Reading the Comics, September 11, 2013


I may need to revise my seven-or-so-comic standard for hosting one of these roundups of mathematics-themed comic strips, at least during the summer vacation. We’ll see how they go as the school year picks up and cartoonists return to the traditional jokes of students not caring about algebra and kids giving wiseacre responses to word problems.

Jan Eliot’s Stone Soup began a sequence on the 26th of August in which Holly, the teenager, has to do flash cards to improve her memorization of the multiplication tables. It’s a baffling sequence to me, at least, since I can’t figure why a high schooler needs to study the times tables (on the 27th, Grandmom says it’s because it will make mathematics easier the more arithmetic she can do in her head). It’s also a bit infuriating because I can’t see a way to make sure Holly sees mathematics as tedious drudge work more than getting drilled by flash cards through summer vacation, particularly as she’s at an age where she ought to be doing algebra or trigonometry or geometry.

Steve Moore’s In The Bleachers (September 1) uses a bit of mathematics as a throwaway “something complicated to be thinking about” bit. I do like that the mathematics shown at least parses. I’m not sure offhand what problem the pitcher is trying to solve, that is, but the steps in it are done correctly, and even show off a nice bit of implicit differentiation. That’s a bit of differential calculus where you’ll find the rate of change of one variable with respect to another depends on the value of the variable, which isn’t actually hard to do if you follow the rules correctly but which, as I remember it, produces a vague sense of unease at its introduction. Probably it feels vaguely illicit to have a function defined in, in parts, in terms of itself.

Dave BLazek’s Loose Parts (September 1) does a bit of wordplay on parallel parking and other popular geometric figures. It’s a trifle, yes; it is one that makes me wonder about the exact geometry of problems like parallel parking and arranging mirrors so as to minimize the blind spots. (If someone knows of references that explain them I’d appreciate hearing; if not, perhaps I’ll sit and think it out and draw diagrams that confuse me.)

Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump (September 3) features the major kinds of triangle in service of a pun. It’s a fair one to include in your study guide if you can’t remember what the kinds of triangles are, or if you find yourself occasionally haunted by the word “scalene” with no idea what it means.

The creators.com rerun of Mickey Mouse (September 7) uses the form of a word problem for setting up … well, the normal sort of shaking money out of a parent.

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Claude pops back in again for a pair of strips. The first, September 7’s, features a character discovering one of those many little “huh” moments, in this case, about the curious similarity in value between π and the cube root of 31. There are a lot of neat little coincidences in numbers which don’t seem to mean very much. Some of them come in handy if you need to do mental arithmetic — the square of π, for example, is near enough ten for rough work (and if you’re feeling generous, or just want an answer that’s of the right size, both 3π and 4π can be made out to be roughly ten), and finding them is a moment that’s a “wow” when you discover one, although to everybody else it is mostly a “huh”. It feels really good discovering one, though.

On the 8th, Barney and Claude did a Sunday strip which makes fine use of Venn diagrams along the way to ridiculing the notion that girls aren’t good at mathematics, which is certainly a notion I’d like to see laughed out of decent society.

And finally there’s an interesting contrast in a pair of strips here. In Paul Trap’s Thatababy (September 11) we get a moment of exuberance about learning stuff about triangles and butterflies and superheroes. Over in Brett Koth’s Diamond Lil (also September 11) fourth period algebra is mentioned as nap time. Here’s the thing that fascinates me, and that’s implicit between those strips: everybody loves learning stuff. Schools are meant to be places people go to learn stuff. Most people feel pretty much begrudgingly toward school. What’s going on?

My sense is that the schools people like most are elementary school and college — the period when everything’s exciting and new, and the period when you can (mostly) pick what you’re trying to learn. Middle and high school are often centers of pretty toxic social attitudes, and not wanting to be somewhere will crush your eagerness to learn stuff from there. But, then, Sam in Diamond Lil doesn’t seem to have been bothered by the kids he was with; he’s just bored by algebra (and apparently everything else). How can this be fixed? Other than by drilling a teen with flash cards of the eight times tables during summer vacation, I mean.

Finally, as a bit of personal cross-promotion over on my humor blog last week I did some riffing on something I recently learned about Pythagoras, the mystic and cult leader who might have had something to do with mathematics, or at least inspired people to think of mathematics. It’s fairly hard to be confident we do know much about Pythagoras, but, the legends are fascinating at least.

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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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