## 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.

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”.

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.

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 1, 2019: New Year’s Day Edition

It’s a new year. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep up some of my old habits. One of them is reading the comics for the mathematics bits. For example …

Johnny Hart’s Back To BC for the 30th presents some curious use of mathematics. At least the grammar of mathematics. It’s a bunch of statements that are supposed to, taken together, overload … I’m going to say BC’s … brain. (I’m shaky on which of the characters is Peter and which is BC. Their difference in hair isn’t much of a visual hook.) Certainly mathematics inspires that feeling that one’s overloaded one’s brain. The long strings of reasoning and (ideally) precise definitions are hard to consider. And the proofs mathematicians find the most fun are, often, built cleverly. That is, going about their business demonstrating things that don’t seem relevant, and at the end tying them together. It’s hard to think.

But then … Peter … isn’t giving a real mathematical argument. He’s giving nonsense. And obvious nonsense, rather than nonsense because the writer wanted something that sounded complicated without caring what was said. Talking about a “four-sided triangle” or a “rectangular circle” has to be Peter trying to mess with BC’s head. Confidently-spoken nonsense can sound as if it’s deeper wisdom than the listener has. Which, fair enough: how can you tell whether an argument is nonsense or just cleverer than you are? Consider the kind of mathematics proof I mentioned above, where the structure might almost be a shaggy dog joke. If you can’t follow the logic, is it because the argument is wrong or because you haven’t worked out why it is right?

I believe that … Peter … is just giving nonsense and trusting that … BC … won’t know the difference, but will wear himself out trying to understand. Pranks.

Tim Lachowski’s Get A Life for the 31st just has some talk about percentages and depreciation and such. It’s meant to be funny that we might think of a brain depreciating, as if anatomy could use the same language as finance. Still, one of the virtues of statistics is the ability to understand a complicated reality with some manageable set of numbers. If we accept the convention that some number can represent the value of a business, why not the convention that some number could represent the health of a brain? So, it’s silly, but I can imagine a non-silly framing for it.

Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 1st is about calendars. The history of calendars is tied up with mathematics in deep and sometimes peculiar ways. One might imagine that a simple ever-increasing index from some convenient reference starting time would do. And somehow that doesn’t. Also, the deeper you go into calendars the more you wonder if anyone involved in the project knew how to count. If you ever need to feel your head snapping, try following closely just how the ancient Roman calendar worked. Especially from the era when they would occasionally just drop an extra month in to the late-middle of February.

The Julian and Gregorian calendars have a year number that got assigned proleptically, that is, with the year 1 given to a set of dates that nobody present at the time called the year 1. Which seems fair enough; not many people in the year 1 had any idea that something noteworthy was under way. Calendar epochs dated to more clear events, like the reign of a new emperor or the revolution that took care of that whole emperor problem, will more reliably start with people aware of the new numbers. Proleptic dating has some neat side effects, though. If you ever need to not impress someone, you can point out that the dates from the 1st of March, 200 to the 28th of February, 300 both the Julian and the Gregorian calendar dates exactly matched.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 2nd is a dad joke about mathematics. And uses fractions as emblematic of mathematics, fairly enough. Introducing them and working with them are the sorts of thing that frustrate and confuse. I notice also the appearance of “37” here. Christopher Miller’s fascinating American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny identifies 37 as the current “funniest number”, displacing the early 20th century’s preferred 23 (as in skidoo). Among other things, odd numbers have a connotation of seeming more random than even numbers; ask someone to pick a whole number from 1 to 50 and you’ll see 37’s and 33’s more than you’ll see, oh, 48’s. Why? Good question. It’s among the mysteries of psychology. There’s likely no really deep reason. Maybe a sense that odd numbers are, well, odd as in peculiar, and that a bunch of peculiarities will be funny. Now let’s watch the next decade make a food of me and decide the funniest number is 64.

I’m glad to be back on schedule publishing Reading the Comics posts. I should have another one this week. It’ll be at this link when it’s ready. Thanks for reading.

## Reading the Comics, January 6, 2018: Terms Edition

The last couple days of last week saw a rush of comics, although most of them were simpler things to describe. Bits of play on words, if you like.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 4th of January, 2018, is one that plays on various meanings of “average”. The mean, alluded to in the first panel, is the average most people think of first. Where you have a bunch of values representing instances of something, add up the values, and divide by the number of instances. (Properly that’s the arithmetic mean. There’s some others, such as the geometric mean, but if someone’s going to use one of those they give you clear warning.) The median, in the second, is the midpoint, the number that half of all instances are less than. So you see the joke. If the distribution of intelligence is normal — which is a technical term, although it does mean “not freakish” — then the median and the mean should be equal. If you had infinitely many instances, and they were normally distributed, the two would be equal. With finitely many instances, the mean and the median won’t be exactly in line, for the same reason if you fairly toss a coin two million times it won’t turn up heads exactly one million times.

Dark Side of the Horse for the 5th delivers the Roman numerals joke of the year. And I did have to think about whether ‘D’ is a legitimate Roman numeral. This would be easier to remember before 1900.

Mike Lester’s Mike du Jour for the 4th is geometry wordplay. I’m not sure the joke stands up to scrutiny, but it lands well enough initially.

Johnny Hart’s Back to BC for the 5th goes to the desire to quantify and count things. And to double-check what other people tell you about this counting. It’s easy, today, to think of the desire to quantify things as natural to humans. I’m not confident that it is. The history of statistics shows this gradual increase in the number and variety of things getting tracked. This strip originally ran the 11th of July, 1960.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes for the 5th talks about averages again. And what a population average means for individuals. It doesn’t mean much. The glory of statistics is that groups are predictable in a way that individuals are not.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 5th features a little arithmetic coincidence, that multiplying 21,978 by four reverses its digits. It made me think of Ray Kassinger’s question the other day about parasitic numbers. But this isn’t a parasitic number. A parasitic number is one with a value, multiplied by a particular number, that’s the same as you get by moving its last digit to the front. Flipping the order of digits seems like it should be something and I don’t know what.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 6th is a confident reassurance that 2018 is a normal, healthy year after all. Or can be. Prime numbers.

Mark O’Hare’s Citizen Dog rerun for the 6th is part of a sequence in which Fergus takes a (human) child’s place in school. Mathematics gets used as a subject that’s just a big pile of unfamiliar terms if you just jump right in. Most subjects are like this if you take them seriously, of course. But mathematics has got an economy of technical terms to stuff into people’s heads, and that have to be understood to make any progress. In grad school my functional analysis professor took great mercy on us, and started each class with re-writing the definitions of all the technical terms introduced the previous class. Also of terms that might be a bit older, but that are important to get right, which is why I got through it confident I knew what a Sobolev Space was. (It’s a collection of functions that have enough derivatives to do your differential equations problem.) Numerator and denominator, we’re experts on by now.

## Reading the Comics, December 2, 2017: Showing Intelligence Edition

November closed out with another of those weeks not quite busy enough to justify splitting into two. I blame Friday and Saturday. Nothing mathematically-themed was happening them. Suppose some days are just like that.

Johnny Hart’s Back To BC for the 26th is an example of using mathematical truths as profound statements. I’m not sure that I’d agree with just stating the Pythagorean Theorem as profound, though. It seems like a profound statement has to have some additional surprising, revelatory elements to it. Like, knowing the Pythagorean theorem is true means we can prove there’s exactly one line parallel to a given line and passing through some point. Who’d see that coming? I don’t blame Hart for not trying to fit all that into one panel, though. Too slow a joke. The strip originally ran the 4th of September, 1960.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am rerun for the 26th is a cute little arithmetic-in-real-life panel. I suppose arithmetic-in-real-life. Well, I’m amused and stick around for the footer joke. The strip originally ran the 24th of February, 2002.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal makes its first appearance for the week on the 26th. It’s an anthropomorphic-numerals joke and some wordplay. Interesting trivia about the whole numbers that never actually impresses people: a whole number is either a perfect square, like 1 or 4 or 9 or 16 are, or else its square root is irrational. There’s no whole number with a square root that’s, like, 7.745 or something. Maybe I just discuss it with people who’re too old. It seems like the sort of thing to reveal to a budding mathematician when she’s eight.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal makes another appearance the 29th. The joke’s about using the Greek ε, which has a long heritage of use for “a small, positive number”. We use this all the time in analysis. A lot of proofs in analysis are done by using ε in a sort of trick. We want to show something is this value, but it’s too hard to do. Fine. Pick any ε, a positive number of unknown size. So then we’ll find something we can calculate, and show that the difference between the thing we want and the thing we can do is smaller than ε. And that the value of the thing we can calculate is that. Therefore, the difference between what we want and what we can do is smaller than any positive number. And so the difference between them must be zero, and voila! We’ve proved what we wanted to prove. I have always assumed that we use ε for this for the association with “error”, ideally “a tiny error”. If we need another tiny quantity we usually go to δ, probably because it’s close to ε and ‘d’ is still a letter close to ‘e’. (The next letter after ε is ζ, which carries other connotations with it and is harder to write than δ is.) Anyway, Weinersmith is just doing a ha-ha, your penis is small joke.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 28th is a counting-sheep joke. It maybe doesn’t belong here but I really, really like the art of the final panel and I want people to see it.

Bud Grace’s Piranha Club for the 29th is, as with Back to BC, an attempt at showing intelligence through mathematics. There are some flaws in the system. Fun fact: since one million is a perfect square, Arnold could have answered within a single panel. (Also fun fact: I am completely unqualified to judge whether something is a “fun” fact.)

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs for the 29th is Ginger subverting the teacher’s questions, like so many teacher-and-student jokes will do.

Dan Thompson’s Brevity for the 30th is the anthropomorphic geometric figures joke for the week.

There seems to be no Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this week. There’ve been some great ones (like on the 26th or the 28th and the 29th) but they’re not at all mathematical. I apologize for the inconvenience and am launching an investigation into this problem.

## Reading the Comics, January 16, 2017: Numerals Edition

Comic Strip Master Command decreed that last week should be busy again. So I’m splitting its strips into two essays. It’s a week that feels like it had more anthropomorphic numerals jokes than usual, but see if I actually count these things.

Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 15th I figured would be the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. Shows what I know. It is an easy joke, but I do appreciate the touch of craft involved in picking the numerals. The joke is just faintly dirty if the numbers don’t add to six. If they were a pair of 3’s, there’d be the unwanted connotations of a pair of twins talking about all this. A 6 and a 0 would make at least one character weirdly obsessed. So it has to be a 4 and a 2, or a 5 and a 1. I imagine Peters knew this instinctively, at this point in his career. It’s one of the things you learn in becoming an expert.

Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. for the 15th is mostly physical comedy, with a touch of — I’m not sure what to call this kind of joke. The one where a little arithmetic error results in bodily harm. In this sort of joke it’s almost always something not being carried that’s the error. I suppose that’s a matter of word economy. “Forgot to carry the (number)” is short, and everybody’s done it. And even if they don’t remember making this error, the phrasing clarifies to people that it’s a little arithmetic mistake. I think in practice mistaking a plus for a minus (or vice-versa) is the more common arithmetic error. But it’s harder to describe that clearly and concisely.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 15th puzzled me. I hadn’t heard this thing the kid says about how if you can “spew ten random lines from a classic movie” to convince people you’ve seen it. (I don’t know the kid’s name; it happens.) I suppose that it would be convincing, though. I certainly know a couple lines from movies I haven’t seen, what with living in pop culture and all that. But ten would be taxing for all but the most over-saturated movies, like any of the Indiana Jones films. (There I’m helped by having played the 90s pinball machine a lot.) Anyway, knowing ten random mathematics things isn’t convincing, especially since you can generate new mathematical things at will just by changing a number. But I would probably be convinced that someone who could describe what’s interesting about ten fields of mathematics had a decent understanding of the subject. That requires remembering more stuff, but then, mathematics is a bigger subject than even a long movie is.

In Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 16th Fi speaks of tallying the pluses and minuses of her life. Trying to make life into something that can be counted is an old decision-making technique. I think Benjamin Franklin explained how he found it so useful. It’s not a bad approach if a choice is hard. The challenging part is how to weight each consideration. Getting into fractions seems rather fussy to me, but some things are just like that. There is the connotation here that a fraction is a positive number smaller than 1. But the mathematically-trained (such as Fi) would be comfortable with fractions larger than 1. Or also smaller than zero. “Fraction” is no more bounded than “real number”. So, there’s the room for more sweetness here than might appear to the casual reader.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 16th is the next anthropomorphic numerals joke for this week. I’m glad Hilburn want to be in my pages more. 5’s concern about figuring out x might be misplaced. We use variables for several purposes. One of them is as a name to give a number whose value we don’t know but wish to work out, and that’s how we first see them in high school algebra. But a variable might also be a number whose value we don’t particularly care about and will never try to work out. This could be because the variable is a parameter, with a value that’s fixed for a problem but not what we’re interested in. We don’t typically use ‘x’ for that, though; usually parameter are something earlier in the alphabet. That’s merely convention, but it is convention that dates back to René Descartes. Alternatively, we might use ‘x’ as a dummy variable. A dummy variable serves the same role that falsework on a building or a reference for an artistic sketch does. We use dummy variables to organize and carry out work, but we don’t care what its values are and we don’t even see the dummy variable in the final result. A dummy variable can be any name, but ‘x’ and ‘t’ are popular choices.

Terry LaBan and Patty LaBan’s Edge City rerun for the 16th plays on the idea that mathematics people talk in algebra. Funny enough, although, “the opposing defense is a variable of 6”? That’s an idiosyncratic use of “variable”. I’m going to suppose that Charles is just messing with Len’s head because, really, it’s fun doing a bit of that.