Reading the Comics, July 4, 2015: Symbolic Curiosities Edition

Comic Strip Master Command was pretty kind to me this week, and didn’t overload me with too many comics when my computer problems were the most time-demanding. You’ve seen how bad that is by how long it’s taken me to get to answering people’s comments. But they have kept publishing mathematical comic strips, and so I’m ready for another review. This time around a couple of the strips talk about the symbols of mathematics, so that’s enough of a hook for my titling needs.

Assured that his chances of winning a contest are worse than his chances of being struck by a meteor, Moose refuses to leave the house, because he's feeling lucky.
Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie for the 30th of June, 2015, although that’s a rerun.

Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie (June 30, rerun) is about living with long odds. People react to very improbable events in strange ways. Moose is being maybe more consistent than normal for folks in figuring that if he’s going to be lucky enough to win a contest then he’s just lucky enough to be hit by a meteor too. (It feels like a lottery to me, although I guess Moose has to be too young to enter a lottery.) And I’m amused by the logic of someone’s behavior becoming funny because it is logically consistent.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts (June 30) shows the offices of Math, Inc. (I believe this is actually the Chicago division, not the main headquarters.) This is also a strip I could easily see happening in the real world. It’s not different in principle from clocks which put some arithmetic expression up for the hours, or those calendars which make a math puzzle out of the date.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day (July 1) is about the # sign, and what it’s named. The symbol serves several roles, with identifying numbers just one of them, and so it’s picked up several names. (I don’t accept “octothorpe” as a name for it. This is because I have never seen “octothorpe” used as a name for the # symbol except in declarations that “octothorpe is the name for the # symbol”. That’s the equivalent of a Wikipedia article citing itself as its own source.) I couldn’t find the symbol mentioned in Florian Cajori’s History of Mathematical Notations. This seems like such a strange omission that I must just be looking in the wrong spots. I bet now that I’ve admitted to not finding it the book will fall open to the right page.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (July 1) might also be taking place at Math, Inc. It’s obviously meant to just be a sprawl of complicated mathematics in the word balloon. I do feel like I should recognize the expression, though. Why? Well, the numbers are suspicious. I recognize 0.166667 and 0.083333 as one-sixth and one-twelfth, for example. And look at the system within the parentheses. On the first three lines there’s uses of p1, p2, p1, p2, p(iv)1, and p(iv)2. Those symbols mean to use two functions, p1 and p2, as well as the second derivatives and the fourth derivatives of those functions. On the next three lines we see the second, fourth, and sixth derivatives of p1 and p2. On the next three lines only the fourth and sixth derivatives appear. After that only the sixth derivatives appear. And all these are in expressions multiplied by x, and then x3, then x5, then x7. But there are also simpler expressions that get multiplied by x2 and x4 and x6, in-between the longer ones. The regularity of this makes me suspect Whamond found a pleasantly complicated-looking expression in a differential equations or a numerical computing book and copied it faithfully. I just don’t know what the expression is.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (July 2) is this essay’s appearance of anthropomorphized numerals. And E is correct: location is the important thing about a decimal point. The great thing about decimal points is that the notation lets us work with large and small numbers without needing new symbols or techniques. If you’re good with the numbers from zero to ten, you’re good with every number. The down side is that meaning is carried in that decimal point’s location. Putting it in the wrong place makes your answer at least ten times too large or too small, and possibly more. This is why it’s good to have an idea of about how large your answer should sensibly be. That sense serves as a sanity check, to protect you against mistakes in placing the decimal.

Mark Pett’s Mr Lowe (July 2) uses mathematics, or at least arithmetic, as the sort of class students get too bored to sit through. That’s fair enough. I’m not sure anyone’s passions are raised by common denominators. just started running Mr Lowe, which was Mark Pett’s first syndicated strip. He’d go on to the fantastic but cancelled Lucky Cow — also on Gocomics — and I am glad to see this earlier work. It didn’t run in any newspaper I was reading back at the time.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (July 3) name-drops algebra to make sure I don’t forget it. Don’t worry, Mr Anderson. I’m here.

Jiggs falls into the wet cement and curses a star, question mark, division sign, at sign, and diamond. I think that's an interesting selection of symbols for comic-strip cuss wording.
George McManus’s Bringing Up Father for the 1st of April, 1941, and rerun the 3rd of July, 2015.

George McManus’s Bringing Up Father (1 April 1941, rerun the 2nd of July, 2015) isn’t really mathematical. But I’m intrigued to see the division sign used as a cartoon swear word. It’s not commonly used that way nowadays. It’s got me curious about how symbols move into and out of use as cartoon swear word symbols. You could call the division sign an obelus, but you won’t get anywhere doing that.

Ted Shearer’s Quincy (April 20, 1976, rerun the 4th of July) is a resisting-the-word-problem joke. But it is delivered with more style and vitality than the usual, since Shearer puts so much art into the delivery.

If Quincy were given ten apples, and eight apples, and twelve apples, then what would Quincy have? His answer: 'Man! That's a lot of apples!'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 20th of April, 1976, and rerun the 3rd of July, 2015.

And, what the heck. Even if it isn’t mathematical, Mark Pett’s Mr Lowe for the 28th of June is about one of those things that keeps an educator going. This is not a replacement for decent pay or security.


Author: Joseph Nebus

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

6 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, July 4, 2015: Symbolic Curiosities Edition”

  1. I like the one about the # sign. I recently learned that the dagger (which I only associated with the transpose of a matrix of operators in quantum mechanics) was used in in the old days to mark repetitions in a literary text.


    1. Oh, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about where the dagger came from, beyond the set of weird things people sometimes use when they need multiple footnotes on a page and for some reason can’t use superscripted numbers.

      Liked by 1 person

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