Reading the Comics, October 13, 2012


I suppose it’s been long enough to resume the review of math-themed comic strips. I admit there are weeks I don’t have much chance to write regular articles and then I feel embarrassed that I post only comic strips links, but I do enjoy the comics and the comic strip reviews. This one gets slightly truncated because King Features Syndicate has indeed locked down their Comics Kingdom archives of its strips, making it blasted inconvenient to read and nearly impossible to link to them in any practical, archivable way. They do offer a service, DailyInk.com, with their comic strips, but I can hardly expect every reader of mine to pay up over there just for the odd day when Mandrake the Magician mentions something I can build a math problem from. Until I work out an acceptable-to-me resolution, then, I’ll be dropping to gocomics.com and a few oddball strips that the Houston Chronicle carries.


Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (September 27) concluded a thread mentioned last time I wrote a round-up based on those problems about getting particular quantities of water out of a couple jugs of the incorrect sizes. They are, in reasonable amounts, fun problems, and I suppose they even connect to the Chicken Nuggets problem, which is a surprisingly deep problem. It’s fun in reasonable amounts, and I do want to encourage doing the kinds of mathematics people find fun.

Bil Holbrook’s Safe Havens tossed off a little insult about the reading of polling results. There are a couple of mathematics topics here. One is the explicit joke: given a three-point margin of error, and a three-point lead, isn’t it just as fair to say the two candidates are tied as it is to say one candidate is six points ahead? I would say that it’s not, although the reasonings is more than I could fit into a paragraph or two here. I might remember to pick up the topic later.

The other is that this strip spun off a very minor flame war over in Usenet group rec.arts.comics.strips, about the folly of calling “statistics” a field of “math”. They are often seen as separate things. Many colleges and universities separate their mathematics and statistics departments, and a degree in one is not really equivalent to a degree in the other. But it’s also strange to think of statistics as not being mathematics, given that if you took the mathematics stuff out of a statistics book you’d be left with some short biographical sketches of William Sealy Gossett, Karl Pearson, and maybe Francis Galton. So why the separation?

I’d be inclined to say it’s just historical accident. Statistics as a field, as a coherent system of thought, came into being over the 18th and 19th century with a lot of the work independent of what mathematicians were interested in. The field grew up as nation-states tried to study what their populations and what their resources were, as industries tried to better predict what their outputs were, as anthropologists tried to understand how white people were better than others (I exaggerate and malign here, although there is a sorry and sordid side to this history). None of these questions could be studied without great mathematical talent, and you’ll find great mathematicians’ names behind all the key statistical concepts, but it was easy to think of this statistics stuff as things people who weren’t mathematicians were interested in.

Add to that how statistics is almost by design applied and deeply involved in experimentation and measurement, while much of mathematics could be done quite nicely regardless of whether there was a real world for the mathematics to be done in, and I think that’s where the idea of separating mathematics and statistics comes from. I don’t see that they really need to be separated, but then I’m also undecided about whether “mathematical physics” should be considered mathematics or physics.

Jerry Van Amerongen’s Ballard Street (September 29) in a cute coincidence takes out the compass and actually shows off some of that birth-of-statistics things, as a study of “the subtle variations within a species”. This one might make it as comic relief for an intro to statistics book sometime as it would fit in the historical review.

Chris Cassatt and Gary Brookin’s Shoe (September 29) brings us back safely to the world of tame old word problems. Superficially, this one reads all right: if a person drives at this speed for this many hours, how far will he go? No problem there. It’s the precision of claiming he drove 57.6 miles per hour for 22.3 hours that gets me. I suppose satellite navigator speedometers will measure speed to a tenth of a mile per hour, but who’d believe that the speed could be given that precisely after it? And what person drives for over 22 hours without a break? It’s a fair test of multiplying large numbers with decimal points, but it’s a fishy-looking set of digits to me.

Robb Armstrong’s Jump Start (September 30) posits long division in its traditional comic role, that of being the most impossible part of arithmetic and therefore math. One sympathizes. Long division does pull a nasty trick on people who’ve been learning arithmetic as a bunch of nice, easy-to-follow, easily-predictable rules by throwing up parts where you have to make judgements and estimates and guesses about something: to divide 1284 by 28 you have to try out, what would 1284 divided by 30 be (42 with a remainder), and then see if 1284 minus 42 times 28 gives a remainder greater than 28 (it does), and try fixing it from there.

The horrible part is, this is how a lot of real mathematics is done: form a preliminary guess about the answer, see how it fits, and then try to improve it. But the shift from “follow this set of rules and you will get the right answer” to “try this, get a provisional answer, and then try improving it” is a major mental shift, and I suspect that’s why long division holds such a place of horror in people’s minds.

One last warning about that link: there’s a politically linked panel in the comic strip, so I expect the comments thread about the comic to be unreadable. I haven’t looked; I’m just warning.

Jim Unger’s Herman (October 1) is a sweet little pun.

Bill Amend’s Fox Trot Classics (October 3) tosses off one of the old standard golf gags, and making a pun of sorts on the cry “fore”. There isn’t much reason for Jason to go yelling \sqrt{16}, except maybe for the desire of the precocious child to say things in a more complicated way than necessary, something I remember doing. I’ve tried to recover since then, particularly when speed of understanding is important.

Ed Allison’s wonderful Unstrange Phenomena (October 3) depicts the “precursor to the atomic clock”, a giant sundial supplying correct time to the whole subcontinent. As with all truly grand preposterousness there’s some kernels of truth to it: before the formal standardization of time zones in the United States, astronomical observatories could and did earn some money selling time checks to surrounding regions. I have a reference (Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps, by Peter Galison) that Harvard Observatory earned $2,400 in 1875 selling time signals this way across New England and the Maritime Provinces, and that Connecticut found itself torn between Boston’s and Albany’s (and New York City’s) time signals.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (October 4) has, as should be expected, a pun about quantum physics. This may seem a bit afield of mathematics strips, but I think it’s close enough, and I appreciate too that the blackboard has symbols on it that a quantum physics blackboard might actually have.

Steve Melcher’s That Is Priceless (October 4), in which funny captions are given to classic paintings that I never recognize because I know about four classic paintings, puts what appears to be Jacopo de’ Barbari’s Luca Pacioli e il Duca di Montefeltro in a new light. I’m guessing.

Guy Endore-Kaiser, Rodd Perry, and Dan Thompson’s Brevity (October 10) reappears with some common denominator humor. This is the sort of thing that gets a strip posted in teachers’ lounges.

This is, I should say, not all. There was a sequence of strips on a clearly mathematical topic that I’m leaving out of this because I want to write about that topic at some length and need to get my thoughts organized. But it’s on my topics list, don’t fear, and good work to anyone who’s guessed what it is.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

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

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