I know; I’m more than a week behind the original publication of these strips. The Playful Math Education Blog Carnival took a lot of what attention I have these days. I’ll get caught up again soon enough. Comic Strip Master Command tried to help me, by having the close of a week ago being pretty small mathematics mentions, too. For example:
Craig Boldman and Henry Scarpelli’s Archie for the 27th has Moose struggling in mathematics this term. This is an interesting casual mention; the joke, of Moose using three words to describe a thing he said he could in two, would not fit sharply for anything but mathematics. Or, possibly, a measuring class, but there’s no high school even in fiction that has a class in measuring.
Bud Blake’s Vintage Tiger for the 27th has Tiger and Hugo struggling to find adjective forms for numbers. We can giggle at Hugo struggling for “quadruple” and going for something that makes more sense. We all top out somewhere, though, probably around quintuple or sextuple. I have never known anyone who claimed to know what the word would be for anything past decuple, and even staring at the dictionary page for “decuple” I don’t feel confident in it.
Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange for the 28th uses a blackboard full of calculations as shorthand for real insight into science. From context they’re likely working on some physics problem and it’s quite hard to do that without mathematics, must agree.
John Deering’s Strange Brew for the 28th name-drops slide rules, which, yeah, have mostly historical or symbolic importance these days. There might be some niche where they’re particularly useful (besides teaching logarithms), but I don’t know of it.
I haven’t forgotten about the comic strips. It happens that last week’s were mostly quite casual mentions, strips that don’t open themselves up to deep discussions. I write this before I see what I actually have to write about the strips. But here’s the first half of the past week’s. I’ll catch up on things soon.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 22nd, a new strip, has Jason and Marcus using arithmetic problems to signal pitches. At heart, the signals between a pitcher and catcher are just an index. They’re numbers because that’s an easy thing to signal given that one only has fingers and that they should be visually concealed. I would worry, in a pattern as complicated as these two would work out, about error correction. If one signal is mis-read — as will happen — how do they recognize it, and how do they fix it? This may seem like a lot of work to put to a trivial problem, but to conceal a message is important, whatever the message is.
James Beutel’s Banana Triangle for the 23rd has a character trying to convince himself os his intelligence. And doing so by muttering mathematics terms, mostly geometry. It’s a common shorthand to represent deep thinking.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 25th is a joke about orders of magnitude. The order of magnitude is, roughly, how big the number is. Often the first step of a physics problem is to try to get a calculation that’s of the right order of magnitude. Or at least close to the order of magnitude. This may seem pretty lax. If we want to find out something with value, say, 231, it seems weird to claim victory that our model says “it will be a three-digit number”. But getting the size of the number right is a first step. For many problems, particularly in cosmology or astrophysics, we’re intersted in things whose functioning is obscure. And relies on quantities we can measure very poorly. This is why we can see getting the order magnitude about right as an accomplishment.
There were a handful of other comic strips last week. If they have a common theme (and I’ll try to drag one out) it’s that they circle around pragmatism. Not just using mathematics in the real world but the fussy stuff of what you can calculate and what you can use a calculation for.
And, again, I am hosting the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival this month. If you’ve run across any online tool that teaches mathematics, or highlights some delightful feature of mathematics? Please, let me know about it here, and let me know what of your own projects I should feature with it. The goal is to share things about mathematics that helped you understand more of it. Even if you think it’s a slight thing (“who cares if you can tell whether a number’s divisible by 11 by counting the digits right?”) don’t worry. Slight things count. Speaking of which …
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 20th has a kid ask about one of those add-the-digits divisibility tests. What happens if the number is too big to add up all the digits? In some sense, the question is meaningless. We can imagine finding the sum of digits no matter how many digits there are. At least if there are finitely many digits.
But there is a serious mathematical question here. We accept the existence of numbers so big no human being could ever know their precise value. At least, we accept they exist in the same way that “4” exists. If a computation can’t actually be finished, then, does it actually mean anything? And if we can’t figure a way to shorten the calculation, the way we can usually turn the infinitely-long sum of a series into a neat little formula?
This gets into some cutting-edge mathematics. For calculations, some. But also, importantly, for proofs. A proof is, really, a convincing argument that something is true. The ideal of this is a completely filled-out string of logical deductions. These will take a long while. But, as long as it takes finitely many steps to complete, we normally accept the proof as done. We can imagine proofs that take more steps to complete than could possibly be thought out, or checked, or confirmed. We, living in the days after Gödel, are aware of the idea that there are statements which are true but unprovable. This is not that. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems tell us about statements that a deductive system can’t address. This is different. This is things that could be proven true (or false), if only the universe were more vast than it is.
There are logicians who work on the problem of what too-long-for-the-universe proofs can mean. Or even what infinitely long proofs can mean, if we allow those. And how they challenge our ideas of what “proof” and “knowledge” and “truth” are. I am not among these people, though, and can’t tell you what interesting results they have concluded. I just want to let you know the kid in Frazz is asking a question you can get a spot in a mathematics or philosophy department pondering. I mean so far as it’s possible to get a spot in a mathematics or philosophy department.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th is a less heady topic. Its speaker is doing an ethical calculation. These sorts of things are easy to spin into awful conclusions. They treat things like suffering with the same tools that we use to address the rates of fluids mixing, or of video game statistics. This often seems to trivialize suffering, which we feel like we shouldn’t do.
This kind of calculation is often done, though. It’s rather a hallmark of utilitarianism to try writing an equation for an ethical question. It blends often more into economics, where the questions can seem less cruel even if they are still about questions of life and death. But as with any model, what you build into the model directs your results. The lecturer here supposes that guilt is diminished by involving more people. (This seems rather true to human psychology, though it’s likely more that the sense of individual responsibility dissolves in a large enough group. There are many other things at work, though, all complicated and interacting in nonlinear ways.) If we supposed that the important measure was responsibility for the killing, we would get that the more people involved in killing, the worse it is, and that a larger war only gets less and less ethical. (This also seems true to human psychology.)
Jeff Corriveau’s Deflocked for the 20th sees Mamet calculating how many days of life he expects to have left. There are roughly 1,100 days in three years, so, Mamet’s figuring on about 40 years of life. These kinds of calculation are often grim to consider. But we all have long-term plans that we would like to do (retirement, and its needed savings, are an important one) and there’s no making a meaningful plan without an idea of what the goals are.
This finally closes out the last week’s comic strips. Please stop in next week as I get to some more mathematics comics and the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival. Thanks for reading.
I thought last week’s comic strips mentioning mathematics in detail were still subjects easy to describe in one or two paragraphs each. I wasn’t quite right. So here’s a half of a week, even if it is a day later than I had wanted to post.
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate for the 15th is a wordy bit of Nate refusing the story problem. Nate complains about a lack of motivation for the characters in it. But then what we need for a story problem isn’t the characters to do something so much as it is the student to want to solve the problem. That’s hard work. Everyone’s fascinated by some mathematical problems, but it’s hard to think of something that will compel everyone to wonder what the answer could be.
At one point Nate wonders what happens if Todd stops for gas. Here he’s just ignoring the premise of the question: Todd is given as travelling an average 55 mph until he reaches Saint Louis, and that’s that. So this question at least is answered. But he might need advice to see how it’s implied.
So this problem is doable by long division: 1825 divided by 80, and 1192 divided by 55, and see what’s larger. Can we avoid dividing by 55 if we’re doing it by hand? I think so. Here’s what I see: 1825 divided by 80 is equal to 1600 divided by 80 plus 225 divided by 80. That first is 20; that second is … eh. It’s a little less than 240 divided by 80, which is 3. So Mandy will need a little under 23 hours.
Is 23 hours enough for Todd to get to Saint Louis? Well, 23 times 55 will be 23 times 50 plus 23 times 5. 23 times 50 is 22 times 50 plus 1 times 50. 22 times 50 is 11 times 100, or 1100. So 23 times 50 is 1150. And 23 times 5 has to be 150. That’s more than 1192. So Todd gets there first. I might want to figure just how much less than 23 hours Mandy needs, to be sure of my calculation, but this is how I do it without putting 55 into an ugly number like 1192.
Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy repeat for the 17th sees the Boy, Billy, trying to beat the lottery. He throws at it the terms chaos theory and nonlinear dynamical systems. They’re good and probably relevant systems. A “dynamical system” is what you’d guess from the name: a collection of things whose properties keep changing. They change because of other things in the collection. When “nonlinear” crops up in mathematics it means “oh but such a pain to deal with”. It has a more precise definition, but this is its meaning. More precisely: in a linear system, a change in the initial setup makes a proportional change in the outcome. If Todd drove to Saint Louis on a path two percent longer, he’d need two percent more time to get there. A nonlinear system doesn’t guarantee that; a two percent longer drive might take ten percent longer, or one-quarter the time, or some other weirdness. Nonlinear systems are really good for giving numbers that look random. There’ll be so many little factors that make non-negligible results that they can’t be predicted in any useful time. This is good for drawing number balls for a lottery.
Chaos theory turns up a lot in dynamical systems. Dynamical systems, even nonlinear ones, often have regions that behave in predictable patterns. We may not be able to say what tomorrow’s weather will be exactly, but we can say whether it’ll be hot or freezing. But dynamical systems can have regions where no prediction is possible. Not because they don’t follow predictable rules. But because any perturbation, however small, produces changes that overwhelm the forecast. This includes the difference between any possible real-world measurement and the real quantity.
Obvious question: how is there anything to study in chaos theory, then? Is it all just people looking at complicated systems and saying, yup, we’re done here? Usually the questions turn on problems such as how probable it is we’re in a chaotic region. Or what factors influence whether the system is chaotic, and how much of it is chaotic. Even if we can’t say what will happen, we can usually say something about when we can’t say what will happen, and why. Anyway if Billy does believe the lottery is chaotic, there’s not a lot he can be doing with predicting winning numbers from it. Cow’s skepticism is fair.
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 17th is one about people asked to summon random numbers. Utahraptor is absolutely right. People are terrible at calling out random numbers. We’re more likely to summon odd numbers than we should be. We shy away from generating strings of numbers. We’d feel weird offering, say, 1234, though that’s as good a four-digit number as 1753. And to offer 2222 would feel really weird. Part of this is that there’s not really such a thing as “a” random number; it’s sequences of numbers that are random. We just pick a number from a random sequence. And we’re terrible at producing random sequences. Here’s one study, challenging people to produce digits from 1 through 9. Are their sequences predictable? If the numbers were uniformly distributed from 1 through 9, then any prediction of the next digit in a sequence should have a one chance in nine of being right. It turns out human-generated sequences form patterns that could be forecast, on average, 27% of the time. Individual cases could get forecast 45% of the time.
There are some neat side results from that study too, particularly that they were able to pretty reliably tell the difference between two individuals by their “random” sequences. We may be bad at thinking up random numbers but the details of how we’re bad can be unique.
Justin Boyd’s Invisible Bread for the 18th> has an exhausted student making the calculation of they’ll do better enough after a good night’s sleep to accept a late penalty. This is always a difficult calculation to make, since you make it when your thinking is clouded by fatigue. But: there is no problem you have which sleep deprivation makes better. Put sleep first. Budget the rest of your day around that. Take it from one who knows and regrets a lot of nights cheated of rest. (This seems to be the first time I’ve mentioned Invisible Bread around here. Given the strip’s subject matter that’s a surprise, but only a small one.)
One of Gary Larson’s The Far Side reruns for the 19th is set in a mathematics department, and features writing a nasty note “in mathematics”. There are many mathematical jokes, some of them written as equations. A mathematician will recognize them pretty well. None have the connotation of, oh, “Kick Me” or something else that would belong as a prank sign like that. Or at least nobody’s told me about them.
Pi Day was observed with fewer, and fewer on-point, comic strips than I had expected. It’s possible that the whimsy of the day has been exhausted. Or that Comic Strip Master Command advised people that the educational purposes of the day were going to be diffused because of the accident of the calendar. And a fair number of the strips that did run in the back half of last week weren’t substantial. So here’s what did run.
And now we get to the strips that actually ran on the 14th of March.
Hector D Cantú and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo is a slightly weird one. It’s about Gracie reflecting on how much she’s struggled with mathematics problems. There are a couple pieces meant to be funny here. One is the use of oddball numbers like 1.39 or 6.23 instead of easy-to-work-with numbers like “a dollar” or “a nickel” or such. The other is that the joke is .. something in the vein of “I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken”. Gracie’s calculation indicates she thinks she’s struggled with a math problem a little under 0.045 times. It’s a peculiar number. Either she’s boasting that she struggles very little with mathematics, or she’s got her calculations completely wrong and hasn’t recognized it. She’s consistently portrayed as an excellent student, though. So the “barely struggles” or maybe “only struggles a tiny bit at the start of a problem” interpretation is more likely what’s meant.
π has infinitely many decimal digits, certainly. Of course, so does 2. It’s just that 2 has boring decimal digits. Rational numbers end up repeating some set of digits. It can be a long string of digits. But it’s finitely many, and compared to an infinitely long and unpredictable string, what’s that? π we know is a transcendental number. Its decimal digits go on in a sequence that never ends and never repeats itself fully, although finite sequences within it will repeat. It’s one of the handful of numbers we find interesting for reasons other than their being transcendental. This though nearly every real number is transcendental. I think any mathematician would bet that it is a normal number, but we don’t know that it is. I’m not aware of any numbers we know to be normal and that we care about for any reason other than their normality. And this, weirdly, also despite that we know nearly every real number is normal.
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check plays on the pun between π and pie, and uses the couple of decimal digits of π that most people know as part of the joke. It’s not an anthropomorphic numerals joke, but it is circling that territory.
Michael Cavna’s Warped celebrates Albert Einstein’s birthday. This is of marginal mathematics content, but Einstein did write compose one of the few equations that an average lay person could be expected to recognize. It happens that he was born the 14th of March and that’s, in recent years, gotten merged into Pi Day observances.
There were a good number of comic strips mentioning mathematical subjects last week, as you might expect for one including the 14th of March. Most of them were casual mentions, though, so that’s why this essay looks like this. And is why the week will take two pieces to finish.
Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 9th is a memorial strip to Katherine Johnson. She was, as described, a NASA mathematician, and one of the great number of African-American women whose work computing was rescued from obscurity by the book and movie Hidden Figures. NASA, and its associated agencies, do a lot of mathematical work. Much of it is numerical mathematics: a great many orbital questions, for example, can not be answered with, like, the sort of formula that describes how far away a projectile launched on a parabolic curve will land. Creating a numerical version of a problem requires insight and thought about how to represent what we would like to know. And calculating that requires further insight, so that the calculation can be done accurately and speedily. (I think about sometime doing a bit about the sorts of numerical computing featured in the movie, but I would hardly be the first.)
I also had thought the Mathematical Moments from the American Mathematical Society had posted an interview with her last year. I was mistaken but in, I think, a forgivable way. In the episode “Winning the Race”, posted the 12th of June, they interviewed Christine Darden, another of the people in the book, though not (really) the movie. Darden joined NASA in the late 60s. But the interview does talk about this sort of work, and how it evolved with technology. And, of course, mentions Johnson and her influence.
Stephen Beals’s Adult Children for the 11th has a character mourning that he took calculus as he’s “too stupid to be smart”. Knowing mathematics is often used as proof of intelligence. And calculus is used as the ultimate of mathematics. It’s a fair question why calculus and not some other field of mathematics, like differential equations or category theory or topology. Probably it’s a combination of slightly lucky choices (for calculus). Calculus is old enough to be respectable. It’s often taught as the ultimate mathematics course that people in high school or college (and who aren’t going into a mathematics field) will face. It’s a strange subject. Learning it requires a greater shift in thinking about how to solve problems than even learning algebra does. And the name is friendly enough, without the wordiness or technical-sounding language of, for example, differential equations. The subject may be well-situated.
I’ll have the rest of the week’s strips, including what Comic Strip Master Command ordered done for Pi Day, soon. And again I mention that I’m hosting this month’s Playful Math Education Blog Carnival. If you have come across a web site with some bit of mathematics that brought you delight and insight, please let me know, and mention any creative projects that you have, that I may mention that too. Thank you.
It was another pretty quiet week for mathematically-themed comic strips. Most of what did mention my subject just presented it as a subject giving them homework or quizzes or exams. But let’s look over what is here.
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 5th is the most interesting strip of the week, since it suggests an actual answerable mathematics problem. How much does a professional basketball player earn per dribble? The answer requires a fair bit of thought, like, what do you mean by “a professional basketball player”? There’s many basketball leagues around the world; even if we limit the question to United States-and-Canada leagues, there’s a fair number of minor leagues. If we limit it to the National Basketball Association there’s the question of whether the salary is the minimum union contract guarantee, or the mean salary, or the median salary. It’s exciting to look at the salary of the highest-paid players, too, of course.
Working out the number of dribbles per year is also a fun estimation challenge. Even if we pick a representative player there’s no getting an exact count of how many dribbles they’ve made over a year, even if we just consider “dribbling during games” to be what’s paid for. (And any reasonable person would have to count all the dribbling done during warm-up and practice as part of what’s being paid for.) But someone could come up with an estimate of, for example, about how long a typical player has the ball for a game, and how much of that time is spent moving the ball or preparing for a free throw or other move that calls for dribbling. How long a dribble typically takes. How many games a player typically plays over the year. The estimate you get from this will never, ever, be exactly right. But it should be close enough to give an idea how much money a player earns in the time it takes to dribble the ball once. So occasionally the comics put forth a good story problem after all.
Quincy on the 7th is again worrying about his mathematics and spelling tests. It’s a cute coincidence that these are the subjects worried about in Wee Pals too.
Paul Gilligan’s Pooch Cafe for the 7th is part of a string of jokes about famous dogs. This one’s a riff on Albert Einstein, mentioned here because Albert Einstein has such strong mathematical associations.
I can clear out all last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips in one move, it looks like. There were a fair number of strips; it’s just they mostly mention mathematics in passing.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 23rd — a new strip; it’s still in original production for Sundays — has Jason asking his older sister to double-check a mathematics problem. Double-checking work is reliably useful, as proof against mistakes both stupid and subtle. But that’s true of any field.
Jim Unger’s Herman for the 23rd has a parent complaining about the weird New Math. The strip is a rerun and I don’t know from when; it hardly matters. The New Math has been a whipping boy for mathematics education since about ten minutes after its creation. And the complaint attaches to every bit of mathematics education reform ever. I am sympathetic to parents, who don’t see why their children should be the test subjects for a new pedagogy. And who don’t want to re-learn mathematics in order to understand what their children are doing. But, still, let someone know you were a mathematics major and they will tell you how much they didn’t understand or like mathematics in school. It’s hard to see why not try teaching it differently.
(If you do go out pretending to be a mathematics major, don’t worry. If someone challenges you on a thing, cite “Euler’s Theorem”, and you’ll have said something on point. And I’ll cover for you.)
Brian Gordon’s Fowl Language for the 25th has a father trying to explain the vastness of Big Numbers to their kid. Past a certain point none of us really know how big a thing is. We can talk about 300 sextillion stars, or anything else, and reason can tell us things about that number. But do we understand it? Like, can we visualize that many stars the way we can imagine twelve stars? This gets us into the philosophy of mathematics pretty soundly. 300 sextillion is no more imaginary than four is, but I know I feel more confident in my understanding of four. How does that make sense? And can you explain that to your kid?
Vic Lee’s Pardon my Planet for the 28th has an appearance by Albert Einstein. And a blackboard full of symbols. The symbols I can make out are more chemistry than mathematics, but they do exist just to serve as decoration.
So way back about fifty years ago, when pop science started to seriously explain how computers worked, and when the New Math fad underscored how much mathematics is an arbitrary cultural choice, the existence of number bases other than ten got some publicity. This offered the chance for a couple of jokes, or at least things which read to pop-science-fans as jokes. For example, playing on a typographical coincidence between how some numbers are represented in octal (base eight) and decimal (base ten), we could put forth this: for computer programmers Halloween is basically another Christmas. After all, 31 OCT = 25 DEC. It’s not much of a joke, but how much of a joke could you possibly make from “writing numbers in different bases”? Anyway, Isaac Asimov was able to make a short mystery out of it.
Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 21st is part of a sequence with Agnes having found some manner of tablet computer. Automatic calculation has always been a problem in teaching arithmetic. A computer’s always able to do more calculations, more accurately, than a person is; so, whey do people need to learn anything about how to calculate? The excuse that we might not always have a calculator was at least a little tenable up to about fifteen years ago. Now it’d take a massive breakdown in society for computing devices not to be pretty well available. This would probably take long enough for us to brush up on long division.
It’s more defensible to say that people need to be able to say whether an answer is plausible. If we don’t have any expectations for the answer, we don’t know whether we’ve gone off and calculated a wrong thing. This is a bit more convincing. We should have some idea whether 25, 2500, or 25 million is the more likely answer. That won’t help us spot whether we made a mistake and got 27 instead of 25, though. It does seem reasonable to say that we can’t appreciate mathematics, so much of which is studying patterns and structures, without practicing. And arithmetic offers great patterns and structures, while still being about things that we find familiar and useful. So that’s likely to stay around.
John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 21st is a student-subverting-the-blackboard-problem joke. Jughaid’s put the arithmetic problems into terms of what he finds most interesting. To me, it seems like if this is helping him get comfortable with the calculations, let him. If he does this kind of problem often enough, he’ll get good at it and let the false work of going through sports problems fade away.
Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine for the 21st sees Pig working through a simple Retirement Calculator. He appreciates the mathematics being easy. A realistic model would have wrinkles to it. For example, the retirement savings would presumably be returning interest, from investments or from simple deposit accounts. Working out how much one gets from that, combined with possibly spending down the principal, can be involved. But a rough model doesn’t need this sort of detailed complication. It can be pretty simple, and still give you some guidance to what a real answer should look like.
John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Working Daze for the 21st is a joke about how guys assuming that stuff they like is inherently interesting to other people. In this case, it’s hexadecimal arithmetic. That’s at least got the slight appeal that we’ve settled on using a couple of letters as numerals for it, so that wordplay and word-like play is easier than it is in base ten.
And this wraps up a string of comic strips all with some mathematical theme that all posted on the same day. I grant none of these get very deep into mathematical topics; that’s all right. There’ll be some more next week in a post at this link. Thank you.
The weekday Doonesbury has been in reruns for a very long while. Recently it’s been reprinting strips from the 1990s and something that I remember producing Very Worried Editorials, back in the day.
Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury for the 17th reprints a sequence that starts off with the dread menace and peril of Grade Inflation, the phenomenon in which it turns out students of the generational cohort after yours are allowed to get A’s. (And, to a lesser extent, the phenomenon in which instructors respond to the treatment of education as a market by giving the “customers” the grades they’re “buying”.) The strip does depict an attitude common towards mathematics, though, the idea that it must be a subject immune to Grade Inflation: “aren’t there absolute answers”? If we are careful to say what we mean by an “absolute answer” then, sure.
But grades? Oh, there is so much subjectivity as to what goes into a course. And into what level to teach that course at. How to grade, and how harshly to grade. It may be easier, compared to other subjects, to make mathematics grading more consistent year-to-year. One can make many problems that test the same skill and yet use different numbers, at least until you get into topics like abstract algebra where numbers stop being interesting. But the factors that would allow any course’s grade to inflate are hardly stopped by the department name.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th is a strip about using a great wall of equations as emblem of deep, substantial thought. The equations depicted are several meaningful ones. The top row is from general relativity, the Einstein Field Equations. These relate the world-famous Ricci curvature tensor with several other tensors, describing how mass affects the shape of space. The P = NP line describes a problem of computational science with an unknown answer. It’s about whether two different categories of problems are, in fact, equivalent. The line about is a tensor-based scheme to describe the electromagnetic field. The next two lines look, to me, like they’re deep in Schrödinger’s Equation, describing quantum mechanics. It’s possible Weinersmith has a specific problem in mind; I haven’t spotted it.
Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 18th is one of the Guy Walks Into A Bar line, each of which has a traditional joke setup undermined by a technical point. In this case, it’s the horse counting in base four, in which representation the number 2 + 2 is written as 10. Really, yes, “10 in base four” is the number four. I imagine properly the horse should say “four” aloud. But it is quite hard to read the symbols “10” as anything but ten. It’s not as though anyone looks at the hexadecimal number “4C” and pronounces it “76”, either.
Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury for the 19th twisted the Grade Inflation peril to something that felt new in the 90s: an attack on mathematics as “Eurocentric”. The joke depends on the reputation of mathematics as finding objectively true things. Many mathematicians accept this idea. After all, once we’ve seen a proof that we can do the quadrature of a lune, it’s true regardless of what anyone thinks of quadratures and lunes, and whether that person is of a European culture or another one.
But there are several points to object to here. The first is, what’s a quadrature? … This is a geometric thing; it’s finding a square that’s the same area as some given shape, using only straightedge and compass constructions. The second is, what’s a lune? It’s a crescent moon-type shape (hence the name) that you can make by removing the overlap from two circles of specific different radiuses arranged in a specific way. It turns out you can find the quadrature for the lune shape, which makes it seem obvious that you should be able to find the quadrature for a half-circle, a way easier (to us) shape. And it turns out you can’t. The third question is, who cares about making squares using straightedge and compass? And the answer is, well, it’s considered a particularly elegant way of constructing shapes. To the Ancient Greeks. And to those of us who’ve grown in a mathematics culture that owes so much to the Ancient Greeks. Other cultures, ones placing more value on rulers and protractors, might not give a fig about quadratures and lunes.
This before we get into deeper questions. For example, if we grant that some mathematical thing is objectively true, independent of the culture which finds it, then what role does the proof play? It can’t make the thing more or less true. It doesn’t eve matter whether the proof is flawed, or whether it convinces anyone. It seems to imply a mathematician isn’t actually needed for their mathematics. This runs contrary to intuition.
Anyway, this gets off the point of the student here, who’s making a bad-faith appeal to multiculturalism to excuse laziness. It’s difficult to imagine a culture that doesn’t count, at least, even if they don’t do much work with numbers like 144. Granted that, it seems likely they would recognize that 12 has some special relationship with 144, even if they don’t think too much of square roots as a thing.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 12th features some poor tutoring on Gunther’s part. Usually a person isn’t stuck for what the answer to a problem is; they’re stuck on how to do it correctly. Maybe on how to do it efficiently. But tutoring is itself a skill, and it’s a hard one to learn. We don’t get enough instruction in how to do it.
The problem Luann’s doing is one of simplifying an expression. I remember doing a lot of this, in middle school algebra like that. Simplifying expressions does not change their value; we don’t create new ideas by writing them. So why simplify?
Any grammatically correct expression for a concept may be as good as any other grammatically correct expression. This is as true in writing as it is in mathematics. So what is good writing? There are a thousand right answers. One trait that I think most good writing has is that it makes concepts feel newly accessible. It frames something in a way which makes ideas easier to see. So it is with simplifying algebraic expressions. Finding a version of a formula that makes clearer what you would like to do makes the formula more useful.
Simplifying like this, putting an expression into the fewest number of terms, is common. It typically makes it easier to calculate with a formula. We calculate with formulas all the time. It often makes it easier to compare one formula to another. We compare formulas some of the time. So we practice simplifying like this a lot. Occasionally we’ll have a problem where this simplification is counter-productive and we’d do better to write out something as, to make up an example, instead. Someone who’s gotten good at simplifications, to the point it doesn’t take very much work, is likely to spot cases where one wants to keep part of the expression un-simplified.
Chen Weng’s Messycow Comics for the 13th starts off with some tut-tutting of lottery players. Objectively, yes, money put on a lottery ticket is wasted; even, for example, pick-three or pick-four daily games are so unlikely to pay any award as to be worth it. But I cannot make myself believe that this is necessarily a more foolish thing to do with a couple dollars than, say, buying a candy bar or downloading a song you won’t put on any playlists.
And as the Cow points out, the chance of financial success in art — in any creative field — is similarly ridiculously slight. Even skilled people need a stroke of luck to make it, and even then, making it is a marginal matter. (There is a reason I haven’t quit my job to support myself by blog-writing.) People are terrible at estimating probabilities, especially in situations that are even slightly complicated.
Finally we get to last week’s comics. This past one wasn’t nearly so busy a week for mathematically-themed comic strips. But there’s still just enough that I can split them across two days. This fits my schedule well, too.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 9th is trying to be the anthropomorphized numerals joke of the week. It’s not quite there, but it also uses some wordplay. … And I’ll admit being impressed any of the kids could do much with turning any of the numerals into funny pictures. I remember once having a similar assignment, except that we were supposed to use the shape of our state, New Jersey, as the basis for the picture. I grant I am a dreary and literal-minded person. But there’s not much that the shape of New Jersey resembles besides itself, “the shape of Middlesex County, New Jersey”, and maybe a discarded sock. I’m not still upset about this.
The choice of ‘z’ to mean a snore is an arbitrary choice, no more inherent to the symbol than that ‘2’ should mean two. Christopher Miller’s American Cornball, which tracks a lot of (American) comedic conventions of the 20th century, notes a 1911 comic postcard representing snoring as “Z-Z-Z-Z-R-R-R-R-Z-Z-Z-Z-R-R-R-R”, which captures how the snore is more than a single prolonged sound.
Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 11th has the traditional blackboard full of symbols. And two mathematics-types agreeing that they could make up some more symbols. Well, mathematics is full of symbols. Each was created by someone. Each had a point, which was to express some concept better. Usually the goal is to be more economical: it’s fewer strokes of the pen to write = instead of “equals”, and = is quicker even than “eq”. Or we want to talk a lot about a complicated concept, which is how we get, say, for “a representative of the set of angles with sine equal to x”.
I suspect every mathematician has made up a couple symbols in their notes. In the excitement of working out a problem there’ll be something they want to refer to a lot. That gets reduced to an acronym or a repeated scribble soon enough. Sometimes it’s done by accident: for a while when I needed a dummy variable I would call on “ksee”, a Greek letter so obscure that it does not even exist. It looks like a cross between zeta and xi. The catch is, always, getting anyone else to use the symbol. Most of these private symbols stay private, because they don’t do work that can’t be better done by a string of symbols we already have (letters included). Or at least they don’t to well enough to be worth the typesetting trouble. I’d be surprised if any of the students I used “ksee” in front of reused the letter, even if they did find a need for a dummy variable. Founding a field, or writing a definitive text in a field, helps your chances.
I am curious how the modern era of digital typesetting will affect symbol creation. It’s relatively easy to put in a new symbol — or to summon one in the Unicode universe not currently used for mathematics — in a document and have it copied. Certainly it’s easy compared to what it was like in typewriter and Linotype days, when you might need to rely on a friend who knows a guy at the type foundry. On the other hand, it’s hard enough to get the raw file in LaTeX — a long-established standard mathematics typesetting computer language — from another person and have it actually work, even without adding in new symbols. I don’t see that changing just because several people have found that a bubble tea emoji quite helps their paper on sedimentation rates.
Pedro Martin’s Mexikid Stories for the 11th recounts childhood memories and anxieties of being matched, boys versus girls, in various activities. This includes mathematics quizzes. Here, the mathematics is done as a class game, which is a neat coincidence as I’d been thinking of similar public mathematics quiz-games that I’d done. I liked them, but then, I was almost always at top or second in the class rankings, and — after the initial couple rounds — never fell below third. My recent thoughts were for how much less fun this must have been for the kids in 26th place, especially if they’re ones who can do the work just fine, given time and space. We do value speed, in working, and that comes from practicing a task so often that we do it in the slightest time possible. And we value ability to perform under pressure, so we put people into anxiety-producing states until they can do a particular task anyway.
With this essay, I finally finish the comic strips from the first full week of February. You know how these things happen. I’ll get to the comics from last week soon enough, at an essay gathered under this link. For now, some pictures with words:
Art Sansom and Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser for the 7th builds on one of the probability questions people often use. That is the probability of an event, in the weather forecast. Predictions for what the weather will do are so common that it takes work to realize there’s something difficult about the concept. The weather is a very complicated fluid-dynamics problem. It’s almost certainly chaotic. A chaotic system is deterministic, but unpredictable, because to get a meaningful prediction requires precision that’s impossible to ever have in the real world. The slight difference between the number π and the number 3.1415926535897932 throws calculations off too quickly. Nevertheless, it implies that the “chance” of snow on the weekend means about the same thing as the “chance” that Valentinte’s Day was on the weekend this year. The way the system is set up implies it will be one or the other. This is a probability distribution, yes, but it’s a weird one.
What we talk about when we say the “chance” of snow or Valentine’s on a weekend day is one of ignorance. It’s about our estimate that the true value of something is one of the properties we find interesting. Here, past knowledge can guide us. If we know that the past hundred times the weather was like this on Friday, snow came on the weekend less than ten times, we have evidence that suggests these conditions don’t often lead to snow. This is backed up, these days, by numerical simulations which are not perfect models of the weather. But they are ones that represent something very like the weather, and that stay reasonably good for several days or a week or so.
And we have the question of whether the forecast is right. Observing this fact is used as the joke here. Still, there must be some measure of confidence in a forecast. Around here, the weather forecast is for a cold but not abnormally cold week ahead. This seems likely. A forecast that it was to jump into the 80s and stay there for the rest of February would be so implausible that we’d ignore it altogether. A forecast that it would be ten degrees (Fahrenheit) below normal, or above, though? We could accept that pretty easily.
Proving a forecast is wrong takes work, though. Mostly it takes evidence. If we look at a hundred times the forecast was for a 10% chance of snow, and it actually snowed 11% of the time, is it implausible that the forecast was right? Not really, not any more than a coin coming up tails 52 times out of 100 would be suspicious. If it actually snowed 20% of the time? That might suggest that the forecast was wrong. If it snowed 80% of the time? That suggests something’s very wrong with the forecasting methods. It’s hard to say one forecast is wrong, but we can have a sense of what forecasters are more often right than others are.
Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens for the 7th is a cute little bit about counting. Counting things out is an interesting process; for some people, hearing numbers said aloud will disrupt their progress. For others, it won’t, but seeing numbers may disrupt it instead.
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 8th is a bit of silliness about the mathematical sense of animals. Studying how animals understand number is a real science, and it turns up interesting results. It shouldn’t be surprising that animals can do a fair bit of counting and some geometric reasoning, although it’s rougher than even our untrained childhood expertise. We get a good bit of our basic mathematical ability from somewhere, because we’re evolved to notice some things. It’s silly to suppose that dogs would be able to state the Pythagorean Theorem, at least in a form that we recognize. But it is probably someone’s good research problem to work out whether we can test whether dogs understand the implications of the theorem, and whether it helps them go about dog work any.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 8th speaks of the “Cinnamon Roll Delta Function”. The point is clear enough on its own. So let me spoil a good enough bit of fluff by explaining that it’s a reference to something. There is, lurking in mathematical physics, a concept called the “Dirac delta function”, named for that innovative and imaginative fellow Paul Dirac. It has some weird properties. Its domain is … well, it has many domains. The real numbers. The set of ordered pairs of real numbers, R2. The set of ordered triples of real numbers, R3. Basically any space you like, there’s a Dirac delta function for it. The Dirac delta function is equal to zero everywhere in this domain, except at one point, the “origin”. At that one function, though? There it’s equal to …
Here we step back a moment. We really, really, really want to say that it’s infinitely large at that point, which is what Weinersmith’s graph shows. If we’re being careful, we don’t say that though. Because if we did say that, then we would lose the thing that we use the Dirac delta function for. The Dirac delta function, represented with δ, is a function with the property that for any set D, in the domain, that you choose to integrate over
whenever the origin is inside the interval of integration D. It’s equal to 0 if the origin is not inside the interval of integration. This, whatever the set is. If we use the ordinary definitions for what it means to integrate a function, and say that the delta function is “infinitely big” at the origin, then this won’t happen; the integral will be zero everywhere.
This is one of those cases where physicists worked out new mathematical concepts, and the mathematicians had to come up with a rationalization by which this made sense. This because the function is quite useful. It allows us, mathematically, to turn descriptions of point particles into descriptions of continuous fields. And vice-versa: we can turn continuous fields into point particles. It turns out we like to do this a lot. So if we’re being careful we don’t say just what the Dirac delta function “is” at the origin, only some properties about what it does. And if we’re being further careful we’ll speak of it as a “distribution” rather than a function.
But colloquially, we think of the Dirac delta function as one that’s zero everywhere, except for the one point where it’s somehow “a really big infinity” and we try to not look directly at it.
The sharp-eyed observer may notice that Weinersmith’s graph does not put the great delta spike at the origin, that is, where the x-axis represents zero. This is true. We can create a delta-like function with a singular spot anywhere we like by the process called “translation”. That is, if we would like the function to be zero everywhere except at the point , then we define a function and are done. Translation is a simple step, but it turns out to be useful all the time.
Besides kids doing homework there were a good ten or so comic strips with enough mathematical content for me to discuss. So let me split that over a couple of days; I don’t have the time to do them all in one big essay.
Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 2nd is declared to be a Venn Diagram joke. As longtime readers of these columns know, it’s actually an Euler Diagram: a Venn Diagram requires some area of overlap between all combinations of the various sets. Two circles that never touch, or as these two do touch at a point, don’t count. They do qualify as Euler Diagrams, which have looser construction requirements. But everything’s named for Euler, so that’s a less clear identifier.
John Kovaleski’s Daddy Daze for the 2nd talks about probability. Particularly about the probability of guessing someone’s birthday. This is going to be about one chance in 365, or 366 in leap years. Birthdays are not perfectly uniformly distributed through the year. The 13th is less likely than other days in the month for someone to be born; this surely reflects a reluctance to induce birth on an unlucky day. Births are marginally more likely in September than in other months of the year; this surely reflects something having people in a merry-making mood in December. These are tiny effects, though, and to guess any day has about one chance in 365 of being someone’s birthday will be close enough.
If the child does this long enough there’s almost sure to be a match of person and birthday. It’s not guaranteed in the first 365 cards given out, or even the first 730, or more. But, if the birthdays of passers-by are independent — one pedestrian’s birthday has nothing to do with the next’s — then, overall, about one-365th of all cards will go to someone whose birthday it is. (This also supposes that we won’t see things like the person picked saying that while it’s not their birthday, it is their friend’s, here.) This, the Law of Large Numbers, one of the cornerstones of probability, guarantees us.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 2nd is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. And it’s a Venn Diagram joke, at least if the two circles are “really” there. Diplopia is what most of us would call double vision, seeing multiple offset copies of a thing. So the Venn diagram might be an optical illusion on the part of the businessman and the reader.
Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 3rd is an anthropomorphic mathematical symbols joke. I suppose it’s algebraic symbols. We usually get to see the ‘x’ and ‘y’ axes in (high school) algebra, used to differentiate two orthogonal axes. The axes can be named anything. If ‘x’ and ‘y’ won’t do, we might move to using and . In linear algebra, when we might want to think about Euclidean spaces with possibly enormously many dimensions, we may change the names to and . (We could use subscripts of 0 and 1, although I do not remember ever seeing someone do that.)
Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals for the 3rd is a repeat, of course. Turner died several years ago and no one continued the strip. But it is also a repeat that I have discussed in these essays before, which likely makes this a good reason to drop Wee Pals from my regular reading here. There are 42 distinct ways to add (positive) whole numbers up to make ten, when you remember that you can add three or four or even six numbers together to do it. The study of how many different ways to make the same sum is a problem of partitioning. This might not seem very interesting, but if you try to guess how many ways there are to add up to 9 or 11 or 15, you’ll notice it’s a harder problem than it appears.
And for all that, there’s still some more comic strips to review. I will probably slot those in to Sunday, and start taking care of this current week’s comic strips on … probably Tuesday. Please check in at this link Sunday, and Tuesday, and we’ll see what I do.
There were a bunch of comic strips mentioning some kind of mathematical theme last week. I need to clear some out. So I’ll start with some of the marginal mentions. Many of these involve having to deal with exams or quizzes.
There are different ways to find square roots. (I can guarantee that Skip wasn’t expected to use this one.) The term ‘root’ derives from an idea that the root of a number is the thing that generates it: 3 is a square root of 9 because multiplying 3’s together gives you 9. ‘Square’ is I have always only assumed because multiplying a number by itself will give you the area of a square with sides of length that number. This is such an obvious word origin, though, that I am reflexively suspicious. Word histories are usually subtle and capricious things.
The strip for the 8th closing the storyline has a nice example of using “billion” as a number so big as to be magical, capable of anything. Big numbers can do strange and contrary-to-intuition things. But they can be reasoned out.
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 4th sees the title character figuring she could sell her “personal smartness”. Her best friend Trout wonders if that’s tutoring math or something. (Incidentally, Agnes is one of the small handful of strips to capture what made Calvin and Hobbes great; I recommend giving it a try.)
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Begins for the 5th sees Charlie Brown working problems on the board. He’s stuck for what to do until he recasts the problem as scoring in football and golf. We may giggle at this, but I support his method. It’s convinced him the questions are worth solving, the most important thing to doing them at all. And it’s gotten him to the correct answers. Casting these questions as sports problems is the building of falsework: it helps one do the task, and then is taken away (or hidden) from the final product. Everyone who does mathematics builds some falsework like this. If we do a particular problem, or kind of problem, often enough we get comfortable enough with the main work that we don’t need the falsework anymore. So it is likely to be for Charlie Brown.
There’s some comic strips that get mentioned here all the time. Then there’s comic strips that I have been reading basically my whole life, and that never give me a thread to talk about. Although I’ve been reading comic strips for their mathematics content for a long while now, somehow, I am still surprised when these kinds of comic strip are not the same thing. So here’s the end of last week’s comics, almost in time for next week to start:
Kevin Fagan’s Drabble for the 28th has Penny doing “math” on colors. Traditionally I use an opening like this to mention group theory. In that we study things that can be added together, in ways like addition works on the integers. Colors won’t quite work like this, unfortunately. A group needs an element that’s an additive identity. This works like zero: it can be added to anything without changing its value. There isn’t a color that you can mix with other colors that leaves the other color unchanged, though. Even white or clear will dilute the original color.
If you’ve thought of the clever workaround, that each color can be the additive identity to itself, you get credit for ingenuity. Unfortunately, to be a group there has to be a lone additive identity. Having more than one makes a structure that’s so unlike the integers that mathematicians won’t stand for it. I also don’t know of any interesting structures that have more than one additive identity. This suggests that nobody has found a problem that they represent well. But the strip suggests maybe it could tell us something useful for colors. I don’t know.
Tom Armstrong’s Marvin for the 28th is a strip which follows from the discovery that “fake news” is a thing that people say. Here the strip uses a bit of arithmetic as the sort of incontrovertibly true thing that Marvin is dumb to question. Well, that 1 + 1 equals 2 is uncontrovertibly true, unless we are looking at some funny definitions of ‘1’ or ‘plus’ or something. I remember, as a kid, being quite angry with a book that mentioned “one cup of popcorn plus one cup of water does not give us two cups of soggy popcorn”, although I didn’t know how to argue the point.
Hilary Price and Rina Piccolo’s Rhymes with Orange for the 30th is … well, I’m in this picture and I don’t like it. I come from a long line of people who cover every surface with stuff. But as for what surface area is? … Well, there’s a couple of possible definitions. One that I feel is compelling is to think of covering sets. Take a shape that’s set, by definition, to have an area of 1 unit of area. What is the smallest number of those unit shapes which will cover the original shape? Cover is a technical term here. But also, here, the ordinary English word describes what we need it for. How many copies of the unit shape do you need to exactly cover up the whole original shape? That’s your area. And this fits to the mother’s use of surfaces in the comic strip neatly enough.
Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff for the 31st is a rerun of vintage unknown to me. I’m not sure whether it’s among the digitally relettered strips. The lettering’s suspiciously neat, but, for example, there’s at least three different G’s in there. Anyway, it’s an old joke about adding together enough gas-saving contraptions that it uses less than zero gas. So far as it’s tenable at all, it comes from treating percentage savings from different schemes as additive, instead of multiplying together. Also, I suppose, that the savings are independent, that (in this case) Jeff’s new gas saving ten percent still applies even with the special spark plugs or the new carburettor [sic]. The premise is also probably good for a word problem, testing out understanding of percentages and multiplication, which is just a side observation here.
This wraps up last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. This week I can tell you already was a bonanza week. When I start getting to its comics I should have an essay at this link. Thanks for reading.
I apologize for missing Sunday. I wasn’t able to make the time to write about last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. But I’m back in the swing of things. Here are some of the comic strips that got my attention.
Still, we do keep discovering things we didn’t know were numbers before. The earliest number notations, in the western tradition, for example, used letters to represent numbers. This did well for counting numbers, up to a large enough total. But it required idiosyncratic treatment if you wanted to handle large numbers. Hindu-Arabic numerals make it easy to represent whole numbers as large as you like. But that’s at the cost of adding ten (well, I guess eight) symbols that have nothing to do with the concept represented. Not that, like, ‘J’ looks like the letter J either. (There is a folk etymology that the Arabic numerals correspond to the number of angles made if you write them out in a particular way. Or less implausibly, the number of strokes needed for the symbol. This is ingenious and maybe possibly has helped one person somewhere, ever, learn the symbols. But it requires writing, like, ‘7’ in a way nobody has ever done, and it’s ahistorical nonsense. See section 96, on page 64 of the book and 84 of the web presentation, in Florian Cajori’s History of Mathematical Notations.)
Still, in time we discovered, for example, that there were irrational numbers and those were useful to have. Negative numbers, and those are useful to have. That there are complex-valued numbers, and those are useful to have. That there are quaternions, and … I guess we can use them. And that we can set up systems that resemble arithmetic, and work a bit like numbers. Those are often quite useful. I expect Lemon and Sayers were having fun with the idea of new numbers. They are a thing that, effectively, happens.
David Malki’s Wondermark for the 27th describes engineering as “like math, but louder”, which is a pretty good line. And it uses backgrounds of long calculations to make the point of deep thought going on. I don’t recognize just what calculations are being done there, but they do look naggingly familiar. And, you know, that’s still a pretty lucky day.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 27th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. It depicts Wavehead having trouble figuring where to put the decimal point in the multiplication of two decimal numbers. Relatable issue. There are rules you can follow for where to put the decimal in this sort of operation. But the convention of dropping terminal zeroes after the decimal point can make that hazardous. It’s something that needs practice, or better: though. In this case, what catches my eye is that 2.95 times 3.2 has to be some number close to 3 times 3. So 9.440 is the plausible answer.
Mike Twohy’s That’s Life for the 27th presents a couple of plausible enough word problems, framed as Sports Math. It’s funny because of the idea that the workers who create events worth billions of dollars a year should be paid correspondingly.
Or they’re making it easy for me. But for another week all the comic strips mentioning mathematics have done so in casual ways. Ones that I don’t feel I can write a substantial paragraph about. And so, ones that I don’t feel I can fairly use the images of here. Here’s strips that at least said “math” somewhere in them:
Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 19th plays on the conflation of “zero” and “nothing”. The concepts are related, and we wouldn’t have a zero if we weren’t trying to worth with the concept of nothing. But there is a difference that’s quite hard to talk about without confusing matters.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 25th presents a sinister reading of the fad of “prove you’re human” puzzles that demanded arithmetic expressions be done. All computer programs, including, like, Facebook group messages are arithmetic operations ultimately. The steps could be translated into simple expressions like this and be done by humans. It just takes work which, I suppose, could also be translated into other expressions.
So Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 12th is the only comic strip of some substance that I noticed last week. You see what a slender month it’s been. It does showcase the unsettling nature of seeing notations for similar things mixed. It’s not that there’s anything which doesn’t parse about having decimals in the numerator or denominator. It just looks weird. And that can be enough to throw someone out of a problem. They might mistake the problem for one that doesn’t have a coherent meaning. Or they might mistake it for one too complicated to do. Learning to not be afraid of a problem that looks complicated is worth doing. As is learning how to tell whether a problem parses at all, even if it looks weird.