Reading the Comics, September 29, 2018: Vintage Comics Edition


Four more comics from last week struck me as worth mentioning. Two of them are over sixty years old.

Incidentally, Walt Kelly’s Pogo first appeared in the newspaper seventy years ago today. I don’t know anyone rerunning the comics the way Skippy or Thimble Theatre (Popeye) or the like are, which is a shame. (Few if any strips would be on-point around here, but it’s still worth reading.) But I did think some of the folks around here would like to know.

Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 25th is a vintage-1931 strip about the miseries of learning arithmetic. Skippy’s scheme to both improve by copying one another’s 50-percent-right papers is not necessarily a bad one. It depends on a couple things to work. For example, do they both get the same questions wrong? Possibly; it’d be natural for both students to do worse on the harder questions. But suppose that the questions Skippy and Sooky get wrong are independent of one another. That is, knowing that Skippy got a question right doesn’t affect our estimate of the probability whether Sooky got that question right. In that case, we’d expect both of them to get about 25% of the questions right. And at least one of them would get about 75% of the questions right. So, if they could copy the right answers, they could get a 25-point improvement. That’s pretty good.

Skippy: 'Fifty in arithmetic again.' Sookie: 'That's funny, I got fifty, too.' Skippy: 'I got a scheme, you copy from me an' I'll copy from you. But we must be very careful to copy the right answers.'
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 25th of September, 2018. It originally ran, looks like, the 28th of May, 1931. Skippy’s the one talking; I’ve been calling the other kid Sooky, but am not confident I’m right the way I’m sure Charlie Brown is talking to Violet below.

Telling which are the right answers is hard. But, it’s typically easier to check whether an answer is right than it is to find an answer. Arithmetic is a point where this might not be usefully so. You can verify that 25 – 17 is indeed 8 by trying to calculate 17 + 8. But I don’t know that one equation is easier than the other.

Cynthia: 'Miss Lanham, I have a question about the assignment.' Lanham: 'Of course you do. Go ahead.' Cynthia: 'How much does it count toward our grade?' Lanham: 'About five percent.' Cynthia: 'Good. That's about the amount of effort I was figuring on expending.' Lanham: 'You only get the five percent with 100 percent effort.' Cynthia: 'That sounds like an energy hog.'
Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde for the 26th of September, 2018. Not depicted: how long it takes students to understand the course grade is a weighted average.

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde for the 26th is a percentages joke. Miss Latham is making the supposition that one hundred percent effort is needed to get the assignment done correctly. That’s fair if the full effort to make is “what effort it takes to do the assignment correctly”. Tautological, but indisputable. If the one-hundred-percent-effort is whatever’s considered the appropriate standard effort to make for an assignment this size … well, that’s harder to agree with. Some assignments, some days, are easy; some just aren’t. Depends on what’s being asked.

Bill Schorr’s The Grizzwells for the 27th says it’s about mathematics. The particular question is about how many quarts go into a gallon. Measurement questions like this do get bundled into mathematics. It’s a bit hard to say why, though. It’s arbitrary how big a unit is; all we really demand is that it be convenient for whatever we’re doing. It’s even more arbitrary what the subdivisions of a unit are. A quart — well, the name gives away, it should be a quarter of something bigger. But there’s no reason we couldn’t have divided a gallon into three pieces, or six, or twelve instead. We just didn’t happen to do that. And similarly for subdividing a quart (or whatever name it would get, if it were a sixth of a gallon).

Pierpoint: 'Here's a math quiz. How many quarts are there in a gallon?' Gunther: 'I'd have to see the size of the gallon first.' Pierpoint: 'How did you know that?' Gunther: 'I've always been a bit of an algebra buff.'s
Bill Schorr’s The Grizzwells for the 27th of September, 2018. The bear is named Gunther and the porcupine Pierpoint. I mention this mostly for my own benefit. I’ve had to look up their names a surprising amount and it’s always harder than it should be. Every comic strip site needs a page that offers an up-to-date cast roster, including pictures, names, and relationships to the other main characters.

I suppose it’s from thinking of arithmetic as a tool for clerks and shopkeepers. These calculations would need to carry along units. Even the currency might need to carry units. Decimal currency obscures the units. Older-style pound-shilling-pence units (or whatever they were called in the local language) don’t allow that. So I’m guessing that it was natural to think of, say, “quadruple three quarts” as the same sort of problem as “one-sixth of 8s/4d”.

Charlie Brown, showing off a circle drawn on a fence: 'How's that? A PERFECT circle!' Violet: 'Uh huh ... what other kind of circles are there?' (Charlie Brown is silent.)
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Begins for the 29th of September, 2018. It originally ran the 29th of June, 1954.. Violet was one of the original cast, but she did pretty much disappear from the strip when it turned out Lucy and Peppermint Patty were way better characters. She last appeared in a 1992 strip that got rerun during Schulz’s little hiatus in late 1997 so good luck giving an un-challengeable statement of her last appearance in the pre-eternal-reruns comic strip run.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Begins for the 29th speaks of “a perfect circle”. Violet asks an excellent question. But to say “a perfect circle” does communicate something. We name things like circles and lines and squares and agree they have certain properties. Also that the circles or lines or squares that we see in the world don’t have those properties. We might emphasize that something is a perfect circle or a straight line or something, to insist that it approaches this ideal of circle-ness. I’m not well-versed in the philosophy of mathematics. But it does seem hard to avoid Platonist thoughts about it. It’s hard to do geometry without pictures. But we insist to ourselves that the pictures may lie to us.

My other Reading the Comics posts should appear at this link. Percy Crosby’s Skippy gets mentions in essays at this link. There’s not many of them, but I really like the strip, so I hope there’s chances for more soon. Essays discussing topics raised by Barney and Clyde are at this link. Essays which discuss The Grizzwells are at this link. And Peanuts — both the 1970s “current” runs syndicated to newspapers and the 1950s “vintage” rerun only online — are at this link. And please stick around; there’ll be another A to Z post in about a day unless things go wrong.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

2 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, September 29, 2018: Vintage Comics Edition”

    1. Maybe so. There’s not, I think, any generally agreed-on mathematics terms for that kind of rounded square, or squared circle. At least nothing more than you get from setting words near one another. Might reflect that nobody’s thought of a really good question that can be asked about that kind of shape besides practical stuff like “can we manufacture this so it doesn’t break too easily”.

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