Reading the Comics, September 26, 2012

I haven’t time to write a short piece today so let me go through a fresh batch of math-themed comic strips instead. There might be a change coming to these features soon, both in the strips I read and in how I present them, since Comics Kingdom, which provides the King Features Syndicate comic strips, has shown signs that they’re tightening up web access to their strips.

I can’t blame them for wanting to make sure people go through paths they control — and, pay for, at least in advertising clicks — but I can fault them for doing a rotten job of it. They’re just not very good web masters, and end up serving strips — you may have seen them if you’ve gone to the comics page of your local newspaper — that are tiny, which kills plot-heavy features like The Phantom or fine-print heavy features like Slylock Fox Sunday pages, and loaded with referrer-based and cookie-based nonsense that makes it too easy to fail to show a comic altogether or to screw up hopelessly loading up several web browser tabs with different comics in them.

For now that hasn’t happened, at least, but I’m warning that if it does, I might not necessarily read all the King Features strips — their advertising claims they have the best strips in the world, but then, they also run The Katzenjammer Kids which, believe it or not, still exists — and might not be able to comment on them. We’ll see. On to the strips for the middle of September, though:

Jim Unger’s Herman (September 12) survived Unger’s death in good form — the strips were largely reruns before then anyway — and here does a basic “I don’t understand percentages” strip. I never quite got people who didn’t understand percentages, since what they mean is right there on the tin: 6 percent is 6 per 100, so, what’s the confusing part? Well, changing things like “11/24” into percentage would be, particularly as there’s so rarely an explanation for why one wants to do these changes. But you’d think a country that’s been on decimal currency for centuries now would have less trouble with them.

Bill Amend’s Fox Trot Classics (September 13) shows the perils of answering someone else’s homework. I think Amend was also working in an extra joke in that Jason Fox’s first two panels are plainly basic-geometry exercises, while the third is a precalculus or calculus question; I can’t say it’s impossible but it’s odd to think of the two being in the same homework assignment. It may have been deliberate; Amend likes working in jokes-that-make-sense in the nerdy filer of his pages.

Dick Rogers’s Kid Spot activity panel (September 13) is a basic exercise, sure, but if you get the hang of filling in the bubbles you’re mentally prepared for algebra. If people knew that’s what they were doing in solving for x maybe they’d be a little less intimidated by it. Probably not.

One of the Japanese pages rerunning Charles Schulz’s Peanuts on September 13th answered the teacher’s perpetual request for showing how Peppermint Patty got her math answer. I know your teachers always said this, but as a sometimes teacher, let me say it again: it’s really much more interesting seeing how you got the answer. Math is less about following routines perfectly and more about knowing which routines to follow, so evidence that you are following a valid routine is what we really want. Maybe not this one.

Norm Feuti’s Gil (September 15) — this is one of the King Features strips so look fast before it goes dead — is in part about what probability means, and what expectation value means (though the words don’t appear in the strip), and the famous gambler’s fallacy, as all comic strips mentioning the lottery must, by Comics Law.

Corey Pandolph’s TOBY, Robot Satan (September 20, possibly a rerun; I lose track) picked up a new hobby. I hear many people complain that sudoku isn’t really mathematics, but it certainly feels like it to me. There’s no computation involved, but there are long chains of reasoning with heavy reliance on the reducto ad absurdum (“if I put ‘3’ here then … I have two 3’s in this row, so that can’t be”). Those curious about why sudoku puzzles work can find an entry to a lot of group theory as well, and that’s one of the big accomplishments of mathematics, the sort of thing you can’t be a math major without becoming conversant in at least.

Chip Dunham’s Overboard (September 22) is about the simple problems of deductive logic, and would fit as well in the philosophy strips roundup (which I haven’t tried doing but which I suspect would be drearily fewer and less varied in subject, with a large number of people telling Descartes that that’s just what he thinks).

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater (September 24) is some geometry punning. Enjoy as you like.

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (September 24, 25, and 26) is about those puzzles of filling up set amounts of water using only a couple jugs of the wrong size and unlimited amounts of water. These can be fun, although they seem more recreational math than homework math to me. On the other hand, some recreational math is worth doing in class. I’m trusting those are jugs on the September 25th and 26th’s strips pages. They look a bit like oxygen tanks.

John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith (September 25) doesn’t show the famed web search engine entrepreneur (he showed up earlier this year, though, after a 15-year gap), but, eh, everyone gets frustrated with their students I suppose.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range panel (September 25) calls up the classic psychiatrist’s office gimmick and a terribly big problem. It doesn’t appear to me to parse as an actual problem, but the midst of working on a problem can produce sprawls of symbols and arrows and half-completed expressions like this easily. The middle steps of mathematics work can be real messes.

Ted Key’s Hazel (September 26) gives away that it’s a rerun, not just in how Ted Key — creator of Peabody’s Improbable History — died in 2008 but by showing off a calculator of a style that looked dated even when Key retired in 1993. Also, apparently, there’s enough demand for Hazel, a pleasant but not really distinctive panel, for King Features to rerun panels of it 19 years after the cartoonist retired. Wow.

And finally, it’s not really a mathematics strip per se, but Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena (September 12) neatly explained the scientific method. With a bit of a running start I could also explain how magnetic cows connects to my mathematics research, and I might do that when I have the time.