Reading the Comics, July 3, 2018: Fine, Jef Mallett Wants My Attention Edition


Three of these essays in a row now that Jef Mallett’s Frazz has done something worth responding to. You know, the guy lives in the same metro area. He could just stop in and visit sometime. There’s a pinball league in town and everything. He could view it as good healthy competition.

Bill Hinds’s Cleats for the 1st is another instance of the monkeys-on-typewriters metaphor. The metaphor goes back at least as far as 1913, when Émile Borel wrote a paper on statistical mechanics and the reversibility problem. Along the way it was worth thinking of the chance of impossibly unlikely events, given enough time to happen. Monkeys at typewriters formed a great image for a generator of text that knows no content or plan. Given enough time, this random process should be able to produce all the finite strings of text, whatever their content. And the metaphor’s caught people’s fancy I guess there’s something charming and Dadaist about monkeys doing office work. Borel started out with a million monkeys typing ten hours a day. Modern audiences sometimes make this an infinite number of monkeys typing without pause. This is a reminder of how bad we’re allowing pre-revolutionary capitalism get.

Kid: 'Mom, Dad, I want to go bungee jumping this summer!' Dad: 'A thousand monkeys working a thousand typewriters would have a better chance of randomly typing the complete works of William Shakespeare over the summer than you have of bungee jumping.' (Awksard pause.) Kid: 'What's a typewriter?' Dad: 'A thousand monkeys randomly TEXTING!'
Bill Hinds’s Cleats rerun for the 1st of July, 2018. It originally ran the 28th of June, 2009. Oh, but you figured that out yourselves, didn’t you? Also, boy, that’s not much of a punch line. Most comics aren’t actually written with disdain for young people and their apps and their podcasts and their emojis and all that. But sometimes one kind of hits it.

Sometimes it’s cut down to a mere thousand monkeys, as in this example. Often it’s Shakespeare, but sometimes it’s other authors who get duplicated. Dickens seems like a popular secondary choice. In joke forms, the number of monkeys and time it would take to duplicate something is held as a measure of the quality of the original work. This comes from people who don’t understand. Suppose the monkeys and typewriters are producing truly random strings of characters. Then the only thing that affects how long it takes them to duplicate some text is the length of the original text. How good the text is doesn’t enter into it.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 1st is about the comfort of knowing about things one does not know. And that’s fine enough. Frazz cites Fermat’s Last Theorem as a thing everyone knows of but doesn’t understand. And that choice confuses me. I’m not sure what there would be to Fermat’s Last Theorem that someone who had heard of it would not understand. The basic statement of it — if you have three positive whole numbers a, b, and c, then there’s no whole number n larger than 2 so that a^n + b^n equals c^n — has it.

Frazz: 'You know what I like? Fermat's last theorem.' Jane: 'Do you even understand it?' Frazz: 'Nope. And neither do you. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we live in a world where too many people don't know what they don't know. With Fermat's Last Theorem, we can all agree on something we don't know.' Jane: 'Nice. Except how many people have ever heard of Fermat's Last Theorem?' Frazz: '2,125,420,566.' Jane: 'You don't know that.' Frazz: 'I know!'
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 1st of July, 2018. Frazz’s estimate of how many have heard of Fermat’s Last Theorem seems low to me. But I grew up at a time when the theorem was somewhat famous for being something easy to understand and that had defied four hundred years’ worth of humanity trying to prove. And even then my experience is selected to a particular kind of Western-culture person. Was the theorem ever so interesting to, say, Indian or Chinese mathematicians? (Come to it, was there someone in the South Asian or Chinese or Japanese traditions who ran across the same property but didn’t get famous in Western literature for it?)

But “understanding” is a flexible concept. He might mean that people don’t know why the Theorem is true. Fair enough. Andrew Wiles and Richard Taylor’s proof is a long thing that goes deep into a field of mathematics that even most mathematicians don’t study. Why it should be true can be an interesting question, and one that’s hard to ever satisfyingly answer. What is the difference between a proof that something is true and an explanation for why it’s true? And before you say there’s not one, please consider that many mathematicians do experience a difference between seeing something proved and understanding why something is true.

And Frazz might also mean that nobody knows what use Fermat’s Last Theorem is. This is a fair complaint too. I’m not aware offhand of any interesting results which follow from its truth, nor of anything neat that would come about had it been false. It’s just one of those things that happens to be true, and that we’ve found to be pretty, perhaps because it is easy to ask whether it’s true and hard to answer. I don’t know.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals for the 2nd has a kid looking for a square root. We all have peculiar hobbies. His friends speak of it as though it’s a lost physical object. This is a hilarious misunderstanding until it strikes you that we speak about stuff like square roots “existing”. Indeed, the language of mathematics would be trashed if we couldn’t speak about numerical constructs “existing” somewhere to be “found”. But try to put “four” in a box and see what you get. That we mostly have little trouble understanding what we mean by showing some mathematical construct exists, and what we hope to do by looking for it, suggests we roughly know what we mean by the phrases. All right then; what is that, in terms a kid could understand?

Ralph: 'Whatcha doin', Oliver?' Oliver: 'Trying to find the square root of 8,765,510.' Ralph: 'Where did you lose it? Randy and I will help you find it!'
Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 2nd of July, 2018. It originally ran the 2nd of July, 2013. Just saying, it would have been slick if Oliver had been working out something for which 42 was the answer. Why couldn’t he have been looking for the cube root of 74,088 instead?

There are many ways to numerically compute a square root, if you have to do it by hand and it isn’t a perfect square. My preference is for iterative methods, in which you start with a rough guess and try to improve things. One good enough method for we call the Babylonian method, reflecting how old we think it is. Start with your number S whose square root you want. And start with a number x0, a first guess for what the square root is. This can be anything. The great thing about iterative methods is even if you start with a garbage answer, you get to a good answer soon enough. Still, if you have a suspicion of what the square root should be, start there.

Your first iteration, the first guess for a better answer, is to calculate the number x_1 = \frac{1}{2}\left( x_0 + \frac{S}{x_0}\right) . Typically, x1 will be closer to the square root of S than will x0 be. And in any case, we can get closer still. Use x1 to calculate a new number. This is x_2 = \frac{1}{2}\left( x_1 + \frac{S}{x_1}\right) . And then x3 and x4 and x5 and so on. In theory, you never finish; you’re stuck finding an infinitely long sequence of better approximations to the square root. In practice, you finish; you find that you’re close enough to the square root. Well, the square root of a whole number is either a whole number (if it was a perfect square to start) or is an irrational number. You were going to stop on an approximation sooner or later.

The method requires doing division. Long division, too, after the first couple steps. I don’t know a way around that which doesn’t divert into something less pleasant, such as logarithms and exponentials. Or maybe into trigonometric functions. This can be tedious to do by hand. Great thing, though, is if you make a mistake? That’s kind of all right. The next iteration will (usually) correct for it. That’s the glory of iterative methods. They tend to be forgiving of numerical error, whatever its source. Another iteration reduces, or even eliminates, the mistake of the previous iteration.

At the bar. Harley's Friend: 'I've done the math. You won't make it across the canyon without a good ramp, Harley! You need a quadrilateral with exactly one pair of parallel sides. You'll be riding into a trap ... ezoid.' Harley, in jail, to the sheriff: 'Who knew a calculator could go that far up his nose.'
Dan Thompson’s Harley for the 3rd of July, 2018. I don’t know the guy’s name here. The storyline is part of Harley’s annual effort to jump across the canyon and no, it doesn’t go well.

Dan Thompson’s Harley for the 3rd is a shapes joke. Haven’t had a proper anthropomorphic geometric figures joke in a while. This is near enough.


For more of these Reading the Comics posts please follow this link. If you’re only interested in Reading the Cleats strips, please use this link instead. But Cleats is a new tag this essay, so for now, there aren’t others. If you’re hoping to see all my Reading the Comics posts about Frazz, try this link. If you’d like more of my essays which mention Wee Pals, you can use this link. And if you’d like more Reading the Comics posts that mention Harley, use this link. That’s another new tag, but I believe Dan Thompson is still making new examples of the strip. So it may appear again.

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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.

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