Reading the Comics, June 16, 2015: The Carefully Targeted Edition


The past several days produced a good number of comic strips mentioning mathematical topics. Strangely, they seem to be carefully targeted to appeal to me. Here’s how.

Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. (June 12) is your classic resisting-the-world-problems joke. I admit I haven’t done anything at this level of mathematics in a long while. I’m curious if actual teachers, or students, could say whether problems with ridiculous numbers of fruits actually appear in word problems, or if this is one of those motifs that’s popular despite a nearly imaginary base in the real world.

Dan Thompson’s Brevity (June 13) is aimed very precisely at the professional knot theorist. Also, mathematics includes a thing called knot theory which is almost exactly what you imagine. For a while it looked like I might get into knot theory, although ultimately I wasn’t able to find a problem interesting enough to work on that I was able to prove anything interesting about. I’m delighted a field that so many people wouldn’t imagine existed got a comic strip in this manner; I wonder if this is what dinosaur researchers felt when The Far Side was still in production.

Steve Sicula’s Home and Away (June 14) name-drops the New Math, though the term’s taken literally. The joke feels anachronistic to me. Would a kid that age have even heard of a previous generation’s effort to make mathematics about understanding what you’re doing and why? New Math (admittedly, on the way out) was my elementary school thing.

Mark Litzler’s Joe Vanilla (June 15) tickles me with the caption, “the clarity of the equation befuddles”. It’s a funny idea. Ideally, the point of an equation is to provide clarity and insight, maybe by solving it, maybe by forming it. A befuddling equation is usually a signal the problem needs to be thought out some more.

Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate: First Class (June 16, originally run June 11, 1991) is aimed at the Mathletes out there. It throws in a slide rule mention for good measure. Given Nate’s Dad’s age in the 1991 setting it’s plausible he’d have had a slide rule. (He’s still the same age in the comic strip being produced today, so he wouldn’t have had one if the strip were redrawn.) I don’t remember being on a competitive mathematics team in high school, although I did participate in some physics contests. My recollection is that I was an inconsistent performer, though. I don’t think I had the slightly obsessive competitive urge needed to really excel in high school academic competition.

And Larry Wright’s Motley Classics (June 16, originally run June 16, 1987) is a joke about using algebra in the real world. Or at least in the world of soap operas. Back in 1987 (United States) soap operas were still a thing.

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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.

7 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, June 16, 2015: The Carefully Targeted Edition”

    1. I think the algebra jokes are the more timeworn, just because they’ve been made longer. The disappearance of daytime soap operas as a (United States) cultural phenomenon is much more recent; they only really evaporated in the 1990s and it’s only recently that it’s been noticed.

      But soap operas have a much longer history of poor jokes being made about them, mostly by people who think they’re superior to the genre and won’t be bothered learning enough about the subject to get the jokes right. I think the best example of that is how SCTV had an ongoing soap opera spoof, The Days Of The Week, which stood out from soap opera spoofs previously because it had noticed things like how soaps didn’t use heavy organ music for everything, and hadn’t for a long time. (And as happens, they made a spoof soap opera so credibly that it worked as a real soap opera.)

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    1. They do, yes. I suspect slide rules would still be useful ways to teach logarithms, particularly the way multiplication and addition of logs are linked. If nothing else physical objects and playthings like that are so very useful.

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