Reading the Comics, July 5, 2013


I’m surprised to discover it’s been over a month since I had a roster of mathematics-themed comic strips to share, but that’s how things happen to happen. It’s also been a month with repeated references to “finding square roots”, I suppose because that sounds like a really math-y thing to do. It’s certainly computationally challenging; the task of finding such is even a (very minor) moment in Isaac Asimov’s magnificent short story about arithmetic, “The Feeling Of Power”. I remember reading the procedure for finding them when I was a kid, and finding that with considerable effort, I was able to, though I’d probably refuse to do more than give a rough estimate of such a root nowadays.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (June 4, rerun) is another entry in the long string of jokes about “why bother studying mathematics”, but Watterson’s craft lifts it above average. Admire that fourth panel: that’s every resistant student in one pose.

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The Rare Days


The subject doesn’t quite feel right for my occasional roundups of mathematics-themed comic strips, but I noticed this month that the bit about “what is so rare as a day in June?” is coming up … well, twice, so it’s silly to call that “a lot” just yet, but it’s coming up at all. First was back on June 10th, with Jef Mallet’s Frazz (which actually enlightened me as I didn’t know where the line came from, and yes, it’s the Lowell family that also produced Percival), and then John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith repeated the question on the 13th.

The question made me immediately think of an installment of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, where Pogo (I believe) asked the question and Porky Pine immediately answered “any day in February”. But it got me wondering whether the question could be answered more subtly, that is, more counter-intuitively.

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Reading the Comics, June 1, 2013


I’ve got a fresh batch of comics strips with mathematical themes. Actually, something I realized only as I was putting the list of them together, they’re word problem themes: there’s not any anthropomorphized numerals or puns on Wilhelm Leibniz’s name or anything like that. I can conjure easily reasons why word problems are good starting points for comic strip writers: they’re familiar to the reader, they don’t require any careful integration into character or storyline, and they can be designed to set up any punch line the cartoonist has in mind. Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs and Gary Brookins’ and Susie MacNelly’s Shoe have running jokes in which Ginger or Skyler are asked for the collective name for a group of things, and some appropriately pun-like construct is given, and this is accepted though I don’t know why anyone would suppose there to be a collective name for a group of grocery store clerks or DSL technicians or whatnot.

Mason Mastroianni’s B.C. (May 23) sets things off with the classic form of a high school algebra word problem. I have wondered how long train-leaving-the-station problems are going to linger as example algebra problems, given that people (in the United States) really don’t take the trains for long distances if they can help it. The service is there; I just don’t believe it’s part of the common experience of students, which makes it a bit baffling as a word problem source. But the problems can be rewritten easily as airplane travel or cars on highways, if you want to salvage the question. (I’d also like to mention I generally like how Mastroianni has revitalized B.C. since Johnny Hart’s death. Particularly, the strip’s doing more of the comic anachronism that built the strip up in the first place, and this particular example contains a demonstration of that.)

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Reading the Comics, 16 May 2013


It’s a good time for another round of comic strip reading, particularly I haven’t had the time to think in detail about all the news in number theory that’s come out this past week, and that I’m not sure whether I should go into explaining arc lengths after I trapped at least one friend into trying to work out the circumference of an ellipse (you can’t do it either, but there are a lot of curves you could). I also notice I’m approaching that precious 10,000th blog hit here, so I can get back to work verifying that law about random data starting with the digit 1.

Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County (May 2, rerun) throws up a bunch of mathematical symbols with the intention of producing a baffling result, so that Milo can make a clean getaway from Freida. The splendid thing to me, though, is that Milo’s answer — “log 10 times 10 to the derivative of 10,000” — actually does parse, if you read it a bit charitably. The “log 10” bit we can safely suppose to mean the logarithm base 10, because the strip originally ran in 1981 or so when there was still some use for the common logarithm. These days, we have calculators, and “log” is moving over to be the “natural logarithm”, base e, what was formerly denoted as “ln”.

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Reading the Comics, April 28, 2013


The flow of mathematics-themed comic strips almost dried up in April. I’m going to assume this reflects the kids of the cartoonists being on Spring Break, and teachers not placing exams immediately after the exam, in early to mid-March, and that we were just seeing the lag from that. I’m joking a little bit, but surely there’s some explanation for the rash of did-you-get-your-taxes-done comics appearing two weeks after April 15, and I’m fairly sure it isn’t the high regard United States newspaper syndicates have for their Canadian readership.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (April 8) uses the “infinity” symbol and tossed pizza dough together. The ∞ symbol, I understand, is credited to the English mathematician John Wallis, who introduced it in the Treatise on the Conic Sections, a text that made clearer how conic sections could be described algebraically. Wikipedia claims that Wallis had the idea that negative numbers were, rather than less than zero, actually greater than infinity, which we’d regard as a quirky interpretation, but (if I can verify it) it makes for an interesting point in figuring out how long people took to understand negative numbers like we believe we do today.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic (April 9) does a playing-the-odds joke, in this case in the efficiency of alligator repellent. The joke in this sort of thing comes to the assumption of independence of events — whether the chance that a thing works this time is the same as the chance of it working last time — and a bit of the idea that you find the probability of something working by trying it many times and counting the successes. Trusting in the Law of Large Numbers (and the independence of the events), this empirically-generated probability can be expected to match the actual probability, once you spend enough time thinking about what you mean by a term like “the actual probability”.

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Reading the Comics, April 5, 2013


Before getting to the next round of comic strips that mention mathematics stuff, I’d like to do a bit of self-promotion. Freshly published is the book Oh, Sandy: An Anthology Of Humor For A Serious Purpose, edited by Lynn Beighley, Peter Barlow, Andrea Donio, and A J Fader. This is a collection of humorous bits, written out of a sense of needing to do something useful after the Superstorm. I have an essay in there, based on the strange feelings I had of being remote (and quite safe) while seeing my home state — and particularly the piers at Seaside Heights, New Jersey — being battered by a storm. The book is available also through CreateSpace.

Jenny Campbell’s Flo and Friends (March 23) mentions π, and what’s really a fairly indistinct question for a tutor to ask the student. “Explain pi” is more open-ended than I think could be useful to answer: you could write books trying to describe what it’s used for, never mind the history of studying it. After all, it’s the only transcendental number with enough pop cultural cachet to appear routinely in newspaper comic strips; what constitutes an explanation of it? Alas, the strip just goes for the easiest pi pun to be made.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater (March 25) returns to the gimmick of anthropomorphized numerals. It’s a cute enough joke; it’s also apparently a different pair of 1 and 2 from earlier in the month. I do wonder what, in this panel’s continuity, subtraction might mean. Still, Hilburn is obviously never far from thinking of anthropomorphized numbers, as he came back to the setting on April 3, with another 2 putting in an appearance.

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Reading the Comics, March 12, 2013


I’ve got my seven further comic strips with mentions of mathematical topics, so I can preface that a bit with my surprise that at least some of the Gocomics.com comics didn’t bother to mention Pi Day, March 14. It might still be a slightly too much of a This Is Something People Do On The Web observance to be quite sensible for the newspaper comic strips. But there are quite a few strips on Gocomics.com that only appear online, and I thought one of them might.

(I admit I’m a bit of a Pi Day grouch, on the flimsy grounds that 3/14 is roughly 0.214, which is a rotten approximation to π. But American-style date-writing never gets very good at approximating π. The day-month format used in most of the world offers 22/7 as a less strained Pi Day candidate, except that there’s few schools in session then, wiping out whatever use the day has as a playfully educational event.)

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (March 4) introduces a character which I believe is new to the strip, “Norman the math fanatic”. (He hasn’t returned since, as of this writing.) The setup is about the hypothetical and honestly somewhat silly argument about learning math being more important than learning English. I’m not sure I could rate either mathematics or English (or, at least, the understanding of one’s own language) as more important. The panel ends with the traditional scrawl of symbols as shorthand for “this is complicated mathematics stuff”, although it’s not so many symbols and it doesn’t look like much of a problem to me. Perhaps Norman is fanatic about math but doesn’t actually do it very well, which is not something he should be embarrassed about.

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Reading the Comics, February 26, 2013


I hit the seven-comics line without quite realizing it, because I’d been dividing my notes between my home computer and one I can access from work. (I haven’t quite taken to writing entries on my iPad, much as I told myself that’d be a great use for it before I bought it, mostly because it’s too annoying to enter all the HTML tags by hand on the iPad keyboard. I’m of the generation that tries to hew its own HTML, even when there’s no benefit to doing that.) This is also skipping a couple strips that just mentioned the kids were in math class because that felt too slight a link to even me.

Carla Ventresca and Henry Beckett’s On A Claire Day (February 15) discusses the “probability formulas” of a box of chocolates. Distribution functions are just what the name suggests: the set of the possible outcomes of something (like, picking this candy) with the chance of each turning up. It’s useful in simple random-luck problems like gathering candies, but by adding probability distributions to mechanics you create the tool of statistical mechanics, which lets the messy complicated reality of things be treated.

Pascal Wyse and Joe Berger’s Berger and Wyse (February 18) uses one of the classic motifs of the word problem: fractions as portions of apples, and visualizing fractions by thinking of apple slices. (I tend to eat apples whole, or at least nearly whole, which makes me realize that I probably visualize fractions of apples as a particular instance of fractions rather than as particular versions of apples.)

Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser (February 21) just shows off Roman numerals and makes fun of the fact they can be misunderstood. But then what can’t?

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (February 22) uses the tolerably famous bit of mathematical history about negative numbers being unknown to the ancients and tosses in a joke about the current crisis in the Greek economy so, as ever, don’t read the comments thread.

William Wilson’s Ordinary Bill (February 22) possibly qualifies for entry into the “silent penultimate panel” family of comic strips (I feel like having significant implied developments in the next-to-the-final panel violates the spirit of the thing but it isn’t my category to define) for a joke about how complicated it is to do one’s taxes. I suspect this is something that’s going to turn up a lot in the coming two months.

Marc Anderson’s Andertoons (February 24) (I’m wondering whether this or Frank and Ernest gets in here more) pops in with a chalkboard full of math symbols as the way to draw “something incredibly hard to understand”.

Brian and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers (February 26) has a pie joke that’s so slight I’d almost think they were just angling for the chance for me to notice them. But the name-dropping of the Helsinki Mathematical Institute, and earlier strips with features like references such as to Joseph Henry, make me suspect they’re just enjoying being moderately nerdy. That said, I’m not aware of a specific “Helsinki Mathematical Institute”, although the Rolf Nevanlinna Institute at the University of Helsinki would probably get called something like that. They wouldn’t consider hiring me, anyway.

Reading the Comics, February 13, 2013


I will return to the plausibility of Rex Morgan, MD, considered as a statistics problem, though I need time to do that pesky thinking thing and I’ve had all sorts of unreasonable demands on my time, such as work expecting me to work, and scheduling it all is such a problem. But I’ve got a fresh batch of eight comic strips that in some way mention mathematics, and I wrote paragraphs on most of those as they turned up in the day’s pages, so I can share those with you. Also I’m pleased to see that posting a Rex Morgan strip for the purpose of talking about it hasn’t brought about the end of the world, so I may be able to resume covering King Features or North American Syndicate strips when they say things worth mentioning (which they seem to do less than the Gocomics.com comics do, but I haven’t done the statistics to make that claim seriously).

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Can Rex Morgan Be Made Plausible?


'And ... My batting average of predicting the [unborn child's] sex is 97% accurate!'

The comic strip Rex Morgan, MD, put up an interesting bit of nonsense in its current ridiculous story. (Rex and June are investigating a condo where nobody’s been paying rent; the residents haven’t because everyone living there is strippers who’re raising money for a cancer-stricken compatriot; the details are dopier, and much more slowly told, than this makes it sound.) But on the 7th this month it put up one of those things that caught me. Never mind the claim that Delores here (the cancer-stricken woman) puts up about being able to sense pregnancy. She claims she can predict the sex of the unborn child with 97 percent accuracy.

Is that plausible? Well, she may be just making the number up, since putting a decimal or a percentage into a number carries connotations of “only a fool would dare question me” similar to those of holding a clipboard and glaring at it while walking purposefully around. If she’s doing ordinary human-style rounding off, that could mean that she’s guessed five of six pregnancies correctly. I could believe a person thinking that makes her 97 percent accurate, but I wouldn’t be convinced by the claim and I doubt you would either.

So here’s a little recreational puzzle for you: how many pregnancies would Delores have to have predicted, and how many called accurately, for the claim of 97 percent accuracy to be hard to dismiss? How many until it isn’t clearly just luck or a small sample size?

Reading the Comics, January 29, 2013


I’ve got enough mathematics-themed comic strips for a fresh installment of my comic tracking. I also want to mention the January 29th Jumble has a math teacher joke in it, but I don’t know a reasonably archivable way to point to that. Jumble.com, which I think is the official web site, is suffering some kind of database glitch so there could be anything there. Also, from working it out, “rimpet” may not be a word but it does look like it ought to be.

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Reading the Comics, January 21, 2013


Feast or famine, as I said. It’s not a week since the last comics roundup and I have eight comic strips that have enough mathematical content for me to discuss. Well, they’re fun essays to write, and people seem to quite like them, so why not another so soon?

Well, because I’m overlooking all the King Features Syndicate comics. I’m not actually overlooking them — I’m keeping track of just which ones have something I could write about — but they haven’t had a nice, archive-friendly way to point people to the strips being discussed. (Most newspaper web sites that have King Features comics have links to those pages expire in a measly 28 days.) Based on the surprising number of people who come to my site by searching for Norm Feuti’s Retail comic strip, they certainly deserve to be talked about. I’ll have something worked out about that soon, I promise.

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Reading the Comics, January 16, 2013


I was beginning to wonder whether my declaration last time that I’d post a comics review every time I had seven to ten strips to talk about was going to see the extinguishing of math-themed comic strips. It only felt like it. The boom-and-bust cycle continues, though; it took better than two weeks to get six such strips, and then three more came in two days. But that’s the fun of working on relatively rare phenomena. Let me get to the most recent installment of math-themed comics, mostly from Gocomics.com:

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Reading The Comics, December 28, 2012


As per my declaration I’d do these reviews when I had about seven to ten comics to show off, I’m entering another in the string of mathematics-touching comic strip summaries. Unless the last two days of the year are a bumper crop this finishes out 2012 in the comics and I hope to see everyone in the new year.

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Reading The Comics, December 15, 2012


I’ve been trying to balance how often I do the comics reviews with how often I do other essays; I admit the comics feel like particular fun to write, but the other essays are less reactive. This leaves me feeling like after I’ve done a comics roundup I should do a couple in which I come up with the topic, the exposition, and all the supplementary matter for a while, but that encourages pileups in the comics. I’m thinking of shifting over to some kind of rule less dependent on my feeling, such as writing a comics article whenever I have (say) seven to ten features to show off. We’ve got that more than that now, it turns out, so let me start out with some that came across my desktop since the last comics review.

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Reading the Comics, November 21, 2012


It’s been long enough since my last roundup of mathematics-themed comics to host a new one. I’m also getting stirred to try tracking how many of these turn up per day, because they certainly feel like they run in a feast-or-famine pattern. There’d be no point to it, besides satisfying my vague feelings that everything can be tracked, but there’s data laying there all ready to be measured, isn’t there?

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Reading the Comics, November 11, 2012


Since Scott Adams’s Dilbert hasn’t done anything to deserve my scrutiny let me carry on my quest to identify all the comic strips that mention some mathematical thing. I’m leaving a couple out; for example, today (the 11th) Rob Harrell’s Adam @ Home and Bill Amend’s FoxTrot mentioned the alignment of digits in the date’s representation in numerals, but that seems too marginal, and yet here I am talking about it. I can’t be bothered coming up with rules I can follow for my own amusement here, can I?

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Dilbert, Infinity, and 17


I dreamed recently that I opened the Sunday comics to find Scott Adams’s Dilbert strip turned into a somewhat lengthy, weird illustrated diatribe about how all numbers smaller than infinity were essentially the same, with the exception of the privileged number 17, which was the number of kinds of finite groups sharing some interesting property. Before I carry on I should point out that I have no reason to think that Scott Adams has any particularly crankish mathematical views, and no reason to think that he thinks much about infinity, finite groups, or the number 17. Imagining he has some fixation on them is wholly the creation of my unconscious or semiconscious mind, whatever parts of mind and body create dreams. But there are some points I can talk about from that start.

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Reading the Comics, October 25, 2012


As before, this is going to be the comics other than those run through King Features Syndicate, since I haven’t found a solution I like for presenting their mathematics-themed comic strips for discussion. But there haven’t been many this month that I’ve seen either, so I can stick with gocomics.com strips for today at least. (I’m also a little irked that Comics Kingdom’s archives are being shut down — it’s their right, of course, but I don’t like having so many dead links in my old articles.) But on with the strips I have got.

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Reading the Comics, October 13, 2012


I suppose it’s been long enough to resume the review of math-themed comic strips. I admit there are weeks I don’t have much chance to write regular articles and then I feel embarrassed that I post only comic strips links, but I do enjoy the comics and the comic strip reviews. This one gets slightly truncated because King Features Syndicate has indeed locked down their Comics Kingdom archives of its strips, making it blasted inconvenient to read and nearly impossible to link to them in any practical, archivable way. They do offer a service, DailyInk.com, with their comic strips, but I can hardly expect every reader of mine to pay up over there just for the odd day when Mandrake the Magician mentions something I can build a math problem from. Until I work out an acceptable-to-me resolution, then, I’ll be dropping to gocomics.com and a few oddball strips that the Houston Chronicle carries.

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Reading the Comics, September 26, 2012


I haven’t time to write a short piece today so let me go through a fresh batch of math-themed comic strips instead. There might be a change coming to these features soon, both in the strips I read and in how I present them, since Comics Kingdom, which provides the King Features Syndicate comic strips, has shown signs that they’re tightening up web access to their strips.

I can’t blame them for wanting to make sure people go through paths they control — and, pay for, at least in advertising clicks — but I can fault them for doing a rotten job of it. They’re just not very good web masters, and end up serving strips — you may have seen them if you’ve gone to the comics page of your local newspaper — that are tiny, which kills plot-heavy features like The Phantom or fine-print heavy features like Slylock Fox Sunday pages, and loaded with referrer-based and cookie-based nonsense that makes it too easy to fail to show a comic altogether or to screw up hopelessly loading up several web browser tabs with different comics in them.

For now that hasn’t happened, at least, but I’m warning that if it does, I might not necessarily read all the King Features strips — their advertising claims they have the best strips in the world, but then, they also run The Katzenjammer Kids which, believe it or not, still exists — and might not be able to comment on them. We’ll see. On to the strips for the middle of September, though:

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Reading the Comics, September 11, 2012


Since the last installment of these mathematics-themed comic strips there’s been a steady drizzle of syndicated comics touching on something mathematical. This probably reflects the back-to-school interests that are naturally going to interest the people drawing either Precocious Children strips or Three Generations And A Dog strips.

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Reading the Comics, August 27, 2012


I’m also surprised to find it’s been about a month since my last roundup of mathematics-themed comic strips, but that’s about how it worked out. There was a long stretch of not many syndicated comics touching on any subjects at all and then a rush as cartoonists noticed that summer vacation is on the verge of ending. (I understand in some United States school districts it already has ended, but I grew up in a state where school simply never started before Labor Day, so the idea of school in August feels fundamentally implausible.)

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Reading the Comics, July 28, 2012


I intend to be back to regular mathematics-based posts soon. I had a fine idea for a couple posts based on Sunday’s closing of the Diaster Transport roller coaster ride at Cedar Point, actually, although I have to technically write them first. (My bride and I made a trip to the park to get a last ride in before its closing, and that lead to inspiration.) But reviews of math-touching comic strips are always good for my readership, if I’m readin the statistics page here right, so let’s see what’s come up since the last recap, going up to the 14th of July.

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Reading the Comics, July 14, 2012


I hope everyone’s been well. I was on honeymoon the last several weeks and I’ve finally got back to my home continent and new home so I’ll try to catch up on the mathematics-themed comics first and then plunge into new mathematics content. I’m splitting that up into at least two pieces since the comics assembled into a pretty big pile while I was out. And first, I want to offer the link to the July 2 Willy and Ethel, by Joe Martin, since even though I offered it last time I didn’t have a reasonably permanent URL for it.

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Reading the Comics, July 1, 2012


This will be a hastily-written installment since I married just this weekend and have other things occupying me. But there’s still comics mentioning math subjects so let me summarize them for you. The first since my last collection of these, on the 13th of June, came on the 15th, with Dave Whamond’s Reality Check, which goes into one of the minor linguistic quirks that bothers me: the claim that one can’t give “110 percent,” since 100 percent is all there is. I don’t object to phrases like “110 percent”, though, since it seems to me the baseline, the 100 percent, must be to some standard reference performance. For example, the Space Shuttle Main Engines routinely operated at around 104 percent, not because they were exceeding their theoretical limits, but because the original design thrust was found to be not quite enough, and the engines were redesigned to deliver more thrust, and it would have been far too confusing to rewrite all the documentation so that the new design thrust was the new 100 percent. Instead 100 percent was the design capacity of an engine which never flew but which existed in paper form. So I’m forgiving of “110 percent” constructions, is the important thing to me.

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Reading the Comics, June 13, 2012


Because there weren’t many math-themed comic strips, that’s why I went so long without an update in my roster of comic strips that mention math subjects. After Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm put in the start of a binomial expression the comics pages — through King Features Syndicate and gocomics.com — decided to drop the whole subject pretty completely for the rest of May. It picked up a little in June.

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Reading The Comics, May 20, 2012


Since I suspect that the comics roundup posts are the most popular ones I post, I’m very glad to see there was a bumper crop of strips among the ones I read regularly (from King Features Syndicate and from gocomics.com) this past week. Some of those were from cancelled strips in perpetual reruns, but that’s fine, I think: there aren’t any particular limits on how big an electronic comics page one can have, after all, and while it’s possible to read a short-lived strip long enough that you see all its entries, it takes a couple go-rounds to actually have them all memorized.

The first entry, and one from one of these cancelled strips, comes from Mark O’Hare’s Citizen Dog, a charmer of a comic set in a world-plus-talking-animals strip. In this case Fergus has taken the place of Maggie, a girl who’s not quite ready to come back from summer vacation. It’s also the sort of series of questions that it feels like come at the start of any class where a homework assignment’s due.

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Late April, Early May Math Comics


I’ve got enough new mathematics-themed comic strips to assemble them into a fresh post. It’s a challenge to time these rightly; I don’t want to waste everyone’s time with a set weekly post, particularly since the syndicated comics might just not have anything. On the other hand, waiting until a set number of strips have passed before my eyes seems likely to just encourage me to wonder how marginally a strip can touch mathematics before I include it. Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump, from the 6th of May, is a fine marginal case: there’s a mathematics problem in it, but it’s not at all a mathematics strip. It’s just very easy to put a math problem on the chalkboard and have it be understood the scenario is “student with no idea how to answer”.

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Mid-April 2012 Comics Review


I’ve gotten enough comics, I think, to justify a fresh roundup of mathematics appearances in the comic strips. Unfortunately the first mathematics-linked appearance since my most recent entry is also the most badly dated. Pab Sugenis’s The New Adventures of Queen Victoria took (the appropriate) day to celebrate the birthday of Tom Lehrer, but fails to mention his actual greatest contribution to American culture, the “Silent E” song for The Electric Company. He’s also author of the humorous song “Lobachevsky”, which is pretty much the only place to go if you need a mathematics-based song and can’t use They Might Be Giants for some reason. (I regard Lehrer’s “New Math” song as not having a strong enough melody to count.)

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Early April’s Math Comics


I had started to think the mathematics references in the comics pages were fading out and I might not have an installment to offer anytime soon. Then, on April 3, Pab Sugenis’s The New Adventures of Queen Victoria — a clip art comic strip which supposes the reader will recognize an illustration of King Edward VI — skipped its planned strip for the day (Sugenis’s choice, he says) and ran a Fuzzy Bunny Time strip calling on pretty much the expected rabbits and mathematics comic strip. (Some people in the Usenet group alt.fan.cecil-adams, which I read reliably and write to occasionally, say Sugenis was briefly a regular; perhaps so, but I don’t remember.) This would start a bumper crop of math strips for the week.

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My Wholly Undeserved Odd Triumph


While following my own lightly compulsive tracking of the blog’s viewer statistics and wondering why I don’t have more followers or even people getting e-mail notifications (at least I’ve broken 2,222 hits!) I ran across something curious. I can’t swear that it’s still true so I’m not going to link to it, and I don’t want to know if it’s not true. However.

Somehow, one of my tags has become Google’s top hit for the query “christiaan huygens logarithm”. Oh, the post linked to contains the words, don’t doubt that. But something must have got riotously wrong in Google’s page-ranking to put me on top, even above the Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s entry on the subject, and for that matter — rather shockingly to me — above the references for the MacTutor History of Mathematics biography of Huygens. That last is a real shocker, as their biographies, not just of Huygens but of many mathematicians, are rather good and deserving respect. The bunch of us leave Wikipedia in the dust.

I assume it to be some sort of fluke. Possibly it reflects how the link I actually find useful is never the first one in the list of what’s returned, so perhaps they’re padding the results with some technically correct but nonsense filler, and I had the luck of the draw this time. Perhaps not. (I’m only third for “drabble math comic”, and that would at least be plausible.) But I’m amused by it anyway. And I’d like to again say that the MacTutor biographies at the University of Saint Andrews are quite good overall and worth using as reference, and are also the source of my discovery that Wednesday, March 21, is the anniversary of the births of both Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (for whom the Fourier Series, Fourier Transform, and Fourier Analysis, all ways of turning complicated problems into easier ones, are named) and of George David Birkhoff (whose ergodic theorem is far too much to explain in a paragraph, but without which almost none of my original mathematics work would have what basis it has). I should give both subjects some discussion. I might yet make Wikipedia.

How To Multiply By 365 In Your Head


Kevin Fagin’s Drabble from Sunday poses a nice bit of recreational mathematics, the sort of thing one might do for amusement: Ralph Drabble tries to figure how long he’s spent waiting at one traffic light. I want to talk about some of the mental arithmetic tricks I’d use to get through the puzzle without missing the light’s change. In the spirit of the thing I’m doing the calculations for this only in my head, though I admit checking with a calculator afterward to see if I got close.

Continue reading “How To Multiply By 365 In Your Head”

Some More Comic Strips


I might turn this into a regular feature. A couple more comic strips, all this week on gocomics.com, ran nice little mathematically-linked themes, and as far as I can tell I’m the only one who reads any of them so I might spread the word some.

Grant Snider’s Incidental Comics returns again with the Triangle Circus, in his strip of the 12th of March. This strip is also noteworthy for making use of “scalene”, which is also known as “that other kind of triangle” which nobody can remember the name for. (He’s had several other math-panel comic strips, and I really enjoy how full he stuffs the panels with drawings and jokes in most strips.)

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts from the 15th of March puts up a version of the Cretan Paradox that amused me much more than I thought it would at first glance. I kept thinking back about it and grinning. (This blurs the line between mathematics and philosophy, but those lines have always been pretty blurred, particularly in the hotly disputed territory of Logic.)

Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff is in reruns, of course, and shows a random scattering of strips from the 1930s and 1940s and, really, seem to show off how far we’ve advanced in efficiency in setup-and-punchline since the early 20th century. But the rerun from the 17th of March (I can’t make out the publication date, although the figures in the article probably could be used to guess at the year) does demonstrate the sort of estimating-a-value that’s good mental exercise too.

I note that where Mutt divides 150,000,000 into 700,000,000 I would instead have divided the 150 million into 750,000,000, because that’s a much easier problem, and he just wanted an estimate anyway. It would get to the estimate of ten cents a week later in the word balloon more easily that way, too. But making estimates and approximations are in part an art. But I don’t think of anything that gives me 2/3ds of a cent as an intermediate value on the way to what I want as being a good approximation.

There’s nothing fresh from Bill Whitehead’s Free Range, though I’m still reading just in case.