Reading the Comics, February 25, 2019: Barely Mathematics Edition


These days I’ve been preparing these comics posts by making a note of every comic that seems like it might have a mathematical topic. Then at the end of the week I go back and re-read them all and think what I could write something about. This past week’s had two that seemed like nice juicy topics. And then I was busy all day Saturday so didn’t have time to put the thought into them that they needed. So instead I offer some comic strips with at least mentions of mathematical subjects. If they’re not tightly on point, well, I need to post something, don’t I?

Jeffrey Caulfield and Brian Ponshock’s Yaffle for the 24th is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. It did get me thinking about the numbers which (in English) are homophones to other words. There don’t seem to be many, though: one, two, four, six, and eight seem to be about all I could really justify. There’s probably dialects where “ten” and “tin” blend together. There’s probably a good Internet Argument to be had about whether “couple” should be considered the name of a number. That there aren’t more is probably that there, in a sense, only a couple of names for numbers, with a scheme to compound names for a particular number of interest.

Anthropomorphized numerals 3 and 5 are at the golf course. 3 asks: 'Now where did four go?' 5: 'I don't know.' 3: 'Four? FOUR!!?' Caption: 'A tradition begins.'
Jeffrey Caulfield and Brian Ponshock’s Yaffle for the 24th of February, 2019. I had thought this would be a new comics tag, but no. There’s already been another appearance here by Yaffle, which you can find at this link.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 25th mentions algebra, but is mostly aimed at the Reading the Comics for some historian blogger. I kind of admire Hilburn’s willingness to go for the 70-year-old scandal for a day’s strip. But a daily strip demands a lot of content, especially when it doesn’t have recurring characters. The quiz answers as given are correct, and that’s easy to check. But it is typically easy to check whether a putative answer is correct. Finding an answer is the hard part.

A spy passes a sheet of quiz answers (4x + 3 = 7, x = 1. 18 - 4x = 5x, x = 2) to another spy. Caption: Algebra Hiss.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 25th of February, 2019. There was never a moment I’d think this was a new tag. The Argyle Sweater gets discussed often and essays including it are at this link.

I’m not aware of any etymological link between the term algebra and the name Alger. The word “algebra” derivate from the Arabic “al-jabr”, which the Oxford English Dictionary tells me literally derives from a term for “the surgical treatment of fractures”. Less literally, it would mean putting things back together, restoring the missing parts. We get it from a textbook by the 9th century Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, whose last name Europeans mutated into “algorithm”, as in, the way to solve a problem. That’s thanks to his book again. “Alger” as in a name seems to trace to Old English, although exactly where is debatable, as it usually is. (I’m assuming ‘Alger’ as a first name derives from its uses as a family name, and will angrily accept correction from people who know better.)

8-year-old Nicholas is doing addition problems. 4-year-old Alec asks 'Whatcha doing.' Nicholas: 'Math. And it's really hard.' Alec: 'Maybe I can help.' Nicholas: 'You're four years old. How can YOU help?' Alec: 'You can use my fingers too! Then you can count to twenty!'
Daniel Shelton’s Ben for the 25th of February, 2019. I had also thought this might be a new tag, but again no. Ben has appeared at least twice before, in essays at this link.

Daniel Shelton’s Ben for the 25th has a four-year-old offering his fingers as a way to help his older brother with mathematics work. Counting on fingers can be a fine way to get the hang of arithmetic and at least I won’t fault someone for starting there. Eventually, do enough arithmetic, and you stop matching numbers with fingers because that adds an extra layer of work that doesn’t do anything but slow you down.

Catching my interest though is that Nicholas (the eight-year-old, and I had to look that up on the Ben comic strip web site; GoComics doesn’t have a cast list) had worked out 8 + 6, but was struggling with 7 + 8. He might at some point get experienced enough to realize that 7 + 8 has to be the same thing as 8 + 7, which has to be the same thing as 8 + 6 + 1. And if he’s already got 8 + 6 nailed down, then 7 + 8 is easy. But that takes using a couple of mathematical principles — that addition commutes, that you can substitute one quantity with something equal to it, that you addition associates — and he might not see where those principles get him any advantage over some other process.

Caption: What does it mean when you see repeating numbers? A set of people say things: 'That's the third 8 I've seen this week.' 'Everywhere I go ... a 12 is following me.' 'When I turn on the TV ... there's that 5 again.' 'Is the DEEP STATE trying to tell us something?' 'Have THEY concealed the existence of 'certain numbers'?' 'If you see something stupid ... ' '... Say something STUPIDER!'
Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena for the 25th of February, 2019. And I never seriously suspected this was a new tag. Unstrange Phenomena gets discussed in essays at this link.

Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena for the 25th builds its Dadaist nonsense for the week around repeating numbers. I learn from trying to pin down just what Allison means by “repeating numbers” that there are people who ascribe mystical significance to, say, “444”. Well, if that helps you take care of the things you need to do, all right. Repeating decimals are a common enough thing. They appear in the decimal expressions for rational numbers. These expressions either terminate — they have finitely many digits and then go to an infinitely long sequence of 0’s — or they repeat. (We rule out “repeating nothing but zeroes” because … I don’t know. I would guess it makes the proofs in some corner of number theory less bothersome.)

You could also find interesting properties about numbers made up of repeating strings of numerals. For example, write down any number of 9’s you like, followed by a 6. The number that creates is divisible by 6. I grant this might not be the most important theorem you’ll ever encounter, but it’s a neat one. Like, a strong of 4’s followed by a 9 is not necessarily divisible by 4 or 9. There are bunches of cute little theorem like this, mostly good for making one admit that huh, there’s some neat coincidences(?) about numbers.

Although … Allison’s strip does seem to get at seeing particular numbers over and over. This does happen; it’s probably a cultural thing. One of the uses we put numbers to is indexing things. So, for example, a TV channel gets a number and while the station may have a name, it makes for an easier control to set the TV to channel numbered 5 or whatnot. We also use numbers to measure things. When we do, we get to pick the size of our units. We typically pick them so our measurements don’t have to be numbers too big or too tiny. There’s no reason we couldn’t measure the distance between cities in millimeters, or the length of toes in light-years. But to try is to look like you’re telling a joke. So we get see some ranges — 1 to 5, 1 to 10 — used a lot when we don’t need fine precision. We see, like, 1 to 100 for cases where we need more precision than that but don’t have to pin a thing down to, like, a quarter of a percent. Numbers will spill past these bounds, naturally. But we are more likely to encounter a 20 than a 15,642. We set up how we think about numbers so we are. So maybe it would look like some numbers just follow you.


Over the next few days I should have more chance to think. I’ll finish Reading the Comics from the past week and put an essay up at this link.

Reading the Comics, September 14, 2018: I Already Forgot What I Said About Randolph Itch Edition


Yeah, so remember how like two weeks ago I noticed another Randolph Itch, 2 am repeat? And figured to retire the comic strip from my Reading the Comics routine? Well, then you’re better at this blog than I am. But this time I’ll retire it for sure, rather than waste text I wrote up already.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am for the 13th is the Roman Numerals joke for the week. IV is a well-established way to write four, although on clock faces IIII is a quite common use. There’s not a really clear reason why this should be. I’m convinced that it’s mostly for reasons of symmetry. IIII comes nearer the length of VIII, across it on the clock face. The subtractive principle, where ‘IV’ means ‘one taken away from five’, wasn’t really a thing until the middle ages. But then neither were clocks like that.

Randolph, looking at a grandfather clock, imagines a used-chariot salesman saying to a Roman centurion, '... Or check out our new IV by IV'. Followup: 'Did I mention the sunroof?'
Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am rerun for the 13th of September, 2018. It originally ran the 27th of January, 2000.

Bill Rechin’s Crock for the 14th is a joke about being bad at arithmetic. And yeah, most instructors wouldn’t accept “a lot” as the answer to 125 times 140. But we can go from approximations to something more precise. The number’s got to be more than 10,000, for example. 125 is more than 100, and 140 is more than 100. So 125 times 140 has to be more than 100 times 100. And then I notice: 125 is a hundred plus a quarter-of-a-hundred. So, 125 times 140 is a hundred times 140 plus a quarter-of-a-hundred times 140. A hundred times 140 is easy: it’s 14,000. A quarter of that? … Is a quarter of 12,000 plus a quarter of 2,000. That’s 3,000 plus 500. So 125 times 140 has to be 14,000 plus 3,000 plus 500. 17,500. My calculator agrees, so I feel pretty good. If this all seems like an ad hoc process, well, it is. But it’s how I can do this in my head.

Vulture: 'How come you failed the math test?' Kid: 'Dad helped me study for it. I knew I was in trouble when he said the answer to 125 x 140 was 'a lot'.'
Bill Rechin’s Crock rerun for the 14th of September, 2018. I’m trusting that it’s a rerun, although I don’t know when from. Everyone had thought Crock was supposed to be finished running by now — Rechin died years ago — and we don’t understand its current existence even more than we didn’t understand its previous existence.

Yes, the comments at ComicsKingdom include a warning that “using this obscenity called new math he may never be right, but he will never be wrong either”. I mention this for fans of cranky old person comics commentary.

Quincy, looking at a display of calculators: 'I got two months to save enough dough for that adding machine.' Sneeze: 'Why do you need an answering machine?' Quincy: 'You didn't see my last arithmetic mark.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy rerun for the 14th of September, 2018. It originally ran the 21st of July, 1979.

Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 21st of July, 1979 was rerun the 14th. It expresses the then-common wish for a calculator, which held such promise for making mathematics easy. It does make some kinds of mathematics easy. It especially takes considerable tedium out of mathematics. And it opens up new things to discover. Especially if the calculator lets you put the last thing calculated into a formula. That makes it easy to play with all sorts of iterative processes. They let you find solutions to weird and complicated problems. Or explore beautiful fractals. Figure out what limits work like. Or just notice what’s neat about 3.302775638. They let you get into different things.

Mom: 'What's your homework?' Nicholas: 'I have to cut out all these fractions and paste them in decreasing order.' (Mom sniffs, and sneezes, scattering the clipped-out pages.) Mom: 'I hate ragweed season.' Nicholas: 'I love it! This is much better than 'the dog ate my homework'!'
Daniel Shelton’s Ben for the 14th of September, 2018. That … seems like a heck of a sneeze to me, but I suppose odd things will happen in comic strips.

Daniel Shelton’s Ben for the 14th has Nicholas doing mathematics homework. And something that couldn’t just be any subject; arranging fractions by size is something worth learning. They do have the peculiar and hard-to-adjust-to property that making the denominator larger, without changing the numerator, makes the entire fraction represent a smaller number. I mean a number closer to zero. So I think sorting fractions a reasonable homework project. Cutting them out and pasting them down seems weird to me. But maybe there’s some benefit in making the project tactile like that.


My Reading the Comics posts make up the bulk of this blog by volume. They should all appear at this link. I really this time mean to retiree Randolph Itch, 2am as a tag, but please enjoy the strip’s appearances at this link. This and other appearances by Crock are at this link. Ted Shearer’s Quincy appears in essays on this link And other appearances by Ben should be at this link. Also I’m surprised to learn there are other essays. I would have bet Ben was a new tag this essay.

Reading the Comics, May 13, 2017: Quiet Tuesday Through Saturday Edition


From the Sunday and Monday comics pages I was expecting another banner week. And then there was just nothing from Tuesday on, at least not among the comic strips I read. Maybe Comic Strip Master Command has ordered jokes saved up for the last weeks before summer vacation.

Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 7th is a mathematics anxiety strip. It’s well-expressed, since Cochrane writes this sort of hyperbole well. It also shows a common attitude that words and stories are these warm, friendly things, while mathematics and numbers are cold and austere. Perhaps Agnes is right to say some of the problem is familiarity. It’s surely impossible to go a day without words, if you interact with people or their legacies; to go without numbers … well, properly impossible. There’s too many things that have to be counted. Or places where arithmetic sneaks in, such as getting enough money to buy a thing. But those don’t seem to be the kinds of mathematics people get anxious about. Figuring out how much change, that’s different.

I suppose some of it is familiarity. It’s easier to dislike stuff you don’t do often. The unfamiliar is frightening, or at least annoying. And humans are story-oriented. Even nonfiction forms stories well. Mathematics … has stories, as do all human projects. But the mathematics itself? I don’t know. There’s just beautiful ingenuity and imagination in a lot of it. I’d just been thinking of the just beautiful scheme for calculating logarithms from a short table. But it takes time to get to that beauty.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 7th is a fractions joke. It might also be a joke about women concealing their ages. Or perhaps it’s about mathematicians expressing things in needlessly complicated ways. I think that’s less a mathematician’s trait than a common human trait. If you’re expert in a thing it’s hard to resist the puckish fun of showing that expertise off. Or just sowing confusion where one may.

Daniel Shelton’s Ben for the 8th is a kid-doing-arithmetic problem. Even I can’t squeeze some deeper subject meaning out of it, but it’s a slow week so I’ll include the strip anyway. Sorry.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s Chuckle Brothers for the 8th is the return of anthropomorphic-geometry joke after what feels like months without. I haven’t checked how long it’s been without but I’m assuming you’ll let me claim that. Thank you.