Reading the Comics, January 21, 2013

Feast or famine, as I said. It’s not a week since the last comics roundup and I have eight comic strips that have enough mathematical content for me to discuss. Well, they’re fun essays to write, and people seem to quite like them, so why not another so soon?

Well, because I’m overlooking all the King Features Syndicate comics. I’m not actually overlooking them — I’m keeping track of just which ones have something I could write about — but they haven’t had a nice, archive-friendly way to point people to the strips being discussed. (Most newspaper web sites that have King Features comics have links to those pages expire in a measly 28 days.) Based on the surprising number of people who come to my site by searching for Norm Feuti’s Retail comic strip, they certainly deserve to be talked about. I’ll have something worked out about that soon, I promise.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (January 17) follows up on the previous day’s “Fibonaccos” and the whole idea of whether there can actually be such a thing as mathematics jokes. If I weren’t aware of just how many people go to his strip through my pages I’d think he was teasing me, but I know I’m a couple orders of magnitude too small to be noticed. Fibonacci numbers are probably the first interesting mathematical sequence people learn about, and there’s some neat stuff to them — they seem to tie in to plant development, of all things — and you can hop from them onto the Golden Ratio easily. But I feel like the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio get more attention, mostly on aesthetic grounds, than they really deserve.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue (January 17) also continues that strip’s thread of snarky answers to mathematics questions. The first commenter on the thread provided the information — the boiling point of Plutonium and the atomic number of Zirconium — needed for the answer, which comes out (if you use the boiling point in Celsius) to be surprisingly closer than I’d have guessed considering that the kid’s answer is supposed to be obscure nonsense. Given that it is in the ballpark I’m surprised that Breen and Thompson didn’t find a better-fitting answer.

Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens (January 17) presents a chicken who claims to be able to count to gloog, only to be told that’s not a number. Presumably he made it up, but, you could get into a fair argument about whether all numbers are made up. Repeatedly in history we’ve come to recognize there are things that work a lot like the older, more familiar numbers, which let us do useful things we couldn’t before: fractions and irrational numbers extend the counting numbers. Negative numbers — and zero — extend the counting numbers. Imaginary numbers extend the real numbers. Each of these — and more schemes, including quaternions and octonions — were made up, in a sense, and the signs of the suspicion and doubt they were held in are seen in that they have names like “negative” and “imaginary” which offer disapproving connotations.

Scott Adams’s Dilbert (January 18) aims for a gag about how most people think themselves to be above average. Of course, “average” means many things, and it’s quite possible — even reasonable — for many to be above average. The simplest example (I think I picked it up from John Allen Paulos, but I don’t remember, and I’m all but certain he didn’t originate it) is that most people have more than the average — as in arithmetic mean — number of arms. If you measure something that has a standard distribution — there’s a particular meaning to that, and it’s very easy to meet that meaning — then, yes, pretty close to 50 percent of the samples will be below (or above) the average, whether you call the arithmetic mean, or the median, or the mode (the most common result) the average. But if it isn’t a standard distribution, all sorts of surprising results can happen, including a large majority being above average.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs (January 18) does a joke about IQ tests. There’s a free bad-at-math joke included too, although the IQ test — and the idea that people and populations can be measured for their abilities — are almost the problem that created the field of statistics. I’m exaggerating considerably, and not quite fairly, but any discussion of the history of statistics is going to get into IQ tests, even if we don’t look at the contentious issue of what exactly they measure.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue (January 18) continues the snarky answers to word problem questions.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals (January 20) makes the joke that a kid who’s really good at mental arithmetic could grow up to be a computer. I find the joke to be dated — it kind of echoes the 1960s attitude in which mentioning a computer at all was a punch line (“If the light is green the computer hasn’t been tampered with”), and it was really a killer gag if the computer was to be a personality — but it is the case that people who were extremely good at mental arithmetic were desired, at least in the days before mechanical, electrical, and electronic calculation made them more pleasant to chat with but otherwise less useful than the machine.

Rich Powell’s Dixie Drive (January 21) uses a spurt of mathematic terms as the signifier for “this person is really smart”. The dialogue is gibberish, although I believe it’s meant to just be what the Scarecrow had to say at the end of The Wizard Of Oz. In the movie, that was also gibberish, or at least garbled, although I’ve grown less certain whether it’s garbled because the writers put in a rough idea of what they wanted the Scarecrow to say and didn’t get to fix it before filming, or whether the script writers were replacing Frank Baum’s original joke with an equivalently silly scene.

The book has the Scarecrow’s head emptied of its original straw and replaced with pins and needles, showing how sharp he now is. That couldn’t possibly be filmed in 1939. I’m not sure it could be filmed today, except in cartoon or Muppet form. Perhaps ironically, that could probably have been done in the silent era, on the basis of some of the (Baum-written and produced, at least nominally) silent Oz movies made. One of those — 1914’s His Majesty, The Scarecrow of Oz — even has the Tin Woodsman chop off the witch Mombi’s head (she picks it up and tosses it back on her body), which shows what could be done with stage magic and stop-camera tricks, but it’s a shocking scene then as now. But it’d be different in Technicolor.

Anyway, as the story shows the Scarecrow perfectly bright despite his confidence he hasn’t any brains, underlining how little the certificate means by having the Scarecrow go on nonsensically is a well-formed joke. But I don’t know this was intended, since using a bit of mathematics to signify intelligence is a long and honestly a bit hoary tradition. But it fits with what Rich Powell seems to be doing here.

(I’m not sure I have that quote from Hot Millions right, but I can’t find an authoritative source on the Internet. If someone’s got the film better in mind, I’d certainly begrudgingly accept having it corrected.)