Reading the Comics, January 29, 2013


I’ve got enough mathematics-themed comic strips for a fresh installment of my comic tracking. I also want to mention the January 29th Jumble has a math teacher joke in it, but I don’t know a reasonably archivable way to point to that. Jumble.com, which I think is the official web site, is suffering some kind of database glitch so there could be anything there. Also, from working it out, “rimpet” may not be a word but it does look like it ought to be.

Tony Cochran’s Agnes (January 23) does a joke about arithmetic as a conspiracy theory, at least in the mind of the sort of rebellious student who doesn’t want to be part of the class. I can sympathize with Agnes; the routine of long division is more mysterious and less algorithmic than from what goes before.

B Kliban’s Kliban (January 23) has a cute mini-calculator gag. Of course, in days gone by people who had skills in calculation were in demand.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (January 25) is a statistics joke, and for that matter a demographics joke. Demographics offer some curious statistical oddities: the mean age of a population, for example, can easily not get any larger — or can get smaller — even as every person in the population ages. The idea of the “average person” is familiar enough from long repetition of the idea that it’s worth noticing that it is sort of peculiar something can be true about the average person without necessarily ever being true of anyone.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (January 25) (and don’t think that I overlooked what a weird attribution that is; such are the ways of legacy comic strips) mentions a person who can hold what seems like a large number of eggs in one hand. I bring this in because of the chance to mention the packing problem: how many identically-shaped objects can be put in a particular volume? Cubes or rectangles pack pretty well, but trying to pack a bunch of spheres, or spheroids like eggs, means there’ll inevitably be wasted space between eggs. Finding the most efficient way of packing things is a big, unsolved problem of mathematics.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (January 28) aims for being clipped out and taped to math teachers’ doors with a gag about two- and three-dimensional geometry. So, consider this such a clipping.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (January 29) does an abacus joke that made me think I’d read one just like it. Actually it was one of Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 panels which did an abacus joke earlier this month.

Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit, Space Guy (January 29) tosses together a bunch of statistics jokes along the way to a plot about “eighty percent of people” being stupid. (Of course, there’s a long and sad history of people trying to identify wide swaths of the population other than themselves as stupid, or inferior, or otherwise beneath consideration. I’m certainly not on Doc’s side.)

Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse (January 29) is a marginal thing to include but, heck, it got me to grin.

Guy Gilchrist’s Nancy (January 29) — carrying on the storyline recently started about Nancy reuniting with long-ago boyfriend Phil Fumble — puts up a joke about the worst part of high school being calculus. That’s an extension of the joke that math is the toughest part of school, of course.

But calculus is the point at which many people who’re otherwise mathematically skilled crash and burn. Even Isaac Asimov noted that calculus was when he discovered that much as he loved mathematics, it did not love him back. I’m not really competent to say why that is. My guess would be that the precursors to calculus are subjects like arithmetic, where you do stuff to numbers and get other numbers out of the work, and then algebra, where you start doing stuff to functions and get numbers out, and note that many people find that a baffling transition, and suddenly you reach calculus, where you do stuff to functions and get other functions out of it. It’s a big conceptual leap.

(Of course, I don’t know where the geometry and trigonometry precursors fit into this; possibly they just stand free and independent of algebra in terms of baffling students.)

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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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