Reading the Comics, April 19, 2018: Late Because Of Pinball Edition


Hi, all. I apologize for being late in posting this, but my Friday and Saturday were eaten up by pinball competition. Pinball At The Zoo, particularly, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. There, Friday, I stepped up first thing and put in four games on the Classics, pre-1985, tournament bank and based on my entry scores was ranked the second-best player there. And then over the day my scores dwindled lower and lower on the list of what people had entered until, in the last five minutes of qualifying, they dropped off the roster altogether and I was knocked out. Meanwhile in the main tournament, I was never even close to making playoffs. But I did have a fantastic game of Bally/Midway’s World Cup Soccer, a game based on how much the United States went crazy for soccer that time we hosted the World Cup for some reason. The game was interrupted by one of the rubber straps around one of the kickers (the little triangular table just past the flippers that you would think would be called the bumpers) breaking, and then by the drain breaking in a way that later knocked the game entirely out of the competition. So anyway besides that glory I’ve been very busy trying to figure out what’s gone wrong and stepping outside to berate the fox squirrels out back, and that’s why I’m late with all this. I’m sure you relate.

Danielle Rabbit as a lion tamer whipping a 2. Danielle as orchestra conductor leading a 4 playing violin. As a puppet-master holding up an 8 and 3 as marionettes. Juggling the numerals 0 through 9. Nursing a 7. Then reality: Kevin saying, 'Danielle, thanks for doing our taxes.' Danielle: 'Well, you just have to know how to handle numbers.'
Bill Holbrook’s Kevin and Kell rerun for the 15th of April, 2018. The strip is this enormously tall format because at the time it originally ran (in 2012) the strip appeared in print in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, sharing the page with Wiley Miller’s similarly-formatted Non Sequitur. The strip has since resumed more normal dimensions.

Bill Holbrook’s Kevin and Kell rerun for the 15th is the anthropomorphic numerals strip for the week. Also the first of the anthropomorphic strips for the week. Calculating taxes has always been one of the compelling social needs for mathematics, arithmetic especially. If we consider the topic to be “accounting” then that might be the biggest use of mathematics in society. At least by humans; I’m not sure how to rate the arithmetic that computers do even for not explicitly mathematical tasks like sending messages back and forth. New comic strip tag for around here, too.

Fauna, to her brother Tucker: 'I learned a valuable lesson in trigonometry class today. The next time I sign up for a class, it will have nothing to do with numbers.'
Bill Schorr’s The Grizzwells for the 17th of April, 2018. Yeah, people say that, but then they get into Abstract Algebra and then they see any proof whatsoever that involves ideals of rings.

Bill Schorr’s The Grizzwells for the 17th sees Fauna not liking trigonometry class. I’m sympathetic. I remember it as seeming to be a lot of strange new definitions put to vague purposes. On the bright side, when you get into calculus trigonometry starts solving more problems than it creates. On the dim side, at least when I took it they tried to pass off “trigonometric substitution” as a thing we might need. (OK, it’s come in useful sometimes, but not as often as the presentation made it look.) Also a new comic strip tag.

A two-circle Venn diagram. In one circle: 'Eric's friends'. In the other: 'Eric's enemies'. In the intersection: 'Eric's cat'.
Eric the Circle for the 18th of April, 2018, this one by sdhardie. It’s a rerun, yes, although I don’t know just from when. The copyright date of 2012 suggests I’ve probably already covered this in a Reading the Comics post before. (If I have I can’t find it.)

Eric the Circle for the 18th, this one by sdhardie, is a joke in the Venn Diagram mode. The strip’s a little unusual for not having one of the circles be named Eric. Not a new comic strip tag.

A trophy room. Behind the adult are the heads of an elephant and a tiger . Behind the child are Maths Teacher Year 1 and Maths Teacher Year 2.
Ham’s Life on Earth for the 19th of April, 2018. I suppose that Ham is a pseudonym but I have no information about the cartoonist other than that I guess she’s not American.

Ham’s Life on Earth for the 19th leaves me feeling faintly threatened. Maybe it’s just me. Also not a new comic strip tag, somehow.

Mostly a list of '6 Daydreams That Will Immediately Improve Your Mood'. Relevant is #3, 'Oh hey professor who failed me in college math I'm doing pretty well thanks MATH SLAP.'
Lord Birthday’s Dumbwitch Castle for the 19th of April, 2018. I … I would swear when this comic first started appearing it was by a less absurd pseudonym. I don’t remember, though.

Lord Birthday’s Dumbwitch Castle for the 19th is a small sketch and mostly a list of jokes. This is the normal format for this strip, which tests the idea of what makes something a comic strip. I grant it’s a marginal inclusion, but I am tickled by the idea of a math slap so here you go. This one’s another new comic strip tag.

Reading the Comics, November 12, 2016: Frazz and Monkeys Edition


Two things made repeat appearances in the mathematically-themed comics this week. They’re the comic strip Frazz and the idea of having infinitely many monkeys typing. Well, silly answers to word problems also turned up, but that’s hard to say many different things about. Here’s what I make the week in comics out to be.

'An infinite number of monkeys sitting at an infinite number of typewriters will eventually reproduce the works of Shakespeare. ... Justy sayin' ... a four digit pin number is statistically sooo much better.'

Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 6th of November, 2016. I’m surprised Bell-Lundy used the broader space of a Sunday strip for a joke that doesn’t need that much illustration, but I understand sometimes you just have to go with the joke that you have. And it isn’t as though Sunday comics get that much space anymore either. Anyway, I suppose we have all been there, although for me that’s more often because I used to have a six-digit pin, and a six-digit library card pin, and those were just close enough to each other that I could never convince myself I was remembering the right one in context, so I would guess wrong.

Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 6th introduces the infinite monkeys problem. I wonder sometimes why the monkeys-on-typewriters thing has so caught the public imagination. And then I remember it encourages us to stare directly into infinity and its intuition-destroying nature from the comfortable furniture of the mundane — typewriters, or keyboards, for goodness’ sake — with that childish comic dose of monkeys. Given that it’s a wonder we ever talk about anything else, really.

Monkeys writing Shakespeare has for over a century stood as a marker for what’s possible but incredibly improbable. I haven’t seen it compared to finding a four-digit PIN. It has got me wondering about the chance that four randomly picked letters will be a legitimate English word. I’m sure the chance is more than the one-in-a-thousand chance someone would guess a randomly drawn PIN correctly on one try. More than one in a hundred? I’m less sure. The easy-to-imagine thing to do is set a computer to try out all 456,976 possible sets of four letters and check them against a dictionary. The number of hits divided by the number of possibilities would be the chance of drawing a legitimate word. If I had a less capable computer, or were checking even longer words, I might instead draw some set number of words, never minding that I didn’t get every possibility. The fraction of successful words in my sample would be something close to the chance of drawing any legitimate word.

If I thought a little deeper about the problem, though, I’d just count how many four-letter words are already in my dictionary and divide that into 456,976. It’s always a mistake to start programming before you’ve thought the problem out. The trouble is not being able to tell when that thinking-out is done.

Richard Thompson’s Poor Richard’s Almanac for the 7th is the other comic strip to mention infinite monkeys. Well, chimpanzees in this case. But for the mathematical problem they’re not different. I’ve featured this particular strip before. But I’m a Thompson fan. And goodness but look at the face on the T S Eliot fan in the lower left corner there.

Jeff Mallet’s Frazz for the 6th gives Caulfield one of those flashes of insight that seems like it should be something but doesn’t mean much. He’s had several of these lately, as mentioned here last week. As before this is a fun discovery about Roman Numerals, but it doesn’t seem like it leads to much. Perhaps a discussion of how the subtractive principle — that you can write “four” as “IV” instead of “IIII” — evolved over time. But then there isn’t much point to learning Roman Numerals at all. It’s got some value in showing how much mathematics depends on culture. Not just that stuff can be expressed in different ways, but that those different expressions make different things easier or harder to do. But I suspect that isn’t the objective of lessons about Roman Numerals.

Frazz got my attention again the 12th. This time it just uses arithmetic, and a real bear of an arithmetic problem, as signifier for “a big pile of hard work”. This particular problem would be — well, I have to call it tedious, rather than hard. doing it is just a long string of adding together two numbers. But to do that over and over, by my count, at least 47 times for this one problem? Hardly any point to doing that much for one result.

Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 7th calls out fractions, and arithmetic generally, as the stuff that ruins a child’s dreams. (Well, a dinosaur child’s dreams.) Still, it’s nice to see someone reminding mathematicians that a lot of their field is mostly used by accountants. Actuaries we know about; mathematics departments like to point out that majors can get jobs as actuaries. I don’t know of anyone I went to school with who chose to become one or expressed a desire to be an actuary. But I admit not asking either.

Todd declares that after hearing one speak to his class he wants to be an accountant when he grows up. Trent, Todd's caretaker, says that's great but he'll need to do stuff that involves 'carrying the one and probably some fractions.' Todd panics. 'AAAGH! Not 'carrying the one' and that other word you said!'
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 7th of November, 2016. I don’t remember being talked to by classmates’ parents about what they where, but that might just be that it’s been a long time since I was in elementary school and everybody had the normal sorts of jobs that kids don’t understand. I guess we talked about what our parents did but that should make a weaker impression.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue started off a week of students-resisting-the-test-question jokes on the 7th. Most of them are hoary old word problem jokes. But, hey, I signed up to talk about it when a comic strip touches a mathematics topic and word problems do count.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal reprinted the 7th is a higher level of mathematical joke. It’s from the genre of nonsense calculation. This one starts off with what’s almost a cliche, at least for mathematics and physics majors. The equation it starts with, e^{i Pi} = -1 , is true. And famous. It should be. It links exponentiation, imaginary numbers, π, and negative numbers. Nobody would have seen it coming. And from there is the sort of typical gibberish reasoning, like writing “Pi” instead of π so that it can be thought of as “P times i”, to draw to the silly conclusion that P = 0. That much work is legitimate.

From there it sidelines into “P = NP”, which is another equation famous to mathematicians and computer scientists. It’s a shorthand expression of a problem about how long it takes to find solutions. That is, how many steps it takes. How much time it would take a computer to solve a problem. You can see why it’s important to have some study of how long it takes to do a problem. It would be poor form to tie up your computer on a problem that won’t be finished before the computer dies of old age. Or just take too long to be practical.

Most problems have some sense of size. You can look for a solution in a small problem or in a big one. You expect searching for the solution in a big problem to take longer. The question is how much longer? Some methods of solving problems take a length of time that grows only slowly as the size of the problem grows. Some take a length of time that grows crazy fast as the size of the problem grows. And there are different kinds of time growth. One kind is called Polynomial, because everything is polynomials. But there’s a polynomial in the problem’s size that describes how long it takes to solve. We call this kind of problem P. Another is called Non-Deterministic Polynomial, for problems that … can’t. We assume. We don’t know. But we know some problems that look like they should be NP (“NP Complete”, to be exact).

It’s an open question whether P and NP are the same thing. It’s possible that everything we think might be NP actually can be solved by a P-class algorithm we just haven’t thought of yet. It would be a revolution in our understanding of how to find solutions if it were. Most people who study algorithms think P is not NP. But that’s mostly (as I understand it) because it seems like if P were NP then we’d have some leads on proving that by now. You see how this falls short of being rigorous. But it is part of expertise to get a feel for what seems to make sense in light of everything else we know. We may be surprised. But it would be inhuman not to have any expectations of a problem like this.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 8th gives us the Andertoons content for the week. It’s a fair question why a right triangle might have three sides, three angles, three vertices, and just the one hypotenuse. The word’s origin, from Greek, meaning “stretching under” or “stretching between”. It’s unobjectionable that we might say this is the stretch from one leg of the right triangle to another. But that leaves unanswered why there’s just the one hypothenuse, since the other two legs also stretch from the end of one leg to another. Dr Sarah on The Math Forum suggests we need to think of circles. Draw a circle and a diameter line on it. Now pick any point on the circle other than where the diameter cuts it. Draw a line from one end of the diameter to your point. And from your point to the other end of the diameter. You have a right triangle! And the hypothenuse is the leg stretching under the other two. Yes, I’m assuming you picked a point above the diameter. You did, though, didn’t you? Humans do that sort of thing.

I don’t know if Dr Sarah’s explanation is right. It sounds plausible and sensible. But those are weak pins to hang an etymology on. But I have no reason to think she’s mistaken. And the explanation might help people accept there is the one hypothenuse and there’s something interesting about it.

The first (and as I write this only) commenter, Kristiaan, has a good if cheap joke there.

Reading the Comics, May 3, 2016: Lots Of Images Edition


After the heavy pace of March and April I figure to take it easy and settle to about a three-a-week schedule around here. That doesn’t mean that Comic Strip Master Command wants things to be too slow for me. And this time they gave me more comics than usual that have expiring URLs. I don’t think I’ve had this many pictures to include in a long while.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range for the 28th presents an equation-solving nightmare. From my experience, this would be … a great pain, yes. But it wouldn’t be a career-wrecking mess. Typically a problem that’s hard to solve is hard because you have no idea what to do. Given an expression, you’re allowed to do anything that doesn’t change its truth value. And many approaches might look promising without quite resolving to something useful. The real breakthrough is working out what approach should be used. For an astrophysics problem, there are some classes of key decisions to make. One class is what to include and what to omit in the model. Another class is what to approximate — and how — versus what to treat exactly. Another class is what sorts of substitutions and transformations turn the original expression into one that reveals what you want. Those are the hard parts, and those are unlikely to have been forgotten. Applying those may be tedious, and I don’t doubt it would be anguishing to have the finished work wiped out. But it wouldn’t set one back years either. It would just hurt.

Christopher Grady’s Lunar Babboon for the 29th I classify as the “anthropomorphic numerals” joke for this essay. Boy, have we all been there.

'Numbers are boring!' complains the audience. 'Not so. They contain high drama and narrative. Here's an expense account that was turned in to me last week. Can you create a *story* based on these numbers?' 'Once upon a time, a guy was fired for malfeasance ... ' 'If you skip right to the big finish, sure.'
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 29th of April, 2016. Spoiler: there aren’t any numbers in the second panel.

Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 29th continues the storyline about Fi giving her STEM talk. She is right, as I see it, in attributing drama and narrative to numbers. This is most easily seen in the sorts of finance and accounting mathematics which the character does. And the inevitable answer to “numbers are boring” (or “mathematics is boring”) is surely to show how they are about people. Even abstract mathematics is about things (some) people find interesting, and that must be about the people too.

'Look, Grandpa! I got 100% on my math test! Do you know what that means? It means that out of ten questions, I got at least half of them correct!' 'It must be that new, new, new math.' 'So many friendly numbers!'
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 3rd of May, 2016. Ever notice how many shirt pockets Grandpa has? I’m not saying it’s unrealistic, just that it’s more than the average.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 16th is a confused-mathematics joke. Grandpa tosses off a New Math joke that’s reasonably age-appropriate too, which is always nice to see in a comic strip. I don’t know how seriously to take Ruthie’s assertion that a 100% means she only got at least half of the questions correct. It could be a cartoonist grumbling about how kids these days never learn anything, the same way ever past generation of cartoonists had complained. But Ruthie is also the sort of perpetually-confused, perpetually-confusing character who would get the implications of a 100% on a test wrong. Or would state them weirdly, since yes, a 100% does imply getting at least half the test’s questions right.

Border Collies, as we know, are highly intelligent. 'Yup, the math confirms it --- we can't get by without people.'
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 3rd of May, 2016. I’m a little unnerved there seems to be a multiplication x at the end of the square root vinculum on the third line there.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 3rd uses the traditional board full of mathematical symbols as signifier of intelligence. There’s some interesting mixes of symbols here. The c2, for example, isn’t wrong for mathematics. But it does evoke Einstein and physics. There’s the curious mix of the symbol π and the approximation 3.14. But then I’m not sure how we would get from any of this to a proposition like “whether we can survive without people”.

'What comes after eleven?' 'I can't do it. I don't have enough fingers to count on!' Tiger hands him a baseball glove. 'Use this.'
Bud Blake’s Tiger for the 3rd of May, 2016. How did Punkinhead get up to eleven?

Bud Blake’s Tiger for the 3rd is a cute little kids-learning-to-count thing. I suppose it doesn’t really need to be here. But Punkinhead looks so cute wearing his tie dangling down onto the floor, the way kids wear their ties these days.

Tony Murphy’s It’s All About You for the 3rd name-drops algebra. I think what the author really wanted here was arithmetic, if the goal is to figure out the right time based on four clocks. They seem to be trying to do a simple arithmetic mean of the time on the four clocks, which is fair if we make some assumptions about how clocks drift away from the correct time. Mostly those assumptions are that the clocks all started right and are equally likely to drift backwards or forwards, and do that drifting at the same rate. If some clocks are more reliable than others, then, their claimed time should get more weight than the others. And something like that must be at work here. The mean of 7:56, 8:02, 8:07, and 8:13, uncorrected, is 8:04 and thirty seconds. That’s not close enough to 8:03 “and five-eighths” unless someone’s been calculating wrong, or supposing that 8:02 is more probably right than 8:13 is.

Reading the Comics, December 2, 2015: The Art Of Maths Edition


Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 28th of November (originally run in 2004) depicts a “Christmas Card For Smart People”. It uses the familiar motif of “ability to do arithmetic” as denoting smartness. The key to the first word is remembering that mathematicians use the symbol ‘e’ to represent a number that’s just a little over 2.71828. We call the number ‘e’, or something ‘the base of the natural logarithm’. It turns up all over the place. If you have almost any quantity that grows or that shrinks at a speed proportional to how much there is, and describe how much of stuff there is over time, you’ll find an ‘e’. Leonhard Euler, who’s renowned for major advances in every field of mathematics, is also renowned for major advances in notation in physics, and he gave us ‘e’ for that number.

The key to the second word there is remembering from physics that force equals mass times acceleration. Therefore the force divided by the acceleration is …

And so that inspires this essay’s edition title. There are several comics in this selection that are about the symbols or the representations of mathematics, and that touch on the subject as a visual art.

Matt Janz’s Out of the Gene Pool for the 28th of November first ran the 26th of October, 2002. It would make for a good word problem, too, with a couple of levels: given the constraints of (a slightly looser) budget, how do they get the greatest number of cookies? Or if some cookies are better than others, how do they get the most enjoyment from their cookie purchase? Working out the greatest amount of enjoyment within a given cookie budget, with different qualities of cookies, can be a good introduction to optimization problems and how subtle they can be.

Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 29th of November speaks in support of accounting. It’s a worthwhile message. It doesn’t get much respect, not from the general public, and not from typical mathematics department. The general public maybe thinks of accounting as not much more than a way companies nickel-and-dime them. If the mathematics departments I’ve associated with are fair representatives, accounting isn’t even thought of except by the assistant professor doing a seminar on financial mathematics. (And I’m not sure accounting gets mentioned there, since there’s exciting stuff about the Black-Scholes Equation and options markets to think about instead.) This despite that accounting is probably, by volume, the most used part of mathematics. Anyway, Holbrook’s strip probably won’t get the field a better reputation. But it has got some great illustrations of doing things with numbers. The folks in mathematics departments certainly have had days feeling like they’ve done each of these things.

Fanciful representations of accounting: pulling numbers out of magic hats, wrangling numbers out of a herd, fixing up the interior of a number as if a car's engine, that sort of thing. Dethany respects Fi's abilities the more she sees them.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 29th of November, 2015. While the strip’s focus is accountants, it is true that most mathematicians will spend hours overhauling their 6’s.

Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump for the 30th of November is a compound interest joke. I admit I’ve told this sort of joke myself, proposing that the hour cut out of the day in spring when Daylight Saving Time starts comes back as a healthy hour and three minutes in autumn when it’s taken out of saving. If I can get the delivery right I might have someone going for that three minutes.

Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler’s Truth Facts for the 30th of November is a Venn diagram joke for breakfast. I would bet they’re kicking themselves for not making the intersection be the holes in the center.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this week interests me. It uses a figure to try explaining how to relate gallon and quart an pint and other units relate to each other. I like it, but I’m embarrassed to say how long it took in my life to work out the relations between pints, quarts, gallons, and particularly whether the quart or the pint was the larger unit. I blame part of that on my never really having to mix a pint of something with a quart of something else, which ought to have sorted that out. Anyway, let’s always cherish good representations of information. Good representations organize information and relationships in ways that are easy to remember, or easy to reconstruct or extend.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not for the 2nd of December tries to visualize how many ways there are to arrange a Rubik’s Cube. Counting off permutations of things by how many seconds it’d take to get through them all is a common game. The key to producing a staggering length of time is that it one billion seconds are nearly 32 years, and the number of combinations of things adds up really really fast. There’s over eight billion ways to draw seven letters in a row, after all, if every letter is equally likely and if you don’t limit yourself to real or even imaginable words. Rubik’s Cubes have a lot of potential arrangements. Graziano misspells Rubik, but I have to double-check and make sure I’ve got it right every time myself. I didn’t know that about the pigeons.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts for the 2nd of December (originally run in 1968) has Peppermint Patty reflecting on the beauty of numbers. I don’t think it’s unusual to find some numbers particularly pleasant and others not. Some numbers are easy to work with; if I’m trying to add up a set of numbers and I have a 3, I look instinctively for a 7 because of how nice 10 is. If I’m trying to multiply numbers, I’d so like to multiply by a 5 or a 25 than by a 7 or an 18. Typically, people find they do better on addition and multiplication with lower numbers like two and three, and get shaky with sevens and eights and such. It may be quirky. My love is a wizard with 7’s, but can’t do a thing with 8. But it’s no more irrational than the way a person might a pyramid attractive but a sphere boring and a stellated icosahedron ugly.

I’ve seen some comments suggesting that Peppermint Patty is talking about numerals, that is, the way we represent numbers. That she might find the shape of the 2 gentle, while 5 looks hostile. (I can imagine turning a 5 into a drawing of a shouting person with a few pencil strokes.) But she doesn’t seem to say one way or another. She might see a page of numbers as visual art; she might see them as wonderful things with which to play.

Reading the Comics, November 4, 2015: Gambling Edition


I don’t presume to guess why. But Comic Strip Master Command sent out orders one lead-time ago to have everybody do jokes that relate to gambling. We see the consequences here.

John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 2nd of November builds its joke on the idea that the mathematics of gambling is all anyone really needs. It’s a better-than-average crack about the usefulness of mathematics. It’s also truer than average. Much of how we make decisions is built on the expectation value, a core concept of probability. If we do this, what can we expect to gain or lose? If we do that instead, what would we expect? If we can place a value — even a loose, approximate value — on our time, our money, our experiences, we gain a new tool for making decisions.

After showing that Jughaid can count to 21 (in cards) and the common currency demoninations, Snuffy concludes that Jughaid does know all the mathematics he could possibly *need*.

John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 2nd of November, 2015. I am actually more comfortable with Snuffy’s sentiments than you might think. However, I think he might want Jughaid to also get comfortable with card-counting techniques, and the conditional probabilities that they imply. (Given that a 10, an 8, and a 9 are already showing, what is the probability that the dealer will go over?)
Unanswered question: where did Snuffy Smith get a twenty-dollar bill from?

Probability runs through the history of mathematics. That’s euphemistic. Gambling runs through the history of mathematics. Quite a bit of what we call probability derives from people who wanted to better understand games of chance, and to get an edge in the bets they might place. A question like “how many ways can three dice come up?” is a good homework problem today. It was once a subject of serious study and argument. We realize it’s still a good question when we wonder if the first die coming up 6, the second 3, and and third 1 is a different outcome from the first die coming up 3, the second 1, and the third 6.

Fully understanding the mathematics of gambling requires not just counting and not just fractions. It will bring us to algebra, to calculus, and to all the tools that let us understand thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. If that isn’t everything, that is a good rough approximation.

Scott Adams’s Dilbert Classic for the 2nd of November originally ran the 8th of September, 1992. It’s about a sadly common kind of nerd behavior, the desire to one-up one’s stories of programming hardship. In this one the generic guy — a different figure from Adams’s current model of generic guy — asserts he goes back to before binary numbers, even. I admit skepticism. Certainly you could list different numbers by making the same symbol often enough. We do that when we resort to tally marks. But we need some second symbol to note the end of a number. With tally marks we can do that with physical space. A computer’s memory, though? That needs something else.

Kevin Fagan’s Drabble began a story about the logic of buying a lottery ticket this week. (The story goes on several days past this.) This is another probability, that is gambling, problem. Large jackpots present a pretty good philosophical challenge. It’s possible the jackpot will be so large that the expected value of buying a ticket is positive. This would seem to imply you should buy a ticket. But your chance of winning will be, as ever, vanishingly small. One chance in 200 million or more. You will not win. This would seem to imply you should not buy a ticket. Both are hard arguments to refute. I admit that when the jackpot gets sufficiently large, I’ll buy one or two tickets. I don’t expect to win the $200 million jackpot or anything like that, though. I’ll be content if I can secure a cozy little $25,000 minor prize. But I might just get a long john doughnut instead.

Larry Wright’s Motley for the 2nd of November originally ran that day in 1987. It name-drops E = mc2 as shorthand for genius, the equation’s general role.

Doug Bratton’s Pop Culture Shock Therapy for the 3rd of November doesn’t mention E = mc2, but it is an Albert Einstein joke. It doesn’t build on the comforting but dubious legend of Einstein being a poor student. That’s an unusual direction.

Eric the Circle for the 3rd of November is by “Shane”. It’s a cute joke: if Eric were in a horserace, how would his lead be measured? Obviously, by comparison to his diameter. I doubt the race caller would need so many digits past the decimal, though. If cartoons and old-time radio sitcoms about horseracing haven’t led me wrong, distances are measured in a couple common fractions of a horse length — a half, a quarter, three-quarters and so on. So surely Eric would be called “about seven radii” or “three and a half diameters” ahead. It would make sense if his lead were measured by circumferences, if he’s rolling along. But it can be surprisingly hard to estimate by eye what the circumference of a circle is. Diameters are easier.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 4th of November has a M&oum;bius strip joke. Obviously, though, what’s taking so long is that Eightball’s spare tire isn’t even on the rim. This is bad.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Working Daze for the 4th of November is a variation on the joke about mathematicians being lousy at arithmetic. Here it’s an accountant who’s bad. I am reminded of the science fiction great Arthur C Clarke mentioning his time as an accounts auditor. He supposed that as long as figures added up approximately, to something like one percent, then there probably wasn’t anything requiring further scrutiny going on. He was able to finish his day’s work quickly, and went on to other jobs in time. Bob Newhart also claimed to not demand too much precision in the accounts he was overseeing. He then went on to sell comedy records to radio stations for a fair bit less than they cost to produce, so perhaps he was better off not working on the money side of things.

Reading the Comics, September 5, 2015: Again No Pictures Edition


I’m disappointed to say this is another week of mathematically-themed comic strips I don’t have reason to include as pictures here. Gocomics.com links seem, as best I can tell, to stay up and working even for people who haven’t got accounts there. On the other hand this saves space for pictures in my WordPress account. It’s down to about 99 percent empty.

Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set for the 30th of August is about terrible people blustering through life. That’s the premise of the strip. But in this case they apply their blustering terribleness to the problem of working out tips. Any time you want to chain percentages together — 15 percent of something 10 percent off, or so — stop. Don’t work it out in your head. It’s too easy to get what you’re trying to calculate confused. And pay attention to what “100 percent” of whatever you’re talking about would mean. Then proceed with care.

Ed Allison’s surreal Unstrange Phenomenon for the 31st of August uses the Möbius strip as a way for the ever-swimming Fletcher to do laps. I suppose the trouble is this challenges ideas of what a “lap” means.

Richard Thompson’s Richard’s Poor Almanac for the 1st of September is a rerun. I think I may have discussed it here before. It features an appearance by probability’s favorite author, an infinite number of monkeys. The monkeys are portrayed by chimpanzees here, but that’s all right. They work on something more ambitious than just writing the works of Shakespeare.

Eric Teitelbaum and Bill Teitelbaum’s Bottomliners for the 3rd of September is, I guess, really an accounting joke. But it does seem to me that everything adding up perfectly could be a sign of trouble. After all, anything real has some error in it. Numbers get rounded off, or people miscount inventories, or stuff just gets lost. I hear tell that there are even people who will take things not belonging to them. It would be surprising if all the errors happened to cancel out exactly, and suspicious if there were no errors at all.

Lorie Ransom’s The Daily Drawing for the 4th of September is an anthropomorphized calculators joke. And, for that matter, a teaching specialization joke. Yes, I noticed what number is on Sam’s display.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest also for the 4th of September is a reminder about the use of motivation in encouraging mathematics.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy Classics from the 5th of September pits Billy in a fight with Mathematics. Mathematics is depicted by the one equation we can count on people recognizing. That said, I’m not sure what Boy — Billy — is getting at by speaking of “math theory explaining why life is too variabled and chaotic to be equationed”. I think that he’s trying to understand something like the Incompleteness Theorems, which tell us that there are mathematical truths that can never be proved true. That’s a heady conclusion to draw, and it doesn’t require a great deal of training to find it. It’s more esoteric than the proof that the set of integers and the set of real numbers are different sizes, but I think it’s about as accessible. Anyway, the notion of mathematics popping in and slapping Billy around is so appealingly silly this is my favorite of the week’s strips.

So Doug Bratton’s Pop Culture Shock Therapy for the 5th of September feels like a letdown by comparison. It’s a silly word problem strip is all.

Reading the Comics, January 24, 2015: Many, But Not Complicated Edition


I’m sorry to have fallen behind on my mathematics-comics posts, but I’ve been very busy wielding a cudgel at Microsoft IIS all week in the service of my day job. And since I telecommute it’s quite hard to convincingly threaten the server, however much it deserves it. Sorry. Comic Strip Master Command decided to send me three hundred billion gazillion strips, too, so this is going to be a bit of a long post.

Jenny Campbell’s Flo and Friends (January 19) is almost a perfect example of the use of calculus as a signifier of “something really intelligent people think of”. Which is flattening to mathematicians, certainly, although I worry that attitude does make people freeze up in panic when they hear that they have to take calculus.

The Amazing Yet Tautological feature of Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix (January 19) lives up to its title, at least provided we are all in agreement about what “average” means. From context this seems to be the arithmetic mean — that’s usually what people, mathematicians included mean by “average” if they don’t specify otherwise — although you can produce logical mischief by slipping in an alternate average, such as the “median” — the amount that half the results are less than and half are greater than — or the “mode” — the most common result. There are other averages too, but they’re not so often useful. On the 21st Super-Fun-Pak Comix returned with another installation of Chaos Butterfly, by the way.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, January 24, 2015: Many, But Not Complicated Edition”

Reading the Comics, January 17, 2015: Finding Your Place Edition


This week’s collection of mathematics-themed comic strips includes one of the best examples of using mathematics in real life, because it describes how to find your position if you’re lost in, in this case, an uncharted island. I’m only saddened that I couldn’t find a natural way to work in how to use an analog watch as a makeshift compass, so I’m shoehorning it in up here, as well as pointing out that if you don’t have an analog clock to use, you can still approximate it by drawing the hands of the clock on a sheet of paper and using that as a pretend watch, and there is something awesome about using a sheet of paper with the time drawn on it as a way to finding north.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (January 12) is a guru-on-the-mountain joke, explaining that the answers to life are in the back of the math book. It’s certainly convention for a mathematics book, at least up through about Intro Differential Equations, to include answers to the problems, or at least a selection of problems, in the back, and on reflection it’s a bit of an odd convention. You don’t see that in, say, a history book even where the questions can be reduced to picking out trivia from the main text. I suppose the math-answers convention reflects an idea that there’s a correct way to go about solving a problem, and therefore, you can check whether you picked the correct way and followed it correctly with no more answer than a printed “15/2” as guide. In this way, I suppose, a mathematics textbook can be self-teaching — at least, the eager student can do some of her own pass/fail grading — which was probably invaluable back in the days when finding a skilled mathematics teacher was so much harder than it is today.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, January 17, 2015: Finding Your Place Edition”

Reading the Comics, October 25, 2014: No Images Again Edition


I had assumed it was a freak event last time that there weren’t any Comics Kingdom strips with mathematical topics to discuss, and which comics I include as pictures here because I don’t know that the links made to them will work for everyone arbitrarily far in the future. Apparently they’re just not in a very mathematical mood this month, though. Such happens; I’m sure they’ll reappear soon enough.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’ Working Daze (October 22, a “best of” rerun) brings up one of my very many peeves-regarding-pedantry, the notion that you “can’t give more than 100 percent”. It depends on what 100 percent means. The metaphor of “giving 110 percent” is based on the one-would-think-obvious point that there is a standard quantity of effort, which is the 100 percent, and to give 110 percent is to give measurably more than the standard effort. The English language has enough illogical phrases in it; we don’t need to attack ones that are only senseless if you go out to pick a fight with them.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (October 23) shows a student attacking a problem with appreciable persistence. As the teacher says, though, there’s no way the student’s attempts at making 2 plus 2 equal 5 is ever not going to be wrong, at least unless we have different ideas about what is meant by 2, plus, equals, and 5. It’s easy to get from this point to some pretty heady territory: since it’s true that two plus two can’t equal five (using the ordinary definitions of these words), then this statement is true not just everywhere in this universe but in all possible universes. This — indeed, all — arithmetic would even be true if there were no universe. But if something can be true regardless of what the universe is like, or even if there is no universe, then how can it tell us anything about the specific universe that actually exists? And yet it seems to do so, quite well.

Tim Lachowski’s Get A Life (October 23) is really an accounting joke, or really more a “taxes they so mean” joke, but I thought it worth mentioning that, really, the majority of the mathematics the world has done have got to have been for the purposes of bookkeeping and accounting. I’m sorry that I’m not better-informed about this so as to better appreciate what is, in some ways, the dark matter of mathematical history.

Keith Tutt and Daniel Saunders’s chipper Lard’s World Peace Tips (October 23) recommends “be a genius” as one of the ways to bring about world peace, and uses mathematics as the comic shorthand for “genius activity”, not to mention sudoku as the comic shorthand for “mathematics”. People have tried to gripe that sudoku isn’t really mathematics; while it’s not arithmetic, though — you could replace the numerals with letters or with arbitrary symbols not to be repeated in one line, column, or subsquare and not change the problem at all — it’s certainly logic.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not (October 23) besides giving me a spot of dizziness with that attribution line makes the claim that “elephants have been found to be better at some numerical tasks than chimps or even humans”. I can believe that, more or less, though I notice it doesn’t say exactly what tasks elephants are so good (or chimps and humans so bad) at. Counting and addition or subtraction seem most likely, though, because those are processes it seems possible to create tests for. At some stages in human and animal development the animals have a clear edge in speed or accuracy. I don’t remember reading evidence of elephant skills before but I can accept that they surely have some.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (October 24) applies the tools of infinite series — adding up infinitely many of a sequence of terms, often to a finite total — to parenting and the problem of one kid hitting another. This is held up as Real Analysis — – the field in which you learn why Calculus works — and it is, yeah, although this is the part of Real Analysis you can do in high school.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day (October 25) picks up on the Math Wiz Monster in Maria’s closet mentioned last time I did one of these roundups. And it includes an attack on the “Common Core” standards, understandably: it’s unreasonable to today’s generation of parents that mathematics should be taught any differently from how it was taught to them, when they didn’t understand the mathematics they were being taught. Innovation in teaching never has a chance.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (October 25) reminds us that just because stock framing can be used to turn a subtraction problem into a word problem doesn’t mean that it can’t jump all the way out of mathematics into another field.

I haven’t included any comics from today — the 26th of October — in my reading yet but really, what are the odds there’s like a half-dozen comics of obvious relevance with nice, juicy topics to discuss?