Reading the Comics, August 25, 2014: Summer Must Be Ending Edition


I’m sorry to admit that I can’t think of a unifying theme for the most recent round of comic strips which mention mathematical topics, other than that this is one of those rare instances of nobody mentioning infinite numbers of typing monkeys. I have to guess Comic Strip Master Command sent around a notice that summer vacation (in the United States) will be ending soon, so cartoonists should start practicing their mathematics jokes.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 a.m. (August 22, rerun) presents what’s surely the lowest-probability outcome of a toss of a fair coin: its landing on the edge. (I remember this as also the gimmick starting a genial episode of The Twilight Zone.) It’s a nice reminder that you do have to consider all the things that might affect an experiment’s outcome before concluding what are likely and unlikely results.

It also inspires, in me, a side question: a single coin, obviously, has a tiny chance of landing on its side. A roll of coins has a tiny chance of not landing on its side. How thick a roll has to be assembled before the chance of landing on the side and the chance of landing on either edge become equal? (Without working it out, my guess is it’s about when the roll of coins is as tall as it is across, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were some slightly oddball thing like the roll has to be the square root of two times the diameter of the coins.)

Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens (August 22) presents an “advanced Sudoku”, in a puzzle that’s either trivially easy or utterly impossible: there’s so few constraints on the numbers in the presented puzzle that it’s not hard to write in digits that will satisfy the results, but, if there’s one right answer, there’s not nearly enough information to tell which one it is. I do find interesting the problem of satisfiability — giving just enough information to solve the puzzle, without allowing more than one solution to be valid — an interesting one. I imagine there’s a very similar problem at work in composing Ivasallay’s Find The Factors puzzles.

Phil Frank and Joe Troise’s The Elderberries (August 24, rerun) presents a “mind aerobics” puzzle in the classic mathematical form of drawing socks out of a drawer. Talking about pulling socks out of drawers suggests a probability puzzle, but the question actually takes it a different direction, into a different sort of logic, and asks about how many socks need to be taken out in order to be sure you have one of each color. The easiest way to apply this is, I believe, to use what’s termed the “pigeon hole principle”, which is one of those mathematical concepts so clear it’s hard to actually notice it. The principle is just that if you have fewer pigeon holes than you have pigeons, and put every pigeon in a pigeon hole, then there’s got to be at least one pigeon hole with more than one pigeons. (Wolfram’s MathWorld credits the statement to Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet, a 19th century German mathematician with a long record of things named for him in number theory, probability, analysis, and differential equations.)

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (August 24) pulls out the old little pun about algebra and former romantic partners. You’ve probably seen this joke passed around your friends’ Twitter or Facebook feeds too.

Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set (August 25) presents some terrible people’s definition of calculus, as “useless math with letters instead of numbers”, which I have to gripe about because that seems like a more on-point definition of algebra. I’m actually sympathetic to the complaint that calculus is useless, at least if you don’t go into a field that requires it (although that’s rather a circular definition, isn’t it?), but I don’t hold to the idea that whether something is “useful” should determine whether it’s worth learning. My suspicion is that things you find interesting are worth learning, either because you’ll find uses for them, or just because you’ll be surrounding yourself with things you find interesting.

Shifting from numbers to letters, as are used in algebra and calculus, is a great advantage. It allows you to prove things that are true for many problems at once, rather than just the one you’re interested in at the moment. This generality may be too much work to bother with, at least for some problems, but it’s easy to see what’s attractive in solving a problem once and for all.

Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler’s WuMo (August 25) uses a couple of motifs none of which I’m sure are precisely mathematical, but that seem close enough for my needs. First there’s the motif of Albert Einstein as just being so spectacularly brilliant that he can form an argument in favor of anything, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong. Surely that derives from Einstein’s general reputation of utter brilliance, perhaps flavored by the point that he was able to show how common-sense intuitive ideas about things like “it’s possible to say whether this event happened before or after that event” go wrong. And then there’s the motif of a sophistic argument being so massive and impressive in its bulk that it’s easier to just give in to it rather than try to understand or refute it.

It’s fair of the strip to present Einstein as beginning with questions about how one perceives the universe, though: his relativity work in many ways depends on questions like “how can you tell whether time has passed?” and “how can you tell whether two things happened at the same time?” These are questions which straddle physics, mathematics, and philosophy, and trying to find answers which are logically coherent and testable produced much of the work that’s given him such lasting fame.

Reading the Comics, August 16, 2014: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Edition


Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is a long-running and well-regarded web comic that I haven’t paid much attention to because I don’t read many web comics. XKCD, Newshounds, and a couple others are about it. I’m not opposed to web comics, mind you, I just don’t get around to following them typically. But Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal started running on Gocomics.com recently, and Gocomics makes it easy to start adding comics, and I did, and that’s served me well for the mathematical comics collections since it’s been a pretty dry spell. I bet it’s the summer vacation.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (July 30) seems like a reach for inclusion in mathematical comics since its caption is “Physicists make lousy firemen” and it talks about the action of a fire — and of the “living things” caught in the fire — as processes producing wobbling and increases in disorder. That’s an effort at describing a couple of ideas, the first that the temperature of a thing is connected to the speed at which the molecules making it up are moving, and the second that the famous entropy is a never-decreasing quantity. We get these notions from thermodynamics and particularly the attempt to understand physically important quantities like heat and temperature in terms of particles — which have mass and position and momentum — and their interactions. You could write an entire blog about entropy and probably someone does.

Randy Glasbergen’s Glasbergen Cartoons (August 2) uses the word-problem setup for a strip of “Dog Math” and tries to remind everyone teaching undergraduates the quotient rule that it really could be worse, considering.

Nate Fakes’s Break of Day (August 4) takes us into an anthropomorphized world that isn’t numerals for a change, to play on the idea that skill in arithmetic is evidence of particular intelligence.

Jiggs tries to explain addition to his niece, and learns his brother-in-law is his brother-in-law.
George McManus’s _Bringing Up Father_, originally run the 12th of April, 1949.

George McManus’s Bringing Up Father (August 11, rerun from April 12, 1949) goes to the old motif of using money to explain addition problems. It’s not a bad strategy, of course: in a way, arithmetic is one of the first abstractions one does, in going from the idea that a hundred of something added to a hundred fifty of something will yield two hundred fifty of that thing, and it doesn’t matter what that something is: you’ve abstracted out the ideas of “a hundred plus a hundred fifty”. In algebra we start to think about whether we can add together numbers without knowing what one or both of the numbers are — “x plus y” — and later still we look at adding together things that aren’t necessarily numbers.

And back to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (August 13), which has a physicist type building a model of his “lack of dates” based on random walks and, his colleague objects, “only works if we assume you’re an ideal gas molecule”. But models are often built on assumptions that might, taken literally, be nonsensical, like imagining the universe to have exactly three elements in it, supposing that people never act against their maximal long-term economic gain, or — to summon a traditional mathematics/physics joke — assuming a spherical cow. The point of a model is to capture some interesting behavior, and avoid the complicating factors that can’t be dealt with precisely or which don’t relate to the behavior being studied. Choosing how to simplify is the skill and art that earns mathematicians the big money.

And then for August 16, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal does a binary numbers joke. I confess my skepticism that there are any good alternate-base-number jokes, but you might like them.

Reading the Comics, July 28, 2014: Homework in an Amusement Park Edition


I don’t think my standards for mathematics content in comic strips are seriously lowering, but the strips do seem to be coming pretty often for the summer break. I admit I’m including one of these strips just because it lets me talk about something I saw at an amusement park, though. I have my weaknesses.

Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 (July 25) builds its joke around the ambiguity of saying a salary is six (or some other number) of figures, if you don’t specify what side of the decimal they’re on. That’s an ordinary enough gag, although the size of a number can itself be an interesting thing to know. The number of digits it takes to write a number down corresponds, roughly, with the logarithm of a number, and in the olden days a lot of computations depended on logarithms: multiplying two numbers is equivalent to adding their logarithms; dividing two numbers, subtracting their logarithms. And addition and subtraction are normally easier than multiplication and division. Similarly, raising one number to a power becomes multiplying one number by the logarithm of another, and multiplication is easier than exponentiation. So counting the number of digits in a number might be something anyway.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue (July 25) has the kids mention something as being “like going to an amusement park to do math homework”, which gives me a chance to share this incident. Last year my love and I were in the Cedar Point amusement park (in Sandusky, Ohio), and went to the coffee shop. We saw one guy sitting at a counter, with his laptop and a bunch of papers sprawled out, looking pretty much like we do when we’re grading papers, and we thought initially that it was so very sad that someone would be so busy at work that (we presumed) he couldn’t even really participate in the family expedition to the amusement park.

And then we remembered: not everybody lives a couple hours away from an amusement park. If we lived, say, fifteen minutes from a park we had season passes to, we’d certainly at least sometimes take our grading work to the park, so we could get it done in an environment we liked and reward ourselves for getting done with a couple roller coasters and maybe the Cedar Downs carousel (which is worth an entry around these parts anyway). To grade, anyway; I’d never have the courage to bring my laptop to the coffee shop. So I guess all I’m saying is, I have a context in which yes, I could imagine going to an amusement park to grade math homework at least.

Wulff and Morgenthaler Truth Facts (July 25) makes a Venn diagram joke in service of asserting that only people who don’t understand statistics would play the lottery. This is an understandable attitude of Wulff and Morgenthaler, and of many, many people who make the same claim. The expectation value — the amount you expect to win some amount, times the probability you will win that amount, minus the cost of the ticket — is negative for all but the most extremely oversized lottery payouts, and the most extremely oversized lottery payouts still give you odds of winning so tiny that you really aren’t hurting your chances by not buying a ticket. However, the smugness behind the attitude bothers me — I’m generally bothered by smugness — and jokes like this one contain the assumption that the only sensible way to live is a ruthless profit-and-loss calculation to life that even Jeremy Bentham might say is a bit much. For the typical person, buying a lottery ticket is a bit of a lark, a couple dollars of disposable income spent because, what the heck, it’s about what you’d spend on one and a third sodas and you aren’t that thirsty. Lottery pools with coworkers or friends make it a small but fun social activity, too. That something is a net loss of money does not mean it is necessarily foolish. (This isn’t to say it’s wise, either, but I’d generally like a little more sympathy for people’s minor bits of recreational foolishness.)

Marc Anderson’s Andertoons (July 27) does a spot of wordplay about the meaning of “aftermath”. I can’t think of much to say about this, so let me just mention that Florian Cajori’s A History of Mathematical Notations reports (section 201) that the + symbol for addition appears to trace from writing “et”, meaning and, a good deal and the letters merging together and simplifying from that. This seems plausible enough on its face, but it does cause me to reflect that the & symbol also is credited as a symbol born from writing “et” a lot. (Here, picture writing Et and letting the middle and lower horizontal strokes of the E merge with the cross bar and the lowest point of the t.)

Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County (July 27, rerun from, I believe, July of 1988) is one of the earliest appearances I can remember of the Grand Unification appearing in popular culture, certainly in comic strips. Unifications have a long and grand history in mathematics and physics in explaining things which look very different by the same principles, with the first to really draw attention probably being Descartes showing that algebra and geometry could be understood as a single thing, and problems difficult in one field could be easy in the other. In physics, the most thrilling unification was probably the explaining of electricity, magnetism, and light as the same thing in the 19th century; being able to explain many varied phenomena with some simple principles is just so compelling. General relativity shows that we can interpret accelerations and gravitation as the same thing; and in the late 20th century, physicists found that it’s possible to use a single framework to explain both electromagnetism and the forces that hold subatomic particles together and that break them apart.

It’s not yet known how to explain gravity and quantum mechanics in the same, coherent, frame. It’s generally assumed they can be reconciled, although I suppose there’s no logical reason they have to be. Finding a unification — or a proof they can’t be unified — would certainly be one of the great moments of mathematical physics.

The idea of the grand unification theory as an explanation for everything is … well, fair enough. A grand unification theory should be able to explain what particles in the universe exist, and what forces they use to interact, and from there it would seem like the rest of reality is details. Perhaps so, but it’s a long way to go from a simple starting point to explaining something as complicated as a penguin. I guess what I’m saying is I doubt Oliver would notice the non-existence of Opus in the first couple pages of his work.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains (July 28) takes us back to the origin of numbers. It also makes me realize I don’t know what’s the first number that we know of people discovering. What I mean is, it seems likely that humans are just able to recognize a handful of numbers, like one and two and maybe up to six or so, based on how babies and animals can recognize something funny if the counts of small numbers of things don’t make sense. And larger numbers were certainly known to antiquity; probably the fact that numbers keep going on forever was known to antiquity. And some special numbers with interesting or difficult properties, like pi or the square root of two, were known so long ago we can’t say who discovered them. But then there are numbers like the Euler-Mascheroni constant, which are known and recognized as important things, and we can say reasonably well who discovered them. So what is the first number with a known discoverer?

Reading the Comics, July 24, 2014: Math Is Just Hard Stuff, Right? Edition


Maybe there is no pattern to how Comic Strip Master Command directs the making of mathematics-themed comic strips. It hasn’t quite been a week since I had enough to gather up again. But it’s clearly the summertime anyway; the most common theme this time seems to be just that mathematics is some hard stuff, without digging much into particular subjects. I can work with that.

Pab Sungenis’s The New Adventures of Queen Victoria (July 19) brings in Erwin Schrödinger and his in-strip cat Barfly for a knock-knock joke about proof, with Andrew Wiles’s name dropped probably because he’s the only person who’s gotten to be famous for a mathematical proof. Wiles certainly deserves fame for proving Fermat’s Last Theorem and opening up what I understand to be a useful new field for mathematical research (Fermat’s Last Theorem by itself is nice but unimportant; the tools developed to prove it, though, that’s worthwhile), but remembering only Wiles does slight Richard Taylor, whose help Wiles needed to close a flaw in his proof.

Incidentally I don’t know why the cat is named Barfly. It has the feel to me of a name that was a punchline for one strip and then Sungenis felt stuck with it. As Thomas Dye of the web comic Newshounds said, “Joke names’ll kill you”. (I’m inclined to think that funny names can work, as the Marx Brotehrs, Fred Allen, and Vic and Sade did well with them, but they have to be a less demanding kind of funny.)

John Deering’s Strange Brew (July 19) uses a panel full of mathematical symbols scrawled out as the representation of “this is something really hard being worked out”. I suppose this one could also be filed under “rocket science themed comics”, but it comes from almost the first problem of mathematical physics: if you shoot something straight up, how long will it take to fall back down? The faster the thing starts up, the longer it takes to fall back, until at some speed — the escape velocity — it never comes back. This is because the size of the gravitational attraction between two things decreases as they get farther apart. At or above the escape velocity, the thing has enough speed that all the pulling of gravity, from the planet or moon or whatever you’re escaping from, will not suffice to slow the thing down to a stop and make it fall back down.

The escape velocity depends on the size of the planet or moon or sun or galaxy or whatever you’re escaping from, of course, and how close to the surface (or center) you start from. It also assumes you’re talking about the speed when the thing starts flying away, that is, that the thing doesn’t fire rockets or get a speed boost by flying past another planet or anything like that. And things don’t have to reach the escape velocity to be useful. Nothing that’s in earth orbit has reached the earth’s escape velocity, for example. I suppose that last case is akin to how you can still get some stuff done without getting out of the recliner.

Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures (July 21) uses mathematics as the standard for proving intelligence exists. I’ve got a vested interest in supporting that proposition, but I can’t bring myself to say more than that it shows a particular kind of intelligence exists. I appreciate the equation of the final panel, though, as it can be pretty well generalized.

To disguise a sports venue it's labelled ``Math Arena'', with ``lectures on the actual odds of beating the casino''.
Bill Holbrook’s _Safe Havens_ for the 22nd of July, 2014.

Bill Holbrook’s Safe Havens (July 22) plays on mathematics’ reputation of being not very much a crowd-pleasing activity. That’s all right, although I think Holbrook makes a mistake by having the arena claim to offer a “lecture on the actual odds of beating the casino”, since the mathematics of gambling is just the sort of mathematics I think would draw a crowd. Probability enjoys a particular sweet spot for popular treatment: many problems don’t require great amounts of background to understand, and have results that are surprising, but which have reasons that are easy to follow and don’t require sophisticated arguments, and are about problems that are easy to imagine or easy to find interesting: cards being drawn, dice being rolled, coincidences being found, or secrets being revealed. I understand Holbrook’s editorial cartoon-type point behind the lecture notice he put up, but the venue would have better scared off audiences if it offered a lecture on, say, “Chromatic polynomials for rigidly achiral graphs: new work on Yamada’s invariant”. I’m not sure I could even explain that title in 1200 words.

Missy Meyer’s Holiday Doodles (July 22) revelas to me that apparently the 22nd of July was “Casual Pi Day”. Yeah, I suppose that passes. I didn’t see much about it in my Twitter feed, but maybe I need some more acquaintances who don’t write dates American-fashion.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains (July 24) again uses mathematics — particularly, Calculus — as not just the marker for intelligence but also as The Thing which will decide whether a kid goes on to success in life. I think the dolphin (I guess it’s a dolphin?) parent is being particularly horrible here, as it’s not as if a “B+” is in any way a grade to be ashamed of, and telling kids it is either drives them to give up on caring about grades, or makes them send whiny e-mails to their instructors about how they need this grade and don’t understand why they can’t just do some make-up work for it. Anyway, it makes the kid miserable, it makes the kid’s teachers or professors miserable, and for crying out loud, it’s a B+.

(I’m also not sure whether a dolphin would consider a career at Sea World success in life, but that’s a separate and very sad issue.)

Reading the Comics, July 18, 2014: Summer Doldrums Edition


Now, there, see? The school year (in the United States) has let out for summer and the rush of mathematics-themed comic strips has subsided; it’s been over two weeks since the last bunch was big enough. Given enough time, though, a handful of comics will assemble that I can do something with, anything, and now’s that time. I hate to admit also that they’re clearly not trying very hard with these mathematics comics as they’re not about very juicy topics. Call it the summer doldroms, as I did.

Mason Mastroianni and Mick Mastroianni’s B.C. (July 6) spends most of its text talking about learning cursive, as part of a joke built around the punch line that gadgets are spoiling students who learn to depend on them instead of their own minds. So it would naturally get around to using calculators (or calculator apps, which is a fair enough substitute) in place of mathematics lessons. I confess I come down on the side that wonders why it’s necessary to do more than rough, approximate arithmetic calculations without a tool, and isn’t sure exactly what’s gained by learning cursive handwriting, but these are subjects that inspire heated and ongoing debates so you’ll never catch me admitting either position in public.

Eric the Circle (July 7), here by “andel”, shows what one commenter correctly identifies as a “pi fight”, which might have made a better caption for the strip, at least for me, because Eric’s string of digits wasn’t one of the approximations to pi that I was familiar with. I still can’t find it, actually, and wonder if andel didn’t just get a digit wrong. (I might just not have found a good web page that lists the digits of various approximations to pi, I admit.) Erica’s approximation is the rather famous 22/7.

Richard Thompson’s Richard’s Poor Almanac (July 7, rerun) brings back our favorite set of infinite monkeys, here, to discuss their ambitious book set at the Museum of Natural History.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (July 16) builds on the (true) point that the ancient Greeks had no symbol for zero, and would probably have had a fair number of objections to the concept.

'The day Einstein got the wind knocked out of his sails': Einstein tells his wife he's discovered the theory of relativity.
Joe Martin’s _Mr Boffo_ strip for the 18th of July, 2014.

Joe Martin’s Mr Boffo (July 18, sorry that I can’t find a truly permanent link) plays with one of Martin’s favorite themes, putting deep domesticity to great inventors and great minds. I suspect but do not know that Martin was aware that Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, was a fellow student with him at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic. She studied mathematics and physics. The extent to which she helped Einstein develop his theories is debatable; as far as I’m aware the evidence only goes so far as to prove she was a bright, outside mind who could intelligently discuss whatever he might be wrangling over. This shouldn’t be minimized: describing a problem is often a key step in working through it, and a person who can ask good follow-up questions about a problem is invaluable even if that person doesn’t do anything further.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (July 18) — a rerun, of course, from the 21st of July, 1967 — mentions Sally going to Summer School and learning all about the astronomical details of summertime. Astronomy has always been one of the things driving mathematical discovery, but I admit, thinking mostly this would be a good chance to point out Dr Helmer Aslaksen’s page describing the relationship between the solstices and the times of earliest and latest sunrise (and sunset). It’s not quite as easy as finding when the days are longest and shortest. Dr Aslaksen has a number of fascinating astronomy- and calendar-based pages which I think worth reading, so, I hope you enjoy.

Reading the Comics, July 3, 2014: Wulff and Morgenthaler Edition


Sorry to bring you another page of mathematics comics so soon after the last one, but, I don’t control Comic Strip Master Command. I’m not sure who does, but it’s obviously someone who isn’t paying very close attention to Mary Worth because the current psychic-child/angel-warning-about-pool-safety storyline is really going off the rails. But I can’t think of a way to get that back to mathematical topics, so let me go to safer territories instead.

Mickey's nephew figures this is rocket science.
The Disney Corporation’s _Mickey Mouse_ comic strip rerun on the 28th of June, 2014.

The Disney Corporation’s Mickey Mouse (June 28, rerun) uses the familiar old setup of mathematics stuff — here crossbred with rocket science — as establishment that someone is just way smarter than the rest of the room.

Wulff and Morgenthaler’s Truth Facts — a new strip from the people who do that WuMu which is replacing the strangely endless reruns of Get Fuzzy in your local newspaper (no, I don’t know why Get Fuzzy has been rerunning daily strips since November, and neither do its editors, so far as they’re admitting) — shows a little newspaper sidebar each day. The premise is sure to include a number of mathematics/statistics type jokes and on June 28th they went ahead with the joke that delivers statistics about statistics, so that’s out of the way.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (June 29) brings out two of the songs that prominently mention numbers.

Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures (June 30) drops in a bit of mathematics technobabble for the sake of sounding all serious and science-y and all that. But “apply the standard Lagrangian model” is a better one than average since Joseph-Louis Lagrange was an astoundingly talented and omnipresent mathematician and physicist. Probably his most useful work is a recasting of Newton’s laws of physics in a form in which you don’t have to worry so much about forces at every moment and can instead look at the kinetic and potential energy of a system. This generally reduces the number of equations one has to work with to describe what’s going on, and that usually means it’s easier to understand them. That said I don’t know a specific “Lagrangian model” that would necessarily be relevant. The most popular “Lagrangian model” I can find talks about the flow of particles in a larger fluid and is popular in studying atmospheric pollutants, though the couple of medical citations stuggest it’s also useful for studying how things get transported by the bloodstream. Anyway, it’s nice to hear somebody besides Einstein get used as a science name.

Mary Beth figures if she works her apple-dividing and giving right she can get al the apple.
John Rose’s _Barney Google and Snuffy Smith_ for the 1st of July, 2014, featuring neither Barney Google nor Snuffy Smith.

John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith (July 1) plays with division word problems and percentages and the way people can subvert the intentions of a problem given any chance.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (July 1, rerun) lets Calvin’s Dad gently blow Calvin’s mind by pointing out that rotational motion means that different spots on the same object are moving at different speeds yet the object stays in one piece. When you think hard enough about it rotation is a very strange phenomenon (I suppose you could say that about any subject, though), and the difference in speeds within a single object is just part of it. Sometime we must talk about the spinning pail of water.

Wulff and Morgenthaler’s WuMo (July 1) — I named this edition after them for some reason, after all — returns to the potential for mischief in how loosely one uses the word “half”.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers (July 3) dips into the well of mathematics puns. I admit I had to reread the caption before noticing where the joke was. It’s been a busy week.

Reading the Comics, June 27, 2014: Pretty Easy Edition


I don’t mean to complain, because it really is a lot of fun to do these comic strip roundups, but Comic Strip Master Command has been sending a flood of comics my way. I hope it’s not overwhelming readers, or me. The downside of the great number of mathematics-themed comics this past week has been that they aren’t very deep examples, but, what the heck. Many of them are interesting anyway. As usual I’m including examples of the Comics Kingdom and the Creators.com comics because I’m not yet confident how long those links remain visible to non-subscribers.

A caveman invents the 'science fictiony' number of eleven.
Mike Peters’s _Mother Goose and Grimm_ for the 23rd of June, 2014

Mike Peters’ Mother Goose and Grimm (June 23) presents the cavemen-inventing-stuff pattern and the invention of a “science-fictiony” number. This is amusing, sure, but the dynamic is historically valid: it does seem like the counting numbers (1, 2, 3, and so on) were more or less intuitive, but negative numbers? Rationals? Irrationals? Zero? They required development and some fairly sophisticated reasoning to think of. You get a hint of the suspicion with which the newly-realized numbers were viewed when you think of the connotations of terms like “complex” numbers, or “imaginary” numbers, or even “negative” numbers. For that matter, Arabic numerals required some time for Europeans — who were comfortable with Roman numerals — to feel comfortable with; histories of mathematics will mention how Arabic numerals were viewed with suspicion and sometimes banned as being too easy for merchants or bankers to use to defraud customers who didn’t know what the symbols meant or how to use them.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains (June 23) also takes us to the dawn of time and the invention of the calendar. Calendars are deeply intwined with mathematics, as they typically try to reconcile several things that aren’t quite perfectly reconcilable: the changes of the season, the cycles of the moon, the position of the sun in the sky, the length of the day. But the attempt to do as well as possible, using rules easy enough for normal human beings to understand, is productive.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow (June 23, rerun) lets Neil do some accounting the modern old-fashioned way. I trust there are abacus applications out there; somewhere in my pile of links I had a Javascript-based slide rule simulator, after all. I never quite got abacus use myself.

Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark (June 23) shows off one of those little hazards of skywriting and mathematical symbols. I admit the context threw me; I had to look again to read the birds as the less-than sign.

Dilton Doiley and Jughead find wonder in the vast and the numerous.
Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s _Archie_ rerun on the 24th of June, 2014

Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie (June 24) has resident nerd Dilton Doiley pondering the vastness of the sky and the number of stars and feel the sense of wonder that inspires. The mind being filled with ever-increasing wonder and awe isn’t a unique sentiment, and thinking hard of very large, very numerous things is one of the paths to that sensation. Jughead has a similar feeling, evidently.

The orangutan who 'probably never had a thought in his life' works out a pretty involved derivative using the product and chain rules.
Mort Walker (Addison)’s _Boner’s Ark_ rerun the 26th of June, 2014 (originally run the 31st of July, 1968).

Mort Walker (“Addison”)’s Boner’s Ark (June 26, originally run July 31, 1968) features once again the motif of “a bit of calculus proves someone is really smart”. The orangutan’s working out of a derivative starts out well, too, using the product rule correctly through the first three lines, a point at which the chain rule and the derivative of the arccotangent function conspire to make things look really complicated. I admit I’m impressed Walker went to the effort to get things right that far in and wonder where he got the derivative worked out. It’s not one of the standard formulas you’d find in every calculus textbook, although you might find it as one of the more involved homework problem for Calculus I.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow comes up again (June 26, rerun) sees Neil a little gloomy at the results of a test coming back “negative”, a joke I remember encountering on The Office (US) too. It brings up the question of why, given the connotations of the words, a “positive” test result is usually a bad thing and a “negative” one a good, and it back to the language of statistics. Normally a test — medical, engineering, or otherwise — is really checking to see how often some phenomenon occurs within a given sample. But the phenomenon will normally happen a little bit anyway, even if nothing untoward is happening. It also won’t normally happen at exactly the same rate, even if there’s nothing to worry about. What statistics asks, then, is, “is this phenomenon happening so much in this sample space that it’s not plausible for it to just be coincidence?” And in that context, yeah, everything being normal is the negative result. What happens isn’t suspicious. Of course, Neil has other issues, here.

Chip Dunham’s Overboard (June 26) plays on the fact that “half” does have a real proper meaning, but will get used pretty casually when people aren’t being careful. Or when dinner’s involved.

Percy Crosby’s Skippy (June 26, rerun) must have originally run in March sometime, and it does have Skippy and the other kid arguing about how many months it is until Christmas. Counting intervals like this does invite what’s termed a “fencepost error”, and the kids present it perfectly: do you count the month you’re in if you want to count how many months until something? There isn’t really an absolutely correct answer, though; you and the other party just have to agree on whether you mean, say, the pages on the calendar you’ll go through between today and Christmas, or whether you mean how many more times you’ll pass the 24th of the month until you get to Christmas. You will see this same dynamic in every argument about conventions ever. Two spaces after the end of the sentence.

Moose has a fair idea for how to get through the algebra book in time.
Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s _Archie_ rerun for the 27th of June, 2014.

In Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie (June 27, rerun), Moose has a pretty good answer to how to get the whole algebra book read in time. It’d be nice if it quite worked that way.

Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures (June 27) has the characters working out just what the calculations for a jump into hyperspace would be. I admit I’ve always wondered just what the calculations for that sort of thing are, but that’s a bit silly of me.

Reading the Comics, June 22, 2014: Name-Dropping Stuff Edition


Comic Strip Master Command apparently really is ordering strips to finish their mathematics jokes before the summer vacation sets in, based on how many we’ve gotten in the past week. I confess this set doesn’t give me so much to write about; it’s more a set of mathematics things getting name-dropped. And there’s always something, isn’t there?

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (June 17) showcases a particularly severe form of math anxiety. I’m sympathetic to people who’re afraid of mathematics, naturally; it’s rotten being denied a big and wonderful and beautiful part of human ingenuity. I don’t know where math anxiety comes from, although I’d imagine a lot of it comes from that mix of doing something you aren’t quite sure you’re doing correctly and being hit too severely with a sense of rejection in the case that you did it wrong. I’d like to think that recreational mathematics puzzles would help overcome that, but I have no evidence that it does, just my hunch that getting to play with numbers and pictures and logic puzzles is good for you.

Russell Myers’ Broom Hilda (June 18) taunts the schoolkid Nerwin with the way we “used to do math with our brains instead of calculators”. One hesitates to know too much about the continuity of Broom Hilda, but I believe she’s over a thousand years old and so when she was Nerwin’s age they didn’t even have Arabic numerals just yet. I’ll assume there’s some way she’d have been in school then. (Also, given how long Broom Hilda‘s been running Nerwin did used to be in classes that did mathematics without calculators.)

Hagar can't count how many beers he had, and so proposes getting a math tutor.
Chris Browne’s Hagar the Horrible for the 19th of June, 2014.

Chris Brown’s Hagar the Horrible (June 19) tries to get itself cut out and put up on the walls of math tutors’ offices. Good luck.

Crankshaft does arithmetic by counting on his fingers, including long division.
Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers’s Crankshaft for the 20th of June, 2014.

Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers’ Crankshaft (June 20) spent a couple days this week explaining how he just counts on fingers to do his arithmetic. It’s a curious echo of the storyline several years ago revealing Crankshaft suffered from Backstory Illiteracy, in which we suddenly learned he had gone all his life without knowing how to read. I hesitate to agree with him but, yeah, there’s no shame in counting on your fingers if that does all the mathematics you need to do and you get the answers you want reliably. I don’t know what his long division thing is; if it weren’t for Tom Batiuk writing the comic strip I’d call it whimsy.

Keith Knight’s The Knight Life carried on with the story of the personal statistician this week. I think the entry from the 20th is most representative. It’s fine, and fun, to gather all kinds of data about whatever you encounter, but if you aren’t going to study the data and then act on its advice you’re wasting your time. The personal statistician ends up quitting the job.

Steve McGarry’s kid-activity feature KidTown (June 22) promotes the idea of numbers as a thing to notice in the newspapers, and includes a couple of activities, one featuring a maze to be navigated by way of multiples of seven. It also has one of those math tricks where you let someone else pick a number, give him a set of mathematical operations to do, and then you can tell them what the result is. It seems to me working out why that scheme works is a good bit of practice for someone learning algebra, and developing your own mathematics trick that works along this line is further good practice.

Reading the Comics, June 16, 2014: Cleaning Out Before Summer, I Guess, Edition


I had thought the folks at Comic Strip Master Command got most of their mathematics-themed comics cleaned out ahead of the end of the school year (United States time zones) by last week, and then over the course of the weekend they went and published about a hundred million of them, so let me try catching up on that before the long dry spell of summer sets in. (And yet none of them mentioned monkeys writing Shakespeare; go figure.) I’m kind of expecting an all-mathematics-strips series tomorrow morning.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs (June 12) puns a bit on negative numbers as also meaning downbeat or pessimistic ones. Negative numbers tend to make people uneasy, when they’re first encountered. It took western mathematics several centuries to be quite fully comfortable with them and that even with the good example of debts serving as a mental model of what negative numbers might mean. Descartes, for example, apparently used four separate quadrants, giving points their positions to the right and up, to the left and up, to the left and down, or to the right and down, from the origin point, rather than deal with negative numbers; and the Fahrenheit temperature scale was pretty much designed around the constraint that Daniel Fahrenheit shouldn’t have to deal with negative numbers in measuring the temperature in his hometown of the Netherlands. I have seen references to Immanuel Kant writing about the theoretical foundation of negative numbers, but not a clear explanation of just what he did, alas. And skepticism of exotic number constructs would last; they’re not called imaginary numbers because people appreciated the imaginative leaps that working with the square roots of negative numbers inspired.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue (June 12) served notice that, just like last summer, Grandma is going to make sure the kids experience mathematics as a series of chores they have to endure through an otherwise pleasant summer break.

Mike Twohy’s That’s Life (June 12) might be a marginal inclusion here, but it does refer to a lab mouse that’s gone from merely counting food pellets to cost-averaging them. The mathematics abilities of animals are pretty amazing things, certainly, and I’d also be impressed by an animal that was so skilled in abstract mathematics that it was aware “how much does a thing cost?” is a pretty tricky question when you look hard at it.

Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley (June 13) features a punch line that’s familiar to me — it’s what you get by putting a parrot and the subject of geometry together — although the setup seems clumsy to me. I think that’s because the kid has to bring up geometry out of nowhere in the first panel. Usually the setup as I see it is more along the lines of “what geometric figure is drawn by a parrot that then leaves the room”, which I suppose also brings geometry up out of nowhere to start off, really. I guess the setup feels clumsy to me because I’m trying to imagine the dialogue as following right after the previous day’s, so the flow of the conversation feels odd.

Eric the Circle (June 14), this one signed “andel”, riffs on the popular bit of mathematics trivia that in a randomly selected group of 22 people there’s about a fifty percent chance that some pair of them will share a birthday; that there’s a coincidental use for 22 in estimating π is, believe it or not, something I hadn’t noticed before.

Pab Sungenis’s New Adventures of Queen Victoria (June 14) plays with infinities, and whether the phrase “forever and a day” could actually mean anything, or at least anything more than “forever” does. This requires having a clear idea what you mean by “forever” and, for that matter, by “more”. Normally we compare infinitely large sets by working out whether it’s possible to form pairs which match one element of the first set to one element of the second, and seeing whether elements from either set have to be left out. That sort of work lets us realize that there are just as many prime numbers as there are counting numbers, and just as many counting numbers as there are rational numbers (positive and negative), but that there are more irrational numbers than there are rational numbers. And, yes, “forever and a day” would be the same length of time as “forever”, but I suppose the Innamorati (I tried to find his character’s name, but I can’t, so, Pab Sungenis can come in and correct me) wouldn’t do very well if he promised love for the “power set of forever”, which would be a bigger infinity than “forever”.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (June 15) is actually roughly the same joke as the Ginger Meggs from the 12th, students mourning their grades with what’s really a correct and appropriate use of mathematics-mentioning terminology.

Keith Knight’s The Knight Life (June 16) introduces a “personal statistician”, which is probably inspired by the measuring of just everything possible that modern sports has gotten around to doing. But the notion of keeping track of just what one is doing, and how effectively, is old and, at least in principle, sensible. It’s implicit in budgeting (time, money, or other resources) that you are going to study what you do, and what you want to do, and what’s required by what you want to do, and what you can do. And careful tracking of what one’s doing leads to what’s got to be a version of the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, in which the time (and money) spent on recording the fact of one’s recordings starts to spin out of control. I’m looking forward to that. Don’t read the comments.

Max Garcia’s Sunny Street (June 16) shows what happens when anthropomorphized numerals don’t appear in Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for too long a time.

Reading the Comics, June 11, 2014: Unsound Edition


I can tell the school year is getting near the end: it took a full week to get enough mathematics-themed comic strips to put together a useful bundle of them this time. I don’t know what I’m going to do this summer when there’s maybe two comic strips I can talk about per week and I have to go finding my own initiative to write about things.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (June 6) is a pun strip, yeah, although it’s one that’s more or less legitimate for a word problem. The reason I have to say “more or less” is that it’s not clear to me whether, per Caulfield’s specification, the amount of ore lost across each Great Lake is three percent of the original cargo or three percent of the remaining cargo. But writing a word problem so that there’s only the one correct solution is a skill that needs development no less than solving word problems is, and probably if we imagine Caulfield grading he’d realize there was an ambiguity when a substantial number of of the papers make the opposite assumption to what he’d had in his mind.

Ruben Bolling’s Tom the Dancing Bug (June 6, and I believe it’s a rerun) steps into some of the philosophically heady waters that one gets into when you look seriously at probability, and that get outright silly when you mix omniscience into the mix. The Supreme Planner has worked out what he concludes to be a plan certain of success, but: does that actually mean one will succeed? Even if we assume that the Supreme Planner is able to successfully know and account for every factor which might affect his success — well, for a less criminal plan, consider: one is certain to toss heads at least once, if one flips a fair coin infinitely many times. And yet it would not actually be impossible to flip a fair coin infinitely many times and have it turn up tails every time. That something can have a probability of 1 (or 100%) of happening and nevertheless not happen — or equivalently, that something can have a probability of 0 (0%) of happening and still happen — is exactly analogous to how a concept can be true almost everywhere, that is, it can be true with exceptions that in some sense don’t matter. Ruben Bolling tosses in the troublesome notion of the multiverse, the idea that everything which might conceivably happen does happen “somewhere”, to make these impossible events all the more imminent. I’m impressed Bolling is able to touch on so much, with a taste of how unsettling the implications are, in a dozen panels and stay funny about it.

Enos cheats, badly, on his test.
Bud Grace’s The Piranha Club for the 9th of June, 2014.

Bud Grace’s The Piranha Club (June 9) gives us Enos cheating with perfectly appropriate formulas for a mathematics exam. I’m kind of surprised the Pythagorean Theorem would rate cheat-sheet knowledge, actually, as I thought that had reached the popular culture at least as well as Einstein’s E = mc2 had, although perhaps it’s reached it much as Einstein’s has, as a charming set of sounds without any particular meaning behind them. I admit my tendency in giving exams, too, has been to allow students to bring their own sheet of notes, or even to have open-book exams, on the grounds that I don’t really care whether they’ve memorized formulas and am more interested in whether they can find and apply the relevant formulas. But that doesn’t make me right; I agree there’s value in being able to identify what the important parts of the course are and to remember them well, and even more value in being able to figure out the area of a triangle or a trapezoid from thinking hard about the subject on your own.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobbie (June 10) is looking for philosophy and mathematics majors, so, here’s hoping it’s found a couple more. The joke here is about the classification of logical arguments. A valid argument is one in which the conclusion does indeed follow from the premises according to the rules of deductive logic. A sound argument is a valid argument in which the premises are also true. The reason these aren’t exactly the same thing is that whether a conclusion follows from the premise depends on the structure of the argument; the content is irrelevant. This means we can do a great deal of work, reasoning out things which follow if we suppose that proposition A being true implies B is false, or that we know B and C cannot both be false, or whatnot. But this means we may fill in, Mad-Libs-style, whatever we like to those propositions and come away with some funny-sounding arguments.

So this is how we can have an argument that’s valid yet not sound. It is valid to say that, if baseball is a form of band organ always found in amusement parks, and if amusement parks are always found in the cubby-hole under my bathroom sink, then, baseball is always found in the cubby-hole under my bathroom sink. But as none of the premises going into that argument are true, the argument’s not sound, which is how you can have anything be “valid but not sound”. Identifying arguments that are valid but not sound is good for a couple questions on your logic exam, so, be ready for that.

Edison Lee fails to catch a ball because he miscalculates where it should land.
John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee, 11 June 2014.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee (June 11) has the brilliant yet annoying Edison trying to prove his genius by calculating precisely where the baseball will drop. This is a legitimate mathematics/physics problem, of course: one could argue that the modern history of mathematical physics comes from the study of falling balls, albeit more of cannonballs than baseballs. If there’s no air resistance and if gravity is uniform, the problem is easy and you get to show off your knowledge of parabolas. If gravity isn’t uniform, you have to show off your knowledge of ellipses. Either way, you can get into some fine differential equations work, and that work gets all the more impressive if you do have to pay attention to the fact that a ball moving through the air loses some of its speed to the air molecules. That said, it’s amazing that people are able to, in effect, work out approximate solutions to “where is this ball going” in their heads, not to mention to act on it and get to the roughly correct spot, lat least when they’ve had some practice.

Autocorrected Monkeys and Pulled Tea


The Twop Twips account on Twitter — I’m not sure how to characterize what it is exactly, but friends retweet it often enough — had the above advice about the infinite monkeys problem, and what seems to me correct advice that turning on autocorrect will get them to write the works of Shakespeare more quickly. And then John Kovaleski’s monkey-featuring comic strip Bo Nanas featured the infinite monkey problem today, so obviously I have to spend more time thinking of it.

It seems fair that monkeys with autocorrect will be more likely to hit a word than a monkey without will be. Let’s try something simpler than Shakespeare and just consider the chance of typing the word “the”, and to keep the numbers friendly let’s imagine that the keyboard has just the letters and a space bar. We’ll not care about punctuation or numbers; that’s what copy editors would be for, if anyone had been employed as a copy editor since 1996, when someone in the budgeting office discovered there was autocorrect.

Anyway, there’s 27 characters on this truncated keyboard, and if the monkeys were equally likely to hit any one of them, then, there’d be 27 times 27 times 27 — that is, 19,683 — different three-character strings they might hit. Exactly one of them is the desired word “the”. So, roughly, we would expect the monkey to get the word right one time in each 19,683 attempts at a three-character string. (We wouldn’t have to wait quite so long if we’ll accept the monkey as writing continuously and pluck out three characters in a row wherever they appear, but that’s more work than I feel like doing, and I doubt it would significantly change the qualitative results, of how much faster it’d be if autocorrect were on.)

But how many tries would be needed to hit a word that gets autocorrected to “the”? And here we get into the mysteries of the English language. I’d be surprised by a spell checker that couldn’t figure out “teh” probably means “the”. Similarly “hte” should get back to “the”. So we can suppose the five other permutations of the letters in “the” will be autocorrected. So there’s six different strings of the 19,683 possibilities that will get fixed to “the”. The monkey has one chance in 3280.5 of getting one of them and so, on average, the monkey can be expected to be right once in every 3281 attempts.

But there’s other typos possible: “thw” is probably just my finger slipping, and “ghe” isn’t too implausible either. At least my spell checker recognizes both as most likely meant to be “the”. Let’s suppose that a spell checker can get to the right word if any one letter is mistaken. This means that there are some 78 other three-character strings that would get fixed to “the”, for a total of 84 possible three-character strings which are either “the” or would get autocorrected to “the”. With that many, there’s one chance in a touch more than 234 that a three-character string will get corrected to “the”, and we have to wait, considering, not very long at all.

It gets better if two-character errors are allowed, but I can’t make myself believe that the spell check will turn “yje” into “the”, and that’s something which might be typed if you just had the right hand on the wrong keys. My checker hasn’t got any idea what “yje” is supposed to be anyway, so, one wrong letter is probably the limit.

Except. “tie” is one character wrong for “the” and no spell checker will protest “tie”. Similarly “she” and “thy” and a couple of other words. And it’d be a bit much to expect “t e” or “ he” to be turned back into “the” even though both are just the one keystroke off. And a spell checker would probably suppose that “tht” is a typo for “that”. It’s hard to guess how many of the one-character-off words will not actually be caught. Let’s say that maybe half the one-character-off words will be corrected to “the”; that’s still a pretty good 39 one-character misspellings, plus five permutations, plus the correct spelling or 45 candidate three-character strings for autocorrect to get. So our monkey has something like one chance in 450 of getting “the” in banging on the keyboard three times.

For four-letter words there are many more combinations — 531,441, if we just list the strings of our 27 allowed characters — but then there are more strings which would get autocorrected. Let’s say we want the string “thus”; there are 23 ways to arrange those letters in addition to the correct one. And there are 104 one-character-off strings; supposing that half of them will get us to “thus”, then, there’s 76 strings that get one to the desired “thus”. That’s a pretty dismal one chance in about 7,000 of typing one of them, unfortunately. Things get a little better if we suppose that some two-character errors are going to be corrected, although I can’t find one which my spell checker will accept right now, and if a single error and a transposition are viable.

With longer words yet there’s more chances for spell checker forgiveness: you can get pretty far off “accommodate” or “aneurysm” and still be saved by the spell checker, which is good for me as I last spelled “accommodate” correctly sometime in 1992, and I thought it looked wrong then.

So the conclusion has to be: you’ll get a bit of an improvement in speed by turning on autocorrect, for the obvious reason that you’re more likely to get one right out of 450 than you are to get one right out of 19,000. But it’s not going to help you very much; the number of ways to spell things so completely wrong that not even spell check can find you just grows far too rapidly to be helped. If I get a little bored I might work out the chance of getting a permutation-or-one-off for strings of different lengths.

And your monkey might be ill-served by autocorrect anyway. When I lived in Singapore I’d occasionally have teh tarik (“pulled tea”), black tea with sugar and milk tossed back and forth until it’s nice and frothy. It’s a fine drink but hard to write back home about because even if you get past the spell checker, the reader assumes the “teh” is a typo and mentally corrects for it. When this came up I’d include a ritual emphasis that I actually meant what I wrote, but you see the problem. Fortunately Shakespeare wrote relatively little about southeast Asian teas, but if you wanted to expand the infinite monkey problem to the problem of guiding tourists through Singapore, you’d have to turn the autocorrect off to have any hope of success.

Reading the Comics, June 4, 2014: Intro Algebra Edition


I’m not sure that there is a theme to the most recent mathematically-themed comic strips that I’ve seen, all from GoComics in the past week, but they put me in mind of the stuff encountered in learning algebra, so let’s run with that. It’s either that or I start making these “edition” titles into something absolutely and utterly meaningless, which could be.

Marc Anderson’s Andertoons (May 30) uses the classic setup of a board full of equation to indicate some serious, advanced thinking going on, and then puts in a cute animal twist on things. I don’t believe that the equation signifies anything, but I have to admit I’m not sure. It looks quite plausibly like something which might turn up in quantum mechanics (the “h” and “c” and lambda are awfully suggestive), so if Anderson made it up out of whole cloth he did an admirable job. If he didn’t make it up and someone recognizes it, please, let me know; I’m curious what it might be.

Marc Anderson reappears on the second of June has the classic reluctant student upset with the teacher who knew all along what x was. Knowledge of what x is is probably the source of most jokes about learning algebra, or maybe mathematics overall, and it’s amusing to me anyway that what we really care about is not what x is particularly — we don’t even do ourselves any harm if we call it some other letter, or for that matter an empty box — but learning how to figure out what values in the place of x would make the relationship true.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic (May 31) has the one-eyed rabbit Weenus doing miscellaneous arithmetic on the way to punning about things working out. I suppose to get to that punch line you have to either have mathematics or gym class as the topic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lemon’s done a version with those weight-lifting machines on screen. That’s not because I doubt his creativity, just that it’s the logical setup.

Eric Scott’s Back In The Day (June 2) has a pair of dinosaurs wondering about how many stars there are. Astronomy has always inspired mathematics. After one counts the number of stars one gets to wondering, how big the universe could be — Archimedes, classically, estimated the universe was about big enough to hold 1063 grains of sand — or how far away the sun might be — which the Ancient Greeks were able to estimate to the right order of magnitude on geometric grounds — and I imagine that looking deep into the sky can inspire the idea that the infinitely large and the infinitely small are at least things we can try to understand. Trying to count stars is a good start.

Steve Boreman’s Little Dog Lost (June 2) has a stick insect provide the excuse for some geometry puns.

Brian and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers (June 4) has a pie shop gag that I bet the Boychuks are kicking themselves for not having published back in mid-March.

Reading the Comics, May 26, 2014: Definitions Edition


The most recent bunch of mathematics-themed comics left me feeling stumped for a theme. There’s no reason they have to have one, of course; cartoonists, as far as I know, don’t actually take orders from Comic Strip Master Command regarding what to write about, but often they seem to. Some of them seem to touch on definitions, at least, including of such ideas as the value of a quantity and how long it is between two events. I’ll take that.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (May 23) does the kid-resisting-the-question sort of joke (not a word problem, for a change of pace), although I admit I didn’t care for the joke. I needed too long to figure out how the meaning of “value” for a variable might be ambiguous. Caulfield kind of has a point about mathematics needing to use precise words, but the process of making a word precise is a great and neglected part of mathematical history. Consider, for example: contemporary (English-language, at least) mathematicians define a prime number to be a counting number (1, 2, 3, et cetera) with exactly two factors. Why exactly two factors, except to rule out 1 as a prime number? But then why rule that 1 can’t be a prime number? As an idea gets used and explored we get a better idea of what’s interesting about it, and what it’s useful for, and can start seeing whether some things should be ruled out as not fitting a concept we want to describe, or be accepted as fitting because the concept is too useful otherwise and there’s no clear way to divide what we want from what we don’t.

I still can’t buy Caulfield’s proposition there, though.

Steve Boreman’s Little Dog Lost (May 25) circles around a bunch of mathematical concepts without quite landing on any of them. The obvious thing is the counting ability of animals: the crow asserts that crows can only count as high as nine, for example, and the animals try to work out ways to deal with the very large number of 2,615. The vulture asserts he’s been waiting for 2,615 days for the Little Dog to cross the road, and wonders how many years that’s been. The first installment of the strip, from the 26th of March, 2007, did indeed feature Vulture waiting for Little Dog to cross the road, although as I make it out there’s 2,617 days between those events.

At a guess, either Boreman was not counting the first and the last days of the interval between March 26, 2007, and May 25, 2014, or maybe he forgot the leap days. Finding how long it is between dates is a couple of kinds of messes, first because it isn’t necessarily clear whether to include the end dates, and second because the Gregorian calendar is a mess of months of varying lengths plus the fun of leap years, which include an exception for century years and an exception to the exception, making it all the harder. My preferred route for finding intervals is to not even try working the time out by myself, and instead converting every date to the Julian date, a simple serial count of the number of dates since noon Universal Time on the 1st of January, 4713 BC, on the Julian calendar. Let the Navy deal with leap days. I have better things to worry about.

Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse (May 26) sees Horace trying to count sheep to get himself to sleep; different ways of denoting numbers confound him. I’m not sure if it’s known why counting sheep, or any task like that, is useful in getting to sleep. My guess would be that it just falls into the sort of activity that can be done without a natural endpoint and without demanding too much attention to keep one awake, while demanding enough attention that one isn’t thinking about the bank account or the noise inside the walls or the way the car lurches two lanes to the right every time one taps the brake at highway speeds. That’s a guess, though.

Tom Horacek’s Foolish Mortals (May 26) uses the “on a scale of one to ten” standard for something that’s not usually described so vaguely, and I like the way it teases the idea of how to measure things. The “scale of one to ten” is logically flawed, since we have no idea what the units are, how little of something one represents or how much the ten does, or even whether it’s a linear scale — the difference between “two” and “three” is the same as that between “three” and “four”, the way lengths and weight work — or a logarithmic one — the ratio between “two” and “three” equals that between “three” and “four”, the way stellar magnitudes, decibel sound readings, and Richter scale earthquake intensity measure work — or, for that matter, what normal ought to be. And yet there’s something useful in making the assessment, surely because the first step towards usefully quantifying a thing is to make a clumsy and imprecise quantification of it.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts (May 26) kind of piles together a couple references so a character can identify himself as a double major in mathematics and theology. Of course, the generic biography for a European mathematician, between about the end of the Western Roman Empire and the Industrial Revolution, is that he (males most often had the chance to do original mathematics) studied mathematics alongside theology and philosophy, and possibly astronomy, although that reflects more how the subjects were seen as rather intertwined, and education wasn’t as specialized and differentiated as it’s now become. (The other generic mathematician would be the shopkeeper or the exchequer, but nobody tells jokes about their mathematics.)

And, finally, Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens (May 28) brings up the famous typing monkeys (here just the one of them), and what really has to be counted as a bit of success for the project.

Reading the Comics, May 18, 2014: Pop Math of the 80s Edition


And now there’ve suddenly been enough mathematics-themed comics for a fresh collection of the things. If there’s any theme this time around it’s to mathematics I remember filtering into popular culture in the 80s: the Drake Equation (which I, at least, first saw in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and found haunting), and the Rubik’s Cube, which pop mathematics writers in the early 80s latched onto with an eagerness matched only by how they liked polyominoes in the mid-70s, and the Mandelbrot Set, which I think of as a mid-to-late 80s thing because that’s when it started covering science-oriented magazine covers and the screens of IBM PS/2’s being used by the kids in the math and science magnet programs.

Incidentally, this time around I’ve tried to include the Between Friends that I talk about, because I’m not convinced the link to its Comics Kingdom home site will last indefinitely. Gocomics.com seems to keep links from expiring, even for non-subscribers, but I’m curious whether it would be better-liked if I included images of the strips I talk about? I’m fairly confident that this is fair use, as I talk about mathematical subjects inspired by the strips, but I don’t know whether people care much about saving a click before reading my attempts to say something, anything, about a kid given a word problem about airplanes that he answers in a flippant manner.

Wulff and Morgenthaler’s WuMo (May 15) features Professor Rubik, “five minutes after” inventing what he’s famous for. Ernö Rubik really is a Professor (of architecture, at the Budapest College of Applied Arts when he invented his famous cube), and was interested in the relationships of things in space and of objects moving in space. The Rubik’s Cube is of interest mathematically because it offers a great excuse to introduce group theory to the average person. Group theory is, among other things, a way of studying structures that look like arithmetic but that aren’t necessarily on numbers. Rotations work very much like the addition of numbers, at least, the modular addition (where if a result is less than zero, or greater than some upper bound, you add or subtract that upper bound until the result is back in range), and the Rubik’s Cube offers several interacting sets of things to rotate, so that the groups represented by it are fascinatingly complex.

Though the cube was invented in 1974 it didn’t become an overwhelming phenomenon until 1979, and then much of the early 80s was spent in people making jokes about how frustrating they found it and occasionally buying books that were supposed to tell you how to solve it, but you couldn’t after all. Then there was a Saturday morning cartoon about the cube which I watched because I had horrible, horrible, horrible taste in cartoons as a kid. Anyway, it turns out that if you played it perfectly you could solve any Rubik’s Cube in no more than twenty steps, although this wasn’t proven until 2010. I confess I usually just give up around step 35 and take the cube apart. Don’t watch the cartoon.

Eric the Circle (May 17), this entry by “Designroo”, features Eric in the midst of the Mandelbrot Set. The Mandelbrot Set, basis for two-thirds of all the posters on the walls in the mathematics department from 1986 through 2002, was discovered by Benoît Mandelbrot in one of those triumphs of numerical computing. It’s not hard to describe how to make it — it’s only a little more advanced than the pastime of hitting a square root or a square button on a calculator and watching numbers dwindle to zero or grow infinitely large — but the number of calculations that need to be done to see it mean it’d never have been discovered before there were computers to do the hard work, of calculation and of visualization.

Among the neat things about the Mandelbrot set are that it does have inlets that look like circles, and it has an infinite number of them: if you zoom in closely at any point on the boundary of the Mandelbrot set you’ll find a not-quite-perfect replica of the original set, with the big carotid shape and the budding circles on the edges, over and over, inexhaustibly.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot (May 17, rerun) asks why there aren’t geometry books on tape. It’s not quite an absurd question: in principle, geometry is a matter of deductive logic, and is about the relationship between ideas we call “points” and “lines” and “angles” and the like. Pictures are nice to have, as appeals to intuition, but our intuition can be wrong, and pictures can lead us astray, as any optical illusion will prove. And yet it’s so very hard to do away with that intuition. We may not know a compelling reason why the things we draw on sheets of paper should correspond to the results of logical, deductive reasoning that ought to be true whether drawn or not and whether, for that matter, a universe existed or not, but seeing representations of the relationships of geometric objects seems to help nearly everyone understand them better than simply knowing the reasons they should have those relationships.

The notion of learning geometry without drawings takes one fairly close to the Bourbaki project, the famous/infamous early 20th century French mathematical collective that tried to work out the logical structure of all mathematics on a purely formal, reasoned basis without any appeals to diagrams or physical intuition at all. It was an ambitious, controversial, and fruitful program that got permanently tainted because following from it was the “New Math”, an attempt at mathematics educational reform of the 60s and 70s which crashed hard against the problem that parents will only support educational reform that doesn’t involve teaching a thing in ways different from how they learned it.

Sondra Bell-Lundy's _Between Friends_, 18 May 2014: mothers draw a Venn Diagram.
Sondra Bell-Lundy’s _Between Friends_, 18 May 2014: mothers draw a Venn Diagram.

Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends (May 18) brings up my old nemesis of Venn Diagrams, although it gets them correct.

T Lewis and Michael Fry’s Over The Hedge (May 18) showcases the Drake Equation, a wonderful bit of reasoning that tries to answer the question of “how many species capable of interstellar communication are there”, considering that we only have evidence for at most one. It’s a wonderful bit of word-problem-type reasoning: given what we do know, which amounts mostly to how many stars there are, how can we work out what we would like to know? Frank Drake, astronomer, and co-designer of the plaque on Pioneers 10 and 11, made some estimates of what factors are relevant in going from what we do know to what we would like to know, and how they might relate. When Drake first published the equation only the number of stars could be reasonably estimated; today we can also add a good estimate of how likely a star is to have planets, and a fair estimate of how likely a planet is to be livable. The other steps are harder to estimate. But the process Drake used, of evaluating what he would need to know in order to give an answer, is still strong: there may be things about the equation which are wrong — factors that interact in ways not previously considered, for example — but it divides a huge problem into a series of smaller ones that can, hopefully, be studied and understood in pieces and through this process be turned into knowledge.

And finally, Jeff Harris’s Shortcuts (May 18), a kid’s activity/information panel, spends a half-a-comics-page talking about numbers and numerals. It’s a pretty respectable short guide to numbers and their representations, including some of the more famous number-representation schemes.

Reading the Comics, May 13, 2014: Good Class Problems Edition


Someone in Comic Strip Master Command must be readying for the end of term, as there’s been enough comic strips mentioning mathematics themes to justify another of these entries, and that’s before I even start reading Wednesday’s comics. I can’t say that there seem to be any overarching themes in the past week’s grab-bag of strips, but, there are a bunch of pretty good problems that would fit well in a mathematics class here.

Darrin Bell’s Candorville (May 6) comes back around to the default application of probability, questions in coin-flipping. You could build a good swath of a probability course just from the questions the strip implies: how many coins have to come up heads before it becomes reasonable to suspect that something funny is going on? Two is obviously too few; two thousand is likely too many. But improbable things do happen, without it signifying anything. So what’s the risk of supposing something’s up when it isn’t? What’s the risk of dismissing the hints that something is happening?

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (May 8) is another entry in the wiseacre schoolchild genre (I wonder if I’ve actually been consistent in describing this kind of comic, but, you know what I mean) and suggesting that arithmetic just be done on the computer. I’m sympathetic, however much fun it is doing arithmetic by hand.

Justin Boyd’s Invisible Bread (May 9) is honestly a marginal inclusion here, but it does show a mathematics problem that’s correctly formed and would reasonably be included on a precalculus or calculus class’s worksheets. It is a problem that’s a no-brainer, really, but that fits the comic’s theme of poorly functioning.

Steve Moore’s In The Bleachers (May 12) uses baseball scores and the start of a series. A series, at least once you’re into calculus, is the sum of a sequence of numbers, and if there’s only finitely many of them, here, there’s not much that’s interesting to say. Each sequence of numbers has some sum and that’s it. But if you have an infinite series — well, there, all sorts of amazing things become possible (or at least logically justified), including integral calculus and numerical computing. The series from the panel, if carried out, would come to a pair of infinitely large sums — this is called divergence, and is why your mathematician friends on Facebook or Twitter are passing around that movie poster with a math formula for a divergent series on it — and you can probably get a fair argument going about whether the sum of all the even numbers would be equal to the sum of all the odd numbers. (My advice: if pressed to give an answer, point to the other side of the room, yell, “Look, a big, distracting thing!” and run off.)

Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse (May 13) is something akin to a pun, playing as it does on the difference between a number and a numeral and shifting between the ways we might talk about “three”. Also, I notice for the first time that apparently the little bird sometimes seen in the comic is named “Sine”, which is probably why it flies in such a wavy pattern. I don’t know how I’d missed that before.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy (May 13, rerun) is also a strip that plays on the difference between a number and its representation as a numeral, really. Come to think of it, it’s a bit surprising that in Arabic numerals there aren’t any relationships between the representations for numbers; one could easily imagine a system in which, say, the symbol for “four” were a pair of whatever represents “two”. In A History Of Mathematical Notations Florian Cajori notes that there really isn’t any system behind why a particular numeral has any particular shape, and he takes a section (Section 96 in Book 1) to get engagingly catty about people who do. I’d like to quote it because it’s appealing, in that way:

A problem as fascinating as the puzzle of the origin of language relates to the evolution of the forms of our numerals. Proceeding on the tacit assumption that each of our numerals contains within itself, as a skeleton so to speak, as many dots, strokes, or angles as it represents units, imaginative writers of different countries and ages have advanced hypotheses as to their origin. Nor did these writers feel that they were indulging simply in pleasing pastimes or merely contributing to mathematical recreations. With perhaps only one exception, they were as convinced of the correctness of their explanations as are circle-squarers of the soundness of their quadratures.

Cajori goes on to describe attempts to rationalize the Arabic numerals as “merely … entertaining illustrations of the operation of a pseudo-scientific imagination, uncontrolled by all the known facts”, which gives some idea why Cajori’s engaging reading for seven hundred pages about stuff like where the plus sign comes from.

Reading the Comics, May 4, 2014: Summing the Series Edition


Before I get to today’s round of mathematics comics, a legend-or-joke, traditionally starring John Von Neumann as the mathematician.

The recreational word problem goes like this: two bicyclists, twenty miles apart, are pedaling toward each other, each at a steady ten miles an hour. A fly takes off from the first bicyclist, heading straight for the second at fifteen miles per hour (ground speed); when it touches the second bicyclist it instantly turns around and returns to the first at again fifteen miles per hour, at which point it turns around again and head for the second, and back to the first, and so on. By the time the bicyclists reach one another, the fly — having made, incidentally, infinitely many trips between them — has travelled some distance. What is it?

And this is not hard problem to set up, inherently: each leg of the fly’s trip is going to be a certain ratio of the previous leg, which means that formulas for a geometric infinite series can be used. You just need to work out what the lengths of those legs are to start with, and what that ratio is, and then work out the formula in your head. This is a bit tedious and people given the problem may need some time and a couple sheets of paper to make it work.

Von Neumann, who was an expert in pretty much every field of mathematics and a good number of those in physics, allegedly heard the problem and immediately answered: 15 miles! And the problem-giver said, oh, he saw the trick. (Since the bicyclists will spend one hour pedaling before meeting, and the fly is travelling fifteen miles per hour all that time, it travels a total of a fifteen miles. Most people don’t think of that, and try to sum the infinite series instead.) And von Neumann said, “What trick? All I did was sum the infinite series.”

Did this charming story of a mathematician being all mathematicky happen? Wikipedia’s description of the event credits Paul Halmos’s recounting of Nicholas Metropolis’s recounting of the story, which as a source seems only marginally better than “I heard it on the Internet somewhere”. (Other versions of the story give different distances for the bicyclists and different speeds for the fly.) But it’s a wonderful legend and can be linked to a Herb and Jamaal comic strip from this past week.

Paul Trap’s Thatababy (April 29) has the baby “blame entropy”, which fits as a mathematical concept, it seems to me. Entropy as a concept was developed in the mid-19th century as a thermodynamical concept, and it’s one of those rare mathematical constructs which becomes a superstar of pop culture. It’s become something of a fancy word for disorder or chaos or just plain messes, and the notion that the entropy of a system is ever-increasing is probably the only bit of statistical mechanics an average person can be expected to know. (And the situation is more complicated than that; for example, it’s just more probable that the entropy is increasing in time.)

Entropy is a great concept, though, as besides capturing very well an idea that’s almost universally present, it also turns out to be meaningful in surprising new places. The most powerful of those is in information theory, which is just what the label suggests; the field grew out of the problem of making messages understandable even though the telegraph or telephone lines or radio beams on which they were sent would garble the messages some, even if people sent or received the messages perfectly, which they would not. The most captivating (to my mind) new place is in black holes: the event horizon of a black hole has a surface area which is (proportional to) its entropy, and consideration of such things as the conservation of energy and the link between entropy and surface area allow one to understand something of the way black holes ought to interact with matter and with one another, without the mathematics involved being nearly as complicated as I might have imagined a priori.

Meanwhile, Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate (April 30) mentions how Nate’s Earned Run Average has changed over the course of two innings. Baseball is maybe the archetypical record-keeping statistics-driven sport; Alan Schwarz’s The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination With Statistics notes that the keeping of some statistical records were required at least as far back as 1837 (in the Constitution of the Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia). Earned runs — along with nearly every other baseball statistic the non-stathead has heard of other than batting averages — were developed as a concept by the baseball evangelist and reporter Henry Chadwick, who presented them from 1867 as an attempt to measure the effectiveness of batting and fielding. (The idea of the pitcher as an active player, as opposed to a convenient way to get the ball into play, was still developing.) But — and isn’t this typical? — he would come to oppose the earned run average as a measure of pitching performance, because things that were really outside the pitcher’s control, such as stolen bases, contributed to it.

It seems to me there must be some connection between the record-keeping of baseball and the development of statistics as a concept in the 19th century. Granted the 19th century was a century of statistics, starting with nation-states measuring their populations, their demographics, their economies, and projecting what this would imply for future needs; and then with science, as statistical mechanics found it possible to quite well understand the behavior of millions of particles despite it being impossible to perfectly understand four; and in business, as manufacturing and money were made less individual and more standard. There was plenty to drive the field without an amusing game, but, I can’t help thinking of sports as a gateway into the field.

Creator.com's _Donald Duck_ for 2 May 2014: Ludwig von Drake orders his computer to stop with the thinking.

The Disney Company’s Donald Duck (May 2, rerun) suggests that Ludwig von Drake is continuing to have problems with his computing machine. Indeed, he’s apparently having the same problem yet. I’d like to know when these strips originally ran, but the host site of creators.com doesn’t give any hint.

Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal (May 3) has the kid whose name I don’t really know fret how he spent “so much time” on an equation which would’ve been easy if he’d used “common sense” instead. But that’s not a rare phenomenon mathematically: it’s quite possible to set up an equation, or a process, or a something which does indeed inevitably get you to a correct answer but which demands a lot of time and effort to finish, when a stroke of insight or recasting of the problem would remove that effort, as in the von Neumann legend. The commenter Dartpaw86, on the Comics Curmudgeon site, brought up another excellent example, from Katie Tiedrich’s Awkward Zombie web comic. (I didn’t use the insight shown in the comic to solve it, but I’m happy to say, I did get it right without going to pages of calculations, whether or not you believe me.)

However, having insights is hard. You can learn many of the tricks people use for different problems, but, say, no amount of studying the Awkward Zombie puzzle about a square inscribed in a circle inscribed in a square inscribed in a circle inscribed in a square will help you in working out the area left behind when a cylindrical tube is drilled out of a sphere. Setting up an approach that will, given enough work, get you a correct solution is worth knowing how to do, especially if you can give the boring part of actually doing the calculations to a computer, which is indefatigable and, certain duck-based operating systems aside, pretty reliable. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel dumb for missing the recasting.

Rick Detorie's _One Big Happy_ for 3 May 2014: Joe names the whole numbers.

Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy (May 3) puns a little on the meaning of whole numbers. It might sound a little silly to have a name for only a handful of numbers, but, there’s no reason not to if the group is interesting enough. It’s possible (although I’d be surprised if it were the case) that there are only 47 Mersenne primes (a number, such as 7 or 31, that is one less than a whole power of 2), and we have the concept of the “odd perfect number”, when there might well not be any such thing.

Reading the Comics, April 27, 2014: The Poetry of Calculus Edition


I think there are enough comic strips for another installment of this series, so, here you go. There are a couple comics once again using mathematics, and calculus particularly, just to signify that there’s something requiring a lot of brainpower going on, which is flattering to people who learned calculus well enough, at the risk of conveying a sense that normal people can’t hope to become literate in mathematics. I don’t buy that. Anyway, there were comics that went in other directions, which is why there’s more talk about Dutch military engineering than you might have expected for today’s entry.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (April 22) uses the traditional blackboard full of calculus to indicate a genius. The exact formulas on the board don’t suggest anything particular to me, although they do seem to parse. I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned out to be taken from a textbook, possibly in fluid mechanics, that I just happen not to have noticed.

Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin (April 23, rerun) has Ollie and Quentin flipping a coin repeatedly until Quentin (the lugworm) sees his choice come up. Of course, if it is a fair coin, a call of heads or tails will come up eventually, at least if we carefully define what we mean by “eventually”, and for that matter, Quentin’s choice will surely come up if he tries long enough.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, April 27, 2014: The Poetry of Calculus Edition”

Reading the Comics, April 21, 2014: Bill Amend In Name Only Edition


Recently the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics met in New Orleans. Among the panelists was Bill Amend, the cartoonist for FoxTrot, who gave a talk about the writing of mathematics comic strips. Among the items he pointed out as challenges for mathematics comics — and partly applicable to any kind of teaching of mathematics — were:

  • Accessibility
  • Stereotypes
  • What is “easy” and “hard”?
  • I’m not exactly getting smarter as I age
  • Newspaper editors might not like them

Besides the talk (and I haven’t found a copy of the PowerPoint slides of his whole talk) he also offered a collection of FoxTrot comics with mathematical themes, good for download and use (with credit given) for people who need to stock up on them. The link might be expire at any point, note, so if you want them, go now.

While that makes a fine lead-in to a collection of mathematics-themed comic strips around here I have to admit the ones I’ve seen the last couple weeks haven’t been particularly inspiring, and none of them are by Bill Amend. They’ve covered a fair slate of the things you can write mathematics comics about — physics, astronomy, word problems, insult humor — but there’s still interesting things to talk about. For example:

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, April 21, 2014: Bill Amend In Name Only Edition”

Reading the Comics, April 1, 2014: Name-Dropping Monkeys Edition


There’s been a little rash of comics that bring up mathematical themes, now, which is ordinarily pretty good news. But when I went back to look at my notes I realized most of them are pretty much name-drops, mentioning stuff that’s mathematical without giving me much to expand upon. The exceptions are what might well be the greatest gift which early 20th century probability could give humor writers. That’s enough for me.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (March 27) plays on the double meaning of “fifth” as representing a term in a sequence and as representing a reciprocal fraction. It also makes me realize that I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that English (at least) lets you get away with using the ordinal number for the part fraction, at least apart from “first” and “second”. I can make some guesses about why English allows that, but would like to avoid unnecessarily creating folk etymologies.

Hector D Cantu and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo (March 27) has Baldo not do as well as he expected in predictive analytics, which I suppose doesn’t explicitly require mathematics, but would be rather hard to do without. Making predictions is one of mathematics’s great applications, and drives much mathematical work, in the extrapolation of curves and the solving of differential equations most obviously.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (March 27) name-drops the New Math, in the service of the increasingly popular sayings that suggest Baby Boomers aren’t quite as old as they actually are.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup To Nutz (March 29) name-drops the metric system, as Royboy notices his ten fingers and ten toes and concludes that he is indeed metric. The metric system is built around base ten, of course, and the idea that changing units should be as easy as multiplying and dividing by powers of ten, and powers of ten are easy to multiply and divide by because we use base ten for ordinary calculations. And why do we use base ten? Almost certainly because most people have ten fingers and ten toes, and it’s so easy to make the connection between counting fingers, counting objects, and then to the abstract idea of counting. There are cultures that used other numerical bases; for example, the Maya used base 20, but it’s hard not to notice that that’s just using fingers and toes together.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets (March 30) brings out a perennial mathematics topic, the infinite monkeys. Here Toby figures he could be the greatest playwright by simply getting infinite monkeys and typewriters to match, letting them work, and harvesting the best results. He hopes that he doesn’t have to buy many of them, to spoil the joke, but the remarkable thing about the infinite monkeys problem is that you don’t actually need that many monkeys. You’ll get the same result — that, eventually, all the works of Shakespeare will be typed — with one monkey or with a million or with infinitely many monkeys; with fewer monkeys you just have to wait longer to expect success. Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit (April 1) manages with a mere hundred monkeys, although he doesn’t reach Shakespearean levels.

But making do with fewer monkeys is a surprisingly common tradeoff in random processes. You can often get the same results with many agents running for a shorter while, or a few agents running for a longer while. Processes that allow you to do this are called “ergodic”, and being able to prove that a process is ergodic is good news because it means a complicated system can be represented with a simple one. Unfortunately it’s often difficult to prove that something is ergodic, so you might instead just warn that you are assuming the ergodic hypothesis or ergodicity, and if nothing else you can probably get a good fight going about the validity of “ergodicity” next time you play Scrabble or Boggle.

Reading the Comics, March 26, 2014: Kitchen Science Department


It turns out that three of the comic strips to be included in this roundup of mathematics-themed strips mentioned things that could reasonably be found in kitchens, so that’s why I’ve added that as a subtitle. I can’t figure a way to contort the other entries to being things that might be in kitchens, but, given that I don’t get to decide what cartoonists write about I think I’m doing well to find any running themes.

Ralph Hagen’s The Barn (March 19) is built around a possibly accurate bit of trivia which tries to stagger the mind by considering the numinous: how many stars are there? This evokes, to me at least, one of the famous bits of ancient Greek calculations (for which they get much less attention than the geometers and logicians did), as Archimedes made an effort to estimate how many grains of sand could fit inside the universe. Archimedes had apparently little fear of enormous numbers, and had to strain the Greek system for representing numbers to get at such enormous quantities. But he was an ingenious reasoner: he was able to estimate, for example, the sizes and distances to the Moon and the Sun based on observing, with the naked eye, the half-moon; and his work on problems like finding the value of pi get surprisingly close to integral calculus and would probably be a better introduction to the subject than pre-calculus courses are. It’s quite easy in considering how big (and how old) the universe is to get to numbers that are really difficult to envision, so, trying to reduce that by imagining stars as grains of salt might help, if you can imagine a ball of salt eight miles across.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, March 26, 2014: Kitchen Science Department”

Reading The Comics, March 17, 2014: After The Ides Edition


Rather than wait to read today’s comics I’m just going to put in a fresh entry going over mathematical points raised in the funny pages. This one turned out to include a massive diversion into the wonders of the ancient Roman calendar, which is a mathematical topic, really, although there’s no calculations involved in it just here.

Bill Hinds’s Cleats (March 7, rerun) calls on one of the common cultural references to percentages, the idea of athletes giving 100 percent efforts. (Edith is feeling more like an 80 percent effort, or less than that.) The idea of giving 100 percent in a sport is one that invites the question, 100 percent of what; granting that there is some standard expectable effort made, then, even the sports reporting cliche of giving 110 percent is meaningful.
Cleats continued on the theme the next day, as Edith was thinking more of giving about 79 percent of 80 percent, and it’s not actually that hard to work out in your head what percent that is, if you know anything about doing arithmetic in your head.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (March 14) was not actually the only comic strip among the roster I normally read to make a Pi Day reference, but I think it suffices as the example for the whole breed. I admit that I feel a bit curmudgeonly that I don’t actually care about Pi Day. I suppose that as a chance for people to promote the idea of learning mathematics, and maybe attach it to some of the many interesting things to be said about mathematics using Pi as the introductory note the idea is fine, but just naming a thing isn’t by itself a joke. I’m told that Facebook (I’m not on it) was thick with people posting photographs of pies, which is probably more fun when you think of it than when you notice everybody else thought of it too. Anyway, organized Pi Day events are still pretty new as Internet Pop Holidays go. Perhaps next year’s comics will be sharper.

Jenny Campbell’s Flo and Friends (March 15) comes back to useful mental arithmetic work, in this case in working out a reasonable tip. A twenty-percent tip is, mercifully, pretty easy to remember just as what’s-her-name specifies. (I can’t think of the kid’s name and there’s no meet-our-cast page on the web site. None of the commenters mention her name either, although they do make room to insult health care reform and letting students use calculators to do arithmetic, so, I’m sorry I read that far down too.) But as ever you need to make sure the process is explained clearly and understood, and Tina needed to run a sanity check on the result. Sanity checks, as suggested, won’t show that your answer is right, but they will rule out some of the wrong ones. (A fifteen percent tip is a bit annoying to calculate exactly, but dividing the original amount by six will give you a sixteen-and-two-thirds percent tip, which is surely close enough, especially if you round off to a quarter-dollar.)

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue (March 15) has the kids wonder what are the ides of March; besides that they’re the 15th of the month and they’re used for some memorable writing about Julius Caesar it’s a fair thing not to know. They derive from calendar-keeping, one of the oldest useful applications of mathematics and astronomy. The ancient Roman scheme set three special dates in the month: the kalends, which seem to have started as the day of the new moon as observed in Rome; the nones, when the moon was at its first quarter; and the ides, when the moon was full.

But by the time of Numa Pompilius, the second (traditional) King of Rome, who reformed the calendar around 713 BC, the lunar link was snapped, partly so that the calendar year could more nearly fit the length of the time it takes to go from one spring to another. (Among other things the pre-Numa calendar had only ten months, with the days between December and March not belonging to any month; since Romans were rather agricultural at the time and there wasn’t much happening in winter, this wasn’t really absurd, even if I find it hard to imagine living by this sort of standard. After Numa there were only about eleven days of the year unaccounted for, with the time made up, when it needed to be, by inserting an extra month, Mercedonius, in the middle of February.) Months then had, February excepted, either 29 or 31 days, with the ides being on the fifteenth day of the 31-day months (March, May, July, and October) and the thirteenth day of the 29-day months.

For reasons that surely made sense if you were an ancient Roman the day was specified as the number of days until the next kalend, none, or ide; so, for example, while the 13th of March would be the 2nd day before the ides of March, II Id Mar, the 19th of March would be recorded as the the the 14th day before the kalend of April, or, XIV Kal Apr. I admit I could probably warm up to counting down to the next month event, but the idea of having half the month of March written down on the calendar as a date with “April” in it leaves me deeply unsettled. And that’s before we even get into how an extra month might get slipped into the middle of February (between the 23rd and the 24th of the month, the trace of which can still be observed in the dominical letters of February in leap years, on Roman Catholic and Anglican calendars, and in the obscure term “bissextile year” for leap year). But now that you see that, you know why (a) the ancient Romans had so much trouble getting their database software to do dates correctly and (b) you get to be all smugly superior to anyone who tries making a crack about the United States Federal Income Tax deadline being on the Ides of April, since they never are.

(Warning: absolutely no one ever will be impressed by your knowledge of the Ides of April and their inapplicability to discussions of the United States Federal Income Tax. However, you might use this as a way to appear like you’re making friendly small talk while actually encouraging people to leave you alone.)

Tom Horacek’s Foolish Mortals (March 17), an erratically-published panel strip, calls on the legend of how mathematicians “usually” peak in their twenties. It’s certainly said of mathematicians that they do their most important work while young — note that the Fields Medal is explicitly given to mathematicians for work done when they were under forty years old — although I’m not aware of anyone who’s actually studied this, and the number of great mathematicians who insist on doing brilliant work into their old age is pretty impressive.

Certainly, for example, Newton began work on calculus (and optics and gravitation) when he was about 23, but he didn’t publish until he was about fifty. (Leibniz, meanwhile, started publishing calculus his way at about age 38.) It’s probably impossible to say what Leonhard Euler’s most important work was, but (for example) his equations describing inviscid fluids — which would be the masterpiece for anybody not Euler — he published when he was fifty. Carl Friedrich Gauss didn’t start serious work in electromagnetism until he was about 55 years old, too. The law of electric flux which Gauss worked out for that — which, again, would have been the career achievement if Gauss weren’t overflowing with them — he published when he was 58.

I guess that I’m saying is that great minds, at least, don’t necessarily peak in their twenties, or at least they have some impressive peaks afterwards too.

Reading the Comics, March 1, 2014: Isn’t It One-Half X Squared Plus C? Edition


So the subject line references here a mathematics joke that I never have heard anybody ever tell, and only encounter in lists of mathematics jokes. It goes like this: a couple professors are arguing at lunch about whether normal people actually learn anything about calculus. One of them says he’s so sure normal people learn calculus that even their waiter would be able to answer a basic calc question, and they make a bet on that. He goes back and finds their waiter and says, when she comes with the check he’s going to ask her if she knows what the integral of x is, and she should just say, “why, it’s one-half x squared, of course”. She agrees. He goes back and asks her what the integral of x is, and she says of course it’s one-half x squared, and he wins the bet. As he’s paid off, she says, “But excuse me, professor, isn’t it one-half x squared plus C?”

Let me explain why this is an accurately structured joke construct and must therefore be classified as funny. “The integral of x”, as the question puts it, has not just one correct answer but rather a whole collection of correct answers, which are different from one another only by the addition of a constant whole number, by convention denoted C, and the inclusion of that “plus C” denotes that whole collection. The professor was being sloppy in referring to just a single example from that collection instead of the whole set, as the waiter knew to do. You’ll see why this is relevant to today’s collection of mathematics-themed comics.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (February 22) points out one of the grand things about mathematics, that if you follow the proper steps in a mathematical problem you get to be right, and to be extraordinarily confident in that rightness. And that’s true, although, at least to me a good part of what’s fun in mathematics is working out what the proper steps are: figuring out what the important parts of something you want to study should be, and what follows from your representation of them, and — particularly if you’re trying to represent a complicated real-world phenomenon with a model — whether you’re representing the things you find interesting in the real-world phenomenon well. So, while following the proper steps gets you an answer that is correct within the limits of whatever it is you’re doing, you still get to work out whether you’re working on the right problem, which is the real fun.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow (February 23, rerun) uses that ambiguous place between mathematics and physics to represent extreme smartness. The equation the physicist brings to Neil is the (time-dependent) Schrödinger Equation, describing how probability evolves in time, and the answer is correct. If Neil’s coworkers at Lucky Cow were smarter they’d realize the scam, though: while the equation is impressively scary-looking to people not in the know, a particle physicist would have about as much chance of forgetting this as of forgetting the end of “E equals m c … ”.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange (February 24) builds on the familiar infinite-monkeys metaphor, but misses an important point. Price is right that yes, an infinite number of monkeys already did create the works of Shakespeare, as a result of evolving into a species that could have a Shakespeare. But the infinite monkeys problem is about selecting letters at random, uniformly: the letter following “th” is as likely to be “q” as it is to be “e”. An evolutionary system, however, encourages the more successful combinations in each generation, and discourages the less successful: after writing “th” Shakespeare would be far more likely to put “e” and never “q”, which makes calculating the probability rather less obvious. And Shakespeare was writing with awareness that the words mean things and they must be strings of words which make reasonable sense in context, which the monkeys on typewriters would not. Shakespeare could have followed the line “to be or not to be” with many things, but one of the possibilities would never be “carport licking hammer worbnoggle mrxl 2038 donkey donkey donkey donkey donkey donkey donkey”. The typewriter monkeys are not so selective.

Dan Thompson’s Brevity (February 26) is a cute joke about a number’s fashion sense.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow turns up again (February 28, rerun) for the Rubik’s Cube. The tolerably fun puzzle and astoundingly bad Saturday morning cartoon of the 80s can be used to introduce abstract algebra. When you rotate the nine little cubes on the edge of a Rubik’s cube, you’re doing something which is kind of like addition. Think of what you can do with the top row of cubes: you can leave it alone, unchanged; you can rotate it one quarter-turn clockwise; you can rotate it one quarter-turn counterclockwise; you can rotate it two quarter-turns clockwise; you can rotate it two quarter-turns counterclockwise (which will result in something suspiciously similar to the two quarter-turns clockwise); you can rotate it three quarter-turns clockwise; you can rotate it three quarter-turns counterclockwise.

If you rotate the top row one quarter-turn clockwise, and then another one quarter-turn clockwise, you’ve done something equivalent to two quarter-turns clockwise. If you rotate the top row two quarter-turns clockwise, and then one quarter-turn counterclockwise, you’ve done the same as if you’d just turned it one quarter-turn clockwise and walked away. You’re doing something that looks a lot like addition, without being exactly like it. Something odd happens when you get to four quarter-turns either clockwise or counterclockwise, particularly, but it all follows clear rules that become pretty familiar when you notice how much it’s like saying four hours after 10:00 will be 2:00.

Abstract algebra marks one of the things you have to learn as a mathematics major that really changes the way you start looking at mathematics, as it really stops being about trying to solve equations of any kind. You instead start looking at how structures are put together — rotations are seen a lot, probably because they’re familiar enough you still have some physical intuition, while still having significant new aspects — and, following this trail can get for example to the parts of particle physics where you predict some exotic new subatomic particle has to exist because there’s this structure that makes sense if it does.

Jenny Campbell’s Flo and Friends (March 1) is set off with the sort of abstract question that comes to mind when you aren’t thinking about mathematics: how many five-card combinations are there in a deck of (52) cards? Ruthie offers an answer, although — as the commenters get to disputing — whether she’s right depends on what exactly you mean by a “five-card combination”. Would you say that a hand of “2 of hearts, 3 of hearts, 4 of clubs, Jack of diamonds, Queen of diamonds” is a different one to “3 of hearts, Jack of diamonds, 4 of clubs, Queen of diamonds, 2 of hearts”? If you’re playing a game in which the order of the deal doesn’t matter, you probably wouldn’t; but, what if the order does matter? (I admit I don’t offhand know a card game where you’d get five cards and the order would be important, but I don’t know many card games.)

For that matter, if you accept those two hands as the same, would you accept “2 of clubs, 3 of clubs, 4 of diamonds, Jack of spades, Queen of spades” as a different hand? The suits are different, yes, but they’re not differently structured: you’re still three cards away from a flush, and two away from a straight. Granted there are some games in which one suit is worth more than another, in which case it matters whether you had two diamonds or two spades; but if you got the two-of-clubs hand just after getting the two-of-hearts hand you’d probably be struck by how weird it was you got the same hand twice in a row. You can’t give a correct answer to the question until you’ve thought about exactly what you mean when you say two hands of cards are different.

Reading the Comics, February 21, 2014: Circumferences and Monkeys Edition


And now to finish off the bundle of mathematic comics that I had run out of time for last time around. Once again the infinite monkeys situation comes into play; there’s also more talk about circumferences than average.

Brian and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers (February 13) does a little wordplay on how “circumference” sounds like it could kind of be a knightly name, which I remember seeing in a minor Bugs Bunny cartoon back in the day. “Circumference” the word derives from the Latin, “circum” meaning around and “fero” meaning “to carry”; and to my mind, the really interesting question is why do we have the words “perimeter” and “circumference” when it seems like either one would do? “Circumference” does have the connotation of referring to just the boundary of a circular or roughly circular form, but why should the perimeter of circular things be so exceptional as to usefully have its own distinct term? But English is just like that, I suppose.

Paul Trapp’s Thatababy (February 13) brings back the infinite-monkey metaphor. The infinite monkeys also appear in John Deering’s Strange Brew (February 20), which is probably just a coincidence based on how successfully tossing in lots of monkeys can produce giggling. Or maybe the last time Comic Strip Master Command issued its orders it sent out a directive, “more infinite monkey comics!”

Ruben Bolling’s Tom The Dancing Bug (February 14) delivers some satirical jabs about Biblical textual inerrancy by pointing out where the Bible makes mathematical errors. I tend to think nitpicking the Bible mostly a waste of good time on everyone’s part, although the handful of arithmetic errors are a fair wedge against the idea that the text can’t have any errors and requires no interpretation or even forgiveness, with the Ezra case the stronger one. The 1 Kings one is about the circumference and the diameter for a vessel being given, and those being incompatible, but it isn’t hard to come up with a rationalization that brings them plausibly in line (you have to suppose that the diameter goes from outer wall to outer wall, while the circumference is that of an inner wall, which may be a bit odd but isn’t actually ruled out by the text), which is why I think it’s the weaker.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range (February 16) uses a blackboard full of mathematics as a generic “this is something really complicated” signifier. The symbols as written don’t make a lot of sense, although I admit it’s common enough while working out a difficult problem to work out weird bundles of partly-written expressions or abuses of notation (like on the middle left of the board, where a bracket around several equations is shown as being less than a bracket around fewer equations), just because ideas are exploding faster than they can be written out sensibly. Hopefully once the point is proven you’re able to go back and rebuild it all in a form which makes sense, either by going into standard notation or by discovering that you have soem new kind of notation that has to be used. It’s very exciting to come up with some new bit of notation, even if it’s only you and a couple people you work with who ever use it. Developing a good way of writing a concept might be the biggest thrill in mathematics, even better than proving something obscure or surprising.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic (February 18) uses a blackboard full of mathematics symbols again to give the impression of someone working on something really hard. The first two lines of equations on 8-Ball’s board are the time-dependent Schrödinger Equations, describing how the probability distribution for something evolves in time. The last line is Euler’s formula, the curious and fascinating relationship between pi, the base of the natural logarithm e, imaginary numbers, one, and zero.

Todd Clark’s Lola (February 20) uses the person-on-an-airplane setup for a word problem, in this case, about armrest squabbling. Interesting to me about this is that the commenters get into a squabble about how airplane speeds aren’t measured in miles per hour but rather in nautical miles, although nobody not involved in air traffic control really sees that. What amuses me about this is that what units you use to measure the speed of the plane don’t matter; the kind of work you’d do for a plane-travelling-at-speed problem is exactly the same whatever the units are. For that matter, none of the unique properties of the airplane, such as that it’s travelling through the air rather than on a highway or a train track, matter at all to the problem. The plane could be swapped out and replaced with any other method of travel without affecting the work — except that airplanes are more likely than trains (let’s say) to have an armrest shortage and so the mock question about armrest fights is one in which it matters that it’s on an airplane.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (February 21) is one of the all-time classics, with Calvin wondering about just how fast his sledding is going, and being interested right up to the point that Hobbes identifies mathematics as the way to know. There’s a lot of mathematics to be seen in finding how fast they’re going downhill. Measuring the size of the hill and how long it takes to go downhill provides the average speed, certainly. Working out how far one drops, as opposed to how far one travels, is a trigonometry problem. Trying the run multiple times, and seeing how the speed varies, introduces statistics. Trying to answer questions like when are they travelling fastest — at a single instant, rather than over the whole run — introduce differential calculus. Integral calculus could be found from trying to tell what the exact distance travelled is. Working out what the shortest or the fastest possible trips introduce the calculus of variations, which leads in remarkably quick steps to optics, statistical mechanics, and even quantum mechanics. It’s pretty heady stuff, but I admit, yeah, it’s math.

Reading the Comics, February 11, 2014: Running Out Pi Edition


I’d figured I had enough mathematics comic strips for another of these entries, and discovered during the writing that I had much more to say about one than I had anticipated. So, although it’s no longer quite the 11th, or close to it, I’m going to exile the comics from after that date to the next of these entries.

Melissa DeJesus and Ed Power’s My Cage (February 6, rerun) makes another reference to the infinite-monkeys-with-typewriters scenario, which, since it takes place in a furry universe allows access to the punchline you might expect. I’ve written about that before, as the infinite monkeys problem sits at a wonderful intersection of important mathematics and captivating metaphors.

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (starting February 10) (and when am I going to make a macro for that credit and title?) has Cynthia given a slightly baffling homework lesson: to calculate the first ten digits of pi. The story continues through the 11th, the 12th, the 13th, finally resolving on the the 14th, in the way such stories must. I admit I’m not sure why exactly calculating the digits of π would be a suitable homework assignment; I can see working out division problems until the numbers start repeating, or doing a square root or something by hand until you’ve found enough digits.

π, though … well, there’s the question of why it’d be an assignment to start with, but also, what formula for generating π could be plausibly appropriate for an elementary school class. The one that seems obvious to me — π is equal to four times (1/1 minus 1/3 plus 1/5 minus 1/7 plus 1/9 minus 1/11 and so on and so on) — also takes way too long to work. If a little bit of coding is right, it takes something like 160 terms to get just the first two digits of π correct and that isn’t even stable. (The first 160 terms add to 3.135; the first 161 terms to 3.147.) Getting it to ten digits would take —

Well, I thought it might be as few was 10,000 terms, because it turns out the sum of the first ten thousand terms in that series is 3.1414926536, which looks dead-on until you notice that π is 3.1415926536. That’s a neat coincidence, though.

Anyway, obviously, that formula wouldn’t do, and we see on the strip of the 14th that Lucretia isn’t using that. There are a great many formulas that generate the value of π, any of which might be used for a project like this; some of them get the digits right quite rapidly, usually at a cost of being very complicated. The formula shown in the strip of the 14th, though, doesn’t seem to be right. Lucretia’s work uses the formula \pi = \sqrt{12} \cdot \sum_{k = 0}^{\infty} \frac{(-3)^{-k}}{2k + 1} , which takes only about 21 terms to get to the demanded ten digits of accuracy. I don’t want to guess how many pages of work it would take to get to 13,908 places.

If I don’t miss my guess the formula used here is one by Abraham Sharp, an astronomer and mathematician who worked for the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and set a record by calculating π to 72 decimal digits. He was also an instrument-maker, of rather some skill, and I found a page purporting to show his notes of how to cut some complicated polyhedrons out of a block of wood, so, if my father wants to carve a 120-sided figure, here’s his chance. Sharp seems to have started with Leibniz’s formula (yes, that Leibniz) — that the arctangent of a number x is equal to x minus one-third x cubed plus one-fifth x to the fifth power minus one-seventh x to the seventh power, et cetera — with the knowledge that the arctangent of the square root of one-third is equal to one-sixth π and produced this series that looks a lot like the one we started with, but which gets digits correct so very much more quickly.

Darrin Bell’s Candorville (February 13) is primarily a bit of guys insulting friends, but what do you know and π makes a cameo appearance here.

Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man (February 10) is a Venn Diagram cartoon in the service of arguing that Venn Diagram cartoons aren’t funny. Putting aside the smoke and sparks popping out of the Nomad space probe which Kirk and Spock are rushing to the transporter room, I don’t think it’s quite fair: the ease the Venn diagram gives to grouping together concepts and showing how they relate helps organize one’s understanding of concepts and can be a really efficient way to set up a joke. Granting that, perhaps Wheeler’s seen too many Venn Diagram cartoons that fail, a complaint I’m sympathetic to.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot (February 11, rerun) was one of those strips trying to be taped to the math teacher’s door, with the pun-based programming for the Math Channel.

Reading the Comics, February 1, 2014


For today’s round of mathematics-themed comic strips a little deeper pattern turns out to have emerged: π, that most popular of the transcendental numbers, turns up quite a bit in the comics that drew my attention the past couple weeks. Let me explain.

Dan Thompson’s Brevity (January 23) returns to the anthropomorphic numbers racket, with the kind of mathematics puns designed to get the strip pasted to the walls of the teacher’s lounge. I wonder how that’s going for him.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn (January 25, rerun from 1986) has Luann not understanding how to work out an arithmetic problem until it’s shown how to do it: use the calculator. This is a joke that’s probably going to be with us as long as there are practical, personal calculating devices, because it is a good question why someone should bother learning arithmetic when a device will do it faster and better by every reasonable measure. I admit not being sure there is much point to learning arithmetic, other than as a way to practice a particular way of learning how to apply algorithms. I suppose it also stands as a way to get people who are really into mathematics to highlight themselves: someone who memorizes the times tables is probably interested in the kinds of systematic thought that mathematics depends on. But that’s a weak reason to demand it of every student. I suppose arithmetic is very testable, but that’s an even worse reason to make students go through it.

Mind you, I am quite open to the idea that arithmetic drills are useful for students. That I don’t know a particular reason why I should care whether a seventh-grader can divide 391 by 17 by hand doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is one.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, February 1, 2014”

Reading the Comics, January 20, 2014


I’m getting to wonder whether cartoonists really do think about mathematics only when schools are in session; there was a frightening lull in mathematics-themed comic strips this month and I was getting all ready to write about something meaningful like how Gaussian integration works instead. But they came around, possibly because the kids went back to school and could resist answering word problems about driving places so they can divide apples again.

Carla Ventresca and Henry Beckett’s On A Claire Day (January 3) really just name-drops mathematics, as a vaguely unpleasant thing intruding on a conversation, even though Paul’s just dropped in a bit of silliness that, if I’m not reading it wrongly, is tautological anyway. There’s a fair question at work here, though: can “how good” a person is be measured? Obviously, it can’t if nobody tries; but could they succeed at all?

It sounds a bit silly, but then, measuring something like the economic state of a nation was not even imagined until surprisingly recently: most of the economic measures we have postdate World War II. One can argue whether they’re measuring what they are supposed to represent well, but there’s not much dispute about the idea that economic health could be measured anymore. When Assistant Secretary of State for the Truman administration, James Webb — later famous for managing NASA during the bulk of the Space Race — tried to get foreign relations measured in a similar way, though the idea was mocked as ridiculous (the joke was apparently something along the lines of a person rushing in to announce “Bulgaria is down two points!”, which is probably funnier if you haven’t grown up playing Civilization-style grand strategy games), and he gave up on that fight in favor of completing a desperately needed reorganization of the department.

I don’t know how I would measure a person’s goodness, but I could imagine a process of coming up with some things that could be measured, and trying them out, and seeing how well the measurements match what it feels they should be measuring. This is all probably too much work for a New Year’s Resolution, but it might get someone their thesis project.

Steve Moore’s In The Bleachers (January 14) comes back with a huge pile of equations standing as a big, complicated explanation for something. It doesn’t look to me like the description has much to do with describing balls bouncing, however, which is a bit of a disappointment given previous strips that name-drop Lev Landau or pull up implicit differentiation when they don’t need even need it. Maybe Moore wasn’t able to find something that looked good before deadline.

Bill Hinds’s Cleats (January 16, rerun) is just the sort of straightforward pun I actually more expect out of FoxTrot (see below).

Nate Frakes’s Break of Day (January 19) shows an infant trying to count sheep and concluding she’s too young to. Interesting to me is that the premise of the joke might actually be wrong: humans appear to have at least a rough sense of numbers, at least for things like counting and addition, from a surprisingly early age. This is a fascinating thing to learn about, both because it’s remarkable that humans should have a natural aptitude for arithmetic, and because of how difficult it is to come up with tests for understanding quantity and counting and addition that work on people with whom you can’t speak and who can’t be given instruction on how to respond to a test. Stanislas Dehaene’s The Number Sense: How The Mind Creates Mathematics describes some of this, although I’m hesitant to recommend it uncritically because I know I’m not well-read in the field. It’s somewhere to start learning, though.

Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser (January 20) could be the start of a word problem in translating from percentiles to rankings, and, for that matter, vice-versa. It’s convenient to switch a ranking to percentiles because that makes it easier to compare groups of different sizes. But many statistical tools, particularly the z-score, might be considered to be ways of meaningfully comparing the order of groups of different sizes that are nevertheless similar.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot (January 20, rerun) is the reliable old figure-eight ice skating gag. I hope people won’t think worse of me for feeling that Droopy did it better.

T Lewis and Michael Fry’s Over The Hedge (January 20) uses a spot of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus (rendered correctly) to stand in for “a really hard thought”. Calculus is probably secure in having that reputation: it’s about the last mathematics that the average person might be expected to take, and it introduces many new symbols and concepts that can be staggering (even the polymath Isaac Asimov found he just couldn’t grasp the subject), and so many of its equations are just beautiful to look at. The integral sign seems to me to have some graphic design sense that, for example, matrices or the polynomial representations of knots just don’t manage.

Reading the Comics, December 29, 2013


I haven’t quite got seven comics mentioning mathematics themes this time around, but, it’s so busy the end of the year that maybe it’s better publishing what I have and not worrying about an arbitrary quota like mine.

Wuff and Morgenthaler’s WuMo (December 16) uses a spray of a bit of mathematics to stand in for “something just too complicated to understand”, and even uses a caricature of Albert Einstein to represent the person who’s just too smart to be understood. I’m a touch disappointed that, as best I can tell, the equations sprayed out don’t mean anything; I’ve enjoyed WuMo — a new comic to North American audiences — so far and kind of expected they would get an irrelevant detail like that plausibly right.

I’m also interested that sixty years after his death the portrait of Einstein still hasn’t been topped as an image for The Really, Really Smart Guy. Possibly nobody since him has managed to combine being both incredibly important — even if it weren’t for relativity, Einstein would be an important figure in science for his work in quantum mechanics, and if he didn’t have relativity or quantum mechanics, he’d still be important for statistical mechanics — and iconic-looking, which I guess really means he let his hair grow wild. I wonder if Stephen Hawking will be able to hold some of that similar pop cultural presence.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, December 29, 2013”

Reading the Comics, December 12, 2013


It’s a bit of a shame there weren’t quite enough comics to run my little roundup on the 11th of December, for that nice 11/12/13 sequence, but I’m not in charge of arranging these things. For this week’s gathering of mathematically themed comic strips there’s not any deeper theme than they mention mathematic points, but at least the first couple of them have some real meat to the subject matter. (It feels to me like if one of the gathered comics inspires an essay, it’s usually one of the first couple in a collection. That might indicate that I get tired while writing these out, or it might reflect a biased recollection of when I do break out an essay.)

John Allen’s Nest Heads (December 5) is built around a kid not understanding a probability distribution: how many days in a row does it take to get the chance of snow to be 100 percent? The big flaw here is the supposition that the chance of snow is a (uhm) cumulative thing, so that if the snow didn’t happen yesterday or the day before it’s the more likely to happen today or tomorrow. As we actually use weather forecasts, though, they’re … well, I’m not sure I’d say they’re independent, that yesterday’s 30 percent chance of snow has nothing to do with today’s 25 percent chance, since it seems to me plausible that whether it snowed yesterday affects whether it snows today. But they don’t just add up until we get a 100 percent chance of snow when things start to drop.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, December 12, 2013”

Reading the Comics, December 3, 2013


It’s been long enough for a couple more mathematics-themed comics to gather, so, let me share them with you. The comics easily available to me may be increasing, too, as dailyink.com has indicated they’re looking to make it easier for people who aren’t subscribers to their service to look at the daily strips. I’d be glad to include them back in my roundup of mathematics strips, at least when I see them making mathematics jokes; there’ve been surprisingly few of them lately. Maybe the King Features Syndicate artists know it’s generally too much effort for me to feature them for a joke about how silly word problems are and have been saving us both the trouble.

Frank Page’s Bob the Squirrel began a sequence November 20 with the kid Lauren doing her math homework and Bob the Squirrel, one of multiple imaginary squirrels which I follow on Twitter, helping. It starts with percentages, a concept I admit that other people find harder than I ever did, probably because the “per cent” just made it clear to me at a young age what the whole thing was about. On the 21st Bob claims to have known a squirrel named Algebra, which wouldn’t be the strangest name for a squirrel. “Algebra”, the word, isn’t drawn from anyone’s name; it’s instead drawn from the title of the book Hisab al-jabr w’al-muqabala, Kitab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqabala (“The Compendious Book On Calculation By Completion and Balancing”), written by Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, whose name did give us the word “algorithm”, which is the kind of successful word-generating power that you usually expect only from obscure Swedish towns. Bob closes things off with your standard breaking-the-word-problem sort of joke.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, December 3, 2013”

Reading the Comics, November 13, 2013


For this week’s round of comic strips there’s almost a subtler theme than “they mention math in some way”: several have got links to statistical mechanics and the problem of recurrence. I’m not sure what’s gotten into Comic Strip Master Command that they sent out instructions to do comics that I can tie to the astounding interactions of infinities and improbable events, but it makes me wonder if I need to write a few essays about it.

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (October 30) summons the classic “infinite monkeys” problem of probability for its punch line. The concept — that if you had something producing strings of letters at random (taken to be monkeys because, I suppose, it’s assumed they would hit every key without knowing what sensibly comes next), it would, given enough time, produce any given result. The idea goes back a long way, and it’s blessed with a compelling mental image even though typewriters are a touch old-fashioned these days.

It seems to have gotten its canonical formulation in Émile Borel’s 1913 article “Statistical Mechanics and Irreversibility”, as you might expect since statistical mechanics brings up the curious problem of entropy. In short: every physical interaction, say, when two gases — let’s say clear air and some pink smoke as 1960s TV shows used to knock characters out — mix, is time-reversible. Look at the interaction of one clear-gas molecule and one pink-gas molecule and you can’t tell whether it’s playing forward or backward. But look at the entire room and it’s obvious whether they’re mixing or unmixing. How can something be time-reversible at every step of every interaction but not in whole?

The idea got a second compelling metaphor with Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel, with a bit more literary class and in many printings fewer monkeys.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, November 13, 2013”

Reading the Comics, October 26, 2013


And once again while I wasn’t quite looking we got a round of eight comic strips with mathematical themes to review. Some of them aren’t even about kids not understanding fractions, if you can imagine.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs (October 14) does the usual confused-student joke. It’s a little unusual in having the subject be different ways to plot data, though, with line graphs, bar graphs, and scatter graphs being shown off. I think remarkable about this is that line graphs and bar graphs were both — well, if not invented, then at least popularized — by one person, William Playfair, who’s also to be credited for making pie charts a popular tool. Playfair, an engineer and economist of the late 18th and early 19th century, and I do admire him for developing not just one but multiple techniques for making complicated information easier to see.

Eric the Circle (October 16) breaks through my usual reluctance to include it — just having a circle doesn’t seem like it’s enough — because it does a neat bit of mathematical joking, in which a cube looks “my dual” in an octahedron. Duals are one of the ways mathematicians transform one problem into another, that usually turns out to be equivalent; what’s surprising is that often a problem that’s difficult for the original is easy, or at least easier, for the dual.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, October 26, 2013”

Reading the Comics, October 8, 2013


As promised, I’ve got a fresh round of mathematics-themed comic strips to discuss, something that’s rather fun to do because it offers such an easy answer to the question of what to write about today. Once you have the subject and a deadline the rest of the writing isn’t so very hard. So here’s some comics with all the humor safely buried in exposition:

Allison Barrows’s PreTeena (September 24, Rerun) brings the characters to “Performance Camp” and a pun on one of the basic tools of trigonometry. The pun’s routine enough, but I’m delighted to see that Barrows threw in a (correct) polynomial expression for the sine of an angle, since that’s the sort of detail that doesn’t really have to be included for the joke to read cleanly but which shows that Barrows made the effort to get it right.

Polynomial expansions — here, a Taylor series — are great tools to have, because, generally, polynomials are nice and well-behaved things. They’re easy to compute, they’re easy to analyze, they’re pretty much easy to do whatever you might want to do. Being able to shift a complicated or realistic function into a polynomial, even a polynomial with infinitely many terms, is often a big step towards making a complicated problem easy.

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Reading the Comics, September 21, 2013


It must have been the summer vacation making comic strip artists take time off from mathematics-themed jokes: there’s a fresh batch of them a mere ten days after my last roundup.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day (September 12) tells the basic “not understanding fractions” joke. I suspect that Zakour and Roberts — who’re pretty well-steeped in nerd culture, as their panel strip Working Daze shows — were summoning one of those warmly familiar old jokes. Well, Sydney Harris got away with the same punch line; why not them?

Brett Koth’s Diamond Lil (September 14) also mentions fractions, but as an example of one of those inexplicably complicated mathematics things that’ll haunt you rather than be useful or interesting or even understandable. I choose not to be offended by this insult of my preferred profession and won’t even point out that Koth totally redrew the panel three times over so it’s not a static shot of immobile talking heads.

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Reading the Comics, September 11, 2013


I may need to revise my seven-or-so-comic standard for hosting one of these roundups of mathematics-themed comic strips, at least during the summer vacation. We’ll see how they go as the school year picks up and cartoonists return to the traditional jokes of students not caring about algebra and kids giving wiseacre responses to word problems.

Jan Eliot’s Stone Soup began a sequence on the 26th of August in which Holly, the teenager, has to do flash cards to improve her memorization of the multiplication tables. It’s a baffling sequence to me, at least, since I can’t figure why a high schooler needs to study the times tables (on the 27th, Grandmom says it’s because it will make mathematics easier the more arithmetic she can do in her head). It’s also a bit infuriating because I can’t see a way to make sure Holly sees mathematics as tedious drudge work more than getting drilled by flash cards through summer vacation, particularly as she’s at an age where she ought to be doing algebra or trigonometry or geometry.

Steve Moore’s In The Bleachers (September 1) uses a bit of mathematics as a throwaway “something complicated to be thinking about” bit. I do like that the mathematics shown at least parses. I’m not sure offhand what problem the pitcher is trying to solve, that is, but the steps in it are done correctly, and even show off a nice bit of implicit differentiation. That’s a bit of differential calculus where you’ll find the rate of change of one variable with respect to another depends on the value of the variable, which isn’t actually hard to do if you follow the rules correctly but which, as I remember it, produces a vague sense of unease at its introduction. Probably it feels vaguely illicit to have a function defined in, in parts, in terms of itself.

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Reading the Comics, August 18, 2013


I’m sorry to have fallen silent so long; I was away from home and thought I’d be able to put up a couple of short pieces along the way, and turned out to be rather busy doing other things instead. It’s given me at least one nice problem with dramatic photographs to use in a near-future entry, though, so not all is lost (although I’m trying to think of a way to re-do the work in it that doesn’t involve quite so much algebra; I’m afraid of losing my readers and worse of making a hash of the LaTeX involved). Meanwhile, it’s been surprisingly close to a month since the last summary of comic strips with mathematical themes — I imagine the cartoonists are taking a break on Students In Classroom setups what with it being summer vacation across so much of the United States — so let me return to that.

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