I’m not sure there is an overarching theme to the past week’s gifts from Comic Strip Master Command. If there is, it’s that I feel like some strips are making cranky points and I want to argue against their cases. I’m not sure what the opposite of a curmudgeon is. So I shall dub myself, pending a better idea, a counter-mudgeon. This won’t last, as it’s not really a good name, but there must be a better one somewhere. We’ll see it, now that I’ve said I don’t know what it is.
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 17th features the blackboard full of equations as icon for serious, deep mathematical work. It also features rabbits, although probably not for their role in shaping mathematical thinking. Rabbits and their breeding were used in the simple toy model that gave us Fibonacci numbers, famously. And the population of Arctic hares gives those of us who’ve reached differential equations a great problem to do. The ecosystem in which Arctic hares live can be modelled very simply, as hares and a generic predator. We can model how the populations of both grow with simple equations that nevertheless give us surprises. In a rich, diverse ecosystem we see a lot of population stability: one year where an animal is a little more fecund than usual doesn’t matter much. In the sparse ecosystem of the Arctic, and the one we’re building worldwide, small changes can have matter enormously. We can even produce deterministic chaos, in which if we knew exactly how many hares and predators there were, and exactly how many of them would be born and exactly how many would die, we could predict future populations. But the tiny difference between our attainable estimate and the reality, even if it’s as small as one hare too many or too few in our model, makes our predictions worthless. It’s thrilling stuff.
Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 17th reads, to me, as a word problem joke. The talk about how much change Marian should get back from Blake could be any kind of minor hassle in the real world where one friend covers the cost of something for another but expects to be repaid. But counting how many more nickels one person has than another? That’s of interest to kids and to story-problem authors. Who else worries about that count?
Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 17th straddles that triple point joining mathematics, philosophy, and economics. It seems sensible, in an age that embraces the idea that everything can be measured, to try to quantify happiness. And it seems sensible, in age that embraces the idea that we can model and extrapolate and act on reasonable projections, to try to see what might improve our happiness. This is so even if it’s as simple as identifying what we should or shouldn’t be happy about. Caulfield is circling around the discovery of utilitarianism. It’s a philosophy that (for my money) is better-suited to problems like how ought the city arrange its bus lines than matters too integral to life. But it, too, can bring comfort.
Corey Pandolph’s Barkeater Lake rerun for the 20th features some mischievous arithmetic. I’m amused. It turns out that people do have enough of a number sense that very few people would let “17 plus 79 is 4,178” pass without comment. People might not be able to say exactly what it is, on a glance. If you answered that 17 plus 79 was 95, or 102, most people would need to stop and think about whether either was right. But they’re likely to know without thinking that it can’t be, say, 56 or 206. This, I understand, is so even for people who aren’t good at arithmetic. There is something amazing that we can do this sort of arithmetic so well, considering that there’s little obvious in the natural world that would need the human animal to add 17 and 79. There are things about how animals understand numbers which we don’t know yet.
Alex Hallatt’s Human Cull for the 21st seems almost a direct response to the Barkeater Lake rerun. Somehow “making change” is treated as the highest calling of mathematics. I suppose it has a fair claim to the title of mathematics most often done. Still, I can’t get behind Hallatt’s crankiness here, and not just because Human Cull is one of the most needlessly curmudgeonly strips I regularly read. For one, store clerks don’t need to do mathematics. The cash registers do all the mathematics that clerks might need to do, and do it very well. The machines are cheap, fast, and reliable. Not using them is an affectation. I’ll grant it gives some charm to antiques shops and boutiques where they write your receipt out by hand, but that’s for atmosphere, not reliability. And it is useful the clerk having a rough idea what the change should be. But that’s just to avoid the risk of mistakes getting through. No matter how mathematically skilled the clerk is, there’ll sometimes be a price entered wrong, or the customer’s money counted wrong, or a one-dollar bill put in the five-dollar bill’s tray, or a clerk picking up two nickels when three would have been more appropriate. We should have empathy for the people doing this work.