Reading the Comics, January 20, 2014

I’m getting to wonder whether cartoonists really do think about mathematics only when schools are in session; there was a frightening lull in mathematics-themed comic strips this month and I was getting all ready to write about something meaningful like how Gaussian integration works instead. But they came around, possibly because the kids went back to school and could resist answering word problems about driving places so they can divide apples again.

Carla Ventresca and Henry Beckett’s On A Claire Day (January 3) really just name-drops mathematics, as a vaguely unpleasant thing intruding on a conversation, even though Paul’s just dropped in a bit of silliness that, if I’m not reading it wrongly, is tautological anyway. There’s a fair question at work here, though: can “how good” a person is be measured? Obviously, it can’t if nobody tries; but could they succeed at all?

It sounds a bit silly, but then, measuring something like the economic state of a nation was not even imagined until surprisingly recently: most of the economic measures we have postdate World War II. One can argue whether they’re measuring what they are supposed to represent well, but there’s not much dispute about the idea that economic health could be measured anymore. When Assistant Secretary of State for the Truman administration, James Webb — later famous for managing NASA during the bulk of the Space Race — tried to get foreign relations measured in a similar way, though the idea was mocked as ridiculous (the joke was apparently something along the lines of a person rushing in to announce “Bulgaria is down two points!”, which is probably funnier if you haven’t grown up playing Civilization-style grand strategy games), and he gave up on that fight in favor of completing a desperately needed reorganization of the department.

I don’t know how I would measure a person’s goodness, but I could imagine a process of coming up with some things that could be measured, and trying them out, and seeing how well the measurements match what it feels they should be measuring. This is all probably too much work for a New Year’s Resolution, but it might get someone their thesis project.

Steve Moore’s In The Bleachers (January 14) comes back with a huge pile of equations standing as a big, complicated explanation for something. It doesn’t look to me like the description has much to do with describing balls bouncing, however, which is a bit of a disappointment given previous strips that name-drop Lev Landau or pull up implicit differentiation when they don’t need even need it. Maybe Moore wasn’t able to find something that looked good before deadline.

Bill Hinds’s Cleats (January 16, rerun) is just the sort of straightforward pun I actually more expect out of FoxTrot (see below).

Nate Frakes’s Break of Day (January 19) shows an infant trying to count sheep and concluding she’s too young to. Interesting to me is that the premise of the joke might actually be wrong: humans appear to have at least a rough sense of numbers, at least for things like counting and addition, from a surprisingly early age. This is a fascinating thing to learn about, both because it’s remarkable that humans should have a natural aptitude for arithmetic, and because of how difficult it is to come up with tests for understanding quantity and counting and addition that work on people with whom you can’t speak and who can’t be given instruction on how to respond to a test. Stanislas Dehaene’s The Number Sense: How The Mind Creates Mathematics describes some of this, although I’m hesitant to recommend it uncritically because I know I’m not well-read in the field. It’s somewhere to start learning, though.

Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser (January 20) could be the start of a word problem in translating from percentiles to rankings, and, for that matter, vice-versa. It’s convenient to switch a ranking to percentiles because that makes it easier to compare groups of different sizes. But many statistical tools, particularly the z-score, might be considered to be ways of meaningfully comparing the order of groups of different sizes that are nevertheless similar.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot (January 20, rerun) is the reliable old figure-eight ice skating gag. I hope people won’t think worse of me for feeling that Droopy did it better.

T Lewis and Michael Fry’s Over The Hedge (January 20) uses a spot of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus (rendered correctly) to stand in for “a really hard thought”. Calculus is probably secure in having that reputation: it’s about the last mathematics that the average person might be expected to take, and it introduces many new symbols and concepts that can be staggering (even the polymath Isaac Asimov found he just couldn’t grasp the subject), and so many of its equations are just beautiful to look at. The integral sign seems to me to have some graphic design sense that, for example, matrices or the polynomial representations of knots just don’t manage.