Reading the Comics, March 12, 2013

I’ve got my seven further comic strips with mentions of mathematical topics, so I can preface that a bit with my surprise that at least some of the comics didn’t bother to mention Pi Day, March 14. It might still be a slightly too much of a This Is Something People Do On The Web observance to be quite sensible for the newspaper comic strips. But there are quite a few strips on that only appear online, and I thought one of them might.

(I admit I’m a bit of a Pi Day grouch, on the flimsy grounds that 3/14 is roughly 0.214, which is a rotten approximation to π. But American-style date-writing never gets very good at approximating π. The day-month format used in most of the world offers 22/7 as a less strained Pi Day candidate, except that there’s few schools in session then, wiping out whatever use the day has as a playfully educational event.)

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (March 4) introduces a character which I believe is new to the strip, “Norman the math fanatic”. (He hasn’t returned since, as of this writing.) The setup is about the hypothetical and honestly somewhat silly argument about learning math being more important than learning English. I’m not sure I could rate either mathematics or English (or, at least, the understanding of one’s own language) as more important. The panel ends with the traditional scrawl of symbols as shorthand for “this is complicated mathematics stuff”, although it’s not so many symbols and it doesn’t look like much of a problem to me. Perhaps Norman is fanatic about math but doesn’t actually do it very well, which is not something he should be embarrassed about.

Berkely Breathed’s Bloom County (March 4) reruns a classic strip in which Oliver Wendell Jones’s mathematics teacher explains fractions using the solid examples of a grape and a salary. This strip always bothered me, as a child, since the listed expenses came out at noticeably above the whole, although now I realize that perhaps the teacher was carrying considerable debt. I also liked his pronouncing the students “childroon”.

Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens (March 4) runs a “love letter from a statistician”, with the baffled recipient chicken not understanding why being three standard deviations above the norm might be something good. Trusting that “above” the norm represents more of something desired, though, that is pretty good. Stunningly many things, when measured, fit what’s termed the standard distribution (or normal distribution). The norm, or the arithmetic mean, is what you usually think of as the average. The standard deviation is a measure of how spread out plausible values are. For something that fits a normal distribution, about 99.87 percent of all the responses one is likely to see are less than three standard deviations above the norm, so, the intended message is that someone is one in … well, at least one in 800, which is not so impressive as being one in a million, but then, we are talking about only three standard deviations. If someone were more than six standard deviations above the norm, that would be really most exceptional.

Savage Chickens returned two days later with a panel titled “Teacher Burnout: Know The Signs”, and using the iconic train-leaving-the-station problem format to show a teacher who just doesn’t care anymore.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater (March 5) did a bit of numerals-personified punning work, though I like the name of the marriage counselor. (Shouldn’t the nameplate face the other way, though?) The strip also put in a π mention on the 15th of March as part of an “Entertainment in Ancient Greece” collection.

Brett Koth’s Diamond Li’l (March 5) uses a mathematics problem as a security question, although it’s not a very good security question considering it hasn’t anything to do with the person trying to prove her identity. On the other hand, given that questions like “mother’s maiden name” are utter rubbish as security questions, maybe they’re not doing so badly. (I have heard it recommended one come up with easy-to-remember but fake answers to such questions, but I suspect remembering the name of an imaginary mother’s maiden name would be too bothersome for people who don’t regularly do roleplaying sessions.)

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (March 12) has a plausible enough algebra problem on the board and a somewhat disappointing use of the joke about what portion of the public has trouble with fractions. At least the squirrel is eating the apple meant to signify that this is a comic panel set in a classroom.