Reading the Comics, March 19, 2019: Average Edition


This time around, averages seem important.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 18th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. This features the kids learning some of the commonest terms in descriptive statistics. And, as Wavehead says, the similarity of names doesn’t help sorting them out. Each is a kind of average. “Mean” usually is the arithmetic mean, or the thing everyone including statisticians calls “average”. “Median” is the middle-most value, the one that half the data is less than and half the data is greater than. “Mode” is the most common value. In “normally distributed” data, these three quantities are all the same. In data gathered from real-world measurements, these are typically pretty close to one another. It’s very easy for real-world quantities to be normally distributed. The exceptions are usually when there are some weird disparities, like a cluster of abnormally high-valued (or low-valued) results. Or if there are very few data points.

On the blackboard the teacher's written Median, Mode, and Mean, with a bunch of numbers from 3 through 15. Wavehead: 'I know they're all subtly different, but I have to say, the alliteration doesn't help.'
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 18th of March, 2019. Essays which discuss topics raised by Andertoons can be found at this link. Also at this link, nearly enough.

The word “mean” derives from the Old French “meien”, that is, “middle, means”. And that itself traces to the Late Latin “medianus”, and the Latin “medius”. That traces back to the Proto-Indo-European “medhyo”, meaning “middle”. That’s probably what you might expect, especially considering that the mean of a set of data is, if the data is not doing anything weird, likely close to the middle of the set. The term appeared in English in the middle 15th century.

The word “median”, meanwhile, follows a completely different path. That one traces to the Middle French “médian”, which traces to the Late Latin “medianus” and Latin “medius” and Proto-Indo-European “medhyo”. This appeared as a mathematical term in the late 19th century; Etymology Online claims 1883, but doesn’t give a manuscript citation.

The word “mode”, meanwhile, follows a completely different path. This one traces to the Old French “mode”, itself from the Latin “modus”, meaning the measure or melody or style. We get from music to common values by way of the “style” meaning. Think of something being done “á la mode”, that is, “in the [ fashionable or popular ] style”. I haven’t dug up a citation about when this word entered the mathematical parlance.

So “mean” and “median” don’t have much chance to do anything but alliterate. “Mode” is coincidence here. I agree, it might be nice if we spread out the words a little more.

Edison, pointing to a checkerboard: 'So Grandpa if you put one cookie on the first square, two on the second, four on the next, then eight, and you keep doubling them until you fill all 64 squares do you know what you'll end up with?' Grandpa: 'A stomachache for a month?'
John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 18th of March, 2019. I’ve been talking about this strip a lot lately, it seems to me. Essays where I do discuss Edison Lee are at this link.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 18th has Edison introduce a sequence to his grandfather. Doubling the number of things for each square of a checkerboard is an ancient thought experiment. The notion, with grains of wheat rather than cookies, seems to be first recorded in 1256 in a book by the scholar Ibn Khallikan. One story has it that the inventor of chess requested from the ruler that many grains of wheat as reward for inventing the game.

If we followed Edison Lee’s doubling through all 64 squares we’d have, in total, need for 263-1 or 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 cookies. You can see why the inventor of chess didn’t get that reward, however popular the game was. It stands as a good display of how exponential growth eventually gets to be just that intimidatingly big.

Edison, like many a young nerd, is trying to stagger his grandfather with the enormity of this. I don’t know that it would work. Grandpa ponders eating all that many cookies, since he’s a comical glutton. I’d estimate eating all that many cookies, at the rate of one a second, eight hours a day, to take something like eighteen billion centuries. If I’m wrong? It doesn’t matter. It’s a while. But is that any more staggering than imagining a task that takes a mere ten thousand centuries to finish?

Toby, looking at his homework, and a calculator, and a textbook: '... Wow. Crazy ... Huh. How about that? ... Am I stupid if math *always* has a surprise ending?'
Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 19th of March, 2019. It also seems like I discuss The Buckets more these days, as seen at this link.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 19th sees Toby surprised by his mathematics homework. He’s surprised by how it turned out. I know the feeling. Everyone who does mathematics enough finds that. Surprise is one of the delights of mathematics. I had a great surprise last month, with a triangle theorem. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher/theologian, entered his frustrating sideline of mathematics when he found the Pythagorean Theorem surprising.

Mathematics is, to an extent, about finding interesting true statements. What makes something interesting? That depends on the person surprised, certainly. A good guideline is probably “something not obvious before you’ve heard it, thatlooks inevitable after you have”. That is, a surprise. Learning mathematics probably has to be steadily surprising, and that’s good, because this kind of surprise is fun.

If it’s always a surprise there might be trouble. If you’re doing similar kinds of problems you should start to see them as pretty similar, and have a fair idea what the answers should be. So, from what Toby has said so far … I wouldn’t call him stupid. At most, just inexperienced.

Caption: Eric had good feelings about his date. It turned out, contrary to what he first thought ... [ Venn Diagram picture of two circles with a good amount of overlap ] ... They actually had quite a lot in common.
Eric the Circle for the 19th of March, 2019, this one by Janka. This and other essays with Eric the Circle, by any artist, should be at this link.

Eric the Circle for the 19th, by Janka, is the Venn Diagram joke for the week. Properly any Venn Diagram with two properties has an overlap like this. We’re supposed to place items in both circles, and in the intersection, to reflect how much overlap there is. Using the sizes of each circle to reflect the sizes of both sets, and the size of the overlap to represent the size of the intersection, is probably inevitable. The shorthand calls on our geometric intuition to convey information, anyway.

She: 'What time is it?' He: 'The clock in the hall says 7:56, the oven clock says 8:02, the DVD clock says 8:07, and the bed table clock says 8:13.' She: 'Which one's right?' He: 'I dunno.' She: 'Let's ee. Four clocks ... carry the one ... divided by four ... ' He: 'Whenever we want to know what time it is we have to do algebra.' She: 'We better hurry, it's 8:05 and five-eighths!'
Tony Murphy’s It’s All About You for the 19th of March, 2019. And the occasional time I discuss something from It’s All About You are here.

Tony Murphy’s It’s All About You for the 19th has a bunch of things going on. The punch line calls “algebra” what’s really a statistics problem, calculating the arithmetic mean of four results. The work done is basic arithmetic. But making work seem like a more onerous task is a good bit of comic exaggeration, and algebra connotes something harder than arithmetic. But Murphy exaggerates with restraint: the characters don’t rate this as calculus.

Then there’s what they’re doing at all. Given four clocks, what’s the correct time? The couple tries averaging them. Why should anyone expect that to work?

There’s reason to suppose this might work. We can suppose all the clocks are close to the correct time. If they weren’t, they would get re-set, or not looked at anymore. A clock is probably more likely to be a little wrong than a lot wrong. You’d let a clock that was two minutes off go about its business, in a way you wouldn’t let a clock that was three hours and 42 minutes off. A clock is probably as likely to show a time two minutes too early as it is two minutes too late. This all suggests that the clock errors are normally distributed, or something like that. So the error of the arithmetic mean of a bunch of clock measurements we can expect to be zero. Or close to zero, anyway.

There’s reasons this might not work. For example, a clock might systematically run late. My mantle clock, for example, usually drifts about a minute slow over the course of the week it takes to wind. Or the clock might be deliberately set wrong: it’s not unusual to set an alarm clock to five or ten or fifteen minutes ahead of the true time, to encourage people to think it’s later than it really is and they should hurry up. Similarly with watches, if their times aren’t set by Internet-connected device. I don’t know whether it’s possible to set a smart watch to be deliberately five minutes fast, or something like that. I’d imagine it should be possible, but also that the people programming watches don’t see why someone might want to set their clock to the wrong time. From January to March 2018, famously, an electrical grid conflict caused certain European clocks to lose around six minutes. The reasons for this are complicated and technical, and anyway The Doctor sorted it out. But that sort of systematic problem, causing all the clocks to be wrong in the same way, will foil this take-the-average scheme.

Murphy’s not thinking of that, not least because this comic’s a rerun from 2009. He was making a joke, going for the funnier-sounding “it’s 8:03 and five-eights” instead of the time implied by the average, 8:04 and a half. That’s all right. It’s a comic strip. Being amusing is what counts.


There were just enough mathematically-themed comic strips this past week for one more post. When that is ready, it should be at this link. I’ll likely post it Tuesday.

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, March 19, 2019: Average Edition”

    1. Yeah; the teacher’s data set looks like it might have come from something, and that’s fine. But the similarity in values is sure to help students think these are three names for the same thing.

      I suppose, we can head canon that, say, this is the tenth example problem they’ve worked out, and the teacher is showing that the different averages can be close, and that’s why Wavehead complains about another source of confusion.

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