Reading the Comics, January 1, 2019: New Year’s Day Edition


It’s a new year. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep up some of my old habits. One of them is reading the comics for the mathematics bits. For example …

Johnny Hart’s Back To BC for the 30th presents some curious use of mathematics. At least the grammar of mathematics. It’s a bunch of statements that are supposed to, taken together, overload … I’m going to say BC’s … brain. (I’m shaky on which of the characters is Peter and which is BC. Their difference in hair isn’t much of a visual hook.) Certainly mathematics inspires that feeling that one’s overloaded one’s brain. The long strings of reasoning and (ideally) precise definitions are hard to consider. And the proofs mathematicians find the most fun are, often, built cleverly. That is, going about their business demonstrating things that don’t seem relevant, and at the end tying them together. It’s hard to think.

Peter: 'The sum of the four sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the ... ' BC, thinking: 'Four?' Peter: 'Hypotenuse of a rectangular circle ... ' BC, thinking: 'A rectangular circle?' Peter: 'Having a mean radius of x divided by alpha centura ... ' BC, thinking: 'Having.' SNAP! (He rubs his head.) BC: 'I think that must have been my mind.'
Johnny Hart’s Back To BC for the 30th of December, 2018. The strip says it’s from the 18th of February, 1962. Essays inspired by B.C., both 1962 vintage and 2019 current, should be at this link.

But then … Peter … isn’t giving a real mathematical argument. He’s giving nonsense. And obvious nonsense, rather than nonsense because the writer wanted something that sounded complicated without caring what was said. Talking about a “four-sided triangle” or a “rectangular circle” has to be Peter trying to mess with BC’s head. Confidently-spoken nonsense can sound as if it’s deeper wisdom than the listener has. Which, fair enough: how can you tell whether an argument is nonsense or just cleverer than you are? Consider the kind of mathematics proof I mentioned above, where the structure might almost be a shaggy dog joke. If you can’t follow the logic, is it because the argument is wrong or because you haven’t worked out why it is right?

I believe that … Peter … is just giving nonsense and trusting that … BC … won’t know the difference, but will wear himself out trying to understand. Pranks.

Doctor: 'I'm not an accountant. I'm your doctor. However, by trying to do your taxes by yourself, I've calculated your brain has depreciated by nearly 68%.'
Tim Lachowski’s Get A Life for the 31st of December, 2018. Essays discussing things raised by Get A Life should be at this link.

Tim Lachowski’s Get A Life for the 31st just has some talk about percentages and depreciation and such. It’s meant to be funny that we might think of a brain depreciating, as if anatomy could use the same language as finance. Still, one of the virtues of statistics is the ability to understand a complicated reality with some manageable set of numbers. If we accept the convention that some number can represent the value of a business, why not the convention that some number could represent the health of a brain? So, it’s silly, but I can imagine a non-silly framing for it.

Trout: 'Two thousand and nineteen years, that's a long time.' Agnes: 'Yep! Earth has been around a while!' Trout: 'Were people even alive back then?' Agnes: 'Someone had to start counting, so I guess so, yeah.' Trout: 'Who taught them to count?' Agnes: 'Probably the people selling calendars.'
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 1st of January, 2019. This and other essays discussing Agnes should be at this link.

Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 1st is about calendars. The history of calendars is tied up with mathematics in deep and sometimes peculiar ways. One might imagine that a simple ever-increasing index from some convenient reference starting time would do. And somehow that doesn’t. Also, the deeper you go into calendars the more you wonder if anyone involved in the project knew how to count. If you ever need to feel your head snapping, try following closely just how the ancient Roman calendar worked. Especially from the era when they would occasionally just drop an extra month in to the late-middle of February.

The Julian and Gregorian calendars have a year number that got assigned proleptically, that is, with the year 1 given to a set of dates that nobody present at the time called the year 1. Which seems fair enough; not many people in the year 1 had any idea that something noteworthy was under way. Calendar epochs dated to more clear events, like the reign of a new emperor or the revolution that took care of that whole emperor problem, will more reliably start with people aware of the new numbers. Proleptic dating has some neat side effects, though. If you ever need to not impress someone, you can point out that the dates from the 1st of March, 200 to the 28th of February, 300 both the Julian and the Gregorian calendar dates exactly matched.

Dad: 'OK, Suzie, you hate math. And actually, 1/37 of me understands exactly how you feel.' Suzie: 'Lay off, Dad.'
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 2nd of January, 2019. And appearances by Carpe Diem in my essays should be at this link.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 2nd is a dad joke about mathematics. And uses fractions as emblematic of mathematics, fairly enough. Introducing them and working with them are the sorts of thing that frustrate and confuse. I notice also the appearance of “37” here. Christopher Miller’s fascinating American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny identifies 37 as the current “funniest number”, displacing the early 20th century’s preferred 23 (as in skidoo). Among other things, odd numbers have a connotation of seeming more random than even numbers; ask someone to pick a whole number from 1 to 50 and you’ll see 37’s and 33’s more than you’ll see, oh, 48’s. Why? Good question. It’s among the mysteries of psychology. There’s likely no really deep reason. Maybe a sense that odd numbers are, well, odd as in peculiar, and that a bunch of peculiarities will be funny. Now let’s watch the next decade make a food of me and decide the funniest number is 64.


I’m glad to be back on schedule publishing Reading the Comics posts. I should have another one this week. It’ll be at this link when it’s ready. Thanks for reading.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, January 1, 2019: New Year’s Day Edition”

    1. I am hoping to make it through the decade without being more of a foodstuff than usual, but yeah, probably worth taking a few precautions in case it does.

      Really would think I’d be at least three boxes of cereal though. I mean, I eat two and a half when we have cereal for breakfast, and there’s parts of me that aren’t breakfast, I’m pretty sure.

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  1. On second thought if you do turn into breakfast cereal over the next ten years, you should become an Alpha-Bits knockoff featuring number and math symbol shaped oat pieces called NebusRules so if you squint your ear as you say it it sounds like a combo of Nebus and Numerals. So if the time comes to transform and you have a say in the matter, please keep in mind NebusRules. Thank you. for your time.

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