Reading the Comics, January 16, 2013


I was beginning to wonder whether my declaration last time that I’d post a comics review every time I had seven to ten strips to talk about was going to see the extinguishing of math-themed comic strips. It only felt like it. The boom-and-bust cycle continues, though; it took better than two weeks to get six such strips, and then three more came in two days. But that’s the fun of working on relatively rare phenomena. Let me get to the most recent installment of math-themed comics, mostly from Gocomics.com:

Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 (December 29) goes for a joke about old-fashioned computing methods and showing off that Schwadron’s aware Chinese mathematicians have used abacuses for a long while. More amusing to me actually is the comment thread, starting with one person who insists it’s not funny because an abacus can’t be “down” unless it’s broken, and proceeding until finally someone sulks about political correctness, which doesn’t make any sense but probably left the author feeling happy about standing up to whatever she or he believed she or he was standing up to.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup to Nutz (December 29) puts another strip onto the pile of “why do I have to know math, I’m never gonna use it” jokes, and takes some bigger leaps than usual to get a punch line out of it. The writing seems to suggest that one needs to know algebra to avoid a life of unsuccessful crime, particularly, which positions math less as an astounding and wonderful accomplishment of human intellect and more as an obligation something like the need to have a title search prior to buying a house. I’m not convinced that’s the best way to convince anyone that mathematics is worth learning.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets (December 31) is a bit marginal in its subject matter, since it talks about the design of calendars. But the development of the calendar is an intensely mathematical subject, and any book about the history of calendars construction and maintenance will necessarily involve astronomy, physics, and mathematics in many novel ways. For example, Duncan Steel’s lovely Marking Time: The Epic Quest To Invent The Perfect Calendar goes into some detail of how much the Gregorian calendar owes to the attempt to better assign a date for Easter, subject to a bewildering array of requirements.

I also don’t know whether everyone mathematically inclined goes through a phase of attempting to make a better calendar; I know that in elementary school, I did, albeit goaded by a school project to come up with some innovation that improved something. My effort, as best I remember, avoided such extravagances as a day not belonging to any month or to being any of the days of the week (I have a note that such days are called “extrahebominal”, but the protests of my spell checker and lack of Google matches on the word suggest I got that wrong) and focused more on making sure Halloween was always a weekend night. I remember reading around the time a book which mentioned one of those every-year-starts-on-Sunday schemes and noted in a cartoon side panel that it left Halloween on a Tuesday night every year, so I’m sure that book — whose title and author I forget, but it had a tan cover and it talked a lot about timekeeping, and I read it in the late 70s or maybe 1980 or 81, to help you pin it down — so I’m sure that was an influence in my design. My reformed calendar had no other attractive features that I now remember.

This one takes a little explanation: it’s one day of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and it ran on December 31, although it wasn’t the official strip run in newspapers that day. Instead, the Japanese Peanuts site has for some reason both the day’s normal strip and another entry from the archives, as best I can tell chosen not perfectly randomly from the last twenty years of Schulz’s work. Anyway, it also mentions calendars and what they’re useful for, and since I allowed The Buckets in for its calendar mention it didn’t seem fair to rule a comic strip I love rather more out.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Earnest (January 7) (See what I mean about feast-or-famine?) doesn’t want mathematicians to forget it’s around.

Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena (January 10) is another entry in the “what am I gonna use this for?” pile, though I think a better one than Soup to Nutz managed because the joke is bigger. The comments thread, of course, starts with a political insult non sequitur and I trust it only gets stupider from there.

Eric the Circle (January 14) puts in a surprisingly rare appearance in my files, but in a context that’s indisputably mathematics- and pun-related. I can imagine that this might help people learning trigonometry some, although I was never really fond of memorizing that whole opposite-over-hypotenuse thing. That may just reflect that I really got to understanding sines and cosines by seeing them as coordinates of points on a circle instead, and I’m not arrogant enough to think that the best way for my learning something has to be the best way for everybody to learn it.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue of January 15 and also of January 16 show the results of kids taking math tests and protesting as kids ever will. For the strip of the 16th I admit some doubts about the fairness of the question: granted that it’s worth seeing if someone can multiply large numbers together, is a four digit number times a four digit number really testing anything beyond persistence? I’d think a three digit times a two digit number plenty, although testing whether the student can estimate how big 1,245 times 9,389 ought to be fair. (I’d estimate it as being roughly 1,250 times 10,000 or near 12,500,000; if I need to be more exact, since 9,389 is about 600 less than 10,000 even I’d subtract 1,250 times 600 — about 750,000 — from that and come out to 11,750,000.)

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (January 16) sets up a cute pun based on the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio. I do think both topics are pretty overrated in popular mathematics but I like the joke’s construction too much to sulk about that.

B Kliban’s Kliban panel (January 16) calls the subject matter math, although it’s a simple conversion joke. Warning: as the original matter mentions the metric system, even less good will come of reading the comments thread than usually comes of reading the comments thread. I assume.

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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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