Reading the Comics, November 11, 2012

Since Scott Adams’s Dilbert hasn’t done anything to deserve my scrutiny let me carry on my quest to identify all the comic strips that mention some mathematical thing. I’m leaving a couple out; for example, today (the 11th) Rob Harrell’s Adam @ Home and Bill Amend’s FoxTrot mentioned the alignment of digits in the date’s representation in numerals, but that seems too marginal, and yet here I am talking about it. I can’t be bothered coming up with rules I can follow for my own amusement here, can I?

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (October 26) might be a marginal fit: the cry of “Screw Occam!” and the squiggles that look vaguely organic chemistry-like to my eye suggest this is really a science joke rather than a mathematics one despite all the semi-comprehensible scribbles on the board. But an important part of mathematics is the forming of models of the world, and theories of whatever phenomenon one is modelling, and so the Occam’s Razor desire to make one’s theories as simple as possible but not simpler makes sense in context there too.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater (October 26) makes for a slightly confused joke about Sudoku. The gag is obviously meant to be that robots would work in binary, but doing sudoku in binary — that is, with just two symbols — really couldn’t be a sustainable joke. (There are people who complain that doing sudoku isn’t really mathematics. I agree it’s not arithmetic, but the reasoning process, particularly with how much it relies on the reducto ad absurdum — “if an 8 went here, then that would require two 5’s to appear in this row” or the like — is unmistakably logic and mathematics shares custody of that with philosophy.)

Tony Rubino and Gary Markstein’s Daddy’s Home (October 26) does a basic “parental incompetence” joke, this one happening to center around that bit of calculations needed for square roots. I’m not fond of the comic convention that nobody knows how to do arithmetic, not so much to defend mathematics’s honor as because it’s a tired joke that everyone’s already made, and it takes more work than Rubino and Markstein put in to make it fresh. Oddly, the second commenter down goes to the trouble of insulting the New Math, I imagine out of a need to say something and not having anything else on hand.

Guy Endore-Kaiser, Rodd Perry, and Dan Thompson’s Brevity (October 27) make a bid for the mathematics teacher’s office walls. I sometimes suspect these guys are aiming for inclusion in my little summaries here, because the page itself cheerily credits them as just “Guy and Rodd and Dan” and I have to look up their full names every single time. I’m probably imagining things.

Robb Armstrong’s Jump Start (October 28) attempts showing how mathematics gets used in the real world. Not surprisingly when someone can see the use of mathematics it gets much easier to follow; at least, every teacher wants motivated students. Motivation can be because it does something useful, certainly, but I think the beauty or wonder of mathematics is under-appreciated, and almost never represented.

Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse (October 29) put out a little arithmetic problem with the claim that coffee helps Horace solve his problems here. The problem also set off a weird flurry of debate in comments about how to solve it, showing off mostly how people have forgotten the order of operations since they left school and went on to writing stuff on the Internet. (There is one claim that the outermost brackets — which I can’t see as anything but square brackets — are actually absolute value signs, and I could accept that as reason for getting a different answer; to avoid ambiguity the typeface should have made the brackets more distinct.) I make no claims about Horace’s solution. I am tired of the guys who advance “42” as the answer for everything, though.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts (October 31) has the amusing “Math Life” magazine (it looks a bit more like a single-sheet flyer, but that’s what we get for artwork these days) along with the standard motif of mathematics as “things which have a lot of digits past the decimal point”.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs (November 2) starts off with the “what am I going to use maths for?” motif and turns it into an insult about some other profession.

Samson’s Dark Side Of the Horse returns on November 5 with one of those things that I suppose we really only stare at and wonder about as kids: how high do “please take a number” cards have to go? I remember wondering if deli counters and other places kept increasing without bounds, but concluded that my mother got numbers far too low for that, leaving me to wonder about when the count was reset, and whether anyone kept track of things like how long it had been since the last time the numbers had to re-start. Today we would probably call this analytics or data mining, but I think when I was a kid I was just worried about numbers going to waste.

Lynn Johnston’s For Better Or For Worse Rerun of November 5 shows Michael learning fractions by way of a pie chart. I confess I’m not sure what the “intended” answer to Michael’s question in the third panel was supposed to be (if we pretend it was supposed to be a real question and not the straight line for Elizabeth), but pie charts seem a sensible way to teach and show fractions. One of my favorite bits of trivia regarding pie charts is that people do know who made them famous, although they don’t know she had anything to do with them. Florence Nightingale is commonly credited with turning pie charts from one of the many tools of data visualization introduced in the early 1800s (by William Playfair, who’s credited also with the line graph and bar chart) into something the public would understand, thanks to her use of them in explaining causes of death in the Crimean War to the British Parliament. (I expect the actual story more complicated than this — it always is — but I haven’t the time or tools to discuss the rise of pie charts in adequate detail.)

Tim Lachowski’s Get A Life (November 5) goes for a little pro-math wordplay, but the phrasing on the blackboard seems like one of those little snipe traps meant to drive me subtly crazy, since it unnecessarily squares things again. I’d be curious whether Lachowski made an honest mistake, or whether he was worried people wouldn’t understand the significance of the elevated 2, or whether he figured having a glitch would make the panel more memorable.

Todd Clark’s Lola (November 5) presents as inherently funny the idea of recasting word problems so they contain the current cutting-edge terms without changing what the questions actually are. I’ve mentioned this before (and I forget where) in the struggle to compose word problems that are relevant. Part of the trouble is word problems like this are really only half-steps; a serious mathematics problem would have a situation and a mass of data and something a person is curious about, rather than laying out a couple points about trains and Chicago. But learning how to go from “I’m curious about this” to an equation which can be solved does call on the intermediate step of “if you have these facts, how do you rewrite them as equations?”, which is where it’s too easy to let writing of word problems end.

Tak Bui’s PC and Pixel (November 5, clearly, a major day for mathematics comics) has a sweet little pun as the obvious joke. It looks fairly nicely thought-out, too, as the suggestion seems to be the cavemen were calculating things on pebbles, and the “calc” in “calculating” (and “calculus”, for that matter) comes from the Latin “calx”, as in limestone. The term abacus, similarly, can be traed back to words meaning “a table with dust or sand”, as in for tracing out calculations or figures, so the connection between rocks and counting goes back a long way.

Michael Fry’s Committed rerun (November 11) goes from a mildly exaggerated count of how many times a parent has to say no and conclude what staggering number of times that comes out to over eighteen years. That doesn’t really show much beyond that Fry could use a calculator in 1998, although I was pleased to find that I worked out the same calculation in my head and had to agree with his work. It’s probably good that arithmetic works out that way.

These have been only selections from, as I haven’t yet worked out a satisfactory system for links to the King Features Syndicates strips. Fortunately, I suppose, the King Features strips have been light on the sorts of subjects that fit into this series so I have been able to take notes and think about what to do with them later on.

Author: Joseph Nebus

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

8 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, November 11, 2012”

  1. Thanks – your great post has reminded of the importance of comics in a geek’s life. I have linked to it in my most recent posting (felt the sudden urge to share one of my favorite science cartoons)


    1. Thank you, and I’m glad to be of some inspiration. For all that math and science-oriented people enjoy humor I’m a bit surprised it isn’t built upon more. Maybe it seems too generally frivolous or to the side of the important stuff to be done.


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