Reading the Comics, March 9, 2019: In Which I Explain Eleven Edition

I thought I had a flood of mathematically-themed comic strips last week. On reflection, many of them were slight enough not to need further context. You’ll see in the paragraph of not-discussed strips at the end of this. What did rate discussion turned out to get more interesting to me the more I wrote about them.

Stephen Beals’s Adult Children for the 6th uses mathematics as icon of things that are indisputably true. Two plus two equals four is a good example of such. If we take the ordinary meanings of ‘two’ and ‘plus’ and ‘equals’ and ‘four’ there’s no disputing it. The result follows from some uncontroversial-seeming axioms and a lot of deduction. By the rules of logic, the conclusion has to be true, whoever makes it. Even, for that matter, if nobody makes it. It’s difficult to imagine a universe in which nobody ever notices two plus two equals four. But we can imagine that there are mathematical truths that will never be noticed by anyone. (Here’s one. There is some largest finite whole number that any human-created project will ever use in any context. Consider the equation represented by “that number plus two equals (even bigger number)”.)

But you see cards palmed there. What do we mean by ‘two’? Have we got a good definition? Might there be a different definition that’s more useful? Probably not, for ‘two’ anyway. But a part of mathematics, especially as a field develops, is working out what are the important concepts, and what their definitions should be. What a ‘function’ is, for example, went through a lot of debate and change over the 19th century. There is an elusiveness to facts, even in mathematics, where you’d think epistemology would be simpler.

Frank Page’s Bob the Squirrel for the 6th continues the SAT prep questions from earlier in the week. There’s two more problems in shuffling around algebraic expressions here. The first one, problem 5, is probably easiest to do by eliminating wrong answers. $(x^2 y - 3y^2 + 5xy^2) - (-x^2 y + 3xy^2 - 3y^2)$ is a tedious mess. But look at just the $x^2 y$ terms: they have to add up to $2x^2 y$, so, the answer has to be either c or d. So next look at the $3y^2$ terms and oh, that’s nice. They add up to zero. The answer has to be c. If you feel like checking the $5xy^2$ terms, go ahead; that’ll offer some reassurance, if you do the addition correctly.

The second one, problem 8, is probably easier to just think out. If $\frac{a}{b} = 2$ then there’s a lot of places to go. What stands out to me is that $4\frac{b}{a}$ has the reciprocal of $\frac{a}{b}$ in it. So, the reciprocal of $\frac{a}{b}$ has to equal the reciprocal of $2$. So $\frac{a}{b} = \frac{1}{2}$. And $4\frac{b}{a}$ is, well, four times $\frac{b}{a}$, so, four times one-half, or two. There’s other ways to go about this. In honestly, what I did when I looked at the problem was multiply both sides of $\frac{a}{b} = 2$ by $\frac{b}{a}$. But it’s harder to explain why that struck me as an obviously right thing to do. It’s got shortcuts I grew into from being comfortable with the more methodical approach. Someone who does a lot of problems like these will discover shortcuts.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 6th asks one of those questions you need to be a genius or a child to ponder. Why don’t the numbers eleven and twelve follow the pattern of the other teens, or for that matter of twenty-one and thirty-two, and the like? And the short answer is that they kind of do. At least, “eleven” and “twelve”, etymologists agree, derive from the Proto-Germanic “ainlif” and “twalif”. If you squint your mouth you can get from “ain” to “one” (it’s probably easier if you go through the German “ein” along the way). Getting from “twa” to “two” is less hard. If my understanding is correct, etymologists aren’t fully agreed on the “lif” part. But they are settled on it means the part above ten. Like, “ainlif” would be “one left above ten”. So it parses as one-and-ten, putting it in form with the old London-English preference for one-and-twenty or two-and-thirty as word constructions.

It’s not hard to figure how “twalif” might over centuries mutate to “twelve”. We could ask why “thirteen” didn’t stay something more Old Germanic. My suspicion is that it amounts to just, well, it worked out like that. It worked out the same way in German, which switches to “-zehn” endings from 13 on. Lithuanian has all the teens end with “-lika”; Polish, similarly, but with “-&sacute;cie”. Spanish — not a Germanic language — has “custom” words for the numbers up to 15, and then switches to “diecis-” as a prefix to the numbers 6 through 9. French doesn’t switch to a systematic pattern until 17. (And no I am not going to talk about France’s 80s and 90s.) My supposition is that different peoples came to different conclusions about whether they needed ten, or twelve, or fifteen, or sixteen, unique names for numbers before they had to resort to systemic names.

Here’s some more discussion of the teens, though, including some exploration of the controversy and links to other explanations.

Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens for the 6th is a percentages comic. It makes reference to an old series of (American, at least) advertisements in which four out of five dentists would agree that chewing sugarless gum is a good thing. Shifting the four-out-of-five into 80% riffs is not just fun with tautologies. Percentages have this connotation of technical precision; 80% sounds like a more rigorously known number than “four out of five”. It doesn’t sound as scientific as “0.80”, quite. But when applied to populations a percentage seems less bizarre than a decimal.

Oh, now, and what about comic strips I can’t think of anything much to write about?
Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 4th featured divisibility, in a panel titled “Fun Facts for the Obsessive-Compulsive”. Olivia James’s Nancy on the 6th was avoiding mathematics homework. Jonathan Mahood’s Bleeker: The Rechargeable Dog for the 7th has Skip avoiding studying for his mathematics test. Bob Scott’s Bear With Me for the 7th has Molly mourning a bad result on her mathematics test. (The comic strip was formerly known as Molly And The Bear, if this seems familiar but the name seems wrong.) These are all different comic strips, I swear. Bill Holbrook’s Kevin and Kell for the 8th has Rudy and Fiona in mathematics class. (The strip originally ran in 2013; Comics Kingdom has started running Holbrook’s web comic, but at several years’ remove.) And, finally, Alex Hallatt’s Human Cull for the 8th talks about “110%” as a phrase. I don’t mind the phrase, but the comic strip has a harder premise.

And that finishes the comic strips from last week. But Pi Day is coming. I’ll be ready for it. Shall see you there.

Reading the Comics, July 22, 2017: Counter-mudgeon Edition

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.