An interesting parallel’s struck me between nonexistent things and the dead: you can say anything you want about them. At least in United States law it’s not possible to libel the dead, since they can’t be hurt by any loss of reputation. That parallel doesn’t lead me anywhere obviously interesting, but I’ll take it anyway. At least it lets me start this discussion without too closely recapitulating the previous essay. The important thing is that at least in a logic class, if I say, “all the coins in this purse are my property”, as Lewis Carroll suggested, I’m asserting something I say is true without claiming that there are any coins in there. Further, I could also just as easily said “all the coins in this purse are not my property” and made as true a statement, as long as there aren’t any coins there.
The modern interpretation of what we mean by a statement like “all unicorns are one-horned animals” is that we aren’t making the assertion that any unicorns exist. If any did happen to exist, sure, they’d be one-horned animals, if our proposition is true, but we’re reserving judgement about whether they do exist. If we don’t like the way the natural-language interpretation of the proposition leads us, we might be satisfied by saying it’s equivalent to saying, “there are no non-one-horned animals which are unicorns”, and that doesn’t feel quite like it claims unicorns exist. You might not even come away feeling there ought to be non-one-horned animals from that sentence alone.
Here’s a little puzzle in probability which, in a slightly different form, I gave to my students to work out. I get the papers back tomorrow. To brace myself against that I’m curious what my readers here would make of it.
Possibly you’ve encountered a bit of calendrical folklore which says that Friday the 13ths are more likely than any other day of the week’s 13th. That’s not that there are more Fridays the 13th than all the other days of the week combined, but rather that a Friday the 13th is more likely to happen than a Thursday the 13th, or a Sunday, or what have you. And this is true; one is slightly more likely to see a Friday the 13th than any other specific day of the week being that 13.
And yet … there’s a problem in talking about the probability of any month having a Friday the 13th. Arguably, no month has any probability of holding a Friday the 13th. Consider.
Is there a Friday the 13th this month? For the month of this writing, December 2011, the answer is no; the 13th is a Tuesday; the Fridays are the 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd, and 30th. But were this January 2012, the answer would be yes. For February 2012, the answer is no again, as the 13th comes on a Monday. But altogether, every month has a Friday the 13th or it hasn’t. Technically, we might say that a month which definitely has a Friday the 13th has a probability of 1, or 100%; and a month which definitely doesn’t has a probability of 0, or 0%, but we tend to think of those as chances in the same way we think of white or black as colors, mostly when we want to divert an argument into nitpicking over definitions.
I got so caught up last week talking about the different possible bases that I forgot to the interesting thing I had wanted to talk about those bases. I suppose that will happen as long as I write to passion rather than plan. It gives me something to speak about today, at least.
Here is one thing implied by having a consistent base for all these numbers in which position is relevant: a one in each column represents the base-number of units of whatever the next column over represents. That is, in base ten, a one in the tens column represents ten units of one; a one in the thousands column represents ten units of one hundred. I mention this obvious point because it is so familiar and simple as to pass into invisibility. (It also extends past the decimal point; a one in the hundredths column is equivalent to ten units of a thousandth. But I want to talk about divisibility, in the whole numbers, and so leave fractions for some later time.)
This is tidy, in a way that we don’t see in variable bases. It will give us one tool for neat little divisibility rules. That tool appears just by writing things in the appropriate way, which is the best sort of tool. It saves on time trying to prove it works.
To return to my second major theme: my Dearly Beloved told me that I must explain that trick where one adds up the digits of a number and finds out from that whether it’s divisible by 9. I wanted to anyway, but a request like that is irresistible. The answer can be given quickly — and several of my hopefully faithful readers did, in comments, last Friday — but I’d like to take the long way around because I do that and because it lets a lot of other interesting divisibility properties show themselves.
We use ten numerals and the place where we write them to express all the counting numbers out there. We put one of the numerals, such as `2′, in a place which denotes whether we mean to say two tens, or two hundreds, or two millions. That’s a clever tool, and not one inherent to the idea of numbers. We could as easily use different symbols for different magnitudes; the only familiar example of this (in the west) is Roman numerals, where we use I, X, C, and M for increasing powers of ten, and then notice we aren’t really quite sure what to do past M.
The Romans were not very sure either, and individual variations developed when someone found they needed to express an M of M very often. The system has fewer numerals, symbols representing numbers, than ours does, with V and L and D the only additional numerals reasonably common. By the Middle Ages some symbols were improvised to allow for extremely large numbers such as the hundred thousands, and some extra symbols were pulled in for numbers such as 7 or 40, but they have faded to the point of obscurity. This is a numbering system which runs out when the numbers get too large, which seems impossibly limited at first glance. But we haven’t changed much from these times: while we have a numbering system that can, in principle, work with arbitrarily big or tiny numbers, in practice we only use a small range of them. When we turn over arithmetic to computers, in fact, we accept numbering systems which have limits on how big (positive or negative) a number may be, or how close to zero one may work. We accept those limits because of their convenience and are only sometimes annoyed to find, for example, that the spreadsheet trying to calculate a bill has decided we want 0.9999999 of a penny.
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