious that, for example, the radius of the Earth’s orbit around the sun is arbitrary and might be anything in a band that could support life. And, surely, if the year had more or fewer days to it all human history would be different. But then this seems obvious: drop a bunch of short needles across a set of parallel straight lines. The number of needles that cross any of those lines should be arbitrary and unpredictable. Except that it is predictable; there’s a well-known formula that says how many of those needles have to cross those lines. The prediction can be lousy for a handful of needles. For millions of needles, though, it’ll be dead on. The universe won’t make sense any other way.
I can’t go so far as to say that it’s impossible for a universe to exist without me existing and just as I am. That seems egotistical. Even the needle-drop talk has room for variations on the universe. In ten million needle drops, one needle crossing more or less would not be an implausible difference. Ten or a thousand needles falling differently wouldn’t stand out. But, then, after enough needle drops? … If infinitely many needles dropped, I could say exactly what percentage of them crossed lines. (I am speaking so very casually about very difficult technical points. Please pretend I have clear answers for them.) There are deep philosophical questions about the idea of “other universes” that we have to ask if we want to take the subject seriously. But there are deep mathematical questions too.
Bob Shannon’s Tough Town for the 16th is more or less the anthropomorphized Roman Numerals joke for the week. I don’t know that there’s a strong consensus about why X was used to represent “ten”. Likely it’s impossible to prove any explanation is right. But X has settled into meaning ten, and to serve a host of other uses in typography and in symbols. Some of them are likely connected. Some are probably just coincidence.
If you’d like more of these Reading the Comics posts, you can find them in reverse chronological order at this link. If you’re interested in the comics mentioned particularly here, this page has the B.C. comics (both new and vintage). Frazz is on this page. The Lucky Cow strips are on this page. And Tough Town strips are here.