Reading the Comics, April 10, 2015: Getting Into The Story Problem Edition


I know it’s been like forever, or four days, since the last time I had a half-dozen or so mathematically themed comic strips to write about, but if Comic Strip Master Command is going to order cartoonists to give me stuff to write about I’m not going to turn them away. Several seemed to me about the struggle to get someone to buy into a story — the thing being asked after in a word problem, perhaps, or about the ways mathematics is worth knowing, or just how the mathematics in a joke’s setup are presented — and how skepticism about these things can turn up. So I’ll declare that the theme of this collection.

Steve Sicula’s Home And Away started a sequence on April 7th about “is math really important?”, with the father trying to argue that it’s so very useful. I’m not sure anyone’s ever really been convinced by the argument that “this is useful, therefore it’s important, therefore it’s interesting”. Lots of things are useful or important while staying fantastically dull to all but a select few souls. I would like to think a better argument for learning mathematics is that it’s beautiful, and astounding, and it allows you to discover new ways of studying the world; it can offer all the joy of any art, even as it has a practical side. Anyway, the sequence goes on for several days, and while I can’t say the arguments get very convincing on any side, they do allow for a little play with the fourth wall that I usually find amusing in comics which don’t do that much.

Juba’s Viivi and Wagner (April 7) suggests the staggering problem of how to compare all the prices. Wagner’s problem gets far worse if he has to not just compare pairs of prices, but sets of three prices, four, five … there’s truly a staggering number of comparisons to be made if you aren’t going to set some tight boundaries on the problem. From this collection I think this is my favorite just for the mind-expanding nature of realizing how very, very many things there are to compare, once you give them a chance.

Nate Fakes’s Break Of Day (April 9) aims for mathematics teachers’ office walls with the problems of anthropomorphic numbers.

Teresa Burritt’s dadaist panel strip Frog Applause (April 9) made use of a photograph of Margaret Hamilton. Hamilton was director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which wrote the software used on the Apollo spacecrafts. She seems to be becoming a bit of an Internet celebrity as a prominent woman in computer science, which does make me annoyed that I don’t seem able to find an essay by a qualified space or technological historian about her work and significance. Pop culture recognition is great but it tends to pick singular people and moments without explaining enough of the context of these people and these moments. I confess being a little preemptively grumpy about this; I’m just well-enough read in space history to be aware of pop cultural enthusiasms that get smudgy fingerprints all over amazing stories while trying to show them off.

Johnny Hart and Brent Parker’s Wizard of Id Classics (April 9, originally run April 12, 1965), besides offering the hilarious concept of excessively high interest charges as some kind of crime, tells a joke that boils down to “the math it so hard brain hurty”. And I don’t mind that since it is, executed well, a pretty solid joke (there’s a reason people are still making references to “it was my understanding there would be no math in this debate” nearly forty years after Saturday Night Live did that sketch), and I think it’s carried off nearly correctly here. But that nearly … you know, as best I can work out, there’s no way that “twelve percent” and “half of one percent” work out to the same rate of interest, unless that half of one percent is compounded twice a month. (Even then it’s not quite the same, though it’s close enough for most purposes.) Possibly that’s what Parker and Hart wanted to write and the entirety of the text wouldn’t fit in the word balloon after all, and while “one percent monthly” would be legitimately about the same interest rate and surely fit in the space available, it’s not nearly complicated enough to be funny. It’s always nice when the mathematical details parse in a comic strip, but after all, the arithmetic isn’t the joke.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (April 10) lets Caulfield resist a word problem that was, as too easily happens, composed with the objective of testing arithmetic, without enough thought put into whether the story makes sense. I remember one calculus-problem textbook that tried to present as a spacecraft’s trajectory a cubic polynomial — something wiggling up, then down, then back up again in a particular way — which threw me right out of the book because I couldn’t imagine a plausible reason a spaceship would follow such a path. That’s a pity, since nearly all applied mathematics is word problems: here is a thing you would like (or need) to know, so, what is the calculation you need to perform, and how can you get the numbers needed for that calculation from the information available? Mathematicians maybe need more story-writing experience for their problems.

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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.

10 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, April 10, 2015: Getting Into The Story Problem Edition”

    1. Oh, a good thought. I didn’t think of the reference and I even have its album. (And this considering the Mysterians come up fairly often, because my love talks philosophy with me, and Mysterianism is one of the names given to a particular theory of mind.)

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  1. Jef Mallet’s Frazz: there are basic forces at which parabolic curves hold up all the time, but a cubic polynomial? I’m no mathematician, let alone a JPL scientist, but I’d think the spaceship would have to be guided by a computer to make a cubic curve in motion…roughly.

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    1. Well, an unpowered — ballistic — rocket would normally follow either something pretty close to a parabola or something pretty close to an ellipse in its patterns. A rocket that’s under power will have a more complicated shape, especially if it was coming in for a landing. But the problem as presented in the textbook described something going in free space along a classic S-curve cubic, with something being tossed overboard at some point and moving thus in a tangent line. Not in free fall, no; that doesn’t make sense.

      There is a famous anecdote about the Apollo lunar module computer, which was designed to have the capability of landing by itself without human intervention. Supposedly in development, the computer would allow the module to crash into the lunar ‘surface’, since it could project a path that sank to a negative height and then came back up to touch down at surface level. Numerically, of course, there’s nothing particularly objectionable about negative heights; it’s just that they have a real-world meaning that’s kind of important in this context.

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      1. …Okay, just about all of that went over my head (no pun intended). I get that kept in orbit, an ellipsoid would amount, but distance from surface would still fit into an acceleration model with adjusted constants—still parabolic, to hover around an intended constant result. That’s all I understand, thinking about it (no textbooks). Again, I’m no JPL scientist…

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        1. It’d be paraboloid when the rocket’s out of orbit, and when it’s between firings of the engines. But while the engine is burning, well, a great number of shapes are possible. For example, if you had enough fuel, you might fire the rocket just strongly to exactly balance gravity and have the rocket hover for as long as the fuel holds out. That sounds daft, but it’s a fair way to approach a landing on unfamiliar territory, like the surface of the moon.

          Or, in a launch from Earth, the goal is to go upwards as quickly as possible, getting through the thick lower atmosphere, and then roll over to nearly horizontal, building the orbital speed needed.

          You can approximate these shapes with parabolas, and get the approximations as exact as you need, but they aren’t going to be exactly any ordinary shape.

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