The Playful Math Education Blog Carnival #136


Greetings, friends, and thank you for visiting the 136th installment of Denise Gaskins’s Playful Math Education Blog Carnival. I apologize ahead of time that this will not be the merriest of carnivals. It has not been the merriest of months, even with it hosting Pi Day at the center.

Playful Math Education Blog Carnival banner, showing a coati dressed in bright maroon ringmaster's jacket and top hat, with multiplication and division signs sitting behind atop animal-training podiums; a greyscale photograph audience is in the far background.
Banner art again by Thomas K Dye, creator of Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, Something Happens, and his current comic strip, Projection Edge. You can follow him on Patreon and read his comic strip nine months ahead of its worldwide publication. The banner art was commissioned several weeks ago when I expected I would be in a more playful mood this week.

In consideration of that, let me lead with Art in the Time of Transformation by Paula Beardell Krieg. This is from the blog Playful Bookbinding and Paper Works. The post particularly reflects on the importance of creating a thing in a time of trouble. There is great beauty to find, and make, in symmetries, and rotations, and translations. Simple polygons patterned by simple rules can be accessible to anyone. Studying just how these symmetries and other traits work leads to important mathematics. Thus how Kreig’s page has recent posts with names like “Frieze Symmetry Group F7” but also to how symmetry is for five-year-olds. I am grateful to Goldenoj for the reference.

Kreig’s writing drew the attention of another kind contributor to my harvesting. Symmetry and Multiplying Negative Numbers explores one of those confusing things about negative numbers: how can a negative number times a negative number be positive? One way to understand this is to represent arithmetic operations as geometric operations. Particularly, we can see negation as a reflection.

That link was brought to my attention by Iva Sallay, another longtime friend of my little writings here. She writes fun pieces about every counting number, along with recreational puzzles. And asked to share 1458 Tangrams Can Be A Pot of Gold, as an example of what fascinating things can be found in any number. This includes a tangram. Tangrams we see in recreational-mathematics puzzles based on ways that you can recombine shapes. It’s always exciting to be able to shift between arithmetic and shapes. And that leads to a video and related thread again pointed to me by goldenoj …

This video, by Mathologer on YouTube, explains a bit of number theory. Number theory is the field of asking easy questions about whole numbers, and then learning that the answers are almost impossible to find. I exaggerate, but it does often involve questions that just suppose you understand what a prime number should be. And then, as the title asks, take centuries to prove.

Fermat’s Two-Squares Theorem, discussed here, is not the famous one about a^n + b^2 = c^n . Pierre de Fermat had a lot of theorems, some of which he proved. This one is about prime numbers, though, and particularly prime numbers that are one more than a multiple of four. This means it’s sometimes called Fermat’s 4k+1 Theorem, which is the name I remember learning it under. (k is so often a shorthand for “some counting number” that people don’t bother specifying it, the way we don’t bother to say “x is an unknown number”.) The normal proofs of this we do in the courses that convince people they’re actually not mathematics majors.

What the video offers is a wonderful alternate approach. It turns key parts of the proof into geometry, into visual statements. Into sliding tiles around and noticing patterns. It’s also a great demonstration of one standard problem-solving tool. This is to look at a related, different problem that’s easier to say things about. This leads to what seems like a long path from the original question. But it’s worth it because the path involves thinking out things like “is the count of this thing odd or even”? And that’s mathematics that you can do as soon as you can understand the question.

Iva Sallay also brought up Jenna Laib’s Making Meaning with Arrays: More Preschooler Division which similarly sees numerical truths revealed through geometric reasoning. Here, particularly, by the problem of baking muffins and thinking through how to divide them up. A key piece here, for a particular child’s learning, was being able to pick up and move things around. Often in shifting between arithmetic and geometry we suppose that we can rearrange things without effort. As adults it’s easy to forget that this is an abstraction that we need to learn.

Sharing of food, in this case cookies, appears in Helena Osana’s Mathematical thinking begins in the early years with dialogue and real-world exploration. Mathematic, Osana notes, is primarily about thinking. An important part in mathematics education is working out how the thinking children most like to do can also find mathematics.

I again thank Iva Sallay for that link, as well as this essay. Dan Meyer’s But Artichokes Aren’t Pinecones: What Do You Do With Wrong Answers? looks at the problem of students giving wrong answers. There is no avoiding giving wrong answers. A parent’s or teacher’s response to wrong answers will vary, though, and Meyer asks why that is. Meyer has some hypotheses. His example notes that he doesn’t mind a child misidentifying an artichoke as a pinecone. Not in the same way identifying the sum of 1 and 9 as 30 would. What is different about those mistakes?

Jessannwa’s Soft Start In The Intermediate Classroom looks to the teaching of older students. No muffins and cookies here. That the students might be more advanced doesn’t change the need to think of what they have energy for, and interest in. She discusses a class setup that’s meant to provide structure in ways that don’t feel so authority-driven. And ways to turn practicing mathematics problems into optimizing game play. I will admit this is a translation of the problem which would have worked well for me. But I also know that not everybody sees a game as, in part, something to play at maximum efficiency. It depends on the game, though. They’re on Twitter as @jesannwa.

Speaking of the game, David Coffey’s Creating Positive Change in Math Class was written in anticipation of the standardized tests meant to prove out mathematics education. Coffey gets to thinking about how to frame teaching to more focus on why students should have a skill, and how they can develop it. How to get students to feel involved in their work. Even how to get students to do homework more reliably. Coffey’s scheduled to present at the Michigan Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference in Grand Rapids this July. This if all starts going well. And this is another post I know of thanks to Goldenoj.

These are thoughts about how anyone can start learning mathematics. What does it look like to have learned a great deal, though, to the point of becoming renowned for it? Life Through A Mathematician’s Eyes posted Australian Mathematicians in late January. It’s a dozen biographical sketches of Australian mathematicians. It also matches each to charities or other public-works organizations. They were trying to help the continent through the troubles it had even before the pandemic struck. They’re in no less need for all that we’re exhausted. The page’s author is on Twitter as @lthmath.

Mathematical study starts small, though. Often it starts with games. There are many good ones, not least Iva Sallay’s Find the Factors puzzles.

Besides that, Dads Worksheets has provided a set of Math Word Search Puzzles. It’s a new series from people who create worksheets for many grade levels and many aspects of mathematics. They’re on Twitter as @dadsworksheets.

Mr Wu, of the Singapore Math Tuition blog, has also begun a new series of recreational mathematics puzzles. He lays out the plans for this, puzzles aimed at children around eight to ten years old. One of the early ones is the Stickers Math Question. A more recent one is The Secret of the Sweets (Sweet Distribution Problem). Mr Wu can be found on Twitter as @mathtuition88.

Denise Gaskins, on Twitter as @letsplaymath, and indefatigable coordinator for this carnival, offers the chance to Play Math with Your Kids for Free. This is an e-book sampler of mathematics gameplay.

I have since the start of this post avoided mentioning the big mathematical holiday of March. Pi Day had the bad luck to fall on a weekend this year, and then was further hit by the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the shutdown of many schools. Iva Sallay again helped me by noting YummyMath’s activities page It’s Time To Gear Up For Pi Day. This hosts several worksheets, about the history of π and ways to calculate it, and several formulas for π. This even gets into interesting techniques like how to use continued fractions in finding a numerical value.

The Guys and Good Health blog presented Happy Pi Day on the 14th, with — in a move meant to endear the blog to me — several comic strips. This includes one from Grant Snider, who draws lovely strips. I’m sad that his Incidental Comics has left GoComics.com, so I can’t feature it often during my Reading the Comics roundups anymore.

Virtual Brush Box, meanwhile, offers To Celebrate Pi Day, 10 Examples of Numbers and 10 Examples of Math Involved with Horses which delights me by looking at π, and mathematics, as they’re useful in horse-related activities. This may be the only blog post written specifically for me and my sister, and I am so happy that there is the one.

There’s a bit more, a bit of delight. It was my greatest surprise in looking for posts for this month. That is poetry. I mean this literally.

Whimsy-Mimsy wrote on Pi Day a haiku.

D Avery, on Shift N Shake, wrote the longer Another Slice of Pi Day, the third year of their composing poems observing the day.

Rolands Rag Bag shared A Pi-Ku for Pi-Day featuring a poem written in a form I wasn’t aware anyone did. The “Pi-Ku” as named here has 3 syllables for the first time, 1 syllable in the second line, 4 syllables in the third line, 1 syllable the next line, 5 syllables after that … you see the pattern. (One of Avery’s older poems also keeps this form.) The form could, I suppose, go on to as many lines as one likes. Or at least to the 40th line, when we would need a line of zero syllables. Probably one would make up a rule to cover that.

Blind On The Light Side similarly wrote Pi poems, including a Pi-Ku, for March 12, 2020. These poems don’t reach long enough to deal with the zero-syllable line, but we can forgive someone not wanting to go on that long.

As a last note, I have joined Mathstodon, the Mastodon instance with a mathematics theme. You can follow my shy writings there as @nebusj@mathstodon.xyz, or follow a modest number of people talking, largely, about mathematics. Mathstodon is a mathematically-themed microblogging site. On WordPress, I do figure to keep reading the comics for their mathematics topics. And sometime this year, when I feel I have the energy, I hope to do another A to Z, my little glossary project.

And this is what I have to offer. I hope the carnival has brought you some things of interest, and some things of delight. And, if I may, please consider this Grant Snider cartoon, Hope.

Life Through A Mathematician’s Eyes is scheduled to host the 137th installment of the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival, at the end of April. I look forward to seeing it. Good luck to us all.

One last call for the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival


I hope to publish the March 2020 Playful Math Education Blog Carnival tomorrow. If you’ve recently seen any web site that shares and explains some aspect of mathematics or mathematics education that interested or delighted you, please, share it with me, so I can share it with more people. If you do, please, let me know of your own projects, besides that, so I can mention that to this month’s audience. Thank you.

Getting Ready for Pi Day, and also the Playful Math Blog Carnival


So the first bit of news: I’m hosting the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival later this month. This is a roaming blog link party, sharing blogs that delight or educate, or ideally both, about mathematics. As mentioned the other day Iva Sallay of Find the Factors hosted the 135th of these. My entry, the 136th, I plan to post sometime the last week of March.

And I’ll need help! If you’ve run across a web site, YouTube video, blog post, or essay that discusses something mathematical in a way that makes you grin, please let me know, and let me share it with the carnival audience.


This Saturday is March 14th, which we’ve been celebrating as Pi Day. I remain skeptical that it makes a big difference in people’s view of mathematics or in their education. But an afternoon spent talking about mathematics with everyone agreeing that, for today, we won’t complain about how hard it always was or how impossible we always found it, is pleasant. And that’s a good thing. I don’t know how much activity there’ll be for it, since the 14th is a weekend day this year. And the Covid-19 problem has got all the schools in my state closed through to April, so any calendar relevance is shattered.

But I have some things in the archive anyway. Last year I gathered Six Or Arguably Four Things For Pi Day, a collection of short essays about ways to calculate π well or poorly, and about some of the properties we’re pretty sure that π has, even if we can’t prove it. Also this fascinating physics problem that yields the digits of π.

And the middle of March often brings out Comic Strip Master Command. It looks like I’ve had at least five straight Pi Day editions of Reading the Comics, although most of them cover strips from more than just the 14th of March. From the past:

What will 2020 offer? There’s no guessing about anything in 2020 anymore, really. But when I get to look at the Pi Day comic strips for 2020 my essay on them should appear at this link. Thanks ever for reading. And for letting me know about sites that would be good for this month’s Carnival.

Reading the Comics, February 19, 2020: 90s Doonesbury Edition


The weekday Doonesbury has been in reruns for a very long while. Recently it’s been reprinting strips from the 1990s and something that I remember producing Very Worried Editorials, back in the day.

Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury for the 17th reprints a sequence that starts off with the dread menace and peril of Grade Inflation, the phenomenon in which it turns out students of the generational cohort after yours are allowed to get A’s. (And, to a lesser extent, the phenomenon in which instructors respond to the treatment of education as a market by giving the “customers” the grades they’re “buying”.) The strip does depict an attitude common towards mathematics, though, the idea that it must be a subject immune to Grade Inflation: “aren’t there absolute answers”? If we are careful to say what we mean by an “absolute answer” then, sure.

Dean: 'Sir, you're going to have to speak to the faculty about grade inflation. Standards are just falling off the chart. The pressure to pander is even beginning to affect the math department.' President: 'Math? How can that be? Aren't there absolute answers in math?' Dean: 'Well, yes and no.' President, thinking: 'Yes and now?' [ Math Class ] Student: '17!' Other Student: '39!' Math Professor: 'Excellent guesses! Well done!'
Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury rerun for the 17th of February, 2020 of February, 2020. It originally ran the 20th of December, 1993. I have few essays which mention this long-running strip, oddly. What essays are inspired by something in Doonesbury appear at this link.

But grades? Oh, there is so much subjectivity as to what goes into a course. And into what level to teach that course at. How to grade, and how harshly to grade. It may be easier, compared to other subjects, to make mathematics grading more consistent year-to-year. One can make many problems that test the same skill and yet use different numbers, at least until you get into topics like abstract algebra where numbers stop being interesting. But the factors that would allow any course’s grade to inflate are hardly stopped by the department name.

Mathematician: 'I went massively into debt to build a machine that generates holographic numbers and equations whenever I wish to appear thoughtful.' Friend: 'Was that a good use money?' [ Panel of the mathematician looking thoughtful with equations spread out in space behind and in front of her. ] Mathematician: 'Yes.' Friend: 'A thousand times yes.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th of February, 2020. I have a few essays which don’t mention this long-running web strip, oddly. What essays are inspired by something in Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal appear at this link.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th is a strip about using a great wall of equations as emblem of deep, substantial thought. The equations depicted are several meaningful ones. The top row is from general relativity, the Einstein Field Equations. These relate the world-famous Ricci curvature tensor with several other tensors, describing how mass affects the shape of space. The P = NP line describes a problem of computational science with an unknown answer. It’s about whether two different categories of problems are, in fact, equivalent. The line about L = -\frac{1}{4} F_{\mu \nu} F^{\mu \nu} is a tensor-based scheme to describe the electromagnetic field. The next two lines look, to me, like they’re deep in Schrödinger’s Equation, describing quantum mechanics. It’s possible Weinersmith has a specific problem in mind; I haven’t spotted it.

Guy Walks Into A Bar comics. Man holding a horse's reins, to the bartender: 'I'll bet $50 my horse can do arithmetic!' Bartender: 'OK, what's 2 + 2?' Horse: '10.' Horse, to the angry guy, outside the bar: 'Well, think about it. Why would a horse use base ten?'
Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 18th of February, 2020. There are a fair number of essays inspired by one of the Super-Fun-Pak Comics, and they’re gathered at this link. All the Super-Fun-Pak Comics first ran in Tom The Dancing Bug, essays about which appear here.

Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 18th is one of the Guy Walks Into A Bar line, each of which has a traditional joke setup undermined by a technical point. In this case, it’s the horse counting in base four, in which representation the number 2 + 2 is written as 10. Really, yes, “10 in base four” is the number four. I imagine properly the horse should say “four” aloud. But it is quite hard to read the symbols “10” as anything but ten. It’s not as though anyone looks at the hexadecimal number “4C” and pronounces it “76”, either.

Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury for the 19th twisted the Grade Inflation peril to something that felt new in the 90s: an attack on mathematics as “Eurocentric”. The joke depends on the reputation of mathematics as finding objectively true things. Many mathematicians accept this idea. After all, once we’ve seen a proof that we can do the quadrature of a lune, it’s true regardless of what anyone thinks of quadratures and lunes, and whether that person is of a European culture or another one.

Student: 'This B+ is wrong, man! You're dissin me big time here.' Professor: 'Mr Slocum, I merely gave you the grade you deserved.' Student: 'Can't be, man! This is WAY off base!' Professor: 'As was your entire first proof, in which you held the square root of 144 to be 15. It is, in fact, 12.' Student: 'Well, sure, from a narrow, absolutist, Eurocentric perspective, maybe it's 12.' Professor: 'So?' Student: 'So my culture teaches it's 15, man!' Professor: 'Fascinating. Would this be an advanced civilization?'
Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury rerun for the 19th of February, 2020 of February, 2020. It originally ran the 22nd of December, 1993. I am reminded once again of a fellow grad student, doing his teaching-assistant duties, watching student after student on the calculus exam reduce 1002 to 10. When enough students make the same mistake you start to question your grading scheme. Which is sometimes fair: if everyone gets partway through a question and fails at the same step there’s a prima facie case that the problem was your instruction, not their comprehension. Doesn’t cover dumb arithmetic glitches, though.

But there are several points to object to here. The first is, what’s a quadrature? … This is a geometric thing; it’s finding a square that’s the same area as some given shape, using only straightedge and compass constructions. The second is, what’s a lune? It’s a crescent moon-type shape (hence the name) that you can make by removing the overlap from two circles of specific different radiuses arranged in a specific way. It turns out you can find the quadrature for the lune shape, which makes it seem obvious that you should be able to find the quadrature for a half-circle, a way easier (to us) shape. And it turns out you can’t. The third question is, who cares about making squares using straightedge and compass? And the answer is, well, it’s considered a particularly elegant way of constructing shapes. To the Ancient Greeks. And to those of us who’ve grown in a mathematics culture that owes so much to the Ancient Greeks. Other cultures, ones placing more value on rulers and protractors, might not give a fig about quadratures and lunes.

This before we get into deeper questions. For example, if we grant that some mathematical thing is objectively true, independent of the culture which finds it, then what role does the proof play? It can’t make the thing more or less true. It doesn’t eve matter whether the proof is flawed, or whether it convinces anyone. It seems to imply a mathematician isn’t actually needed for their mathematics. This runs contrary to intuition.

Anyway, this gets off the point of the student here, who’s making a bad-faith appeal to multiculturalism to excuse laziness. It’s difficult to imagine a culture that doesn’t count, at least, even if they don’t do much work with numbers like 144. Granted that, it seems likely they would recognize that 12 has some special relationship with 144, even if they don’t think too much of square roots as a thing.


And do please stop in later this Leap Day week. I figure to have one of my favorite little things, a Reading the Comics day that’s all one day. It should be at this link, when posted. Thank you.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Unitizing


Goldenoj suggested my topic for today’s essay. It delighted me because I had no idea what it was. It wasn’t even listed on Mathworld, where I start all my research for these essays. It turned out to be something that I use all the time, but that I learned so long ago that it’s faded to invisibility. I didn’t even know that the concept had a name. So that makes it a great topic for an essay like this. I hope.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Unitizing.

I once interviewed for a job I didn’t expect to get (or take). I would have taught for a university that provided courses for United States armed forces dependents. One bit of small talk that I thought went well had my potential department head mention a weird little quirk. United States-raised children were unusually good in multiplying stuff by 25. I had a ready hypothesis: the United States (and Canada) have a quarter-dollar coin. Many other countries just don’t, making do with 20-cent and 50-cent pieces instead. The potential department head said that was a good observation. United States-raised kids got practice turning four 25’s into a block of 100.

And this is the thing labelled as unitizing. A unit is, in this context, the thing we think of as “one thing”. This can be dollars, or feet of distance, or loaves of bread, or weeks of paid vacation. Whatever we need to measure. A unit often is made up of tinier pieces, cents or inches or slices or days. It can often be bundled up into bigger ones. Unitizing is about finding the bundle of things that makes the work one wants to do easy to understand.

This is a difficult topic for me to write about. I find it hard to notice myself doing it. But, for example, consider counting. Most people have a fair time counting up to five or six things at a glance. Eighteen things? There’s no telling that at a glance. What you can do, though, is notice that they group together, a block of six things here, another six here, another six there. Then the mass of things has turned into a manageable several collections of manageable counts of things. And, if we need to reverse the process, we can do that. Recognize that the 36 little triangular-wedge game tokens can be given out nine each to the four players. They can in turn arrange six of the tokens into an attractive complete wheel, and make do with the three remainder.

Slices of things turn up a good bit in thought about unitizing. One of particular delight that I found is this paper, by Susan J Lamon. It’s The Development of Unitizing: Its Role in Children’s Partitioning Strategies. Lamon investigated how children understand quantity, and the paper describes several experiments. A typical example is asking children how to evenly divide four pizzas among six people. And how their strategies change if all the pizzas are cut beforehand, versus whether they have to make the cuts themselves. Or how the question changes if things that are not pizza are considered. One child had different cutting strategies for four pizzas versus four cookies. The good reason: cookies are harder to slice than pizzas. You need to be more economical with your cuts so you don’t ruin the food.

And what kids found to be units depended on what was being divided. Four pizzas with different toppings would be divided differently from four identical pizzas. Four Chinese dinners were split by different strategies too. One child explained it just didn’t seem right to call what each person got four-sixths of each dinners. Lamon speculates this reflects cultural conventions about meals that are often eaten in common, and that feels right to me.

There’s obvious uses to this unitizing, in figuring how to divide pizzas and cases of 24 pop cans. There are subtler uses. Positional notation depends on unitizing. We group ten individual things into a new block, and denote it as something in a tens column. Or ten individual blocks-of-ten, which we denote as something in a hundreds column. And we go the other way as we need, when subtracting or dividing.

When I was learning base-ten (and other) arithmetic, they taught me to think of exchanging ten pennies for a dime, or ten dimes for a dollar, or back the other way. To someone hoarding pennies so as to afford things from the bookmobile the practice working out units worked well.

With that context you see why it’s hard to point out what’s happening. You aren’t reading a pop mathematics blog unless you’re quite at ease with calculation. That there is a particular skill done becomes invisible due to its ubiquity. It takes special circumstances to see it again.


Thanks for reading. This and the other essays for the Fall 2019 A to Z should appear at this link. I hope to publish the letter V on Thursday. And all past A to Z essays ought to be at this link.

Reading the Comics, July 26, 2019: Children With Mathematics Edition


Three of the strips I have for this installment feature kids around mathematics talk. That’s enough for a theme name.

Gary Delainey and Gerry Rasmussen’s Betty for the 23rd is a strip about luck. It’s easy to form the superstitious view that you have a finite amount of luck, or that you have good and bad lucks which offset each other. It feels like it. If you haven’t felt like it, then consider that time you got an unexpected $200, hours before your car’s alternator died.

If events are independent, though, that’s just not so. Whether you win $600 in the lottery this week has no effect on whether you win any next week. Similarly whether you’re struck by lightning should have no effect on whether you’re struck again.

Betty: 'We didn't use up our luck winning $600 in the lottery!' Bub: 'You don't think so? Shorty's brother got hit by lightning and lived. The second time, he also lived, but it ruined his truck.' Betty: 'I don't know how to respond to that.' Bub: 'And the third time ... '
Gary Delainey and Gerry Rasmussen’s Betty for the 23rd of July, 2019. I thought this might be a new tag, but, no. Other essays mentioning Betty are at this link.

Except that this assumes independence. Even defines independence. This is obvious when you consider that, having won $600, it’s easier to buy an extra twenty dollars in lottery tickets and that does increase your (tiny) chance of winning again. If you’re struck by lightning, perhaps it’s because you tend to be someplace that’s often struck by lightning. Probability is a subtler topic than everyone acknowledges, even when they remember that it is such a subtle topic.

It sure seems like this strip wants to talk about lottery winners struck by lightning, doesn’t it?

Susan: 'What are you so happy about?' Lemont: 'This morning Lionel and I were had breakfast at Pancake-ville. When it came time to calculate a tip I asked 'What's 20% of $22.22' and it told me. It occurred to me, we're living in the future! We have electric cars, drones, instant knowledge at our fingertips ... it's the future I've dreamt of my entire life!' Susan: 'Sigh ... you always did hate math.' Lemont: 'Only in the FUTURE can a man track down his old math teacher on Facebook and gloat.'
Darrin Bell’s Candorville for the 23rd of July, 2019. Essays inspired by Candorville in some way are here.

Darrin Bell’s Candorville for the 23rd jokes about the uselessness of arithmetic in modern society. I’m a bit surprised at Lemont’s glee in not having to work out tips by hand. The character’s usually a bit of a science nerd. But liking science is different from enjoying doing arithmetic. And bad experiences learning mathematics can sour someone on the subject for life. (Which is true of every subject. Compare the number of people who come out of gym class enjoying physical fitness.)

If you need some Internet Old, read the comments at GoComics, which include people offering dire warnings about what you need in case your machine gives the wrong answer. Which is technically true, but for this application? Getting the wrong answer is not an immediately awful affair. Also a lot of cranky complaining about tipping having risen to 20% just because the United States continues its economic punishment of working peoples.

Woman: 'Oh my gosh, you have twins!' Mathematician: 'Yeah. Please meet my sons.' 'Did you give them rhyming names?' 'No.' 'Alliterative names? Are they named for twins from any books?' 'Lady, I'm a mathematician. I think in clear logical terms. None of this froufrou nonsense for my kids.' 'Okay, okay. So their names are?' 'Benjamin and Benjamax.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 25th of July, 2019. Haven’t seen this comic mentioned since two days ago. Essays mentioning some aspect of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal should be gathered at this link.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 25th is some wordplay. Mathematicians often need to find minimums of things. Or maximums of things. Being able to do one lets you do the other, as you’d expect. If you didn’t expect, think about it a moment, and then you expect it. So min and max are often grouped together.

Thatababy drawing on a Scalene Triangle, scales and eyes added to one. An Octagon: octopus legs added to an octagon. Rhombus: rhombus with wheels, windows, and a driver added to it, and a passenger hailing it down.
Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 26th of July, 2019. Essays exploring some topic mentioned by Thatababy are here.

Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 26th is circling around wordplay, turning some common shape names into pictures. This strip might be aimed at mathematics teachers’ doors. I’d certainly accept these as jokes that help someone learn their shapes.


And you know what? I hope to have another Reading the Comics post around Thursday at this link. And that’s not even thinking what I might do for this coming Sunday.

What Does It Take To Get A C This Class?


I’m posting this for several sordid reasons. First is that I want to test whether WordPress has changed something in how pingbacks — a post linking to another post — get handled. Second is I want to get my post count for the month up from its pitifully low number. I’m at something like negative four posts for all April. Third is that oh, yes, it is about that time of the semester when a kind of student is trying to study just hard enough to get a 79.6 percent in their classwork. So they want to study up to an 86.2 on the final and not waste their efforts studying up to an 86.5.

So here’s a couple tables I set up years ago. They show, for some common breakdowns of how much the final exam is worth, and what your class average is before going into the finals, what you’d need to get a 60, 65, 70, 80, or 90.

If your case isn’t handled in the above examples, here’s an essay with the complete formula needed to handle any circumstance, including extra credit.

But seriously you can’t study yourself up to “just” enough to get your target grade for the course. Study to understand the subject and take the grade as it is.

Find The Factors hosts the 127th Playful Mathematics Education Blog Carnival


I continue to tell myself I’ll put together the hour needed to write a good quick 3,500 words on continuous functions. I’m wrong. But you all might like to know that Iva Sallay, of the Find The Factors blog, hosts the Playful Mathematics Education Blog Carnival this month. As traditional this is a great variety of mathematics essays, references, games, and trivia. And finding the factors is a reliable and fun puzzle anytime. Do please enjoy.

Reading the Comics, March 23, 2019: March 23, 2019 Edition


I didn’t cover quite all of last week’s mathematics comics with Sunday’s essay. There were a handful that all ran on Saturday. And, as has become tradition, I’ll also list a couple that didn’t rate a couple paragraphs.

Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 23rd has a neat variation on story problems. Zoe’s given the assignment to make her own. I don’t remember getting this as homework, in elementary school, but it’s hard to see why I wouldn’t. It’s a great exercise: not just set up an arithmetic problem to solve, but a reason one would want to solve it.

Composing problems is a challenge. It’s a skill, and you might be surprised that when I was in grad school we didn’t get much training in it. We were just taken to be naturally aware of how to identify a skill one wanted to test, and to design a question that would mostly test that skill, and to write it out in a question that challenged students to identify what they were to do and how to do it, and why they might want to do it. But as a grad student I wasn’t being prepared to teach elementary school students, just undergraduates.

Dad: 'Homework?' Zoe: 'Yeah, math. Our teacher is having us write our own story problem.' Dad: 'What have you got?' Zoe: 'If Hammie picks his nose at the rate of five boogers an hour ... ' Hammie: 'Ooh! Put me on a jet ski!'
Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 23rd of March, 2019. Essays inspired by some Baby Blues strip appear at this link.

Mastroianni and Hart’s B.C. for the 23rd is a joke in the funny-definition category, this for “chaos theory”. Chaos theory formed as a mathematical field in the 60s and 70s, and it got popular alongside the fractal boom in the 80s. The field can be traced back to the 1890s, though, which is astounding. There was no way in the 1890s to do the millions of calculations needed to visualize any good chaos-theory problem. They had to develop results entirely by thinking.

Wiley’s definition is fine enough about certain systems being unpredictable. Wiley calls them “advanced”, although they don’t need to be that advanced. A compound pendulum — a solid rod that swings on the end of another swinging rod — can be chaotic. You can call that “advanced” if you want but then people are going to ask if you’ve had your mind blown by this post-singularity invention, the “screw”.

Cute Chick, reading Wiley's Dictionary: 'Chaos Theory. Mathematical principle that advanced systems are wholly unpredictable due to the introduction of random tweets.'
Mastroianni and Hart’s B.C. for the 23rd of March, 2019. Appearances here inspired by B.C., current syndication or 1960s reprints on GoComics, are at this link. Yeah, the character here is named ‘Cute Chick’ because that was funny when the comic started in 1958 and it can’t be updated for some reason?

What makes for chaos is not randomness. Anyone knows the random is unpredictable in detail. That’s no insight. What’s exciting is when something’s unpredictable but deterministic. Here it’s useful to think of continental divides. These are the imaginary curves which mark the difference in where water runs. Pour a cup of water on one side of the line, and if it doesn’t evaporate, it eventually flows to the Pacific Ocean. Pour the cup of water on the other side, it eventually flows to the Atlantic Ocean. These divides are often wriggly things. Water may mostly flow downhill, but it has to go around a lot of hills.

So pour the water on that line. Where does it go? There’s no unpredictability in it. The water on one side of the line goes to one ocean, the water on the other side, to the other ocean. But where is the boundary? And that can be so wriggly, so crumpled up on itself, so twisted, that there’s no meaningfully saying. There’s just this zone where the Pacific Basin and the Atlantic Basin merge into one another. Any drop of water, however tiny, dropped in this zone lands on both sides. And that is chaos.

Neatly for my purposes there’s even a mountain at a great example of this boundary. Triple Divide Peak, in Montana, rests on the divides between the Atlantic and the Pacific basins, and also on the divide between the Atlantic and the Arctic oceans. (If one interprets the Hudson Bay as connecting to the Arctic rather than the Atlantic Ocean, anyway. If one takes Hudson Bay to be on the Atlantic Ocean, then Snow Dome, Alberta/British Columbia, is the triple point.) There’s a spot on this mountain (or the other one) where a spilled cup of water could go to any of three oceans.

There's at least a 99.9 percent chance that in a group of 70 people at least two will share a birthday. The Pentagon had to ban staff from playing Pokemon Go in the building. Picasso created more than 13,500 paintings and designs, 10,000 prints and engravings, 34,000 book illustrations, and 300 sculptures and ceramics --- making him one of the world's most prolific artists.
John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 23rd of March, 2019. The various pieces of mathematics trivia featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not get shown off at this link. I still think it’s weird to write Graziano’s Ripley’s. Anyway, with 57,800 listed pieces of art here Picasso is only credited as “one of” the world’s most prolific artists? Who’s out there with 57,802 pieces?

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 23rd mentions one of those beloved bits of mathematics trivia, the birthday problem. That’s finding the probability that no two people in a group of some particular size will share a birthday. Or, equivalently, the probability that at least two people share some birthday. That’s not a specific day, mind you, just that some two people share a birthday. The version that usually draws attention is the relatively low number of people needed to get a 50% chance there’s some birthday pair. I haven’t seen the probability of 70 people having at least one birthday pair before. 99.9 percent seems plausible enough.

The birthday problem usually gets calculated something like this: Grant that one person has a birthday. That’s one day out of either 365 or 366, depending on whether we consider leap days. Consider a second person. There are 364 out of 365 chances that this person’s birthday is not the same as the first person’s. (Or 365 out of 366 chances. Doesn’t make a real difference.) Consider a third person. There are 363 out of 365 chances that this person’s birthday is going to be neither the first nor the second person’s. So the chance that all three have different birthdays is \frac{364}{365} \cdot \frac{363}{365} . Consider the fourth person. That person has 362 out of 365 chances to have a birthday none of the first three have claimed. So the chance that all four have different birthdays is \frac{364}{365} \cdot \frac{363}{365} \cdot \frac{362}{365} . And so on. The chance that at least two people share a birthday is 1 minus the chance that no two people share a birthday.

As always happens there are some things being assumed here. Whether these probability calculations are right depends on those assumptions. The first assumption being made is independence: that no one person’s birthday affects when another person’s is likely to be. Obvious, you say? What if we have twins in the room? What if we’re talking about the birthday problem at a convention of twins and triplets? Or people who enjoyed the minor renown of being their city’s First Babies of the Year? (If you ever don’t like the result of a probability question, ask about the independence of events. Mathematicians like to assume independence, because it makes a lot of work easier. But assuming isn’t the same thing as having it.)

The second assumption is that birthdates are uniformly distributed. That is, that a person picked from a room is no more likely to be born the 13th of February than they are the 24th of September. And that is not quite so. September births are (in the United States) slightly more likely than other months, for example, which suggests certain activities going on around New Year’s. Across all months (again in the United States) birthdates of the 13th are slightly less likely than other days of the month. I imagine this has to be accounted for by people who are able to select a due date by inducing delivery. (Again if you need to attack a probability question you don’t like, ask about the uniformity of whatever random thing is in place. Mathematicians like to assume uniform randomness, because it akes a lot of work easier. But assuming it isn’t the same as proving it.)

Do these differences mess up the birthday problem results? Probably not that much. We are talking about slight variations from uniform distribution. But I’ll be watching Ripley’s to see if it says anything about births being more common in September, or less common on 13ths.


And now the comics I didn’t find worth discussing. They’re all reruns, it happens. Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 20th just mentions mathematics class. That could be any class that has tests coming up, though. Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 21st is not quite the anthropomorphic numerals jokes for the week. It’s getting around that territory, though, as Skippy claims to have the manifestation of a zero. Bill Rechin’s Crock for the 22nd is a “pick any number” joke. I discussed as much as I could think of about this when it last appeared, in May of 2018. Also I’m surprised that Crock is rerunning strips that quickly now. It has, in principle, decades of strips to draw from.


And that finishes my mathematical comics review for last week. I’ll start posting essays about next week’s comics here, most likely on Sunday, when I’m ready.

Reading the Comics, January 30, 2019: Interlude Edition


I think there are just barely enough comic strips from the past week to make three essays this time around. But one of them has to be a short group, only three comics. That’ll be for the next essay when I can group together all the strips that ran in February. One strip that I considered but decided not to write at length about was Ed Allison’s dadaist Unstrange Phenomena for the 28th. It mentions Roman Numerals and the idea of sneaking message in through them. But that’s not really mathematics. I usually enjoy the particular flavor of nonsense which Unstrange Phenomena uses; you might, too.

John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 29th uses an arithmetic problem as shorthand for an accomplished education. The problem is solvable. Of course, you say. It’s an equation with quadratic polynomial; it can hardly not be solved. Yes, fine. But McPherson could easily have thrown together numbers that implied x was complex-valued, or had radicals or some other strange condition. This is one that someone could do in their heads, at least once they practiced in mental arithmetic.

Cars lined up at a toll booth. The sign reads: 'Welcome to New York State! To enter the state, please solve the following problem: (2x^2 + 7)/3 = 13, solve for x'. Attendant telling a driver: 'It's part of the state's new emphasis on improving education. I'm afraid you'll have to turn around, Mr Strob.'
John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 29th of January, 2019. Essays inspired by Close To Home should appear at this link.

I feel reasonably confident McPherson was just having a giggle at the idea of putting knowledge tests into inappropriate venues. So I’ll save the full rant. But there is a long history of racist and eugenicist ideology that tried to prove certain peoples to be mentally incompetent. Making an arithmetic quiz prerequisite to something unrelated echoes that. I’d have asked McPherson to rework the joke to avoid that.

(I’d also want to rework the composition, since the booth, the swinging arm, and the skirted attendant with the clipboard don’t look like any tollbooth I know. But I don’t have an idea how to redo the layout so it’s more realistic. And it’s not as if that sort of realism would heighten the joke.)

Lecturer: 'Since Babylonian days mathematicians have wondered if it were possible to 'square the circle' using only a compass and straightedge. Mathematicians *supposedly* proved you couldn't back in 1882. They were wrong. Imagine your compass and straightedge. First, put a pencil on one end of the compass and an eraser on the other. Second, designate any number of tiny boxes on your straightedge. Using the compass, you can draw or erase symbols on the straightedge. And what's *that* called? A Turing machine. So now we can rephrase the problem: using only a *computer*, can you construct a square with the same area as a given circle? Using this general method we can unlock *all* 'compass and straightedge' problems! Attendee: 'Are you missing the point accidentally or strategically?' Lecturer: 'I'm mostly trying to make the philosophy students sad.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 29th of January, 2019. Every Reading the Comics essay has a bit of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal in it. The essays with a particularly high Breakfast Cereal concentration appear at this link, though.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 29th riffs on the problem of squaring the circle. This is one of three classical problems of geometry. The lecturer describes it just fine: is it possible to make a square that’s got the same area as a given circle, using only straightedge and compass? There are shapes it’s easy to do this for, such as rectangles, parallelograms, triangles, and (why not?) this odd crescent-moon shaped figure called the lune. Circles defied all attempts. In the 19th century mathematicians found ways to represent the operations of classical geometry with algebra, and could use the tools of algebra to show squaring the circle was impossible. The squaring would be equivalent to finding a polynomial, with integer coefficients, that has \sqrt{\pi} as a root. And we know from the way algebra works that this can’t be done. So squaring the circle can’t be done.

The lecturer’s hack, modifying the compass and straightedge, lets you in principle do whatever you want. The hack isn’t new either. Modifying the geometric tools changes what you can and can’t do. The Ancient Greeks recognized that adding some specialized tools would make the problem possible. But that falls outside the scope of the problem.

Which feeds to the secondary joke, of making the philosophers sad. Often philosophy problems test one’s intuition about an idea by setting out a problem, often with unpleasant choices. A common problem with students that I’m going ahead and guessing are engineers is then attacking the setup of the question, trying to show that the problem couldn’t actually happen. You know, as though there were ever a time significant numbers of people were being tied to trolley tracks. (By the way, that thing about silent movie villains tying women to railroad tracks? Only happened in comedies spoofing Victorian melodramas. It’s always been a parody.) Attacking the logic of a problem may make for good movie drama. But it makes for a lousy student and a worse class discussion.

Li'l Bo: 'How are you on logic, Quincy?' Quincy: 'Average, I guess. I can usually put two and two together, but sometimes I have a fraction or so left over.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 30th of January, 2019. It originally ran the 6th of December, 1979. I’m usually happy when I get the chance to talk about this strip. The art’s pretty sweet. When I do discuss Quincy the essays should appear at this link.

Ted Shearer’s Quincy rerun for the 30th uses a bit of mathematics and logic talk. It circles the difference between the feeling one can have about the rational meaning of a situation and how the situation feels to someone. It seems like a jump that Quincy goes from being asked about logic to talking about arithmetic. Possibly Quincy’s understanding of logic doesn’t start from the sort of very abstract concept that makes arithmetic hard to get to, though.


There should be another Reading the Comics post this week. It should be here, when it appears. There should also be one on Sunday, as usual.

My 2018 Mathematics A To Z: Witch of Agnesi


Nobody had a suggested topic starting with ‘W’ for me! So I’ll take that as a free choice, and get lightly autobiogrpahical.

Cartoon of a thinking coati (it's a raccoon-like animal from Latin America); beside him are spelled out on Scrabble titles, 'MATHEMATICS A TO Z', on a starry background. Various arithmetic symbols are constellations in the background.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.

Witch of Agnesi.

I know I encountered the Witch of Agnesi while in middle school. Eighth grade, if I’m not mistaken. It was a footnote in a textbook. I don’t remember much of the textbook. What I mostly remember of the course was how much I did not fit with the teacher. The only relief from boredom that year was the month we had a substitute and the occasional interesting footnote.

It was in a chapter about graphing equations. That is, finding curves whose points have coordinates that satisfy some equation. In a bit of relief from lines and parabolas the footnote offered this:

y = \frac{8a^3}{x^2 + 4a^2}

In a weird tantalizing moment the footnote didn’t offer a picture. Or say what an ‘a’ was doing in there. In retrospect I recognize ‘a’ as a parameter, and that different values of it give different but related shapes. No hint what the ‘8’ or the ‘4’ were doing there. Nor why ‘a’ gets raised to the third power in the numerator or the second in the denominator. I did my best with the tools I had at the time. Picked a nice easy boring ‘a’. Picked out values of ‘x’ and found the corresponding ‘y’ which made the equation true, and tried connecting the dots. The result didn’t look anything like a witch. Nor a witch’s hat.

It was one of a handful of biographical notes in the book. These were a little attempt to add some historical context to mathematics. It wasn’t much. But it was an attempt to show that mathematics came from people. Including, here, from Maria Gaëtana Agnesi. She was, I’m certain, the only woman mentioned in the textbook I’ve otherwise completely forgotten.

We have few names of ancient mathematicians. Those we have are often compilers like Euclid whose fame obliterated the people whose work they explained. Or they’re like Pythagoras, credited with discoveries by people who obliterated their own identities. In later times we have the mathematics done by, mostly, people whose social positions gave them time to write mathematics results. So we see centuries where every mathematician is doing it as their side hustle to being a priest or lawyer or physician or combination of these. Women don’t get the chance to stand out here.

Today of course we can name many women who did, and do, mathematics. We can name Emmy Noether, Ada Lovelace, and Marie-Sophie Germain. Challenged to do a bit more, we can offer Florence Nightingale and Sofia Kovalevskaya. Well, and also Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton if we decide computer scientists count. Katherine Johnson looks likely to make that cut. But in any case none of these people are known for work understandable in a pre-algebra textbook. This must be why Agnesi earned a place in this book. She’s among the earliest women we can specifically credit with doing noteworthy mathematics. (Also physics, but that’s off point for me.) Her curve might be a little advanced for that textbook’s intended audience. But it’s not far off, and pondering questions like “why 8a^3 ? Why not a^3 ?” is more pleasant, to a certain personality, than pondering what a directrix might be and why we might use one.

The equation might be a lousy way to visualize the curve described. The curve is one of that group of interesting shapes you get by constructions. That is, following some novel process. Constructions are fun. They’re almost a craft project.

For this we start with a circle. And two parallel tangent lines. Without loss of generality, suppose they’re horizontal, so, there’s lines at the top and the bottom of the curve.

Take one of the two tangent points. Again without loss of generality, let’s say the bottom one. Draw a line from that point over to the other line. Anywhere on the other line. There’s a point where the line you drew intersects the circle. There’s another point where it intersects the other parallel line. We’ll find a new point by combining pieces of these two points. The point is on the same horizontal as wherever your line intersects the circle. It’s on the same vertical as wherever your line intersects the other parallel line. This point is on the Witch of Agnesi curve.

Now draw another line. Again, starting from the lower tangent point and going up to the other parallel line. Again it intersects the circle somewhere. This gives another point on the Witch of Agnesi curve. Draw another line. Another intersection with the circle, another intersection with the opposite parallel line. Another point on the Witch of Agnesi curve. And so on. Keep doing this. When you’ve drawn all the lines that reach from the tangent point to the other line, you’ll have generated the full Witch of Agnesi curve. This takes more work than writing out y = \frac{8a^3}{x^2 + 4a^2} , yes. But it’s more fun. It makes for neat animations. And I think it prepares us to expect the shape of the curve.

It’s a neat curve. Between it and the lower parallel line is an area four times that of the circle that generated it. The shape is one we would get from looking at the derivative of the arctangent. So there’s some reasons someone working in calculus might find it interesting. And people did. Pierre de Fermat studied it, and found this area. Isaac Newton and Luigi Guido Grandi studied the shape, using this circle-and-parallel-lines construction. Maria Agnesi’s name attached to it after she published a calculus textbook which examined this curve. She showed, according to people who present themselves as having read her book, the curve and how to find it. And she showed its equation and found the vertex and asymptote line and the inflection points. The inflection points, here, are where the curve chances from being cupped upward to cupping downward, or vice-versa.

It’s a neat function. It’s got some uses. It’s a natural smooth-hill shape, for example. So this makes a good generic landscape feature if you’re modeling the flow over a surface. I read that solitary waves can have this curve’s shape, too.

And the curve turns up as a probability distribution. Take a fixed point. Pick lines at random that pass through this point. See where those lines reach a separate, straight line. Some regions are more likely to be intersected than are others. Chart how often any particular line is the new intersection point. That chart will (given some assumptions I ask you to pretend you agree with) be a Witch of Agnesi curve. This might not surprise you. It seems inevitable from the circle-and-intersecting-line construction process. And that’s nice enough. As a distribution it looks like the usual Gaussian bell curve.

It’s different, though. And it’s different in strange ways. Like, for a probability distribution we can find an expected value. That’s … well, what it sounds like. But this is the strange probability distribution for which the law of large numbers does not work. Imagine an experiment that produces real numbers, with the frequency of each number given by this distribution. Run the experiment zillions of times. What’s the mean value of all the zillions of generated numbers? And it … doesn’t … have one. I mean, we know it ought to, it should be the center of that hill. But the calculations for that don’t work right. Taking a bigger sample makes the sample mean jump around more, not less, the way every other distribution should work. It’s a weird idea.

Imagine carving a block of wood in the shape of this curve, with a horizontal lower bound and the Witch of Agnesi curve as the upper bound. Where would it balance? … The normal mathematical tools don’t say, even though the shape has an obvious line of symmetry. And a finite area. You don’t get this kind of weirdness with parabolas.

(Yes, you’ll get a balancing point if you actually carve a real one. This is because you work with finitely-long blocks of wood. Imagine you had a block of wood infinite in length. Then you would see some strange behavior.)

It teaches us more strange things, though. Consider interpolations, that is, taking a couple data points and fitting a curve to them. We usually start out looking for polynomials when we interpolate data points. This is because everything is polynomials. Toss in more data points. We need a higher-order polynomial, but we can usually fit all the given points. But sometimes polynomials won’t work. A problem called Runge’s Phenomenon can happen, where the more data points you have the worse your polynomial interpolation is. The Witch of Agnesi curve is one of those. Carl Runge used points on this curve, and trying to fit polynomials to those points, to discover the problem. More data and higher-order polynomials make for worse interpolations. You get curves that look less and less like the original Witch. Runge is himself famous to mathematicians, known for “Runge-Kutta”. That’s a family of techniques to solve differential equations numerically. I don’t know whether Runge came to the weirdness of the Witch of Agnesi curve from considering how errors build in numerical integration. I can imagine it, though. The topics feel related to me.

I understand how none of this could fit that textbook’s slender footnote. I’m not sure any of the really good parts of the Witch of Agnesi could even fit thematically in that textbook. At least beyond the fact of its interesting name, which any good blog about the curve will explain. That there was no picture, and that the equation was beyond what the textbook had been describing, made it a challenge. Maybe not seeing what the shape was teased the mathematician out of this bored student.


And next is ‘X’. Will I take Mr Wu’s suggestion and use that to describe something “extreme”? Or will I take another topic or suggestion? We’ll see on Friday, barring unpleasant surprises. Thanks for reading.

Reading the Comics, November 24, 2018: Origins Edition


I’m not sure there is a theme to the back half of last week’s mathematically-based comic strips. If there is, it’s about showing some origins of things. I’ll go with that title, then.

Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 21st is another in the curious thread of strips about Fi talking about mathematics. She’s presented as doing a good job inspiring kids to appreciate mathematics as a fun, exciting, interesting thing to think about. It’s good work. And I hope this does not sound like I am envious of a more successful, if fictional, mathematics popularizer. But I don’t see much in the strip of her doing this side job well. That is, of making the case that mathematics is worth the time spent on it. That’s a lot to ask given the confines of a syndicated daily newspaper comic strip, yes. What we can expect is some hint of what the actual good argument would look like. But this particular day’s strip rings false to me, for example. I don’t see how “here’s some pizza — but first, here’s a pop quiz” makes mathematics look as something other than a chore.

Dethany, to her boyfriend: 'Fi concludes her math talks with a demonstration of the tangible benefits of numbers. By having pizza delivered. Square pizza.' Fi, to the kids, as the pizza guy arrives: 'First, calculate how much more area you get than with a round one.'
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 21st of November, 2018. Essays mentioning topics raised by On The Fastrack are at this link.

Pizza area offers many ways into mathematical ideas. How the area depends on the size of the pizza, for example. How the area depends on the shape, even independently of the size. How to slice a pizza fairly, especially if it’s not to be between four or six or eight people. What is the strangest shape you could make that would give people equal areas? Just the way slices intersect at angles inspires neat little geometry problems. How you might arrange toppings opens up symmetries and tilings, which are surprisingly big areas of mathematics. Setting problems on a pizza gives them a tangibility that could help capture young minds, surely. But I can’t make myself believe that this is a conversation to have when the pizza is entering the room.

At the lottery ticket booth. Grimm: 'Hey, why do you always but lottery tickets? The odds of you winning are astronomical!' Goose: 'Yeah, but they're astronomically higher if I don't buy a ticket.'
Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 22nd of November, 2018. Other essays which mention Mother Goose and Grimm should be at this link. I had thought this was a new link, but it turns out there was a strip in early 2017 and another in mid-2015 that got my attention here.

Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 22nd is a lottery joke. So if we suppose this was written about the last time the Powerball jackpot reached a half-billion dollars we can work out how far ahead of publication Mike Peters is working. One solid argument against ever buying a lottery ticket is, as Grimm notes, that you have zero chance of winning. (I’m open to an argument based on expectation value. And even more, I don’t object to people spending a reasonable bit of disposable income “foolishly”.) Mother Goose argues that her chances are vastly worse if she doesn’t buy a ticket. This is true. Are her chances “astronomically” worse? … That depends. A one in three hundred million chance (to use, roughly, the Powerball odds) is so small that it won’t happen to you. Is that any different than a zero in three hundred million chance [*]? Or than a six in three hundred million chance? In any case it won’t happen to you.

[*] Do you actually have zero chance of winning if you don’t have a ticket? I say no, you don’t. Someone might give you a winning ticket. Maybe you find one as a bookmark in a library book. Maybe you find it on the street and figure, what the heck, I’ll check. Unlikely? Sure. But impossible? Hardly.

Peter: 'If you had three clams and gave one away, then I took two, what would you have?' Curls: 'A worthless reason for being in business.'
Johnny Hart’s Back to BC for the 22nd of November, 2018. It originally appeared the 27th of May, 1961. Essays which discuss topics brought up by B.C., both the current-run and the half-century-old reruns, are at this link.

Johnny Hart’s Back to BC for the 22nd has the form of the world’s oldest story problem. It could also be a joke about the discovery of the concept of zero and the struggle to understand it as a number. Given that clams are used as currency in the BC setting it also shows how finance has driven mathematical development. So the strip actually packs a fair bit of stuff into two panels. … And I’ll admit I’m not quite sure the joke parses, but if you read it quickly it looks like a good enough joke.

Fat Broad, to a dinosaur: 'How much is one and one?' The dinosaur stops a front foot twice. Then gets ready to stomp a third time. Fat Broad whaps the dinosaur senseless. Broad: 'Isn't it amazing how fast animals learn?'
Johnny Hart’s Back to BC for the 24th of November, 2018. It originally appeared the 30th of May, 1961. If this strip has inspired any essays oh wait, I already said where to find them, didn’t I? Well, you know what to look for, then.

Johnny Hart’s Back to BC for the 24th is a more obvious joke. And it’s built on the learning abilities of animals, and the number sense of animals. A large animal stomping a foot evokes, to me at least, Clever Hans. This is a horse presented in the early 20th century as being able to actually do arithmetic. The horse would be given a question and would stop his hoof enough times to get to the right answer. However good the horse’s number sense might be, he had quite good behavioral sense. It turned out — after brilliant and pioneering work in animal cognition — that Hans was observing his trainer’s body language. When Wilhelm von Osten was satisfied that there’d been the right number of stomps, the horse stopped. This is sometimes presented as Hans `merely’ taking subconscious cues from his trainer. But consider how carefully the horse must be observing an animal with a very different body, and how it must have understood cues of satisfaction. I can’t call that `mere’. And the work of tracking down a signal that von Osten himself did not know he was sending (and, apparently, never accepted that he did) is also amazing. It serves as a reminder how hard biologists and zoologists have to work.

Kid: 'How come in old paintings the perspective is really badly drawn?' Dad: 'Perspective didn't exist back then. Sometimes there'd be a whole castle right behind you . Other times you'd sit at a table and the tabletop would face away from you. That's also why portraits were badly drawn. Try holding a brush in a world without three consistent dimensions. Italian architects invented perspective to make it easier to draw buildings. What's why things suddenly look a lot nicer around the 16th century.' Kid: 'Are you sure?' Dad: 'How else do you explain that it took 10,000 years of civilization to invent Cartesian coordinates?' Kid: 'I figured people are just kinda stupid.' Dad: 'How facile.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 24th of November, 2018. The many essays mentioning topics raised by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal are at this link.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 24th gives a bit of Dad History about perspective. And, particularly, why artists didn’t seem to use it much before the 16th century. It gets more blatantly tied to mathematics by pointing out how it took ten thousand years of civilization to get Cartesian coordinates. We can argue about how many years civilization has been around. But it does seem strange that we went along for certainly the majority of that time without Cartesian coordinates. They seem so obvious it’s almost hard to not think of them. Many good ideas have such a legacy.

It’s easy to say why older pictures didn’t use perspective, though. For the most part, artists didn’t think perspective gave them something they wanted to show. Ancient peoples knew of perspective. It’s not as if ancient peoples were any dumber than we are, or any less able to look at square tiles held at different angles and at different distances. But we can convey information about the importance of things, or the flow of action of things, using position and relative size. That can be more important than showing that yes, an artist is aware that a square building far away looks small.

I’m less sure what I know about the history of coordinate systems, though, and particularly why it took until René Descartes to describe them. We have a legend of Descartes laying in bed, watching a fly on the tiled ceiling, and realizing he could describe where the fly was by what row and column of tile it was on. (In the past I have written this as though it happened. In writing this essay I went looking for a primary source and found nobody seems to have one. I shall try not to pass it on again without being very clear that it is just a legend.) But there have been tiled floors and walls and ceilings for a very long time. There have been flies even longer. Why didn’t anyone notice this?

One answer may be that they did. We just haven’t heard about it, because it was found by someone who didn’t catch the interest of a mathematical community. There’s likely a lot of such lost mathematics out there. But still, why not? Wouldn’t anyone with a mathematical inclination see that this is plainly a great discovery? And maybe not. What made Cartesian coordinates great was the realization that arithmetic and geometry, previously seen as separate liberal arts, were duals. A problem in one had an expression as a problem in the other. If you don’t make that connection, then Cartesian coordinates don’t solve any problems you have. They’re just a new way to index things you didn’t need indexed. So that would slow down using them any.


All of my regular Reading the Comics posts should all be at this link. Tomorrow should see the posting of my next my Fall 2018 Mathematics A To Z essay. And there’s still time to put in requests for the last half-dozen letters of the alphabet.

Playful Mathematics Education Blog Carnival #121


Greetings one and all! Come, gather round! Wonder and spectate and — above all else — tell your friends of the Playful Mathematics Blog Carnival! Within is a buffet of delights and treats, fortifications for the mind and fire for the imagination.

121 is a special number. When I was a mere tot, growing in the wilds of suburban central New Jersey, it stood there. It held a spot of privilege in the multiplication tables on the inside front cover of composition books. On the forward diagonal, yet insulated from the borders. It anchors the safe interior. A square number, eleventh of that set in the positive numbers.

Cartoon of several circus tents, with numbered flags above them and balloons featuring arithmetic symbols. The text, in a carnival-poster font, is 'PLAYFUL MATH EDUCATION CARNIVAL'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.

The First Tent

The first wonder to consider is Iva Sallay’s Find the Factors blog. She brings each week a sequence of puzzles, all factoring challenges. The result of each, done right, is a scrambling of the multiplication tables; it’s up to you the patron to find the scramble. She further examines each number in turn, finding its factors and its interesting traits. And furthermore, usually, when beginning a new century of digits opens a horserace, to see which of the numbers have the greatest number of factorizations. She furthermore was the host of this Playful Mathematics Education Carnival for August of 2018.

121 is more than just a square. It is the lone square known to be the sum of the first several powers of a prime number: it is 1 + 3 + 3^2 + 3^3 + 3^4 , a fantastic combination. If there is another square that is such a sum of primes, it is unknown to any human — and must be at least 35 digits long.

We look now for a moment at some astounding animals. From the renowned Dr Nic: Introducing Cat Maths cards, activities, games and lessons — a fine collection of feline companions, such toys as will enterain them. A dozen attributes each; twenty-seven value cards. These cats, and these cards, and these activity puzzles, promise games and delights, to teach counting, subtraction, statistics, and inference!

Next and no less incredible is the wooly Mathstodon. Christian Lawson-Perfect hosts this site, an instance of the open-source Twitter-like service Mastodon. Its focus: a place for people interested in mathematicians to write of what they know. To date over 1,300 users have joined, and have shared nearly 25,000 messages. You need not join to read many of these posts — your host here has yet to — but may sample its wares as you like.


The Second Tent

121 is one of only two perfect squares known to be four less than the cube of a whole number. The great Fermat conjectured that 4 and 121 are the only such numbers; no one has found a counter-example. Nor a proof.

Friends, do you know the secret to popularity? There is an astonishing truth behind it. Elias Worth of the MathSection blog explains the Friendship Paradox. This mind-warping phenomenon tells us your friends have more friends than you do. It will change forever how you look at your followers and following accounts.

And now to thoughts of learning. Stepping forward now is Monica Utsey, @Liveonpurpose47 of Chocolate Covered Boy Joy. Her declaration: “I incorporated Montessori Math materials with my right brain learner because he needed literal representations of the work we were doing. It worked and we still use it.” See now for yourself the representations, counting and comparing and all the joys of several aspects of arithmetic.

Take now a moment for your own fun. Blog Carnival patron and organizer Denise Gaskins wishes us to know: “The fun of mathematical coloring isn’t limited to one day. Enjoy these coloring resources all year ’round!” Happy National Coloring Book Day offers the title, and we may keep the spirit of National Coloring Book Day all the year round.

Confident in that? Then take on a challenge. Can you scroll down faster than Christian Lawson-Perfect’s web site can find factors? Prove your speed, prove your endurance, and see if you can overcome this infinite scroll.


The Third Tent

121 is a star number, the fifth of that select set. 121 identical items can be tiled to form a centered hexagon. You may have seen it in the German game of Chinese Checkers, as the board of that has 121 holes.

We come back again to teaching. “Many homeschoolers struggle with teaching their children math. Here are some tips to make it easier”, offers Denise Gaskins. Step forth and benefit from this FAQ: Struggling with Arithmetic, a collection of tips and thoughts and resources to help make arithmetic the more manageable.

Step now over to the arcade, and to the challenge of Pac-Man. This humble circle-inspired polygon must visit the entirety of a maze, and avoid ghosts as he does. Matthew Scroggs of Chalk Dust Magazine here seeks and shows us Optimal Pac-Man. Graph theory tells us there are thirteen billion different paths to take. Which of them is shortest? Which is fastest? Can it be known, and can it help you through the game?

And now a recreation, one to become useful if winter arrives. Think of the mysteries of the snowball rolling down a hill. How does it grow in size? How does it speed up? When does it stop? Rodolfo A Diaz, Diego L Gonzalez, Francisco Marin, and R Martinez satisfy your curiosity with Comparative kinetics of the snowball respect to other dynamical objects. Be warned! This material is best suited for the college-age student of the mathematical snow sciences.


The Fourth Tent

121 is furthermore the sixth of the centered octagonal numbers. 121 of a thing may be set into six concentric octagons of one, then two, then three, then four, then five, and then six of them on a side.

To teach is to learn! And we have here an example of such learning. James Sheldon writing for the American Mathematical Society Graduate Student blog offers Teaching Lessons from a Summer of Taking Mathematics Courses. What secrets has Sheldon to reveal? Come inside and learn what you may.

And now step over to the games area. The game Entanglement wraps you up in knots, challenging you to find the longest knot possible. David Richeson of Division By Zero sees in this A game for budding knot theorists. What is the greatest score that could be had in this game? Can it ever be found? Only Richeson has your answer.

Step now back to the amazing Mathstodon. Gaze in wonder at the account @dudeney_puzzles. Since the September of 2017 it has brought out challenges from Henry Ernest Dudeney’s Amusements in Mathematics. Puzzles given, yes, with answers that follow along. The impatient may find Dudeney’s 1917 book on Project Gutenberg among other places.


The Fifth Tent

Sum the digits of 121; you will find that you have four. Take its prime factors, 11 and 11, and sum their digits; you will find that this is four again. This makes 121 a Smith number. These marvels of the ages were named by Albert Wilansky, in honor of his brother-in-law, a man known to history as Harold Smith, and whose telephone number of 4,937,775 was one such.

Now let us consider terror. What is it to enter a PhD program? Many have attempted it; some have made it through. Mathieu Besançon gives to you a peek behind academia’s curtain. A year in PhD describes some of this life.

And now to an astounding challenge. Imagine an assassin readies your death. Can you protect yourself? At all? Tai-Danae Bradley invites you to consider: Is the Square a Secure Polygon? This question takes you on a tour of geometries familiar and exotic. Learn how mathematicians consider how to walk between places on a torus — and the lessons this has for a square room. The fate of the universe itself may depend on the methods described herein — the techniques used to study it relate to those that study whether a physical system can return to its original state. And then J2kun turned this into code, Visualizing an Assassin Puzzle, for those who dare to program it.

Have you overcome this challenge? Then step into the world of linear algebra, and this delight from the Mathstodon account of Christian Lawson-Perfect. The puzzle is built on the wonders of eigenvectors, those marvels of matrix multiplication. They emerge from multiplication longer or shorter but unchanged in direction. Lawson-Perfect uses whole numbers, represented by Scrabble tiles, and finds a great matrix with a neat eigenvalue. Can you prove that this is true?


The Sixth Tent

Another wonder of the digits of 121. Take them apart, then put them together again. Contorted into the form 112 they represent the same number. 121 is, in the base ten commonly used in the land, a Friedman Number, second of that line. These marvels, in the Arabic, the Roman, or even the Mayan numerals schemes, are named for Erich Friedman, a figure of mystery from the Stetson University.

We draw closer to the end of this carnival’s attractions! To the left I show a tool for those hoping to write mathematics: Donald E Knuth, Tracy Larrabee, and Paul M Roberts’s Mathematical Writing. It’s a compilation of thoughts about how one may write to be understood, or to avoid being misunderstood. Either would be a marvel for the ages.

To the right please see Gregory Taylor’s web comic Any ~Qs. Taylor — @mathtans on Twitter — brings a world of math-tans, personifications of mathematical concepts, together for adventures and wordplay. And if the strip is not to your tastes, Taylor is working on ε Project, a serialized written story with new installments twice a month.

If you will look above you will see the marvels of curved space. On YouTube, Eigenchris hopes to learn differential geometry, and shares what he has learned. While he has a series under way he suggested Episode 15, ‘Geodesics and Christoffel Symbols as one that new viewers could usefully try. Episode 16, ‘Geodesic Examples on Plane and Sphere, puts this work to good use.

And as we reach the end of the fairgrounds, please take a moment to try Find the Factors Puzzle number 121, a challenge from 2014 that still speaks to us today!

And do always stop and gaze in awe at the fantastic and amazing geometrical constructs of Robert Loves Pi. You shall never see stellations of its like elsewhere!


The Concessions Tent

With no thought of the risk to my life or limb I read the newspaper comics for mathematical topics they may illuminate! You may gape in awe at the results here. And furthermore this week and for the remainder of this calendar year of 2018 I dare to explain one and only one mathematical concept for each letter of our alphabet! I remind the sensitive patron that I have already done not one, not two, not three, but four previous entries all finding mathematical words for the letter “X” — will there be one come December? There is but one way you might ever know.

Denise Gaskins coordinates the Playful Mathematics Education Blog Carnival. Upcoming scheduled carnivals, including the chance to volunteer to host it yourself, or to recommend your site for mention, are listed here. And October’s 122nd Playful Mathematics Education Blog Carnival is scheduled to be hosted by Arithmophobia No More, and may this new host have the best of days!

I’m Still Looking For Fun Mathematics And Words


I’m hoping to get my 2018 Mathematics A To Z started the last week of September, which among other things will let me end it in 2018 if I haven’t been counting wrong. We’ll see. If you’ve got requests for the first several letters in the alphabet, there’s still open slots. I’ll be opening up the next quarter of the alphabet soon, too.

And also set for the last week of September — boy, I’m glad I am not going to have any doubts or regrets about how I’m scheduling my time for two weeks hence — is the Playful Mathematic Education Carnival. This project, overseen by Denise Gaskins, tries to bring a bundle of fun stuff about mathematics to different blogs. Iva Sallay’s turn, the end of August, is up here. Have you spotted something mathematical that’s made you smile? Please let me know. I’d love to share it with the world.

And What I’ve Been Reading


So here’s some stuff that I’ve been reading.

This one I saw through John Allen Paulos’s twitter feed. He points out that it’s like the Collatz conjecture but is, in fact, proven. If you try this yourself don’t make the mistake of giving up too soon. You might figure, like start with 12. Sum the squares of its digits and you get 5, which is neither 1 nor anything in that 4-16-37-58-89-145-42-20 cycle. Not so! Square 5 and you get 25. Square those digits and add them and you get 29. Square those digits and add them and you get 40. And what comes next?

This is about a proof of Fermat’s Theorem of Sums of Two Squares. According to it, a prime number — let’s reach deep into the alphabet and call it p — can be written as the sum of two squares if and only if p is one more than a whole multiple of four. It’s a proof by using fixed point methods. This is a fun kind of proof, at least to my sense of fun. It’s an approach that’s got a clear physical interpretation. Imagine picking up a (thin) patch of bread dough, stretching it out some and maybe rotating it, and then dropping it back on the board. There’s at least one bit of dough that’s landed in the same spot it was before. Once you see this you will never be able to just roll out dough the same way. So here the proof involves setting up an operation on integers which has a fixed point, and that the fixed point makes the property true.

John D Cook, who runs a half-dozen or so mathematics-fact-of-the-day Twitter feeds, looks into calculating the volume of an egg. It involves calculus, as finding the volume of many interesting shapes does. I am surprised to learn the volume can be written out as a formula that depends on the shape of the egg. I would have bet that it couldn’t be expressed in “closed form”. This is a slightly flexible term. It’s meant to mean the thing can be written using only normal, familiar functions. However, we pretend that the inverse hyperbolic tangent is a “normal, familiar” function.

For example, there’s the surface area of an egg. This can be worked out too, again using calculus. It can’t be written even with the inverse hyperbolic cotangent, so good luck. You have to get into numerical integration if you want an answer humans can understand.

My next mistake will be intentional, just to see how closely you are watching me.
Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots rerun for the 15th of April, 2018. I understand people not liking Brilliant’s work but I love the embrace-the-doom attitude the strip presents.

Also, this doesn’t quite fit my Reading the Comics posts. But Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots rerun for the 15th of April is something I’m going to use in future. I hope you find some use for it too.

Reading the Comics, February 26, 2018: Possible Reruns Edition


Comic Strip Master Command spent most of February making sure I could barely keep up. It didn’t slow down the final week of the month either. Some of the comics were those that I know are in eternal reruns. I don’t think I’m repeating things I’ve already discussed here, but it is so hard to be sure.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 24th of February has a mathematics problem with a joke answer. The approach to finding the area’s exactly right. It’s easy to find areas of simple shapes like rectangles and triangles and circles and half-circles. Cutting a complicated shape into known shapes, finding those areas, and adding them together works quite well, most of the time. And that’s intuitive enough. There are other approaches. If you can describe the outline of a shape well, you can use an integral along that outline to get the enclosed area. And that amazes me even now. One of the wonders of calculus is that you can swap information about a boundary for information about the interior, and vice-versa. It’s a bit much for even Jason Fox, though.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 25th is a dispute between Mrs Olsen and Caulfield about whether it’s possible to give more than 100 percent. I come down, now as always, on the side that argues it depends what you figure 100 percent is of. If you mean “100% of the effort it’s humanly possible to expend” then yes, there’s no making more than 100% of an effort. But there is an amount of effort reasonable to expect for, say, an in-class quiz. It’s far below the effort one could possibly humanly give. And one could certainly give 105% of that effort, if desired. This happens in the real world, of course. Famously, in the right circles, the Space Shuttle Main Engines normally reached 104% of full throttle during liftoff. That’s because the original specifications for what full throttle would be turned out to be lower than was ultimately needed. And it was easier to plan around running the engines at greater-than-100%-throttle than it was to change all the earlier design documents.

Jeffrey Caulfield and Alexandre Rouillard’s Mustard and Boloney for the 25th straddles the line between Pi Day jokes and architecture jokes. I think this is a rerun, but am not sure.

Matt Janz’s Out of the Gene Pool rerun for the 25th tosses off a mention of “New Math”. It’s referenced as a subject that’s both very powerful but also impossible for Pop, as an adult, to understand. It’s an interesting denotation. Usually “New Math”, if it’s mentioned at all, is held up as a pointlessly complicated way of doing simple problems. This is, yes, the niche that “Common Core” has taken. But Janz’s strip might be old enough to predate people blaming everything on Common Core. And it might be character, that the father is old enough to have heard of New Math but not anything in the nearly half-century since. It’s an unusual mention in that “New” Math is credited as being good for things. (I’m aware this strip’s a rerun. I had thought I’d mentioned it in an earlier Reading the Comics post, but can’t find it. I am surprised.)

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 26th is a reassuring island of normal calm in these trying times. It’s a student-at-the-blackboard problem.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 26th just mentions arithmetic as the sort of homework someone would need help with. This is another one of those reruns I’d have thought has come up here before, but hasn’t.

What You Need To Pass This Class. Also: It’s Algebra, Uncle Fletcher


The end of the (US) semester snuck up on me but, in my defense, I’m not teaching this semester. If you know someone who needs me to teach, please leave me a note. But as a service for people who are just trying to figure out exactly how much studying they need to do for their finals, knock it off. You’re not playing a video game. It’s not like you can figure out how much effort it takes to get an 83.5 on the final and then put the rest of your energy into your major’s classes.

But it’s a question people ask, and keep asking, so here’s my answers. This essay describes exactly how to figure out what you need, given whatever grade you have and whatever extra credit you have and whatever the weighting of the final exam is and all that. That might be more mechanism than you need. If you’re content with an approximate answer, here’s some tables for common finals weightings, and a selection of pre-final grades.

For those not interested in grade-grubbing, here’s some old-time radio. Vic and Sade was a longrunning 15-minute morning radio program written with exquisite care by Paul Rhymer. It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. But if it is yours, it’s going to be really yours: a tiny cast of people talking not quite past one another while respecting the classic Greek unities. Part of the Overnightscape Underground is the Vic and Sadecast, which curates episodes of the show, particularly trying to explain the context of things gone by since 1940. This episode, from October 1941, is aptly titled “It’s Algebra, Uncle Fletcher”. Neither Vic nor Sade are in the episode, but their son Rush and Uncle Fletcher are. And they try to work through high school algebra problems. I’m tickled to hear Uncle Fletcher explaining mathematics homework. I hope you are too.

Reading the Comics, November 25, 2017: Shapes and Probability Edition


This week was another average-grade week of mathematically-themed comic strips. I wonder if I should track them and see what spurious correlations between events and strips turn up. That seems like too much work and there’s better things I could do with my time, so it’s probably just a few weeks before I start doing that.

Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pax Comics for the 19th is an installment of A Voice From Another Dimension. It’s in that long line of mathematics jokes that are riffs on Flatland, and how we might try to imagine spaces other than ours. They’re taxing things. We can understand some of the rules of them perfectly well. Does that mean we can visualize them? Understand them? I’m not sure, and I don’t know a way to prove whether someone does or does not. This wasn’t one of the strips I was thinking of when I tossed “shapes” into the edition title, but you know what? It’s close enough to matching.

Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 20th — and I haven’t looked, but it feels to me like I’m always featuring Imogen Quest lately — riffs on the Monty Hall Problem. The problem is based on a game never actually played on Monty Hall’s Let’s Make A Deal, but very like ones they do. There’s many kinds of games there, but most of them amount to the contestant making a choice, and then being asked to second-guess the choice. In this case, pick a door and then second-guess whether to switch to another door. The Monty Hall Problem is a great one for Internet commenters to argue about while the rest of us do something productive. The trouble — well, one trouble — is that whether switching improves your chance to win the car is that whether it does depends on the rules of the game. It’s not stated, for example, whether the host must open a door showing a goat behind it. It’s not stated that the host certainly knows which doors have goats and so chooses one of those. It’s not certain the contestant even wants a car when, hey, goats. What assumptions you make about these issues affects the outcome.

If you take the assumptions that I would, given the problem — the host knows which door the car’s behind, and always offers the choice to switch, and the contestant would rather have a car, and such — then Walch’s analysis is spot on.

Jonathan Mahood’s Bleeker: The Rechargeable Dog for the 20th features a pretend virtual reality arithmetic game. The strip is of incredibly low mathematical value, but it’s one of those comics I like that I never hear anyone talking about, so, here.

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac rerun for the 20th talks about shapes. And the names for shapes. It does seem like mathematicians have a lot of names for slightly different quadrilaterals. In our defense, if you’re talking about these a lot, it helps to have more specific names than just “quadrilateral”. Rhomboids are those parallelograms which have all four sides the same length. A parallelogram has to have two pairs of equal-sized legs, but the two pairs’ sizes can be different. Not so a rhombus. Mathworld says a rhombus with a narrow angle that’s 45 degrees is sometimes called a lozenge, but I say they’re fibbing. They make even more preposterous claims on the “lozenge” page.

Todd Clark’s Lola for the 20th does the old “when do I need to know algebra” question and I admit getting grumpy like this when people ask. Do French teachers have to put up with this stuff?

Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer rerun for the 23rd is from one of the delicate moments in her story. Fies’s mother just learned the average survival rate for her cancer treatment is about five percent and, after months of things getting haltingly better, is shaken. But as with most real-world probability questions context matters. The five-percent chance is, as described, the chance someone who’d just been diagnosed in the state she’d been diagnosed in would survive. The information that she’s already survived months of radiation and chemical treatment and physical therapy means they’re now looking at a different question. What is the chance she will survive, given that she has survived this far with this care?

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 24th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. It’s a protesting-student kind of joke. For the student’s question, I’m not sure how many sides a polygon has before we can stop memorizing them. I’d say probably eight. Maybe ten. Of the shapes whose names people actually care about, mm. Circle, triangle, a bunch of quadrilaterals, pentagons, hexagons, octagons, maybe decagon and dodecagon. No, I’ve never met anyone who cared about nonagons. I think we could drop heptagons without anyone noticing either. Among quadrilaterals, ugh, let’s see. Square, rectangle, rhombus, parallelogram, trapezoid (or trapezium), and I guess diamond although I’m not sure what that gets you that rhombus doesn’t already. Toss in circles, ellipses, and ovals, and I think that’s all the shapes whose names you use.

Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine for the 25th does the rounding-up joke that’s been going around this year. It’s got a new context, though.

Reading the Comics, November 11, 2017: Pictured Comics Edition


And now the other half of last week’s comic strips. It was unusually rich in comics that come from Comics Kingdom or Creators.com, which have limited windows of access and therefore make me feel confident I should include the strips so my comments make any sense.

Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 9th mentions mathematics homework as a resolutely rage-inducing topic. It’s mathematics homework, obviously, or else it wouldn’t be mentioned around here. And even more specifically it’s Common Core mathematics homework. So it always is with attempts to teach subjects better. Especially mathematics, given how little confidence people have in their own mastery. I can’t blame parents for supposing any change to be just malice.

Boxing instructor: 'Now focus, Wanda! Think of something that makes you really angry, and take it out on the [punching] bag!' Wanda: 'HARD WATER SPOTS ON THE GLASSWARE!' She punches the bag hard enough to rip it apart. Instructor: 'Okay then ... ' Wanda: 'If I had pictured Common Core math homework, I could've put that sucker through the wall.'
Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 9th of November, 2017. Again I maybe am showing off my lack of domesticity here, but, really, hard water spots? But I admit I’d like to get the tannin stain out of my clear plastic teapot, so I guess we all have our things. I just don’t feel strongly enough to punch about it. I just want something that I can scrub with.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 9th is about random numbers. As Jason says, it is hard to generate random numbers. Random numbers are a resource. Having a good source of them makes a lot of computation work. But they’re hard to make. It seems to be a contradiction to create random numbers by an algorithm. There’s reasons we accept pseudorandom numbers, or find quasirandom numbers. This strip originally ran the 16th of November, 2006.

A night scene. Lots of stars. Crazy Eddie: 'The number of stars is beyond my comprehension!' Hagar: 'Mine, too! What comes after five?'
Chris Browne’s Hagar the Horrible for the 10th of November, 2017. Before you go getting all smug about Hagar no grasping numbers beyond ‘five’, consider what a dog’s breakfast English has managed historically to make of ‘hundred’. Thank you.

Chris Browne’s Hagar the Horrible for the 10th is about the numerous. There’s different kinds of limits. There’s the greatest number of things we can count in an instant. There’s a limit to how long a string of digits or symbols we can remember. There’s the biggest number of things we can visualize. And “visualize” is a slippery concept. I think I have a pretty good idea what we mean when we say “a thousand” of something. I could calculate how long it took me to do something a thousand times, or to write a thousand of something. I know that it was at about a thousand words that, last A To Z sequence, I got to feeling I should wrap up any particular essay. But did I see any particular difference between word 999 and word 1,000? No; what I really knew was “about enough paragraphs” and maybe “fills just over two screens in my text editor”. So do I know what a thousand is? Anyway, we all have our limits, acknowledge them or not.

Archie: 'Moose, your math answers are all wrong!' Moose: 'I'll try again'. So ... Moose: 'Better?' Archie: 'Sorry, Moose! They're still wrong! And writing 'More or Less' after after each answer doesn't help!'
Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie rerun for the 17th of November, 2017. It really reminds you how dumb Moose is given that he’s asking Archie for help with his mathematics. C’mon, you know Dilton Doiley. And this strip is surely a rerun from before Dilton would be too busy with his oyPhone or his drones or any other distraction; what’s he have to do except help Moose out?

Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie rerun for the 17th is about Moose’s struggle with mathematics. Just writing “more or less” doesn’t fix an erroneous answer, true. But error margins, and estimates of where an answer should be, can be good mathematics. (Part of the Common Core that many parents struggle with is making the estimate of an answer the first step, and a refined answer later. Based on what I see crossing social media, this really offends former engineering majors who miss the value in having an expected approximate answer.) It’s part of how we define limits, and derivatives, and integrals, and all of calculus. But it’s in a more precise way than Moose tries to do.

Teacher: 'Quincy, if you put your hand in your pocket and pulled out 65 cents ... and put your hand in the other pocket and pulled out 35 cents ... what would you have?' Quincy: 'Somebody else's pants!'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 18th of September, 1978 and rerun the 11th of November, 2017. I feel like anytime I mention Quincy here I end up doing a caption about Ted Shearer’s art. But, I mean, look at the mathematics teacher in the second panel there. There’s voice in that face.

Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 18th of September, 1978 is a story-problem joke. Some of these aren’t complicated strips.

Reading the Comics, October 2017: Mathematics Anxiety Edition


Comic Strip Master Command hasn’t had many comics exactly on mathematical points the past week. I’ll make do. There are some that are close enough for me, since I like the comics already. And enough of them circle around people being nervous about doing mathematics that I have a title for this edition.

Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 24th talks about math anxiety. It’s not a comic strip that will do anything to resolve anyone’s mathematics anxiety. But it’s funny about its business. Agnes usually is; it’s one of the less-appreciated deeply-bizarre comics out there.

John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for the 24th might be the anthropomorphic numerals joke for this week. Or it might be the anthropomorphic letters joke. Or something else entirely.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts for the 24th reruns the comic from the 2nd of November, 1970. It has Sally discovering that multiplication is much easier than she imagined. As it is, she’s not in good shape. But if you accept ‘tooty-two’ as another name for ‘four’ and ‘threety-three’ as another name for ‘nine’, why not? And she might do all right in group theory. In that you can select a bunch of things, called ‘elements’, and describe their multiplication to fit anything you like, provided there’s consistency. There could be a four-forty-four if that seems to answer some question.

Patron of the Halloween Costume Advice booth: 'I want to be a zombie!' Regular character whose name I can't remember and can't find: 'That's a tough one ... we have to find a way to get you into character. Here [ handing a textbook over ] --- sit through one of Miss Barnes's math classes.'
Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker’s Dustin for the 25th of October, 2017. The kid’s premise this week is about advice for maximizing trick-or-treating hauls. So it circles around sabermetrics and the measurement of every possible metric relevant to a situation. It’s a bit baffling to me, since I just do not remember the quality of a costume relating to how much candy I’d gotten. Nor to what I give out, at least once you get past “high school kid not even bothering to dress up”. And even they’ll get a couple pieces although, yeah, if they did anything they’d get the full-size peanut butter cups. (We’re trying to build a reputation here.) What I’m saying is, I don’t see how the amount of candy depends on more than “have a costume” and “spend more time out there”. I mean, are people really withholding the fruit-flavored Tootsie Rolls because some eight-year-old doesn’t have an exciting enough costume? Really?

Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker’s Dustin for the 25th might be tied in to mathematics anxiety. At least it expresses how the thought of mathematics will cause some people to shut down entirely. Shame for them, but I can’t deny it’s so.

Young magician touching the wand to the whiteboard to show 15 divided by 3 is 5. His instructor: 'No relying on the wand --- I want to see how you arrived at the right answer.' (The title panel calls the strip The Tutor, with the tutor saying 'Someday when you're wizened you'll thank me.')
Hilary Price’s Rhymes with Orange for the 26th of October, 2017. The signature also credits Rina Piccolo, late of Six Chix and Tina’s Groove. The latter strip ended in July 2017, and she left the former last year. Maybe she’s picking up some hours part-timing on Rhymes With Orange; her signature’s been on many strips recently. Wikipedia doesn’t have anything relevant to say, and the credit on the web site doesn’t reflect Piccolo’s work, if she is a regular coauthor now.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes with Orange for the 26th is a calculator joke, made explicitly magical. I’m amused but also wonder if those are small wizards or large mushrooms. And it brings up again the question: why do mathematics teachers care about seeing how you got the answer? Who cares, as long as the answer is right? And my answer there is that yeah, sometimes all we care about is the answer. But more often we care about why someone knows the answer is this instead of that. The argument about what makes this answer right — or other answers wrong — should make it possible to tell why. And it often will help inform other problems. Being able to use the work done for one problem to solve others, or better, a whole family of problems, is fantastic. It’s the sort of thing mathematicians naturally try to do.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby for the 26th is an anthropomorphic geometry joke. And it’s a shape joke I don’t remember seeing, at least not under my Reading the Comics line of jokes. (Maybe I’ve just forgotten). Also, trapezoids: my most popular post of all time ever, even though it’s only got a couple months’ lead on the other perennial favorite, about how many grooves are on a record’s side.

Jeremy pours symbols from his mathematics notebook into a funnel in his head. They pour out his ears. He says 'My study habits are ineffective' to Pierce, who asks, 'Have you tried earplugs?'
Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s Zits for the 27th of October, 2017. I understand people who don’t find Zits a particularly strong comic. (My experience is it’s more loved by my parent’s cohort than by mine.) But I will say when Scott and Borgman go for visual metaphor the strip is easily ten times better. I think the cartoonists have some editorial-cartoon experience and they’ll sometimes put it to good use.

Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s Zits for the 27th uses mathematics as the emblem of complicated stuff in need of study. It’s a good visual. I have to say Jeremy’s material seems unorganized to start with, though.