Reading the Comics, February 13, 2013


I will return to the plausibility of Rex Morgan, MD, considered as a statistics problem, though I need time to do that pesky thinking thing and I’ve had all sorts of unreasonable demands on my time, such as work expecting me to work, and scheduling it all is such a problem. But I’ve got a fresh batch of eight comic strips that in some way mention mathematics, and I wrote paragraphs on most of those as they turned up in the day’s pages, so I can share those with you. Also I’m pleased to see that posting a Rex Morgan strip for the purpose of talking about it hasn’t brought about the end of the world, so I may be able to resume covering King Features or North American Syndicate strips when they say things worth mentioning (which they seem to do less than the Gocomics.com comics do, but I haven’t done the statistics to make that claim seriously).

Dan Thompson’s Brevity (February 1) — Guy Endorse-Kaiser and Rodd Perry appear to have dropped out of the strip, and Dan Thompson has at least three strips going on gocomics.com that I’ve noticed — has a rounding-off joke, and a fractional person joke.

Dick Rogers’ KidSpot (February 2) is a kids’ feature that wouldn’t ordinarily fit into this sort of thing, but among the seven differences is the math equation on the blackboard. This produces a weird little extra difference: the equation is correct in the first picture, but wrong in the second. I suspect it’s not intended, since the appearance of the equation on the right-hand side would be fine if instead of a radical sign there were that division symbol thing. You know the one, even if I can’t think of the name. As best I can tell, nobody seems to have a convincing one. The horizontal bar could probably be called a vinculum, but that’s just a portion of the symbol and not the whole thing.

Jimmy Johnson’s Arlo and Janis (February 3) does a gag about interpreting Roman numerals. I wouldn’t want to work in Roman numerals, at least for anything more than a puzzle, but I do feel the need to point out that if you’re used to them, and you’re not interested in arithmetic much more than addition and subtraction, then they’re not too bad, and you can even do multiplication and division with them without it being too absurd. There’s a reason the scheme lasted for so many centuries, and stood fairly strongly against Arabic numerals.

Brian Bassett’s Red and Rover (February 4) speaks of that most joyful of class days, the one where the teacher’s just showing a movie. The particular movie is Disney’s renowned Donald In Mathmagic Land, which I confess to not liking as much as, apparently, everyone else on the planet does. My recollection, which I admit might change if I watched it to refresh, is that there’s great visual design and some pleasant history-of-mathematics stuff, but that the connection between what Donald sees and what I think of as the heart of mathematics — noticing an original pattern, something which isn’t obvious, and the process of working out why it has to be so — isn’t there, possibly because it’s just not communicable, at least not in a cartoon like this. It may be something that just has to be expressed as a short story, where the audience can follow the threads of thought and the feeling of those threads simultaneously. Or I may just need to see the cartoon again. (I also see my mind insists on calling it Mathemagic Land, which maybe reads a little better, but is unsupported by the title cards.)

Brian and Ron Boychuk’s Chuckle Brothers (February 5) does a Pythagoras joke. I suspect that the Boychuks are also aware the Pythagoreans had what might be termed non-traditional ideas about health, so that presenting them as pharmacists would be a smaller comic slide than would otherwise be. That suspicion’s fed, for me, by the February 4th comic which tosses off a reference to electric doorbells as an innovation of Dr Joseph Henry as if anyone should be expected to remember that. (I did, of course, but then I also know that Joseph Henry’s the statue outside the Smithsonian Castle, where thousands of people annually gather to take pictures and ask who that is and why he has a statue. He was the first head of the Smithsonian, and held up as the United States’s great scientist when the United States was really short of people who could stand as Europe’s scientific equals. His death was national news, and most of the Congress attended his statue’s unveiling.)

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater (February 8) has a panel titled simply “Wife of Pi”, so you may be able to guess before clicking the link what’s the main joke. I’m a bit disappointed Hilburn put in a cheap gag for the marriage counselor’s name, when slipping in the proper name for the division symbol — “Obelus” — would have been at least as easy and more interesting for people who read the corners of the art.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures (February 9) does one of the four jokes about finding algebra’s x that you see in those Lolcat-style pictures, although when you look closely at it you realize the joke’s subtly mangled so as not to quite make sense. The commenters, of course, include someone slagging on New Math because … I don’t know; they couldn’t think of a good joke about the Beatniks?

Greg Craven’s The Buckets (February 10) did a “what’s the use of math” joke, and right away a commenter — not the same one holding firm against New Math from Real Life Adventures somehow — talked about the good old days when you did calculations on a slide rule and presumably knew how math worked. I’m not convinced that slide rule calculation really does convey any superior ability in computations; I’ll grant they save people from being hypnotized by decimal places, but that’s not actually a superior knowledge of mathematics. That’s just reducing the number of significant digits because more decimal places is too hard.

Glenn and Gary McCoy’s The Flying McCoys (February 13) does the familiar use of a blackboard full of symbols as signifier of intelligence. Harmless as these things go.

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