Reading The Comics, December 28, 2012


As per my declaration I’d do these reviews when I had about seven to ten comics to show off, I’m entering another in the string of mathematics-touching comic strip summaries. Unless the last two days of the year are a bumper crop this finishes out 2012 in the comics and I hope to see everyone in the new year.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic (December 16) makes a strip about the difference between a slice and a sector, at least of a cylinder. This is the sort of distinction that may be worth making in technical circles, where the value of such precise definitions becomes significant. In ordinary conversation, such as in slicing a cake, the difference is so unimportant that you’re really being a nuisance to act as Weenus (the one-eyed rabbit) here does.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater (December 17) throws up a lot of mathematical symbols as the shorthand for demonstrating that a class is hard. It’s really an ordinary pun, though.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy (December 18) — a strip soon to become a web comic, at cowandboy.com — talks about the elements which are needed to be a successful web comic. Leiknes’s assertion that math is one of the things that makes a web comic successful seems overstated to me, as the only web comic I know that regularly features math is the inevitable xkcd, but I read so few web comics that I can’t say he’s wrong. (I would like to recommend Cow and Boy to new readers, too. The comic strip is a very weird one with many, many running jokes, so it can take a while to get the vibe of the strip, but I find it quite worth getting into.) I should point out I’m not avoiding web comics, in my reading; I just haven’t gotten into very many. I’m open to new ones, particularly as some (such as Thomas Dye’s Newshounds) are winding down or going on hiatus or otherwise becoming less active.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (December 19) makes its first mathematical joke in literally days with a caveman-inventing-numbers strip. One of the commenters points out that the caveman didn’t invent the zero, which has historical traces much later than even comic strip caveman days. I’m curious whether Thaves omitted the zero because he didn’t think of it, or because he was tossing in that little extra joke of, of course the zero wasn’t invented alongside 1 and 7 and so. Either seems at least as plausible.

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (December 20) name-drops Occam’s Razor. It is fair to ask whether this is really a mathematical, scientific, or philosophical principle; like many good ideas, it fits into multiple categories. In building models — and I’ll get back to that Infinite Jukebox one when I have the chance — one has to apply a sort of Occam’s Razor principle, and pick out what elements of the original thing are most relevant, leaving out the ones likely not to affect what’s interesting in the problem, and not making the model too simple to capture what’s interesting nor too complicated to be usable.

Brian and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers (December 21) is really a Let’s Make A Deal reference, but there are so many interesting probability questions based on that game show it feels odd not to include it in this sort of roundup. Note that the classic Monty Hall Problem wasn’t actually played on Let’s Make A Deal, though the situation depicted here is obviously the Big Deal Of The Day.

Rob Harrell’s Adam @ Home (December 24) tosses off a little percentage joke. Of course, a percentage problem like this — how much closer is December 24th to Christmas than December 23rd is — depends on what you mean by how close something is to Christmas, in part, but I don’t see any way to set that up so the 24th would be 25% closer to Christmas than the 23rd is.

The Boychuk’s Chuckle Brothers (December 27) gets back in here with another game show type puzzle. As often happens in a game show a sense of expectation value can be a useful guide: the contestant here has a three-quarters chance of losing nearly $400 billion, and a one-quarter chance of gaining $600 billion, so, does that help in make a decision in a one-off event?

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am (December 27, Rerun) is a short-lived panel strip from the noted editorial cartoonist. This one plays on the use of X in algebra to represent an unknown quantity, often one whose value is sought, as well as the marker of where something of value should be in non-mathematical applications.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (December 28) is another strip based on the idea of X as something whose value is sought. I note the squirrel’s footnote comment, too.

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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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