There was something in common in two of the last five comic strips worth attention from last week. That’s good enough to give the essay its name.

Greg Cravens’s **The Buckets** for the 8th showcases Toby discovering the point of letters in algebra. It’s easy to laugh at him being ignorant. But the use of letters this way is something it’s easy to miss. You need first to realize that we don’t need to have a single way to represent a number. Which is implicit in learning, say, that you can write ‘7’ as the Roman numeral ‘VII’ or so, but I’m not sure that’s always clear. And realizing that you could use any symbol to write out ‘7’ if you agree that’s what the symbol means? That’s an abstraction tossed onto people who often aren’t really up for that kind of abstraction. And that we can have a symbol for “a number whose identity we don’t yet know”? Or even “a number whose identity we don’t care about”? Don’t blame someone for rearing back in confusion at this.

Zach Weinersmith’s **Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal** for the 8th talks about vectors and scalars. And about the little ways that instructors in one subject can sabotage one another. In grad school I was witness to the mathematics department feeling quite put-upon by the engineering departments, who thought we were giving their students inadequate calculus training. Meanwhile we couldn’t figure out what *they* were telling students about calculus except that it was screwing up their understanding.

To a physicist, a vector is a size and a direction together. (At least until they get seriously into mathematical physics when they need a more abstract idea.) A scalar is a number. Like, a real-valued number such as ‘4’. Maybe a complex-valued number such as ‘4 + 6i’. Vectors are great because a lot of physics problems become easier when thought of in terms of directions and amounts in that direction.

A mathematician would start out with vectors and scalars like that. But then she’d move into a more abstract idea. A vector, to a mathematician, is a thing you can add to another vector and get a vector out. A scalar is something that’s not a vector but that, multiplied by a vector, gets you a vector out. This sounds circular. But by defining ‘vector’ and ‘scalar’ in how they interact with each other we get a really sweet flexibility. We can use the same reasoning — and the same proofs — for lots of things. Directions, yes. But also matrices, and continuous functions, and probabilities of events, and more. That’s a bit much to give the engineering student who’s trying to work out some problem about … I don’t know. Whatever they do over in that department. Truss bridges or electrical circuits or something.

Mark Leiknes’s **Cow and Boy** for the 9th is really about misheard song lyrics, a subject that will never die now that we don’t have the space to print lyrics in the album lining anymore, or album linings. But it has a joke resonant with that of **The Buckets**, in supposing that algebra is just some bunch of letters mixed up with numbers. And **Cow and Boy** was always a strip I loved, as baffling as it might be to a casual reader. It had a staggering number of running jokes, although not in this installment.

Greg Evans’s **Luann Againn** for the 9th shows Brad happy to work out arithmetic when it’s for something he’d like to know. The figure Luan gives is ridiculously high, though. If he needs 500 hairs, and one new hair grows in each week, then that’s a little under ten years’ worth of growth. Nine years and a bit over seven months to be exact. If a moustache hair needs to be a half-inch long, and it grows at 1/8th of an inch per month, then it takes four months to be sufficiently long. So in the slowest possible state it’d be nine years, eleven months. I can chalk Luann’s answer up to being snidely pessimistic about his hair growth. But his calculator seems to agree and that suggests something went wrong along the way.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s **Maria’s Day** for the 9th is a story problem joke. It looks to me like a reasonable story problem, too: the distance travelled and the speed are reasonable, and give sensible numbers. The two stops add a bit of complication that doesn’t seem out of line. And the kid’s confusion is fair enough. It takes some experience to realize that the problem splits into an easy part, a hard part, and an easy part. The first easy part is how long the stops take all together. That’s 25 minutes. The hard part is realizing that if you want to know the total travel time it doesn’t matter when the stops are. You can find the total travel time by adding together the time spent stopped with the time spent driving. And the other easy part is working out how long it takes to go 80 miles if you travel at 55 miles per hour. That’s just a division. So find that and add to it the 25 minutes spent at the two stops.

The various Reading the Comics posts should all be at this link. Essays which discuss **The Buckets** are at this link. The incredibly many essays mentioning **Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal** are at this link. Essays which mention **Cow and Boy** are at this link. Essays inspired in part by **Luann**, both the current-day and the vintage 1990 run, are at this link. The credibly many essays mentioning **Maria’s Day** are at this link.

And through the end of December my Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z should have two new posts a week. You might like some of them.