Reading The Comics, May 20, 2012

Since I suspect that the comics roundup posts are the most popular ones I post, I’m very glad to see there was a bumper crop of strips among the ones I read regularly (from King Features Syndicate and from gocomics.com) this past week. Some of those were from cancelled strips in perpetual reruns, but that’s fine, I think: there aren’t any particular limits on how big an electronic comics page one can have, after all, and while it’s possible to read a short-lived strip long enough that you see all its entries, it takes a couple go-rounds to actually have them all memorized.

The first entry, and one from one of these cancelled strips, comes from Mark O’Hare’s Citizen Dog, a charmer of a comic set in a world-plus-talking-animals strip. In this case Fergus has taken the place of Maggie, a girl who’s not quite ready to come back from summer vacation. It’s also the sort of series of questions that it feels like come at the start of any class where a homework assignment’s due.

The word `numerator”, by the way, comes from the Latin, numerus, as in number, which makes the whole string of mathematical terms here look like a tightly-wound closed loop. “Denominator” comes from the Latin “denomino”, as in the thing that names, and is the same root that gives us “denomination”. Early fraction-writing would tend to use only the fraction of “one over a number”, and pile up other fractions by addition: $\frac{3}{4}$, for example, would be written as $\frac12 + \frac14$, or — for a trickier example — the number $\frac79$ might be written as $\frac12 + \frac14 + \frac1{36}$. I would never get the hang of this system. (Here I’m cribbing from Florian Cajori, of course, A History Of Mathematical Notations, paragraphs 271 through 275.)

Citizen Dog carries on the thread with what’s actually a fair question about word problems: in depicting people doing odd things like dividing up muffins in strange piles there’s a motivation problem. It doesn’t affect the mathematics why someone divides up a quantity into smaller pieces, but, if there’s an obvious reason it does at least minimize the chances for the reluctant student to throw up confounding questions.

Mac and Bill King’s Magic In A Minute, a kids’ amusement feature, did a bit about knot tying. I mention it because the study of knots, and how to tell them apart, is a real and substantial bit of mathematics. It’s also got one of those things which even as a grad student made me think in wonder as I learned something: it’s possible to write a polynomial which describes how a knot is tied. This is of no help in learning how to tie a tie.

Darrin Bell’s Rudy Park (ignore the credit to Theron Heir on the strip’s title bar; Heir is taking a sabbatical) includes a silly theorem meant to connect attractiveness to women to the properties of men. (The thread continues the next day.) That’s of marginal interest, although on the board are included several legitimate equations, including a good representation of Maxwell’s equations describing electromagnetism.

John Kovaleski’s Bo Nanas, another canceled comic strip, this one about a monkey wandering through a befuddling town, tosses in a grad student life joke that hasn’t got any particular mathematical content, but is a grad student life joke. /p>

Brevity, by Guy Endor-Kaiser, Rodd Perry, and Dan Thompson, puts up one of those cute little punning strips meant to be posted in math teachers’ offices.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz, about generally bright kids in elementary school, shows off a little logical fallacy which one of the kids mistakenly labels as the commutative property. This could be used to add a little visual appeal to either a mathematics or a philosophy Intro to Lgic class.

Ed Allison’s just generally weird Unstrange Phenomena depicts a mathematical disappearance which incidentally touches on a real, deep question: how do we know there aren’t any missing numbers, digits that we’ve somehow overlooked? Counting almost certainly started out with the counting numbers — well, look at the name — and then grew to include the rational numbers, and then irrational numbers (look at what a disapproving name “irrational” even is), and then zero and negative numbers (and again, just the name “negative” suggests a sense of disapproval) … and after that, it was noticed that we could do more interesting work with numbers called “imaginary” and “complex”; what about after that? (Well, after that come “quaternions” and “octonions” and more abstract quantities, whose names don’t suggest disapproval, or approval, or much of anything. Quaternions can be a convenient way to talk about rotating objects in three-dimensional space, though. Octonions I don’t know of any use for other than making quaternions seem familier.)

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, the daily reruns, loaded up on puns for the May 18th rerun. For May 19th, Amend went for the sorts of jokes about percentages which can really get pedantic types all worked up.

Bradley Trevor Greive’s dadist comic strip The Lost Bear plays on one of the iconic images of probability, that of the infinite string of monkeys and typewriters. That example’s a great one because of all the hard questions it implies about probability and what it means to expect something to have happen. I’ve seen the monkeys-on-typewriters example allegedly traced back to Émile Borel, though I’ve not read the source. Jorge Luis Borges gave the idea a compelling popular-culture vision with the library containing absolutely everything, including all the possible nonsense that could ever be written.

For a less heady chaser, Steve McGarry’s Kid City children’s feature strip just puts out some arithmetic games.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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