Reading The Comics, December 15, 2012


I’ve been trying to balance how often I do the comics reviews with how often I do other essays; I admit the comics feel like particular fun to write, but the other essays are less reactive. This leaves me feeling like after I’ve done a comics roundup I should do a couple in which I come up with the topic, the exposition, and all the supplementary matter for a while, but that encourages pileups in the comics. I’m thinking of shifting over to some kind of rule less dependent on my feeling, such as writing a comics article whenever I have (say) seven to ten features to show off. We’ve got that more than that now, it turns out, so let me start out with some that came across my desktop since the last comics review.

John Allen’s Nest Heads (November 27) talks about the use of probability in weather forecasting. Weather forecasting has historically been a source of pretty much one joke — hah hah, those weather forecasters can’t get it right (Fibber McGee and Molly even had a recurring character, a weatherman, whose signoff of “good day, probably” I find disproportionately charming) — and the variation here of “they’re only wildly guessing” fits into that. My understanding is that weather forecasts, when they get into probabilities, are based on the historic idea: if it’s snowed fifty percent of the time that conditions were like this historically, then conditions like this imply a fifty percent chance of snow this time. This will get us the correct probability provided that some reasonable requirements — for example (but not exclusively) that the chance of snow is independent of whether it’s already snowed this season — are satisfied.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (November 28, Rerun) puts forth a classic argument, too: computers will do calculations far better than humans will. So why should humans learn to do calculations? It’s a tough argument to counter. My attempt would be based around the points that, first, mathematics is not calculation; it’s pattern-recognition and reasoning, which computers can do the scut work of but not (at least yet) the original work. And second, while mathematics isn’t calculation, you learn how to get to mathematics by calculating. I think past a certain point memorizing multiplication tables or the like is useless, but there is a useful skill learned there.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (December 1) builds a comic around the idea that really smart people — here MIT is held up as the epitome of smart people; as a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute I would take umbrage at that, except that as a graduate of RPI we haven’t got the self-esteem to — do stuff in the most complicated way possible. I’m pleased, though, that the mathematical expression there isn’t gibberish the way one might immediately suspect. Mark Anderson indeed dug into a mathematics textbook and pulled up — well, I admit I’m not sure just what. I believe it’s from a mathematical physics book, using the “ladder” technique in which the full solution is built up of smaller, simpler partial solutions, with the more complicated ones built iteratively. Note that vn+1 on the left-hand side of the equals sign, and the vn on the right. v0 would be, hopefully, a solution obvious enough that it doesn’t need hard work, and then by multiplying v0 by the bracketed expression with sines and cosines one builds v1, and from that v2, and from that v3, and so on. But I’m not sure what the problem was, and I suspect the appearance of k’s within the sine and cosine when there’s n’s as the superscripts.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (December 3) uses mathematical identities to get at a cute little quirk of the English language. The English language is composed of almost nothing but cute little quirks, but there you have it.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (December 3) features a schoolchild’s complaint about doing long division. I’m sympathetic to not wanting to do too much long division, but it does seem to be the first point where one learns calculations that aren’t just follow the rules, but where judgement has to be applied: does 28 look likely to go into 260 eight times or nine? The process of experimenting and of building judgement is where one learns to do actual mathematics; it’s hard, and that’s probably why nobody likes it much and is so glad to turn it over to calculators. But estimates, guesses, and refining of guesses are things you have to be comfortable with.

Greg Wallace’s Nothing Is Not Something (December 3) features a new strip to me; it seems to be trying to work in the style of Wiley’s Non Sequitur. I’m sorry its introduction to this roundup isn’t for a stronger or fresher joke, though. I’ve liked other panels that it runs.

Tak Bui’s PC and Pixel (December 9) puts in another probability joke, with the scientist who’s scrawled symbols all over the place. They don’t have any obvious meaning. But the notes someone makes to themselves will often have little shortcuts and abbreviations and stylistic quirks that don’t make sense to outsiders. They get cleaned up for publication, and I imagine every mathematician dreams of finding a new bit of symbolic notation that becomes essential for everyone working in the field. (Me, the most I’ve done is pick up a habit of including a little vertical stroke at the end of radical signs so that it’s easier to say where the expression being square-rooted ends. You’re welcome, world.)

Tim Lachowski’s Get A Life! (December 10) tosses off a sudoku joke. I havent’ seen one of these in a while. I’m willing to consider it part of mathematics since it is extended logical reasoning, after all, but I’m an inclusive sort of person.

Guy Gilchrist’s Nancy (December 10) does another schoolchild’s lament comic. It’s weak, I admit. The comic strip has been doing something interesting but not mathematics-related recently, in that Phil Fumble — who was Aunt Fritzi’s boyfriend in the distant days before Nancy joined the comic strip and took it over with a completeness matched only by how Snuffy Smith took over Barney Google — has been brought back. The difference in art styles (as Gilchrist tries to reflect, as best I can understand, Fumble’s original appearance, despite the rest of the strip having evolved artistically) is a bit distracting, but it’s an interesting development, starting from the strip of November 27 and continuing off and on from there.

Richard’s Poor Almanac (December 15, Rerun), by Richard Thompson, who would go on to do the magnificent Cul de Sac before physical problems forced him to retire, did wonderful quarter-page-style cartoons and they’re getting reprinted. I really wanted to bring attention to that, which is why I let this squeak in on a technicality: his “Winter Warning Rhyme” that says, “When consulting a temperature sign, find the square root and then subtract 9” rather exaggerates the amount by which the bank temperature sign varies from your other temperature readouts, but the formula presented is fair: the square root of 1156, minus 9, is a perfectly plausible snowbound and icy-ground temperature.

There’s already another ten comics piled up (and that before I’ve read Friday’s), so I’ll put forth another comics panel soon.

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