Reading the Comics, March 21, 2020: Pragmatic Calculations Edition


There were a handful of other comic strips last week. If they have a common theme (and I’ll try to drag one out) it’s that they circle around pragmatism. Not just using mathematics in the real world but the fussy stuff of what you can calculate and what you can use a calculation for.

And, again, I am hosting the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival this month. If you’ve run across any online tool that teaches mathematics, or highlights some delightful feature of mathematics? Please, let me know about it here, and let me know what of your own projects I should feature with it. The goal is to share things about mathematics that helped you understand more of it. Even if you think it’s a slight thing (“who cares if you can tell whether a number’s divisible by 11 by counting the digits right?”) don’t worry. Slight things count. Speaking of which …

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 20th has a kid ask about one of those add-the-digits divisibility tests. What happens if the number is too big to add up all the digits? In some sense, the question is meaningless. We can imagine finding the sum of digits no matter how many digits there are. At least if there are finitely many digits.

But there is a serious mathematical question here. We accept the existence of numbers so big no human being could ever know their precise value. At least, we accept they exist in the same way that “4” exists. If a computation can’t actually be finished, then, does it actually mean anything? And if we can’t figure a way to shorten the calculation, the way we can usually turn the infinitely-long sum of a series into a neat little formula?

Kid: 'A number is divisible by 3 if the sum of its digits is divisible by 3. But what if the number is so big there's too many digits to add up easily?' Frazz: 'If it's that big, the 1 or 2 left over isn't going to matter much.' Kid: 'Why don't they teach THAT kind of math more in school?' Frazz: 'I guess there's only jobs for so many songwriters, cartoonists, and janitors.'
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 20th of March, 2020. Essays featuring some topic raised by Frazz should be gathered at this link.

This gets into some cutting-edge mathematics. For calculations, some. But also, importantly, for proofs. A proof is, really, a convincing argument that something is true. The ideal of this is a completely filled-out string of logical deductions. These will take a long while. But, as long as it takes finitely many steps to complete, we normally accept the proof as done. We can imagine proofs that take more steps to complete than could possibly be thought out, or checked, or confirmed. We, living in the days after Gödel, are aware of the idea that there are statements which are true but unprovable. This is not that. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems tell us about statements that a deductive system can’t address. This is different. This is things that could be proven true (or false), if only the universe were more vast than it is.

There are logicians who work on the problem of what too-long-for-the-universe proofs can mean. Or even what infinitely long proofs can mean, if we allow those. And how they challenge our ideas of what “proof” and “knowledge” and “truth” are. I am not among these people, though, and can’t tell you what interesting results they have concluded. I just want to let you know the kid in Frazz is asking a question you can get a spot in a mathematics or philosophy department pondering. I mean so far as it’s possible to get a spot in a mathematics or philosophy department.

Speaker at a podium: 'If one person kills someone, 50% of the people involved are victims. If 99 people kill someone, 1% of the people involved are victims. The percent of victims is given by V = the limit of K/x as x approachs infinity, where K is people killed and x is the number of people killed. Thus, for sufficiently large x, murder is a victimless crime. So, the bigger we make a war, the more ethical it becomes!'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th of March, 2020. I have many essays that mention something raised by this comic strip. The many things Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has given me to write about are at this link.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th is a less heady topic. Its speaker is doing an ethical calculation. These sorts of things are easy to spin into awful conclusions. They treat things like suffering with the same tools that we use to address the rates of fluids mixing, or of video game statistics. This often seems to trivialize suffering, which we feel like we shouldn’t do.

This kind of calculation is often done, though. It’s rather a hallmark of utilitarianism to try writing an equation for an ethical question. It blends often more into economics, where the questions can seem less cruel even if they are still about questions of life and death. But as with any model, what you build into the model directs your results. The lecturer here supposes that guilt is diminished by involving more people. (This seems rather true to human psychology, though it’s likely more that the sense of individual responsibility dissolves in a large enough group. There are many other things at work, though, all complicated and interacting in nonlinear ways.) If we supposed that the important measure was responsibility for the killing, we would get that the more people involved in killing, the worse it is, and that a larger war only gets less and less ethical. (This also seems true to human psychology.)

Mamet: 'I figure I have about 14,000 remaining days of life. So what's the big deal if I want to spend ONE of those days goofing off? That still leaves me with 13,00 days!' Cobb: 'Maybe you could spend a couple of those days learning math.' Mamet: 'Wait, make that 12,000. I'll need one day to PLAN the goof-off day.'
Jeff Corriveau’s Deflocked for the 20th of March, 2020. I’m surprised to learn this is a new tag for me. I’ve discussed the strip, it appears, only twice before, in 2012 and in 2015, before I tagged strips by name. All right. Well, this and future appearances by Deflocked will be at this link.

Jeff Corriveau’s Deflocked for the 20th sees Mamet calculating how many days of life he expects to have left. There are roughly 1,100 days in three years, so, Mamet’s figuring on about 40 years of life. These kinds of calculation are often grim to consider. But we all have long-term plans that we would like to do (retirement, and its needed savings, are an important one) and there’s no making a meaningful plan without an idea of what the goals are.


This finally closes out the last week’s comic strips. Please stop in next week as I get to some more mathematics comics and the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival. Thanks for reading.