Reading the Comics, September 11, 2012

Since the last installment of these mathematics-themed comic strips there’s been a steady drizzle of syndicated comics touching on something mathematical. This probably reflects the back-to-school interests that are naturally going to interest the people drawing either Precocious Children strips or Three Generations And A Dog strips.

Gene and Dan Weingarten and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (August 26) starts off with thoughts about the “mathematically precise” motion of a pendulum, and Galileo’s noting that a pendulum’s swing takes the same time whether the swing is large or small. “Mathematically precise” in this case is a squishy concept; for example, it’s not true that this period is constant. It’s nearly true, if the swing is small enough. How small is small enough? It’s small enough if the angle the pendulum swings out is small enough that its measure (in radians) is about equal to the sine of that angle.

It’s convenient, though: the motion of a pendulum, simple harmonic motion, is about the first differential equations problem that anyone can do that’s actually interesting. Oh, you can do falling (without air resistance) before that, but there’s about two problems you can do with that before you’ve exhausted it. Better, though, the fact that a pendulum’s swing doesn’t quite keep time perfectly allows an opening into the study of approximating physical problems with simpler ones. Mathematical physics is built on approximating actual physics with mathematical abstractions that are easier to work with and don’t make intolerably large errors, and the pendulum’s the first interesting and solvable problem that lets the student practice that.

Lennie Peterson’s The Big Picture (August 26, rerun) doesn’t look like anything mathematical, but I can drag things in from pretty far away given a chance. The basic claim here — that by starting the gas pump meter at two cents rather than zero cents, which apparently is something widespread, lets gas companies cheat customers of millions of dollars a day (I’ve never observed this behavior in gas pumps, but I’m from New Jersey, though I don’t put it past gas companies) — is sound enough, and is one of the pieces of integral calculus. A big enough pile of small enough things is a substantial amount.

Glenn and Gary McCoy’s The Flying McCoys (August 27) just puts in a little nerd bait on the blackboard. There’s some comic gibberish on the board, the alphabet going awry, “1 + 1 = 2”, “2 + 2 = FORE!”, and then what looks like the correct working out of 752,469 times .536. The form’s a pleasantly familiar bit of silliness, although the given answer of 403,323.383 is obviously wrong. The last digit is wrong — it should be 4 — and while it looks like a disagreement in rounding, there’s no rounding to be done here. I must conclude the McCoys were hoping to draw attention from the kind of people who’d work out 752,469 times .536 for fun. Well done.

Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse (August 29) does a bit of the numeral equivalent of punning. Or just punning about numerals. Call it what you like.

Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena (August 29) explains one of the fundamental mysteries of geodesy, the measurement of the Earth. Incidentally, someone needing to make a word problem about the circumference of the Earth could probably use this one: imagine there were a tape measure used in this way; what would the rewinding speed of the tape have to be to get it done up in three years?

Jeff Corriveau’s Deflocked (September 2) is another entry in the back-to-school-panic genre, although the mathematical symbols in the middle of the Sunday panel look meaningful, at least up to the bottom right of the board where a summation sign is put at the edge of the blackboard. It looks to me like Corriveau did find a couple sheets of actual mathematics — the top line is obviously the Riemann zeta function — and reproduced them as faithfully as space permitted.

Norm Feuti’s Retail (September 2) jokes about the mysteries of data mining, a field of mathematics that some of my friends in my early years of grad school told me was not just fascinating but going to be big. I didn’t believe them. I went on following my own interests and now, years later, I have a blog in which I point out comic strips that mention mathematics.

Matt Janz’s Out Of The Gene Pool (September 3) just tosses off some rate-per-hour problems, and the sadly common decision of someone to shut down rather than follow some reasoning once a number is involved. Actually, in my experience, people seem to understand pay-per-unit problems quite well, but I like the idea of a “math scientist” as a thing.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (September 7) coins a new name for doing arithmetic by hand (and brain) rather than by calculator. I like it; I wouldn’t mind if it caught on.

Steve Kelly and Jeff Parker’s Dustin (September 8) attempts to set up a relationship between the chances Dustin and Dustin’s Friend Who Maybe Has A Name But The Comic Strip Doesn’t Care So Why Should I have with women and how attractive the women are. However, the way it’s been set up, the attractiveness of the women and their chances with them fall off in such a way that the expectation value — attractiveness versus chance — is constant and equal however attractive the women are. Just observing.

Steve Breen and Michael Thompson’s Grand Avenue (September 9), having done a bunch of strips last month making sure that mathematics was seen as a chore, admits he can’t think why the chore should be done. Sheesh.

One of the commenters insists that comfort with fractions will be needed “if you need to divide a recipe when cooking”. I sometimes hear this as a reason why people should stick with the Imperial measurement system and its modestly quirky distribution of units. I admit I’m not an experienced cook but the number of times I’ve had to halve or trisect a recipe have been rather low. I’m starting to suspect the whole recipe-halving excuse is a cover for liking dividing things by two.

Bill and Jef Keane’s The Family Circus (September 10) isn’t really mathematical, but the offhanded insult cast in Dad’s direction amuses me. And, yes, I just wrote that. Deal.

Norm Feuti’s Gil (September 10) does a take on arithmetic word problems I haven’t seen before. I admire the pile of apples, and I just now realize that he did answer the question correctly. He should’ve got extra credit. (Well, trusting that it was done in time.)

Guy Endore-Kaiser, Rodd Perry, and Dan Thompson’s Brevity (September 11) becomes a baffling little panel strip that I see the comments thread over on gocomics can’t quite figure out either. I believe that it’s meant to just be a joke that “area” rugs would involve “geometry”, which maybe sounds a little weak but is a correct joke structure. But the team goes on to add a “sorry, that was an `inside’ joke”, which I think was literally correct, that this is probably something that’s come up in conversations among Guy and Dan and Rodd before and amuses them more than it appears on the surface.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of this second panel and particularly the putting of “inside” in quotes I think confounds readers who suspect there’s more to it than already exists. I see this driving people crazy all the time in Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set, as she includes multiple little jokes based loosely around a common theme each panel. This is normally harmless fun, but if the main punch line hasn’t delivered the temptation is to suppose the real joke is delivered in the marginalia. Since it isn’t, that makes what was before just a weak joke into a thoroughly baffling search for a joke, and annoys readers who don’t realize they did get the joke, and this extra stuff is extra. Hazards of the profession, really, and a lesson for writers, I suppose: multiple flimsy jokes tear one another apart.

Finally, David Israel’s Twaggies (September 11), an illustrated Twitter joke panel, mentions long division. I bring it up mostly because I’m rather good at long division and have yet to need glasses.