Reading the Comics, July 2, 2019: Back On Schedule Edition

I hoped I’d get a Reading the Comics post in for Tuesday, and even managed it. With this I’m all caught up to the syndicated comic strips which, last week, brought up some mathematics topic. I’m open for nominations about what to publish here Thursday. Write in quick.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange for the 30th is a struggling-student joke. And set in summer school, so the comic can be run the last day of June without standing out to its United States audience. It expresses a common anxiety, about that point when mathematics starts using letters. It superficially seems strange that this change worries students. Students surely had encountered problems where some term in an equation was replaced with a blank space and they were expected to find the missing term. This is the same work as using a letter. Still, there are important differences. First is that a blank line (box, circle, whatever) has connotations of “a thing to be filled in”. A letter seems to carry meaning in to the problem, even if it’s just “x marks the spot”. And a letter, as we use it in English, always stands for the same thing (or at least the same set of things). That ‘x’ may be 7 in one problem and 12 in another seems weird. I mean weird even by the standards of English orthography.

A letter might represent a number whose value we wish to know; it might represent a number whose value we don’t care about. These are different ideas. We usually fall into a convention where numbers we wish to know are more likely x, y, and z, while those we don’t care about are more likely a, b, and c. But even that’s no reliable rule. And there may be several letters in a single equation. It’s one thing to have a single unknown number to deal with. To have two? Three? I don’t blame people fearing they can’t handle that.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy for the 30th has Billy and Cow pondering the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This is one of the first examples someone encounters in game theory. Game theory sounds like the most fun part of mathematics. It’s the study of situations in which there’s multiple parties following formal rules which allow for gains or losses. This is an abstract description. It means many things fit a mathematician’s idea of a game.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is described well enough by Billy. It’s built on two parties, each — separately and without the ability to coordinate — having to make a choice. Both would be better off, under interrogation, to keep quiet and trust that the cops can’t get anything significant on them. But both have the temptation that if they rat out the other, they’ll get off free while their former partner gets screwed. And knowing that their partner has the same temptation. So what would be best for the two of them requires them both doing the thing that maximizes their individual risk. The implication is unsettling: everyone acting in their own best interest is supposed to produce the best possible result for society. And here, for the society of these two accused, it breaks down entirely.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby for the 1st is a rerun. I discussed it last time it appeared, in November 2016, which was before I would routinely include the strips under discussion. The strip’s built on wordplay, using the word ‘power’ in its connotations for might and for exponents.

Exponents have been written as numbers in superscript following a base for a long while now. The notation developed over the 17th century. I don’t know why mathematicians settled on superscripts, as opposed to the many other ways a base and an exponent might fit together. It’s a good mnemonic to remember, say, “z raised to the 10th” is z with a raised 10. But I don’t know the etymology of “raised” in a mathematical context well enough. It’s plausible that we say “raised” because that’s what the notation suggests.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 2nd argues for the beauty of mathematics as a use for it. It’s presented in a brutal manner, but saying brutal things to kids is a comic motif with history to it. Well, in an existentialist manner, but that gets pretty brutal quickly.

The proof of the Pythagorean Theorem is one of the very many known to humanity. This one is among the family of proofs that are wordless. At least nearly wordless. You can get from here to $a^2 + b^2 = c^2$ with very little prompting. If you do need prompting, it’s this: there are two expressions for how much area of the square with sides a-plus-b. One of these expressions uses only terms of a and b. The other expression uses terms of a, b, and c. If this doesn’t get a bit of a grin out of you, don’t worry. There’s, like, 2,037 other proofs we already know about. We might ask whether we need quite so many proofs of the Pythagorean theorem. It doesn’t seem to be under serious question most of the time.

And then a couple comic strips last week just mentioned mathematics. Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals for the 1st of July has the kids trying to understand their mathematics homework. Could have been anything. Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 5th started a sequence with the kids at Math Camp. The comic is trying quite hard to get me riled up. So far it’s been the kids agreeing that mathematics is the worst, and has left things at that. Hrmph.

Whether or not I have something for Thursday, by Sunday I should have anotherReading the Comics post. It, as well as my back catalogue of these essays, should be at this link. Thanks for worrying about me.

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 2, 2019: Back On Schedule Edition”

1. That Grand Avenue strip is really terrible. Fun != math, fun = easy, basket weaving isn’t math… so much wrong in one strip.

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1. I have sincerely wondered if Grand Avenue is aimed specifically at annoying me, or at least at annoying mathematicians. Every comic with kids in it does some “ugh, math” jokes, but Grand Avenue somehow makes them worse. I first noticed this in a sequence a couple summers ago, when Grandmom decided that the kids needed to spend some time ahead of school doing arithmetic exercises in some workbooks she’d gotten. My recollection is that the strip’s point of view was that sure the kids would whine but making them add eight and fifteen for a couple hours a day in their last weeks of summer break was good for them. I don’t blame the kids for hating mathematics; they’ve been trained to it.

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2. The teacher in summer school disagrees with the proof from the teacher conducting the express train.

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1. I don’t believe in the express train myself, but I can understand people who have thought things out in enough detail to come to that conclusion.

(I’m skeptical that, well, STEM types, myself included, put that much thought into the question, though. At least not before they accept that their interest in STEM fields is their interest and not evidence of superiority.)

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1. I meant, the express conductor uses Pythagoras’s Theorem, and the summer teacher is writing it down a non-equality.

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1. Oh! Oh, yes, of course. I was thinking so much about the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic that I forgot the Rhymes With Orange was even there. Tch.

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