How To Use Roman Numerals (A Not Quite Useful Guide)

I haven’t got the chance to write a proper essay today, but did want to be sure people didn’t miss The Straight Dope this week. Cecil Adams gets the question “How did anyone do math in Roman numerals?” and does what he can to answer in a couple hundred words of newspaper space.

It’ll disappoint you if you have visions of whipping through a quadratic equation written all in V’s and L’s and stuff. Roman numeral arithmetic is really easy for addition and subtraction. Multiplication and division turn into real challenges for which you need mechanical aid and the abacus. Adams describes this loosely, although not in enough detail that you’ll come away confident with your abacus. Fair enough. I’ve got a charming little abacus myself, someone’s gift to me, and I can’t use it even to the slight extent I can use a slide rule.

The important thing, though, is that as a young know-it-all Cecil Adams’s first two books, The Straight Dope and The Return of the Straight Dope, were just magnificently important reading. Not as hefty as David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace’s The People’s Almanac 2, but with a much higher fascinating-stuff-to-boring-stuff ratio. Stuff on Oak Island’s Treasure Pit and the (former) names of New York City boroughs and the like. I’m glad it’s still there.


Reading the Comics, January 6, 2015: First of the Year Edition

I apologize for not writing as thoughtfully about the comics this week as I’d like, but it’s been a bit of a rushed week and I haven’t had the chance to do pop-mathematics writing of the kind I like, which is part of why you aren’t right now seeing a post about goldfish. All should be back to normal soon. I’m as ever not sure which is my favorite comic of the bunch this week; I think Bewley may have the strongest, if meanest, joke in it, though as you can see by the text Candorville gave me the most to think about.

Ryan Pagelow’s Buni (December 31) saw out the year with a touch of anthropomorphic-numerals business. Never worry, 4; your time will come again.

He's been snoring not the letter 'Z', but the numeral '2'.
Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short (January 1, 2015). Snoring humor.

Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short (January 1) plays a little on the way a carelessly-written Z will morph so easily into a 2, and vice-versa, which serves as a reminder to the people who give out alphanumeric confirmation codes: stop using both 0’s and O’s, and 1’s and I’s, and 2’s and Z’s, in the same code already. I know in the database there’s no confusion about this but in the e-mail you sent out and in the note we wrote down at the airport transcribing this over the phone, there is. And now that it’s mentioned, why is the letter Z used to symbolize snoring? Nobody is sure, but Cecil Adams and The Straight Dope trace it back to the comics, with Rudolph Dirks’s The Katzenjammer Kids either the originator or at least the popularizer of the snoring Z.

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Who Was Karl Pearson?

An offhanded joke in the Usenet newsgroup — a great spot for offhanded jokes, as the audience is reasonably demanding — about baseball being a game of statistics but this is ridiculous prompted me to say I hoped the Pearson Chi-Squared Test had a good season since it was at the core of my baseball statistics fantasy team. One respondent asked if this was connected to Pearson Publishing, which has recently screwed up its composition of standardized tests for New York State quite severely, including giving as a reading comprehension assignment a bit of nonsense composed to have no meaning, and twenty mistakes in the non-English translation of a math exam. There’s no connection of which I’m aware; but, why not take a couple paragraphs to talk about Karl Pearson?

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