As much as everything is still happening, and so much, there’s still comic strips. I’m fortunately able here to focus just on the comics that discuss some mathematical theme, so let’s get started in exploring last week’s reading. Worth deeper discussion are the comics that turn up here all the time.
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate for the 5th is a casual mention. Nate wants to get out of having to do his mathematics homework. This really could be any subject as long as it fit the word balloon.
Not much to talk about there. But there is a fascinating thing about perimeters that you learn if you go far enough in Calculus. You have to get into multivariable calculus, something where you integrate a function that has at least two independent variables. When you do this, you can find the integral evaluated over a curve. If it’s a closed curve, something that loops around back to itself, then you can do something magic. Integrating the correct function on the curve around a shape will tell you the enclosed area.
And this is an example of one of the amazing things in multivariable calculus. It tells us that integrals over a boundary can tell us something about the integral within a volume, and vice-versa. It can be worth figuring out whether your integral is better solved by looking at the boundaries or at the interiors.
Heron’s Formula, for the area of a triangle based on the lengths of its sides, is an expression of this calculation. I don’t know of a formula exactly like that for the perimeter of a quadrilateral, but there are similar formulas if you know the lengths of the sides and of the diagonals.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 5th depicts, fairly, the sorts of things that excite mathematicians. The number discussed here is about algorithmic complexity. This is the study of how long it takes to do an algorithm. How long always depends on how big a problem you are working on; to sort four items takes less time than sorting four million items. Of interest here is how much the time to do work grows with the size of whatever you’re working on.
The mathematician’s particular example, and I thank dtpimentel in the comments for finding this, is about the Coppersmith–Winograd algorithm. This is a scheme for doing matrix multiplication, a particular kind of multiplication and addition of squares of numbers. The squares have some number N rows and N columns. It’s thought that there exists some way to do matrix multiplication in the order of N2 time, that is, if it takes 10 time units to multiply matrices of three rows and three columns together, we should expect it takes 40 time units to multiply matrices of six rows and six columns together. The matrix multiplication you learn in linear algebra takes on the order of N3 time, so, it would take like 80 time units.
We don’t know the way to do that. The Coppersmith–Winograd algorithm was thought, after Virginia Vassilevska Williams’s work in 2011, to take something like N2.3728642 steps. So that six-rows-six-columns multiplication would take slightly over 51.796 844 time units. In 2014, François le Gall found it was no worse than N2.3728639 steps, so this would take slightly over 51.796 833 time units. The improvement doesn’t seem like much, but on tiny problems it never does. On big problems, the improvement’s worth it. And, sometimes, you make a good chunk of progress at once.
I thought last week’s comic strips mentioning mathematics in detail were still subjects easy to describe in one or two paragraphs each. I wasn’t quite right. So here’s a half of a week, even if it is a day later than I had wanted to post.
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate for the 15th is a wordy bit of Nate refusing the story problem. Nate complains about a lack of motivation for the characters in it. But then what we need for a story problem isn’t the characters to do something so much as it is the student to want to solve the problem. That’s hard work. Everyone’s fascinated by some mathematical problems, but it’s hard to think of something that will compel everyone to wonder what the answer could be.
At one point Nate wonders what happens if Todd stops for gas. Here he’s just ignoring the premise of the question: Todd is given as travelling an average 55 mph until he reaches Saint Louis, and that’s that. So this question at least is answered. But he might need advice to see how it’s implied.
So this problem is doable by long division: 1825 divided by 80, and 1192 divided by 55, and see what’s larger. Can we avoid dividing by 55 if we’re doing it by hand? I think so. Here’s what I see: 1825 divided by 80 is equal to 1600 divided by 80 plus 225 divided by 80. That first is 20; that second is … eh. It’s a little less than 240 divided by 80, which is 3. So Mandy will need a little under 23 hours.
Is 23 hours enough for Todd to get to Saint Louis? Well, 23 times 55 will be 23 times 50 plus 23 times 5. 23 times 50 is 22 times 50 plus 1 times 50. 22 times 50 is 11 times 100, or 1100. So 23 times 50 is 1150. And 23 times 5 has to be 150. That’s more than 1192. So Todd gets there first. I might want to figure just how much less than 23 hours Mandy needs, to be sure of my calculation, but this is how I do it without putting 55 into an ugly number like 1192.
Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy repeat for the 17th sees the Boy, Billy, trying to beat the lottery. He throws at it the terms chaos theory and nonlinear dynamical systems. They’re good and probably relevant systems. A “dynamical system” is what you’d guess from the name: a collection of things whose properties keep changing. They change because of other things in the collection. When “nonlinear” crops up in mathematics it means “oh but such a pain to deal with”. It has a more precise definition, but this is its meaning. More precisely: in a linear system, a change in the initial setup makes a proportional change in the outcome. If Todd drove to Saint Louis on a path two percent longer, he’d need two percent more time to get there. A nonlinear system doesn’t guarantee that; a two percent longer drive might take ten percent longer, or one-quarter the time, or some other weirdness. Nonlinear systems are really good for giving numbers that look random. There’ll be so many little factors that make non-negligible results that they can’t be predicted in any useful time. This is good for drawing number balls for a lottery.
Chaos theory turns up a lot in dynamical systems. Dynamical systems, even nonlinear ones, often have regions that behave in predictable patterns. We may not be able to say what tomorrow’s weather will be exactly, but we can say whether it’ll be hot or freezing. But dynamical systems can have regions where no prediction is possible. Not because they don’t follow predictable rules. But because any perturbation, however small, produces changes that overwhelm the forecast. This includes the difference between any possible real-world measurement and the real quantity.
Obvious question: how is there anything to study in chaos theory, then? Is it all just people looking at complicated systems and saying, yup, we’re done here? Usually the questions turn on problems such as how probable it is we’re in a chaotic region. Or what factors influence whether the system is chaotic, and how much of it is chaotic. Even if we can’t say what will happen, we can usually say something about when we can’t say what will happen, and why. Anyway if Billy does believe the lottery is chaotic, there’s not a lot he can be doing with predicting winning numbers from it. Cow’s skepticism is fair.
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 17th is one about people asked to summon random numbers. Utahraptor is absolutely right. People are terrible at calling out random numbers. We’re more likely to summon odd numbers than we should be. We shy away from generating strings of numbers. We’d feel weird offering, say, 1234, though that’s as good a four-digit number as 1753. And to offer 2222 would feel really weird. Part of this is that there’s not really such a thing as “a” random number; it’s sequences of numbers that are random. We just pick a number from a random sequence. And we’re terrible at producing random sequences. Here’s one study, challenging people to produce digits from 1 through 9. Are their sequences predictable? If the numbers were uniformly distributed from 1 through 9, then any prediction of the next digit in a sequence should have a one chance in nine of being right. It turns out human-generated sequences form patterns that could be forecast, on average, 27% of the time. Individual cases could get forecast 45% of the time.
There are some neat side results from that study too, particularly that they were able to pretty reliably tell the difference between two individuals by their “random” sequences. We may be bad at thinking up random numbers but the details of how we’re bad can be unique.
I apologize for missing Sunday. I wasn’t able to make the time to write about last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. But I’m back in the swing of things. Here are some of the comic strips that got my attention.
Still, we do keep discovering things we didn’t know were numbers before. The earliest number notations, in the western tradition, for example, used letters to represent numbers. This did well for counting numbers, up to a large enough total. But it required idiosyncratic treatment if you wanted to handle large numbers. Hindu-Arabic numerals make it easy to represent whole numbers as large as you like. But that’s at the cost of adding ten (well, I guess eight) symbols that have nothing to do with the concept represented. Not that, like, ‘J’ looks like the letter J either. (There is a folk etymology that the Arabic numerals correspond to the number of angles made if you write them out in a particular way. Or less implausibly, the number of strokes needed for the symbol. This is ingenious and maybe possibly has helped one person somewhere, ever, learn the symbols. But it requires writing, like, ‘7’ in a way nobody has ever done, and it’s ahistorical nonsense. See section 96, on page 64 of the book and 84 of the web presentation, in Florian Cajori’s History of Mathematical Notations.)
Still, in time we discovered, for example, that there were irrational numbers and those were useful to have. Negative numbers, and those are useful to have. That there are complex-valued numbers, and those are useful to have. That there are quaternions, and … I guess we can use them. And that we can set up systems that resemble arithmetic, and work a bit like numbers. Those are often quite useful. I expect Lemon and Sayers were having fun with the idea of new numbers. They are a thing that, effectively, happens.
David Malki’s Wondermark for the 27th describes engineering as “like math, but louder”, which is a pretty good line. And it uses backgrounds of long calculations to make the point of deep thought going on. I don’t recognize just what calculations are being done there, but they do look naggingly familiar. And, you know, that’s still a pretty lucky day.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 27th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. It depicts Wavehead having trouble figuring where to put the decimal point in the multiplication of two decimal numbers. Relatable issue. There are rules you can follow for where to put the decimal in this sort of operation. But the convention of dropping terminal zeroes after the decimal point can make that hazardous. It’s something that needs practice, or better: though. In this case, what catches my eye is that 2.95 times 3.2 has to be some number close to 3 times 3. So 9.440 is the plausible answer.
Mike Twohy’s That’s Life for the 27th presents a couple of plausible enough word problems, framed as Sports Math. It’s funny because of the idea that the workers who create events worth billions of dollars a year should be paid correspondingly.
Or they’re making it easy for me. But for another week all the comic strips mentioning mathematics have done so in casual ways. Ones that I don’t feel I can write a substantial paragraph about. And so, ones that I don’t feel I can fairly use the images of here. Here’s strips that at least said “math” somewhere in them:
Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 19th plays on the conflation of “zero” and “nothing”. The concepts are related, and we wouldn’t have a zero if we weren’t trying to worth with the concept of nothing. But there is a difference that’s quite hard to talk about without confusing matters.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 25th presents a sinister reading of the fad of “prove you’re human” puzzles that demanded arithmetic expressions be done. All computer programs, including, like, Facebook group messages are arithmetic operations ultimately. The steps could be translated into simple expressions like this and be done by humans. It just takes work which, I suppose, could also be translated into other expressions.
As I referenced on Sunday while there were a good number of comic strips mentioning mathematics last week, there weren’t many touching deeply enough for me to make real essays about them. But you may enjoy seeing the strips anyway. So here’s the first half of this roster.
And here’s the rest of last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. On reflection, none of them are so substantially about the mathematics they mention for me to go into detail. Again, Comic Strip Master Command is helping me rebuild my energies after the A-to-Z wrapped up. I appreciate it, folks, but would like, you know, two or three strips a week I can sink my teeth into.
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts rerun for the 11th sees Sally Brown working out metric system unit conversions. The strip originally ran the 13th of December, 1972, a year when people in the United States briefly thought there might ever be a reason to use the prefix “deci-” for something besides decibels. “centi-” for anything besides “centimeter” is pretty dodgy too.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 13th is titled “Do Not Date A Mathematician”. This seems personal. The point here is the mathematician believing her fiancee has “demonstrated a poor understanding of probability” by declaring his belief in soulmates. The joke seems to be missing some key points, though. Just declaring a belief in soulmates doesn’t say anything about his understanding of probability. If we suppose that he believed every person had exactly one soulmate, and that these soulmates were uniformly distributed across the world’s population, and that people routinely found their soulmates. But if those assumptions aren’t made then you can’t say that the fiancee is necessarily believing in something improbable.
Comic Strip Master Command decided to respect my need for a writing break. At least a break around here. So here’s the first half of last week’s comic strips that mention mathematics. None of them get into material substantial enough that I feel justified including pictures. Some of them are even repeats, at least to my Reading the Comics essays.
See if you can spot where I discover my having made a big embarrassing mistake. It’s fun! For people who aren’t me!
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate for the 24th has boy-genius Peter drawing “electromagnetic vortex flow patterns”. Nate, reasonably, sees this sort of thing as completely abstract art. I’m not precisely sure what Peirce means by “electromagnetic vortex flow”. These are all terms that mathematicians, and mathematical physicists, would be interested in. That specific combination, though, I can find only a few references for. It seems to serve as a sensing tool, though.
No matter. Electromagnetic fields are interesting to a mathematical physicist, and so mathematicians. Often a field like this can be represented as a system of vortices, too, points around which something swirls and which combine into the field that we observe. This can be a way to turn a continuous field into a set of discrete particles, which we might have better tools to study. And to draw what electromagnetic fields look like — even in a very rough form — can be a great help to understanding what they will do, and why. They also can be beautiful in ways that communicate even to those who don’t undrestand the thing modelled.
Megan Dong’s Sketchshark Comics for the 25th is a joke based on the reputation of the Golden Ratio. This is the idea that the ratio, (roughly 1:1.6), is somehow a uniquely beautiful composition. You may sometimes see memes with some nice-looking animal and various boxes superimposed over it, possibly along with a spiral. The rectangles have the Golden Ratio ratio of width to height. And the ratio is kind of attractive since is about 1.618, and is about 0.618. It’s a cute pattern, and there are other similar cute patterns.. There is a school of thought that this is somehow transcendently beautiful, though.
It’s all bunk. People may find stuff that’s about one-and-a-half times as tall as it is wide, or as wide as it is tall, attractive. But experiments show that they aren’t more likely to find something with Golden Ratio proportions more attractive than, say, something with proportions, or , or even to be particularly consistent about what they like. You might be able to find (say) that the ratio of an eagle’s body length to the wing span is something close to . But any real-world thing has a lot of things you can measure. It would be surprising if you couldn’t find something near enough a ratio you liked. The guy is being ridiculous.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 26th builds on the idea that everyone could be matched to a suitable partner, given a proper sorting algorithm. I am skeptical of any “simple algorithm” being any good for handling complex human interactions such as marriage. But let’s suppose such an algorithm could exist.
This turns matchmaking into a problem of linear programming. Arguably it always was. But the best possible matches for society might not — likely will not be — the matches everyone figures to be their first choices. Or even top several choices. For one, our desired choices are not necessarily the ones that would fit us best. And as the punch line of the comic implies, what might be the globally best solution, the one that has the greatest number of people matched with their best-fit partners, would require some unlucky souls to be in lousy fits.
Although, while I believe that’s the intention of the comic strip, it’s not quite what’s on panel. The assistant is told he’ll be matched with his 4,291th favorite choice, and I admit having to go that far down the favorites list is demoralizing. But there are about 7.7 billion people in the world. This is someone who’ll be a happier match with him than 6,999,995,709 people would be. That’s a pretty good record, really. You can fairly ask how much worse that is than the person who “merely” makes him happier than 6,999,997,328 people would
I trust nobody’s too upset that I postponed the big Reading the Comics posts of this week a day. There’s enough comics from last week to split them into two essays. Please enjoy.
Scott Shaw! and Stan Sakai’s Popeye’s Cartoon Club for the 22nd is one of a yearlong series of Sunday strips, each by different cartoonists, celebrating the 90th year of Popeye’s existence as a character. And, I’m a Popeye fan from all the way back when Popeye was still a part of the pop culture. So that’s why I’m bringing such focus to a strip that, really, just mentions the existence of algebra teachers and that they might present a fearsome appearance to people.
Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate for the 22nd has Nate seeking an omen for his mathematics test. This too seems marginal. But I can bring it back to mathematics. One of the fascinating things about having data is finding correlations between things. Sometimes we’ll find two things that seem to go together, including apparently disparate things like basketball success and test-taking scores. This can be an avenue for further research. One of these things might cause the other, or at least encourage it. Or the link may be spurious, both things caused by the same common factor. (Superstition can be one of those things: doing a thing ritually, in a competitive event, can help you perform better, even if you don’t believe in superstitions. Psychology is weird.)
But there are dangers too. Nate shows off here the danger of selecting the data set to give the result one wants. Even people with honest intentions can fall prey to this. Any real data set will have some points that just do not make sense, and look like a fluke or some error in data-gathering. Often the obvious nonsense can be safely disregarded, but you do need to think carefully to see that you are disregarding it for safe reasons. The other danger is that while two things do correlate, it’s all coincidence. Have enough pieces of data and sometimes they will seem to match up.
Norm Feuti’s Gil rerun for the 22nd has Gil practicing multiplication. It’s really about the difficulties of any kind of educational reform, especially in arithmetic. Gil’s mother is horrified by the appearance of this long multiplication. She dubs it both inefficient and harder than the way she learned. She doesn’t say the way she learned, but I’m guessing it’s the way that I learned too, which would have these problems done in three rows beneath the horizontal equals sign, with a bunch of little carry notes dotting above.
Gil’s Mother is horrified for bad reasons. Gil is doing exactly the same work that she was doing. The components of it are just written out differently. The only part of this that’s less “efficient” is that it fills out a little more paper. To me, who has no shortage of paper, this efficiency doens’t seem worth pursuing. I also like this way of writing things out, as it separates cleanly the partial products from the summations done with them. It also means that the carries from, say, multiplying the top number by the first digit of the lower can’t get in the way of carries from multiplying by the second digits. This seems likely to make it easier to avoid arithmetic errors, or to detect errors once suspected. I’d like to think that Gil’s Mom, having this pointed out, would drop her suspicions of this different way of writing things down. But people get very attached to the way they learned things, and will give that up only reluctantly. I include myself in this; there’s things I do for little better reason than inertia.
People will get hung up on the number of “steps” involved in a mathematical process. They shouldn’t. Whether, say, “37 x 2” is done in one step, two steps, or three steps is a matter of how you’re keeping the books. Even if we agree on how much computation is one step, we’re left with value judgements. Like, is it better to do many small steps, or few big steps? My own inclination is towards reliability. I’d rather take more steps than strictly necessary, if they can all be done more surely. If you want speed, my experience is, it’s better off aiming for reliability and consistency. Speed will follow from experience.
We can find the path by using the Lagrangian. Particularly, integrate the Lagrangian over every possible curve that connects the starting point and the ending point. This is every possible way to match start and end. The path that the system actually follows will be an extremum. The actual path will be one that minimizes (or maximizes) this integral, compared to all the other paths nearby that it might follow. Yes, that’s bizarre. How would the particle even know about those other paths?
This seems bad enough. But we can ignore the problem in classical mechanics. The extremum turns out to always match the path that we’d get from taking derivatives of the Lagrangian. Those derivatives look like calculating forces and stuff, like normal.
Then in quantum mechanics the problem reappears and we can’t just ignore it. In the quantum mechanics view no particle follows “a” “path”. It instead is found more likely in some configurations than in others. The most likely configurations correspond to extreme values of this integral. But we can’t just pretend that only the best-possible path “exists”.
Thus the strip’s point. We can represent mechanics quite well. We do this by pretending there are designated starting and ending conditions. And pretending that the system selects the best of every imaginable alternative. The incautious pop physics writer, eager to find exciting stuff about quantum mechanics, will describe this as a particle “exploring” or “considering” all its options before “selecting” one. This is true in the same way that we can say a weight “wants” to roll down the hill, or two magnets “try” to match north and south poles together. We should not mistake it for thinking that electrons go out planning their days, though. Newtonian mechanics gets us used to the idea that if we knew the positions and momentums and forces between everything in the universe perfectly well, we could forecast the future and retrodict the past perfectly. Lagrangian mechanics seems to invite us to imagine a world where everything “perceives” its future and all its possible options. It would be amazing if this did not capture our imaginations.
Bil Keane and Jeff Keane’s Family Circus for the 24th has young Billy amazed by the prospect of algebra, of doing mathematics with both numbers and letters. I’m assuming Billy’s awestruck by the idea of letters representing numbers. Geometry also uses quite a few letters, mostly as labels for the parts of shapes. But that seems like a less fascinating use of letters.
I do not know that the Ziggy printed here is a rerun. I don’t seem to have mentioned it in previous Reading the Comics posts, but that isn’t definite. How much mathematical content a comic strip needs to rate a mention depends on many things, and a strip that seems too slight one week might inspire me another. I’ll explain why I’ve started to get suspicious of the quite humanoid figure.
Tom II Wilson’s Ziggy for the 12th is framed around weather forecasts. It’s the probability question people encounter most often, unless they’re trying to outsmart the contestants on Let’s Make A Deal. (And many games on The Price Is Right, too.) Many people have complained about not knowing the meaning of a “50% chance of rain” for a day. If I understand it rightly, it means, when conditions have been like this in the recorded past, it’s rained about 50% of the time. I’m open to correction from meteorologists and it just occurred to me I know one. Mm.
Few people ask about the probability a forecast is correct. In some ways it’s an unanswerable question. To say there is a one-in-six chance a fairly thrown die will turn up a ‘1’ is not wrong just because it’s rolled a ‘1’ eight times out of the last ten. But it does seem like a forecast such as this should include a sense of confidence, how sure the forecaster is that the current weather is all that much like earlier times.
I’m not sure how much of the joke is meant to be the repetition of “50% chance”. The joke might be meant to say that if he’s got a 50% chance of being wrong, then, isn’t the 50% chance of rain “correctly” a 50% chance of not-rain … which is the same chance of rain? The logic doesn’t hold up, if you pay attention, but it sounds like it should make sense, and having the “wrong” version of something be the same as the original is a valid comic construction.
So now for the promised Ziggy rerun scandal. To the best of my knowledge Ziggy is presented as being in new run. It’s done by the son of the comic strip’s creator, but that’s common enough for long-running comic strips. This Monday, though, ran a Ziggy-at-the-psychiatrist joke that was, apart from coloring, exactly the comic run the 2nd of March, barely two weeks before. (Compare the scribbles in the psychiatrist’s diploma.) It wouldn’t be that weird if a comic were accidentally repeated; production mistakes happen, after all. It’s slightly weird that the daily, black-and-white, original got colored in two different ways, but I can imagine this happening by accident.
Still, that got me primed to look for Ziggy repeats. I couldn’t find this one having an earlier appearance. But I did find that the 9th of January this year was a reprint of the Ziggy from the 11th of January, 2017. I wrote about both appearances, without noticing they were reruns. Here’s the 2017 essay, and over here is the 2019 essay, from before I was very good at remembering what the year was. Mercifully I didn’t say anything contradictory on the two appearances. I’m more interested in how I said things differently in the two appearances. Anyway this earlier year seems to have been part of a week’s worth of reruns, noticeable by the copyright date. I can’t begrudge a cartoonist their vacation. The psychiatrist strip doesn’t seem to be part of that, though, and its repetition is some as-yet-unexplained event.
Tony Rubino and Gary Markstein’s Daddy’s Home for the 13th has a much more casual and non-controversial bit of mathematics. Pete tosses out a calculate-the-square-root problem as a test of Peggy’s omniscience. One of the commenters points out that the square root of 532 is closer to 23.06512519 than it is Peggy’s 23.06512818. It suggests the writers found the square root by something that gave plenty of digits. For example, the macOS Calculator program offers me “23.065 125 189 341 592”. But then they chopped off, rather than rounding off, digits when the panel space ran out.
Olivia Jaimes’s Nancy for the 13th has Nancy dividing up mathematics problems along the equals sign. That’s cute and fanciful enough. One could imagine working out expressions on either side of the equals sign in the hopes of getting them to match. That wouldn’t work for these algebra problems, but, that’s something.
This isn’t what Nancy might do, unless she flashed forward to college and became a mathematics or physics major. But one great trick in differential equations is called the separation of variables. Differential equations describe how quantities change. They’re great. They’re hard. A lot of solving differential equations amounts to rewriting them as simpler differential equations.
Separation is a trick usable when there’s two quantities whose variation affect each other. If you can rewrite the differential equation so that one variable only appears on the left side, and the other variable only appears on the right? Then you can split this equation into two simpler equations. Both sides of the equation have to be some fixed number. So you can separate the differential equations of two variables into two differential equations, each with one variable. One with the first variable, one with the other. And, usually, a differential equation of one variable is easier than a differential equation with two variables. So Nancy and Esther could work each half by themselves. But the work would have to be put together at the end, too.
So then this happened: Comic Strip Master Command didn’t have much they wanted me to write about this week. I made out three strips as being relevant enough to discuss at all. And even they don’t have topics that I felt I could really dig into. Coincidence, surely, although I like to think they were trying to help me get ahead of deadline on my A To Z essays for this last week of the run. It’s a noble thought, but doomed. I haven’t been more than one essay ahead of deadline the last three months. I know in past years I’ve gotten three or even four essays ahead of time and I don’t know why it hasn’t worked this time. I am going ahead and blaming that this these essays have been way longer than previous years’. So anyway, I thank Comic Strip Master Command for trying to make my Monday and my Thursday this week be less packed. It won’t help.
Darrin Bell and Theron Heir’s Rudy Park for the 10th uses mathematics as shorthand for a deep, thought-out theory of something. In this case, Randy’s theory of how to interest women. (He has rather a large number of romantic events around him.) It’s easy to suppose that people can be modeled mathematically. Even a crude model, one supposing that people have things they like and dislike, can give us good interesting results. This gets into psychology and sociology though. And probably requires computer modeling to get slightly useful results.
Randy’s blackboard has a good number of legitimate equations on it. They’re maybe not so useful to his problem of modeling people, though. The lower left corner, for example, are three of Maxwell’s Equations, describing electromagnetism. I’m not sure about all of these, in part because I think some might be transcribed incorrectly. The second equation in the upper left, for example, looks like it’s getting at the curl of a conserved force field being zero, but it’s idiosyncratic to write that with a ‘d’ to start with. The symbols all over the right with both subscripts and superscripts look to me like tensor work. This turns up in electromagnetism, certainly. Tensors turn up anytime something, such as electrical conductivity, is different in different directions. But I’ve never worked deeply in those fields so all I can confidently say is that they look like they parse.
Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate for the 14th is part of a bit where Nate’s trying to write a gruesome detective mystery for kids. I’m not sure that’s a ridiculous idea, at least if the gore could be done at a level that wouldn’t be too visceral. Anyway, Nate has here got the idea of merging some educational value into the whole affair. It’s not presented as a story problem, just as characters explaining stuff to one another. There probably would be some room for an actual problem where Barky and Winky wanted to know something and had to work out how to find it from what they knew, though.
And since it was a low-volume week, let me mention strips I didn’t decide fit. Ray Kassinger asked about Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit for the 12th. Might it be a play on Schrödinger’s Cat, the famous thought-experiment about how to understand the mathematics of quantum mechanics? It’s possible, but I think it’s more likely just that cats like sitting in boxes. Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 13th looks like it should be an anthropomorphic numerals joke. But it’s playing on the idiom about three being a crowd, and the whole of the mathematical content is that three is a number. John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 15th mentions mathematics. Particularly, Maria wishing they weren’t studying it. It’s a cameo appearance; it could be any subject whose value a student doesn’t see. That’s all I can make of it.
Last week’s offerings from Comic Strip Master Command got away from me. Here’s some more of the strips that had some stuff worth talking about. I should have another installment this week. I’m back to nonsense edition names; sorry.
Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate for the 29th of May is about the gambler’s fallacy. Everyone who learns probability learns about it. The fallacy builds on indisputable logic: your chance of losing at something eighteen times in a row is less than the chance of your losing at that thing seventeen times in a row. So it makes sense that if you’ve lost seventeen times in a row then you must be due.
And that’s one of those lies our intuition tells us about probability. What’s important to Nate here is not the chance he’s in an 18-at-bat losing streak. What’s important is the chance that he’s in an 18-at-bat losing streak, given that he’s already failed 17 times in a row. These are different questions. The chance of an 18th at-bat in a row being a failure (for him) is much larger than the chance of an 18-at-bat losing streak starting from scratch.
That said I can’t go along with Francis’s claim that the chance of Nate getting a hit isn’t enhanced by his long dry spell. We can, and often do, model stuff like at-bats as though they’re independent. That is, that the chance of getting a hit doesn’t depend on what came before. Doing it this way gives results that look like real sports matches do. But it’s very hard to quantify things like losing streaks or their opposite, hot hands. It’s hard to dismiss the evidence of people who compete, though. Everyone who does has known the phenomenon of being “in the zone”, where things seem easier. I was in it for two games out of five just last night at pinball league. (I was dramatically out of it for the other three. I nearly doubled my best-ever game of Spider-Man and still came in second place. And by so little a margin my opponent thought the bonus might make the difference. Such heartbreak.)
But there is a huge psychological component to how one plays at a game. Nate thinks differently about what he’s doing going up to bat after seventeen failures in a row than he would after, say, three home runs in a row. It’s hard to believe that this has no effect on how he plays, even if it’s hard to track down a consistent signal through the noise. Maybe it does wash out. Maybe sometimes striking out the first three at-bats in a game makes the batter give up on the fourth. Meanwhile other times it makes the batter focus better on the fourth, and there’s no pinning down which effect will happen. But I can’t go along with saying there’s no effect.
John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Working Daze for the 29th is an infinite-monkeys joke. Well, given some reasonable assumptions we can suppose that sufficiently many monkeys on typewriters will compose whatever’s needed, given long enough. Figuring someone’s work will take fewer monkeys and less time is a decent probability-based insult.
Ted Key’s Hazel for the 30th has the maid doing a bit of tutoring work. That’s about all I can make of this either. Doesn’t seem like a lot of fun, but there is only so much to do with arithmetic computation like this. It’s convenient to know a times table by memory.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 30th has a chalkboard full of mathematical symbols as iconic for deep thinking. And it’s even Einstein’s chalkboard. And it’s even stuff that could plausibly be on Einstein’s chalkboard at some point. Besides E = mc2 the other formulas are familiar ones from relativity. They’re about the ways our ideas of how much momentum or mass a thing has has to change if we see the thing in motion. (I’m a little less sure about that expression, but I think I can work something out.) And as a bonus it includes the circle-drawing compass as Galileo might have used. Well, he surely used a compass; I’m just not sure that the model shown wouldn’t be anachronistic. As though that matters; fortune cookies, after all, are a 20th century American invention and we’re letting that pass.
Zach Weinersmiths’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 30th builds on a fun premise. Underneath the main line it gets into some whimsical ratios built on important numbers you’d never use for this sort of thing, such as π, and the imaginary unit . The Golden Ratio makes an appearance too, sneaking a definition for φ in in terms of espresso and milk. Here’s a free question: is there a difference between the “infiniccino” and “just espresso” except for the way it’s presented? … Well, presentation can be an important part of a good coffee.
π is well-known. Not sure I have anything interesting to add to its legend. φ is an irrational number a bit larger than 1.6. I’m not sure if I’ve ever called it the Boba Fett of numbers, but I should have. It’s a cute enough number, far more popular than its importance would suggest. is far more important. Suppose that there is some number, which we give that name, with the property that equals -1. Then we get complex-valued numbers, which let us solve problems we’d like to know but couldn’t do before. It’s a great advance.
The name tells you how dubiously people approached this number, when it was first noticed. I wonder if people would be less uneasy with “imaginary numbers” if it weren’t for being told how there’s no such thing as the square root of minus one for years before algebra comes along and says, well, yes there is. It’s hard to think of a way that, say, “negative four” is more real than , after all, and people are mostly all right with -4. And I understand why people are more skeptical of -4 than they are of, say, 6. Still, I wonder how weird would look if people weren’t primed to think it was weird.
I’d like to open today’s installment with a trifle from Thomas K Dye. He’s a friend, and the cartoonist behind the long-running web comic Newshounds, its new spinoff Infinity Refugees, and some other projects.
Q: Have you read the story of Solidus and Virgule? A: Nah, I'm not into slash fiction.
Dye also has a Patreon, most recently featuring a subscribers-only web comic. And he’s good enough to do the occasional bit of spot art to spruce up my work here.
Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie rerun for the 9th of April, 2018 is, for me, relatable. I think I’ve read off this anecdote before. The first time I took Real Analysis I was completely lost. Getting me slightly less lost was borrowing a library book on Real Analysis from the mathematics library. The book was in French, a language I can only dimly read. But the different presentation and, probably, the time I had to spend parsing each sentence helped me get a basic understanding of the topic. So maybe trying algebra upside-down isn’t a ridiculous idea.
Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate rerun for the 9th presents an arithmetic sequence, which is always exciting to work with, if you’re into sequences. I had thought Nate was talking about mathematics quizzes but I see that’s not specified. Could be anything. … And yes, there is something cool in finding a pattern. Much of mathematics is driven by noticing, or looking for, patterns in things and then describing the rules by which new patterns can be made. There’s many easy side questions to be built from this. When would quizzes reach a particular value? When would the total number of points gathered reach some threshold? When would the average quiz score reach some number? What kinds of patterns would match the 70-68-66-64 progression but then do something besides reach 62 next? Or 60 after that? There’s some fun to be had. I promise.
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 10th similarly doesn’t depend on what the question is. It happens to be arithmetic, but it could as easily be identifying George Washington or picking out the noun in a sentence.
Leigh Rubin’s Rubes for the 10th riffs on randomness. In this case it’s riffing on the unpredictability and arbitrariness of random things. Random variables are very interesting in certain fields of mathematics. What makes them interesting is that any specific value — the next number you generate — is unpredictable. But aggregate information about the values is predictable, often with great precision. For example, consider normal distributions. (A lot of stuff turns out to be normal.) In that case we can be confident that the values that come up most often are going to be close to the arithmetic mean of a bunch of values. And that there’ll be about as many values greater than the mean as there are less than the mean. And this will be only loosely true if you’ve looked at a handful of values, at ten or twenty or even two hundred of them. But if you looked at, oh, a hundred thousand values, these truths would be dead-on. It’s wonderful and it seems to defy intuition. It just works.
John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for the 10th is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. It’s easy to think of division as just making numbers smaller: 4 divided by 6 is less than either 4 or 6. 1 divided by 4 is less than either 1 or 4. But this is a bad intuition, drawn from looking at the counting numbers that don’t look boring. But 4 divided by 1 isn’t less than either 1 or 4. Same with 6 divided by 1. And then when we look past counting numbers we realize that’s not always so. 6 divided by ½ gives 12, greater than either of those numbers, and I don’t envy the teachers trying to explain this to an understandably confused student. And whether 6 divided by -1 gives you something smaller than 6 or smaller than -1 is probably good for an argument in an arithmetic class.
Zach Weinersmith, Chris Jones and James Ashby’s Snowflakes for the 11th has an argument about predicting humans mathematically. It’s so very tempting to think people can be. Some aspects of people can. In the founding lore of statistics is the astonishment at how one could predict how many people would die, and from what causes, over a time. No person’s death could be forecast, but their aggregations could be. This unsettles people. It should: it seems to defy reason. It seems to me even people who embrace a deterministic universe suppose that while, yes, a sufficiently knowledgeable creature might forecast their actions accurately, mere humans shouldn’t be sufficiently knowledgeable.
No strips are tagged for the first time this essay. Just noticing.
And it’s not always fair to say that the gods mock any plans made by humans, but Comic Strip Master Command has been doing its best to break me of reading and commenting on any comic strip with a mathematical theme. I grant that I could make things a little easier if I demanded more from a comic strip before including it here. But even if I think a theme is slight that doesn’t mean the reader does, and it’s easy to let the eye drop to the next paragraph if the reader does think it’s too slight. The anthology nature of these posts is part of what works for them. And then sometimes Comic Strip Master Command sends me a day like last Sunday when everybody was putting in some bit of mathematics. There’ll be another essay on the past week’s strips, never fear. But today’s is just for the single day.
Susan Camilleri Konar’s Six Chix for the 11th illustrates the Lemniscate Family. The lemniscate is a shape well known as the curve made by a bit of water inside a narrow tube by people who’ve confused it with a meniscus. An actual lemniscate is, as the chain of pointing fingers suggests, a figure-eight shape. You get — well, I got — introduced to them in prealgebra. They’re shapes really easy to describe in polar coordinates but a pain to describe in Cartesian coordinates. There are several different kinds of lemniscates, each satisfying slightly different conditions while looking roughly like a figure eight. If you’re open to the two lobes of the shape not being the same size there’s even a kind of famous-ish lemniscate called the analemma. This is the figure traced out by the sun if you look at its position from a set point on the surface of the Earth at the same clock time each day over the course of the year. That the sun moves north and south from the horizon is easy to spot. That it is sometimes east or west of some reference spot is a surprise. It shows the difference between the movement of the mean sun, the sun as we’d see it if the Earth had a perfectly circular orbit, and the messy actual thing. Dr Helmer Aslasken has a fine piece about this, and how it affects when the sun rises earliest and latest in the year.
There’s also a thing called the “polynomial lemniscate”. This is a level curve of a polynomial. That is, what are all the possible values of the independent variable which cause the polynomial to evaluate to some particular number? This is going to be a polynomial in a complex-valued variable, in order to get one or more closed and (often) wriggly loops. A polynomial of a real-valued variable would typically give you a boring shape. There’s a bunch of these polynomial lemniscates that approximate the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set, that fractal that you know from your mathematics friend’s wall in 1992.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons took care of being Mark Anderson’s Andertoons early in the week. It’s a bit of optimistic blackboard work.
Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate features the formula for calculating the wind chill factor. Francis reads out what is legitimately the formula for estimating the wind chill temperature. I’m not going to get into whether the wind chill formula makes sense as a concept because I’m not crazy. The thinking behind it is that a windless temperature feels about the same as a different temperature with a particular wind. How one evaluates those equivalences offers a lot of room for debate. The formula as the National Weather Service, and Francis, offer looks frightening, but isn’t really hard. It’s not a polynomial, in terms of temperature and wind speed, but it’s close to that in form. The strip is rerun from the 15th of February, 2009, as Lincoln Pierce has had some not-publicly-revealed problem taking him away from the comic for about a month and a half now.
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley included a couple of mathematics formulas, including the famous E = mc2 and the slightly less famous πr2, as part of Walt Wallet’s fantasy of advising scientists and inventors. (Scientists have already heard both.) There’s a curious stray bit in the corner, writing out 6.626 x 102 x 3 that I wonder about. 6.626 is the first couple digits of Planck’s Constant, as measured in Joule-seconds. (This is h, not h-bar, I say for the person about to complain.) It’d be reasonable for Scancarelli to have drawn that out of a physics book or reference page. But the exponent is all wrong, even if you suppose he mis-wrote 1023. It should be 6.626 x 10-34. So I don’t know whether Scancarelli got things very garbled, or if he just picked a nice sciencey-looking number and happened to hit on a significant one. (There’s enough significant science numbers that he’d have a fair chance of finding something.) The strip is a reprint from the 4th of February, 2007, as Jim Scancarelli has been absent for no publicly announced reason for four months now.
Greg Evans and Karen Evans’s Luann is not perfectly clear. But I think it’s presenting Gunther doing mathematics work to support his mother’s contention that he’s smart. There’s no working out what work he’s doing. But then we might ask how smart his mother is to have made that much food for just the two of them. Also that I think he’s eating a potato by hand? … Well, there are a lot of kinds of food that are hard to draw.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn reprints the strip from the 11th of February (again), 1990. It mentions as one of those fascinating things of arithmetic an easy test to see if a number’s a multiple of nine. There are several tricks like this, although the only ones anybody can remember are finding multiples of 3 and finding multiples of 9. Well, they know the rules for something being a multiple of 2, 5, or 10, but those hardly look like rules, and there’s no addition needed. Similarly with multiples of 4.
Modular arithmetic underlies all these rules. Once you know the trick you can use it to work out your own add-up-the-numbers rules to find what numbers are multiples of small numbers. Here’s an example. Think of a three-digit number. Suppose its first digit is ‘a’, its second digit ‘b’, and its third digit ‘c’. So we’d write the number as ‘abc’, or, 100a + 10b + 1c. What’s this number equal to, modulo 9? Well, 100a modulo 9 has to be equal to whatever a modulo 9 is: (100 a) modulo 9 is (100) modulo 9 — that is, 1 — times (a) modulo 9. 10b modulo 9 is (10) modulo 9 — again, 1 — times (b) modulo 9. 1c modulo 9 is … well, (c) modulo 9. Add that all together and you have a + b + c modulo 9. If a + b + c is some multiple of 9, so must be 100a + 10b + 1c.
The rules about whether something’s divisible by 2 or 5 or 10 are easy to work with since 10 is a multiple of 2, and of 5, and for that matter of 10, so that 100a + 10b + 1c modulo 10 is just c modulo 10. You might want to let this settle. Then, if you like, practice by working out what an add-the-digits rule for multiples of 11 would be. (This is made a lot easier if you remember that 10 is equal to 11 – 1.) And if you want to show off some serious arithmetic skills, try working out an add-the-digits rule for finding whether something’s a multiple of 7. Then you’ll know why nobody has ever used that for any real work.
J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts plays on the equivalence people draw between intelligence and arithmetic ability. Also on the idea that brain size should have something particularly strong link to intelligence. Really anyone having trouble figuring out 15% of $10 is psyching themselves out. They’re too much overwhelmed by the idea of percents being complicated to realize that it’s, well, ten times 15 cents.
Was there an uptick in mathematics-themed comic strips in the syndicated comics this past week? It depends how tight a definition of “theme” you use. I have enough to write about that I’m splitting the week’s load. And I’ve got a follow-up to that Wronski post the other day, so I’m feeling nice and full of content right now. So here goes.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal posted the 5th gets my week off to an annoying start. Science and mathematics and engineering people have a tendency to be smug about their subjects. And to see aptitude or interest in their subjects as virtue, or at least intelligence. (If they see a distinction between virtue and intelligence.) To presume that an interest in the field I like is a demonstration of intelligence is a pretty nasty and arrogant move.
And yes, I also dislike the attitude that school should be about training people. Teaching should be about letting people be literate with the great thoughts people have had. Mathematics has a privileged spot here. The field, as we’ve developed it, seems to build on human aptitudes for number and space. It’s easy to find useful sides to it. Doesn’t mean it’s vocational training.
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate on the 6th discovered mathematics puzzles. And this gave him the desire to create a new mathematical puzzle that he would use to get rich. Good luck with that. Coming up with interesting enough recreational mathematics puzzles is hard. Presenting it in a way that people will buy is another, possibly greater, challenge. It takes luck and timing and presentation, just as getting a hit song does. Sudoku, for example, spent five years in the Dell Magazine puzzle books before getting a foothold in Japanese newspapers. And then twenty years there before being noticed in the English-speaking puzzle world. Big Nate’s teacher tries to encourage him, although that doesn’t go as Mr Staples might have hoped. (The storyline continues to the 11th. Spoiler: Nate does not invent the next great recreational mathematics puzzle.)
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 7th start out in a mathematics class, at least. I suppose the mathematical content doesn’t matter, though. Mallett’s making a point about questions that, I confess, I’m not sure I get. I’ll leave it for wiser heads to understand.
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 8th is a subverted word-problem joke. And I suppose a reminder about the need for word problems to parse as things people would do, or might be interested in. I can’t go along with characterizing buying twelve candy bars “gluttonous” though. Not if they’re in a pack of twelve or something like that. I may be unfair to Grand Avenue. Mind, until a few years ago I was large enough my main method of getting around was “being rolled by Oompa-Loompas”, so I could be a poor judge.
It was another busy week in mathematically-themed comic strips last week. Busy enough I’m comfortable rating some as too minor to include. So it’s another week where I post two of these Reading the Comics roundups, which is fine, as I’m still recuperating from the Summer 2017 A To Z project. This first half of the week includes a lot of rerun comics, and you’ll see why my choice of title makes sense.
Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots for the 1st is a rerun from sometime in 1975. And it’s an example of the time-honored tradition of specifying how many statistics are made up. Here it comes in at 43 percent of statistics being “totally worthless” and I’m curious how the number attached to this form of joke changes over time.
The Joey Alison Sayers Comic for the 2nd uses a blackboard with mathematics — a bit of algebra and a drawing of a sphere — as the designation for genius. That’s all I have to say about this. I remember being set straight about the difference between ponies and horses and it wasn’t by my sister, who’s got a professional interest in the subject.
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 2nd is a joke about cashiers trying to work out change. As one of the GoComics.com commenters mentions, the probably best way to do this is to count up from the purchase to the amount you have to give change for. That is, work out $12.43 to $12.50 is seven cents, then from $12.50 to $13.00 is fifty more cents (57 cents total), then from $13.00 to $20.00 is seven dollars ($7.57 total) and then from $20 to $50 is thirty dollars ($37.57 total).
It does make me wonder, though: what did Neil enter as the amount tendered, if it wasn’t $50? Maybe he hit “exact change” or whatever the equivalent was. It’s been a long, long time since I worked a cash register job and while I would occasionally type in the wrong amount of money, the kinds of errors I would make would be easy to correct for. (Entering $30 instead of $20 for the tendered amount, that sort of thing.) But the cash register works however Mark Pett decides it works, so who am I to argue?
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 3rd continues the streak of being Mark Anderson Andertoons for this sort of thing. It has the traditional form of the student explaining why the teacher’s wrong to say the answer was wrong.
Brian Fies’s The Last Mechanical Monster for the 4th includes a bit of legitimate physics in the mad scientist’s captioning. Ballistic arcs are about a thing given an initial speed in a particular direction, moving under constant gravity, without any of the complicating problems of the world involved. No air resistance, no curvature of the Earth, level surfaces to land on, and so on. So, if you start from a given height (‘y0‘) and a given speed (‘v’) at a given angle (‘θ’) when the gravity is a given strength (‘g’), how far will you travel? That’s ‘d’. How long will you travel? That’s ‘t’, as worked out here.
(I should maybe explain the story. The mad scientist here is the one from the first, Fleischer Studios, Superman cartoon. In it the mad scientist sends mechanical monsters out to loot the city’s treasures and whatnot. As the cartoon has passed into the public domain, Brian Fies is telling a story of that mad scientist, finally out of jail, salvaging the one remaining usable robot. Here, training the robot to push aside bank tellers has gone awry. Also, the ground in his lair is not level.)
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 4th uses the time-honored tradition of little bits of physics equations as designation of many deep thoughts. And then it gets into a bit more pure mathematics along the way. It also reflects the time-honored tradition of people who like mathematics and physics supposing that those are the deepest and most important kinds of thoughts to have. But I suppose we all figure the things we do best are the things it’s important to do best. It’s traditional.
And by the way, if you’d like more of these Reading the Comics posts, I put them all in the category ‘Comic Strips’ and I just now learned the theme I use doesn’t show categories for some reason? This is unsettling and unpleasant. Hm.
I have my reasons for this installment’s title. They involve my deductions from a comic strip. Give me a few paragraphs.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 16th asks for attention from whatever optician-written blog reads the comics for the eye jokes. And meets both the Venn Diagram and the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons content requirements for this week. Good job! Starts the week off strong.
Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate: First Class for the 16th, rerunning the strip from 1993, is about impossibly low-probability events. We can read the comic as a joke about extrapolating a sequence from a couple examples. Properly speaking we can’t; any couple of terms can be extended in absolutely any way. But we often suppose a sequence follows some simple pattern, as many real-world things do. I’m going to pretend we can read Jenny’s estimates of the chance she’ll go out with him as at all meaningful. If Jenny’s estimate of the chance she’d go out with Nate rose from one in a trillion to one in a billion over the course of a week, this could be a good thing. If she’s a thousand times more likely each week to date him — if her interest is rising geometrically — this suggests good things for Nate’s ego in three weeks. If she’s only getting 999 trillionths more likely each week — if her interest is rising arithmetically — then Nate has a touch longer to wait before a date becomes likely.
(I forget whether she has agreed to a date in the 24 years since this strip first appeared. He has had some dates with kids in his class, anyway, and some from the next grade too.)
Is the point of the first problem, Farmer Joe’s apples, to see whether a student can do a not-quite-long division? Or is it to see whether the student can extract a price-per-quantity for something, and apply that to find the quantity to fit a given price? If it’s the latter then the numbers don’t make a difference. One would want to avoid marking down a student who knows what to do, and could divide 15 cents by three, but would freeze up if a more plausible price of, say, $2.25 per pound had to be divided by three.
But then the second problem, Mr Schad driving from Belmont to Cadillac, got me wondering. It is about 84 miles between the two Michigan cities (and there is a Reed City along the way). The time it takes to get from one city to another is a fair enough problem. But these numbers don’t make sense. At 55 miles per hour the trip takes an awful 1.5273 hours. Who asks elementary school kids to divide 84 by 55? On purpose? But at the state highway speed limit (for cars) of 70 miles per hour, the travel time is 1.2 hours. 84 divided by 70 is a quite reasonable thing to ask elementary school kids to do.
And then I thought of this: you could say Belmont and Cadillac are about 88 miles apart. Google Maps puts the distance as 86.8 miles, along US 131; but there’s surely some point in the one town that’s exactly 88 miles from some point in the other, just as there’s surely some point exactly 84 miles from some point in the other town. 88 divided by 55 would be another reasonable problem for an elementary school student; 1.6 hours is a reasonable answer. The (let’s call it) 1980s version of the question ought to see the car travel 88 miles at 55 miles per hour. The contemporary version ought to see the car travel 84 miles at 70 miles per hour. No reasonable version would make it 84 miles at 55 miles per hour.
So did Mallett take a story problem that could actually have been on an era-appropriate test and ancient it up?
Before anyone reports me to Comic Strip Master Command let me clarify what I’m wondering about. I don’t care if the details of the joke don’t make perfect sense. They’re jokes, not instruction. All the story problem needs to set up the joke is the obsolete speed limit; everything else is fluff. And I enjoyed working out variation of the problem that did make sense, so I’m happy Mallett gave me that to ponder.
Here’s what I do wonder about. I’m curious if story problems are getting an unfair reputation. I’m not an elementary school teacher, or parent of a kid in school. I would like to know what the story problems look like. Do you, the reader, have recent experience with the stuff farmers, drivers, and people weighing things are doing in these little stories? Are they measuring things that people would plausibly care about today, and using values that make sense for the present day? I’d like to know what the state of story problems is.
John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 18th uses mental arithmetic as the gauge of intelligence. Pretty harsly, too. I wouldn’t have known the square root of 8649 off the top of my head either, although it’s easy to tell that 92 can’t be right: the last digit of 92 squared has to be 4. It’s also easy to tell that 92 has to be about right, though, as 90 times 90 will be about 8100. Given this information, if you knew that 8,649 was a perfect square, you’d be hard-pressed to think of a better guess for its value than 93. But since most whole numbers are not perfect squares, “a little over 90” is the best I’d expect to do.
This will be a hastily-written installment since I married just this weekend and have other things occupying me. But there’s still comics mentioning math subjects so let me summarize them for you. The first since my last collection of these, on the 13th of June, came on the 15th, with Dave Whamond’s Reality Check, which goes into one of the minor linguistic quirks that bothers me: the claim that one can’t give “110 percent,” since 100 percent is all there is. I don’t object to phrases like “110 percent”, though, since it seems to me the baseline, the 100 percent, must be to some standard reference performance. For example, the Space Shuttle Main Engines routinely operated at around 104 percent, not because they were exceeding their theoretical limits, but because the original design thrust was found to be not quite enough, and the engines were redesigned to deliver more thrust, and it would have been far too confusing to rewrite all the documentation so that the new design thrust was the new 100 percent. Instead 100 percent was the design capacity of an engine which never flew but which existed in paper form. So I’m forgiving of “110 percent” constructions, is the important thing to me.