Reading the Comics, February 11, 2020: Symbols Edition

Finally we get to last week’s comics. This past one wasn’t nearly so busy a week for mathematically-themed comic strips. But there’s still just enough that I can split them across two days. This fits my schedule well, too.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 9th is trying to be the anthropomorphized numerals joke of the week. It’s not quite there, but it also uses some wordplay. … And I’ll admit being impressed any of the kids could do much with turning any of the numerals into funny pictures. I remember once having a similar assignment, except that we were supposed to use the shape of our state, New Jersey, as the basis for the picture. I grant I am a dreary and literal-minded person. But there’s not much that the shape of New Jersey resembles besides itself, “the shape of Middlesex County, New Jersey”, and maybe a discarded sock. I’m not still upset about this.

Parents night at the school. On the wall are assignments: 'Make a funny picture drawing using a numeral', with kids who've drawn 2 as a dog or 0 as a clown or 8 as a snowman or such. Ruthie's drawn 5 as a figure with a cap and a bindle walking away. Ruthie's Mom 'I liked your drawing, Ruthie, the 'Five' running away from home.' Ruthie: 'Oh yeah, my roamin' numeral!'
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 9th of February, 2020. Essays exploring something from One Big Happy, current ( or rerun ( runs, are at this link.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horsefor the 11th is another on the counting-sheep theme. It’s built on the resemblance between the numeral ‘2’ and the choice of ‘z’ to represent sleeping.

Horace, counting sheep: '222,220' as a sheep staggers past the imagined fence. '222,221' as a sheep barely climbs over the fence. '222,222' as the sheep, and Horace, collapses flat into sleep.
Samson’s Dark Side of the Horsefor the 11th of February, 2020. This and other essays featuring Dark Side of the Horse trying to sleep are at this link.

The choice of ‘z’ to mean a snore is an arbitrary choice, no more inherent to the symbol than that ‘2’ should mean two. Christopher Miller’s American Cornball, which tracks a lot of (American) comedic conventions of the 20th century, notes a 1911 comic postcard representing snoring as “Z-Z-Z-Z-R-R-R-R-Z-Z-Z-Z-R-R-R-R”, which captures how the snore is more than a single prolonged sound.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 11th has the traditional blackboard full of symbols. And two mathematics-types agreeing that they could make up some more symbols. Well, mathematics is full of symbols. Each was created by someone. Each had a point, which was to express some concept better. Usually the goal is to be more economical: it’s fewer strokes of the pen to write = instead of “equals”, and = is quicker even than “eq”. Or we want to talk a lot about a complicated concept, which is how we get, say, \sin^{-1} x for “a representative of the set of angles with sine equal to x”.

Two figures in front of a board full of symbols. One says: 'I think you're right, John. If we can come up with one new nonsense symbol a week, we can stretch this gig out for, like, a year.'
Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 11th of February, 2020. Essays featuring some discussion of Loose Parts are at this link.

I suspect every mathematician has made up a couple symbols in their notes. In the excitement of working out a problem there’ll be something they want to refer to a lot. That gets reduced to an acronym or a repeated scribble soon enough. Sometimes it’s done by accident: for a while when I needed a dummy variable I would call on “ksee”, a Greek letter so obscure that it does not even exist. It looks like a cross between zeta and xi. The catch is, always, getting anyone else to use the symbol. Most of these private symbols stay private, because they don’t do work that can’t be better done by a string of symbols we already have (letters included). Or at least they don’t to well enough to be worth the typesetting trouble. I’d be surprised if any of the students I used “ksee” in front of reused the letter, even if they did find a need for a dummy variable. Founding a field, or writing a definitive text in a field, helps your chances.

I am curious how the modern era of digital typesetting will affect symbol creation. It’s relatively easy to put in a new symbol — or to summon one in the Unicode universe not currently used for mathematics — in a document and have it copied. Certainly it’s easy compared to what it was like in typewriter and Linotype days, when you might need to rely on a friend who knows a guy at the type foundry. On the other hand, it’s hard enough to get the raw file in LaTeX — a long-established standard mathematics typesetting computer language — from another person and have it actually work, even without adding in new symbols. I don’t see that changing just because several people have found that a bubble tea emoji quite helps their paper on sedimentation rates.

A long multipanel story called 'Girls Win', about the contest of boys versus girls. The relevant section starts with the narration, 'Even at school, I knew boys always lose to girls.' Teacher: 'OK, children, we're going to play Math Baseball' (a game played on the chalkboard by getting three problems right.) 'Girls were just smarter somehow.' Teacher: 'Let's separate into boys vs girls.' 'Even though we had math-wiz Sergio on our team, he alone couldn't save us from ourselves.' Teacher: 'Strike three! Yer out!' Teammate, berating Pedro, who's missed 11 - 9: 'Dang it, Pedro! We had this!'
Pedro Martin’s Mexikid Stories for the 11th of February, 2020. I haven’t had cause to discuss this strip before, so it’s a new tag. But this and any future essays mentioning Mexikid Stories should be at this link.

Pedro Martin’s Mexikid Stories for the 11th recounts childhood memories and anxieties of being matched, boys versus girls, in various activities. This includes mathematics quizzes. Here, the mathematics is done as a class game, which is a neat coincidence as I’d been thinking of similar public mathematics quiz-games that I’d done. I liked them, but then, I was almost always at top or second in the class rankings, and — after the initial couple rounds — never fell below third. My recent thoughts were for how much less fun this must have been for the kids in 26th place, especially if they’re ones who can do the work just fine, given time and space. We do value speed, in working, and that comes from practicing a task so often that we do it in the slightest time possible. And we value ability to perform under pressure, so we put people into anxiety-producing states until they can do a particular task anyway.

Thanks for reading. I should have another post at this link, most likely Thursday.