Reading the Comics, June 16, 2014: Cleaning Out Before Summer, I Guess, Edition

I had thought the folks at Comic Strip Master Command got most of their mathematics-themed comics cleaned out ahead of the end of the school year (United States time zones) by last week, and then over the course of the weekend they went and published about a hundred million of them, so let me try catching up on that before the long dry spell of summer sets in. (And yet none of them mentioned monkeys writing Shakespeare; go figure.) I’m kind of expecting an all-mathematics-strips series tomorrow morning.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs (June 12) puns a bit on negative numbers as also meaning downbeat or pessimistic ones. Negative numbers tend to make people uneasy, when they’re first encountered. It took western mathematics several centuries to be quite fully comfortable with them and that even with the good example of debts serving as a mental model of what negative numbers might mean. Descartes, for example, apparently used four separate quadrants, giving points their positions to the right and up, to the left and up, to the left and down, or to the right and down, from the origin point, rather than deal with negative numbers; and the Fahrenheit temperature scale was pretty much designed around the constraint that Daniel Fahrenheit shouldn’t have to deal with negative numbers in measuring the temperature in his hometown of the Netherlands. I have seen references to Immanuel Kant writing about the theoretical foundation of negative numbers, but not a clear explanation of just what he did, alas. And skepticism of exotic number constructs would last; they’re not called imaginary numbers because people appreciated the imaginative leaps that working with the square roots of negative numbers inspired.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue (June 12) served notice that, just like last summer, Grandma is going to make sure the kids experience mathematics as a series of chores they have to endure through an otherwise pleasant summer break.

Mike Twohy’s That’s Life (June 12) might be a marginal inclusion here, but it does refer to a lab mouse that’s gone from merely counting food pellets to cost-averaging them. The mathematics abilities of animals are pretty amazing things, certainly, and I’d also be impressed by an animal that was so skilled in abstract mathematics that it was aware “how much does a thing cost?” is a pretty tricky question when you look hard at it.

Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley (June 13) features a punch line that’s familiar to me — it’s what you get by putting a parrot and the subject of geometry together — although the setup seems clumsy to me. I think that’s because the kid has to bring up geometry out of nowhere in the first panel. Usually the setup as I see it is more along the lines of “what geometric figure is drawn by a parrot that then leaves the room”, which I suppose also brings geometry up out of nowhere to start off, really. I guess the setup feels clumsy to me because I’m trying to imagine the dialogue as following right after the previous day’s, so the flow of the conversation feels odd.

Eric the Circle (June 14), this one signed “andel”, riffs on the popular bit of mathematics trivia that in a randomly selected group of 22 people there’s about a fifty percent chance that some pair of them will share a birthday; that there’s a coincidental use for 22 in estimating π is, believe it or not, something I hadn’t noticed before.

Pab Sungenis’s New Adventures of Queen Victoria (June 14) plays with infinities, and whether the phrase “forever and a day” could actually mean anything, or at least anything more than “forever” does. This requires having a clear idea what you mean by “forever” and, for that matter, by “more”. Normally we compare infinitely large sets by working out whether it’s possible to form pairs which match one element of the first set to one element of the second, and seeing whether elements from either set have to be left out. That sort of work lets us realize that there are just as many prime numbers as there are counting numbers, and just as many counting numbers as there are rational numbers (positive and negative), but that there are more irrational numbers than there are rational numbers. And, yes, “forever and a day” would be the same length of time as “forever”, but I suppose the Innamorati (I tried to find his character’s name, but I can’t, so, Pab Sungenis can come in and correct me) wouldn’t do very well if he promised love for the “power set of forever”, which would be a bigger infinity than “forever”.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (June 15) is actually roughly the same joke as the Ginger Meggs from the 12th, students mourning their grades with what’s really a correct and appropriate use of mathematics-mentioning terminology.

Keith Knight’s The Knight Life (June 16) introduces a “personal statistician”, which is probably inspired by the measuring of just everything possible that modern sports has gotten around to doing. But the notion of keeping track of just what one is doing, and how effectively, is old and, at least in principle, sensible. It’s implicit in budgeting (time, money, or other resources) that you are going to study what you do, and what you want to do, and what’s required by what you want to do, and what you can do. And careful tracking of what one’s doing leads to what’s got to be a version of the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, in which the time (and money) spent on recording the fact of one’s recordings starts to spin out of control. I’m looking forward to that. Don’t read the comments.

Max Garcia’s Sunny Street (June 16) shows what happens when anthropomorphized numerals don’t appear in Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for too long a time.


Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

9 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, June 16, 2014: Cleaning Out Before Summer, I Guess, Edition”

  1. So cartoons are aligned with the academic year? I wouldn’t have guessed that!!

    I like the Personal Statistician – as there are these so-called modern “life-hackers” and their obsession with tools that collect all kinds of metrics (pulse, steps you take…) or document your life with Google Glass. For them the idea of documenting and analyzing _everything_ in your life is probably not a joke.


    1. I don’t actually know that they’re aligned with the academic year, at least more than roughly. I have to imagine they’d notice if they were doing a kid-stuck-in-school strip that was scheduled to be published in mid-July, for instance. But I have seen some comics accidentally run one for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, which is a holiday week everywhere I’ve heard of.

      I’m also a little surprised that I’ve avoided the statistics-of-my-whole-life thing. I’m very aware I have all the risk factors for getting into the over-documentation of my life, by which I mean, I took photos of my car’s odometer and where I was when it rolled over 1,000 and 5,000 and a bunch of other appealing numbers, until the highway patrol noticed and gave me a warning about driving distracted with a camera in my hand like that.


  2. Knight Life’s personal statistician made me laugh the loudest. Gasoline Alley’s parrot joke seemed fine to me and could always be used wherever geometry is taught. My favorite is the Eric the Circle 22/7 comic – especially after your explanation. By the way I rarely read the comments to the comics unless you specifically tell me NOT to read them. Yeah, they weren’t comments worth reading.


    1. The personal statistician idea seems like the most comically fruitful one to me, though that’s probably just because it suggests a story by itself.

      Sorry to tease you into reading comments. I try not reading them myself but now and then I just know the original strip is going to inspire a bad thread, and then I look, and I’m right altogether too often for my tastes.


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