Reading the Comics, March 22, 2015: Word Problems Edition


After the flurry of comic strips that did Pi Day jokes last time around, and that one had worked in a March Madness joke, I’d expected there to be at least a couple of mathematically-mind college basketball tournament strips coming up this week. If they did, they didn’t appear on the comics sites I normally read, though. This time around turned out to be much more about word problems and the problem-answerer resisting the actual answering of the word problems. It’s possible that Comic Strip Master Command didn’t notice that this would be the weekend that United States readers would spend the most of their time complaining about how their bracket picks weren’t working right.

Phil Frank and Joe Troise’s The Elderberries (March 17, rerun) mentions sudoku, and how to play it, and also shows off how explaining things really is a pleasure, at least as long as you have someone who wants to know listening to the explanation. The strip’s also made me realize I don’t remember what the Professor’s background was. Certainly anyone of any background might enjoy sudoku puzzles, or at least know them well enough to explain how to do them, though I wonder if there’s not a use of the motif here that “professors are smart people, mathematics-or-logic puzzles require smartness, so professors are skilled at mathematics-or-logic puzzles”. (For what it’s worth, I’m not much on this sort of puzzle, though I believe that just reflects that I don’t care to do them very much, so I don’t have the experience needed to do them impressively well.)

Dan Thompson’s Rip Haywire (March 17) features a word problem as part of an aptitude test. Interesting to me is that the test is a multiple-choice, which means one should be able to pick the right answer without doing the whole multiplication of “3.29 times 6.5”: 3.29 is pretty near 3.30, so the answer will be about 3 times 6.5 plus a tenth of 3 times 6.5. And 3 times 6.5 is going to be 3 times 6 plus 3 times a half, or 18 plus 1.5. So, look for the answer that’s about 19.5 plus 1.95, which will be around 21.45. In particular, look for an answer a little bit less than that (to be exact, 0.01 times 6.5 less than that.) Of course, if the exam-writer was clever, 21.45 was included as a plausible yet incorrect answer, but at least the problem can be worked out in one’s head.

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (March 20) builds on one of those little quirks of the number system: you can write (in English) the whole numbers from zero through 100 without needing the letter “a”. Indeed, you can go up to a thousand without needing the letter “a”, as long as you prefer writing “one hundred one” rather than “one hundred and one”. (Isaac Asimov even spun this trivia out to a mystery short story.) The comments thread at Gocomics gets into a weird argument about how “technically” the number is “one hundred one” and not “one hundred and one”, which seems like a weird bout of prescriptivism to me, and one commenter’s assertion that “in mathematics the word and means insert a decimal point” is a completely novel claim to me. Has anyone in my little garden here heard that one before?

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (March 21) makes its traditional appearance in my roundup here, with its traditional theme of the student at the blackboard where you can almost hear the word problem being resisted. I’m not sure what problem is implied by this work, though; possibly a subtraction problem of figuring out how much more would be needed to buy the apple?

Rick Stromoski’s Soup To Nutz (March 21) is another word-problem-resistance joke. I feel like it’s an old joke — I can almost hear it in the voice of some wise-fool comedian — although I can’t pin down just where I feel like I know it from.

Dad filled three washing machines with five towels each. So: why is he washing so many towels? Was it ... MURDER?
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 22nd of March, 2015.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy (March 22) is yet another word-problem-resistance joke, although it’s done much better than the usual as Joe explores the implications of the story more deeply than he could in the four panels of a regular daily strip. They are fair questions, too; Joe’s questions are the kind which make me wonder whether story problem writers ought to take courses in fiction-writing, so that the setups don’t lend themselves so easily to this kind of distraction.

Paul Trap’s Thatababy (March 22) includes the sort of diagram that you see at the start of pretty near any problem about hydrodynamics: you can get quite a lot of work done by considering things as relatively simple as how large a volume a fluid has to move, through pipes of what cross-sectional area, thanks to straightforward principles like fluids being (basically) incompressible and so being unable to concentrate or evacuate some region of space. Oh, a spot of calculus may come in handy, but you don’t necessarily need it even for problems like this juice-box one.

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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.

3 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, March 22, 2015: Word Problems Edition”

  1. When I learned how to count I was taught to say one hundred AND one, but for many years now I have been annoyed that children are taught to count that way. “And” should be used to indicate a fraction or a decimal follows.

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    1. I have honestly never encountered this before. Well, `and’ to indicate that a fraction follows sure, but that just follows from the conflation of `and’ and `plus’. The decimal thing is bewildering; I’d always seen heard it as (say) “one hundred point one”.

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