How January 2018 Treated My Mathematics Blog


First of all, I would like to say this about this tweet:

And that is: I don’t feel threatened at all so nyah.

(And if you want to help them out, please, do send any Calvin and Hobbes strips with mathematical themes over their way.)

Back to my usual self-preening. January 2018 was a successful month around here, in terms of people reading stuff I write. According to WordPress, there were some 1,274 pages viewed from 670 unique visitors. That’s the largest number of pages viewed since March and April 2016, when I had a particularly successful A To Z going. It’s the greatest number of unique visitors since September 2017 when I had a less successful but still pretty good A To Z going. The page views were well above December 2017’s 899, and November’s 1,052. The unique visitors were well above December’s 599 and November’s 604.

I don’t have any real explanation for this. I suspect it’s spillover from my humor blog, which had its most popular month since the comic strip Apartment 3-G died a sad, slow, baffling death. Long story. I think my humor blog was popular because people don’t know what happened to the guy who writes Gasoline Alley. I don’t know either, but I tell people if I do find out anything I’ll tell them, and that’s almost as good as knowing something.

Still, this popularity was accompanied by readers actually liking stuff. There were 112 pages liked in January, beating out the 71 in December and 70 in November by literally dozens of clicks. It’s the highest count since August of 2017 and summer’s A To Z sequence. There were more comments, too, 39 of them. December saw 24 and November 28 and, you see this coming, that’s the largest number of comments since summer 2017’s A To Z sequence.

The popular articles for January were two of the ones I expected, one of the Reading the Comics posts, and then two surprises. What were they? These.

Yes, it’s clickbait-y to talk about weird tricks for limits that mathematicians use. In my defense: mathematicians really do rely on these tricks all the time. So if it’s getting people stuff that’s useful then my conscience is as clear as it is for asking “How many grooves are on a record’s side?” and (implicitly) “How many kinds of trapezoid are there?”

If I’m counting right there were 50 countries from which I drew readers, if “European Union” counts as a country and if “Trinidad and Tobago” don’t count as two. Plus there’s Hong Kong and when you get down to it, “country” is a hard concept to pin down exactly. There were 14 single-reader countries. Here’s the roster of them all:

Country Readers
United States 879
India 89
Philippines 59
United Kingdom 37
Canada 28
Singapore 15
Hong Kong SAR China 11
Netherlands 11
Sweden 11
Belgium 9
Algeria 8
Austria 8
Australia 7
France 7
Italy 7
Switzerland 7
South Africa 6
Brazil 5
Slovenia 5
Argentina 4
Germany 4
Japan 4
Pakistan 4
Indonesia 3
Spain 3
Denmark 2
Egypt 2
European Union 2
Greece 2
Iraq 2
New Zealand 2
Portugal 2
South Korea 2
Thailand 2
Ukraine 2
Bulgaria 1
Czech Republic 1
Ireland 1
Malaysia 1
Mexico 1 (**)
Namibia 1
Norway 1
Russia 1 (*)
Saudi Arabia 1
Sri Lanka 1
Trinidad & Tobago 1
Turkey 1
Uruguay 1 (*)
Vietnam 1

There were 53 countries sending me readers in December and 56 in November so I guess I’m concentrating? There were 15 single-reader countries in December and 22 in November. Russia and Uruguay were single-reader countries in December; Mexico’s been a single-reader country for three months now.

WordPress’s Insights panel says I started the month with 57,592 page views recorded, from 27,161 recorded unique visitors. It also shares with me the interesting statistics that, as I write this and before I post it, I’ve written 16 total posts this year, which have drawn an average two comments and seven likes per post. There’ve been 900 words per post, on average. Overall this year I’ve gotten 39 comments, 110 likes, and have published 14,398 words. I don’t know whether that counts image captions. But this also leads me to learn what previous year statistics were like; I’ve been averaging over 900 words per post since 2015. In 2015 I averaged about 750 words per post, and got three times as many likes and about twice as many comments per post. I’m sure that doesn’t teach me anything. At the least I won’t learn from it.

If all this has convinced you to read my posts, please, keep reading them. You can add them to a WordPress reader by way of the “Follow nebusresearch” sticker on the center-right of the page. Or you can get it delivered by e-mail using the “Follow Blog Via E-Mail” button underneath it. If you’ve got your own RSS reader, you can follow from this feed. There’s probably more ways to follow this, too. And if you want to follow me on Twitter, try @Nebusj, because that’s me and I like having company there.

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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, January 3, 2018: Explaining Things Edition


There were a good number of mathematically-themed comic strips in the syndicated comics last week. Those from the first part of the week gave me topics I could really sink my rhetorical teeth into, too. So I’m going to lop those off into the first essay for last week and circle around to the other comics later on.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz started a week of calendar talk on the 31st of December. I’ve usually counted that as mathematical enough to mention here. The 1st of January as we know it derives, as best I can figure, from the 1st of January as Julius Caesar established for 45 BCE. This was the first Roman calendar to run basically automatically. Its length was quite close to the solar year’s length. It had leap days added according to a rule that should have been easy enough to understand (one day every fourth year). Before then the Roman calendar year was far enough off the solar year that they had to be kept in synch by interventions. Mostly, by that time, adding a short extra month to put things more nearly right. This had gotten all confusingly messed up and Caesar took the chance to set things right, running 46 BCE to 445 days long.

But why 445 and not, say, 443 or 457? And I find on research that my recollection might not be right. That is, I recall that the plan was to set the 1st of January, Reformed, to the first new moon after the winter solstice. A choice that makes sense only for that one year, but, where to set the 1st is literally arbitrary. While that apparently passes astronomical muster (the new moon as seen from Rome then would be just after midnight the 2nd of January, but hitting the night of 1/2 January is good enough), there’s apparently dispute about whether that was the objective. It might have been to set the winter solstice to the 25th of December. Or it might have been that the extra days matched neatly the length of two intercalated months that by rights should have gone into earlier years. It’s a good reminder of the difficulty of reading motivation.

Brian Fies’s The Last Mechanical Monster for the 1st of January, 2018, continues his story about the mad scientist from the Fleischer studios’ first Superman cartoon, back in 1941. In this panel he’s describing how he realized, over the course of his long prison sentence, that his intelligence was fading with age. He uses the ability to do arithmetic in his head as proof of that. These types never try naming, like, rulers of the Byzantine Empire. Anyway, to calculate the cube root of 50,653 in his head? As he used to be able to do? … guh. It’s not the sort of mental arithmetic that I find fun.

But I could think of a couple ways to do it. The one I’d use is based on a technique called Newton-Raphson iteration that can often be used to find where a function’s value is zero. Raphson here is Joseph Raphson, a late 17th century English mathematician known for the Newton-Raphson method. Newton is that falling-apples fellow. It’s an iterative scheme because you start with a guess about what the answer would be, and do calculations to make the answer better. I don’t say this is the best method, but it’s the one that demands me remember the least stuff to re-generate the algorithm. And it’ll work for any positive number ‘A’ and any root, to the ‘n’-th power.

So you want the n-th root of ‘A’. Start with your current guess about what this root is. (If you have no idea, try ‘1’ or ‘A’.) Call that guess ‘x’. Then work out this number:

\frac{1}{n}\left( (n - 1) \cdot x + \frac{A}{x^{n - 1}} \right)

Ta-da! You have, probably, now a better guess of the n-th root of ‘A’. If you want a better guess yet, take the result you just got and call that ‘x’, and go back calculating that again. Stop when you feel like your answer is good enough. This is going to be tedious but, hey, if you’re serving a prison term of the length of US copyright you’ve got time. (It’s possible with this sort of iterator to get a worse approximation, although I don’t think that happens with n-th root process. Most of the time, a couple more iterations will get you back on track.)

But that’s work. Can we think instead? Now, most n-th roots of whole numbers aren’t going to be whole numbers. Most integers aren’t perfect powers of some other integer. If you think 50,653 is a perfect cube of something, though, you can say some things about it. For one, it’s going to have to be a two-digit number. 103 is 1,000; 1003 is 1,000,000. The second digit has to be a 7. 73 is 343. The cube of any number ending in 7 has to end in 3. There’s not another number from 1 to 9 with a cube that ends in 3. That’s one of those things you learn from playing with arithmetic. (A number ending in 1 cubes to something ending in 1. A number ending in 2 cubes to something ending in 8. And so on.)

So the cube root has to be one of 17, 27, 37, 47, 57, 67, 77, 87, or 97. Again, if 50,653 is a perfect cube. And we can do better than saying it’s merely one of those nine possibilities. 40 times 40 times 40 is 64,000. This means, first, that 47 and up are definitely too large. But it also means that 40 is just a little more than the cube root of 50,653. So, if 50,653 is a perfect cube, then it’s most likely going to be the cube of 37.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes rerun for the 2nd is a great sequence of Hobbes explaining arithmetic to Calvin. There is nothing which could be added to Hobbes’s explanation of 3 + 8 which would make it better. I will modify Hobbes’s explanation of what the numerator. It’s ridiculous to think it’s Latin for “number eighter”. The reality is possibly more ridiculous, as it means “a numberer”. Apparently it derives from “numeratus”, meaning, “to number”. The “denominator” comes from “de nomen”, as in “name”. So, you know, “the thing that’s named”. Which does show the terms mean something. A poet could turn “numerator over denominator” into “the number of parts of the thing we name”, or something near enough that.

Hobbes continues the next day, introducing Calvin to imaginary numbers. The term “imaginary numbers” tells us their history: they looked, when first noticed in formulas for finding roots of third- and fourth-degree polynomials, like obvious nonsense. But if you carry on, following the rules as best you can, that nonsense would often shake out and you’d get back to normal numbers again. And as generations of mathematicians grew up realizing these acted like numbers we started to ask: well, how is an imaginary number any less real than, oh, the square root of six?

Hobbes’s particular examples of imaginary numbers — “eleventenn” and “thirty-twelve” — are great-sounding compositions. They put me in mind, as many of Watterson’s best words do, of a 1960s Peanuts in which Charlie Brown is trying to help Sally practice arithmetic. (I can’t find it online, as that meme with edited text about Sally Brown and the sixty grapefruits confounds my web searches.) She offers suggestions like “eleventy-Q” and asks if she’s close, which Charlie Brown admits is hard to say.

Cherry Trail: 'Good morning, honey! Where's Dad?' Mark Trail: 'He's out on the porch reading the paper!' Cherry: 'Rusty sure is excited about our upcoming trip to Mexico!' Mark: 'Did you get everything worked out with the school?' Cherry: 'Rusty will need to do some math assignments, but he'll get credit for his other subjects since it's an educational trip!'
James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 3rd of January, 2018. James Allen has changed many things about the comic strip since Jack Elrod’s retirement, as I have observed over on the other blog. There are less ruthlessly linear stories. There’s no more odd word balloon placement implying that giant squirrels are talking about the poachers. Mark Trail sometimes has internal thoughts. I’m glad that he does still choose to over-emphasize declarations like “[Your Dad]’s out on the porch reading the paper!” There are some traditions.

And finally, James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 3rd just mentions mathematics as the subject that Rusty Trail is going to have to do some work on instead of allowing the experience of a family trip to Mexico to count. This is of extremely marginal relevance, but it lets me include a picture of a comic strip, and I always like getting to do that.

Reading the Comics, April 24, 2017: Reruns Edition


I went a little wild explaining the first of last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. So let me split the week between the strips that I know to have been reruns and the ones I’m not so sure were.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 23rd — not a rerun; the strip is still new on Sundays — is a probability question. And a joke about story problems with relevance. Anyway, the question uses the binomial distribution. I know that because the question is about doing a bunch of things, homework questions, each of which can turn out one of two ways, right or wrong. It’s supposed to be equally likely to get the question right or wrong. It’s a little tedious but not hard to work out the chance of getting exactly six problems right, or exactly seven, or exactly eight, or so on. To work out the chance of getting six or more questions right — the problem given — there’s two ways to go about it.

One is the conceptually easy but tedious way. Work out the chance of getting exactly six questions right. Work out the chance of getting exactly seven questions right. Exactly eight questions. Exactly nine. All ten. Add these chances up. You’ll get to a number slightly below 0.377. That is, Mary Lou would have just under a 37.7 percent chance of passing. The answer’s right and it’s easy to understand how it’s right. The only drawback is it’s a lot of calculating to get there.

So here’s the conceptually harder but faster way. It works because the problem says Mary Lou is as likely to get a problem wrong as right. So she’s as likely to get exactly ten questions right as exactly ten wrong. And as likely to get at least nine questions right as at least nine wrong. To get at least eight questions right as at least eight wrong. You see where this is going: she’s as likely to get at least six right as to get at least six wrong.

There’s exactly three possibilities for a ten-question assignment like this. She can get four or fewer questions right (six or more wrong). She can get exactly five questions right. She can get six or more questions right. The chance of the first case and the chance of the last have to be the same.

So, take 1 — the chance that one of the three possibilities will happen — and subtract the chance she gets exactly five problems right, which is a touch over 24.6 percent. So there’s just under a 75.4 percent chance she does not get exactly five questions right. It’s equally likely to be four or fewer, or six or more. Just-under-75.4 divided by two is just under 37.7 percent, which is the chance she’ll pass as the problem’s given. It’s trickier to see why that’s right, but it’s a lot less calculating to do. That’s a common trade-off.

Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pax Comix rerun for the 23rd is an aptly titled installment of A Million Monkeys At A Million Typewriters. It reminds me that I don’t remember if I’d retired the monkeys-at-typewriters motif from Reading the Comics collections. If I haven’t I probably should, at least after making a proper essay explaining what the monkeys-at-typewriters thing is all about.

'This new math teacher keeps shakin' us down every morning, man ... what's she looking for, anyway?' 'Pocket calculators.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy from the 28th of February, 1978. So, that FoxTrot problem I did? The conceptually-easy-but-tedious way is not too hard to do if you have a calculator. It’s a buch of typing but nothing more. If you don’t have a calculator, though, the desire not to do a whole bunch of calculating could drive you to the conceptually-harder-but-less-work answer. Is that a good thing? I suppose; insight is a good thing to bring. But the less-work answer only works because of a quirk in the problem, that Mary Lou is supposed to have a 50 percent chance of getting a question right. The low-insight-but-tedious problem will aways work. Why skip on having something to do the tedious part?

Ted Shearer’s Quincy from the 28th of February, 1978 reveals to me that pocket calculators were a thing much earlier than I realized. Well, I was too young to be allowed near stuff like that in 1978. I don’t think my parents got their first credit-card-sized, solar-powered calculator that kind of worked for another couple years after that. Kids, ask about them. They looked like good ideas, but you could use them for maybe five minutes before the things came apart. Your cell phone is so much better.

Bil Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes rerun for the 24th can be classed as a resisting-the-word-problem joke. It’s so not about that, but who am I to slow you down from reading a Calvin and Hobbes story?

Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury rerun for the 24th started a story about high school kids and their bad geography skills. I rate it as qualifying for inclusion here because it’s a mathematics teacher deciding to include more geography in his course. I was amused by the week’s jokes anyway. There’s no hint given what mathematics Gil teaches, but given the links between geometry, navigation, and geography there is surely something that could be relevant. It might not help with geographic points like which states are in New England and where they are, though.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 24th is built on a plot point from Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel Contact. In it, a particular “message” is found in the digits of π. (By “message” I mean a string of digits that are interesting to us. I’m not sure that you can properly call something a message if it hasn’t got any sender and if there’s not obviously some intended receiver.) In the book this is an astounding thing because the message can’t be; any reasonable explanation for how it should be there is impossible. But short “messages” are going to turn up in π also, as per the comic strips.

I assume the peer review would correct the cartoon mathematicians’ unfortunate spelling of understanding.

Reading the Comics, April 15, 2017: Extended Week Edition


It turns out last Saturday only had the one comic strip that was even remotely on point for me. And it wasn’t very on point either, but since it’s one of the Creators.com strips I’ve got the strip to show. That’s enough for me.

Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie for the 8th is just about how algebra hurts. Some days I agree.

'Ugh! Achey head! All blocked up! Throbbing! Completely stuffed!' 'Sounds like sinuses!' 'No. Too much algebra!'
Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie for the 8th of April, 2017. Do you suppose Archie knew that Dilton was listening there, or was he just emoting his fatigue to himself?

Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 8th is an installation of They Came From The Third Dimension. “Dimension” is one of those oft-used words that’s come loose of any technical definition. We use it in mathematics all the time, at least once we get into Introduction to Linear Algebra. That’s the course that talks about how blocks of space can be stretched and squashed and twisted into each other. You’d expect this to be a warmup act to geometry, and I guess it’s relevant. But where it really pays off is in studying differential equations and how systems of stuff changes over time. When you get introduced to dimensions in linear algebra they describe degrees of freedom, or how much information you need about a problem to pin down exactly one solution.

It does give mathematicians cause to talk about “dimensions of space”, though, and these are intuitively at least like the two- and three-dimensional spaces that, you know, stuff moves in. That there could be more dimensions of space, ordinarily inaccessible, is an old enough idea we don’t really notice it. Perhaps it’s hidden somewhere too.

Amanda El-Dweek’s Amanda the Great of the 9th started a story with the adult Becky needing to take a mathematics qualification exam. It seems to be prerequisite to enrolling in some new classes. It’s a typical set of mathematics anxiety jokes in the service of a story comic. One might tsk Becky for going through university without ever having a proper mathematics class, but then, I got through university without ever taking a philosophy class that really challenged me. Not that I didn’t take the classes seriously, but that I took stuff like Intro to Logic that I was already conversant in. We all cut corners. It’s a shame not to use chances like that, but there’s always so much to do.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 10th relieves the worry that Mark Anderson’s Andertoons might not have got in an appearance this week. It’s your common kid at the chalkboard sort of problem, this one a kid with no idea where to put the decimal. As always happens I’m sympathetic. The rules about where to move decimals in this kind of multiplication come out really weird if the last digit, or worse, digits in the product are zeroes.

Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures is in reruns. The strip from the 10th is part of a story I’m so sure I’ve featured here before that I’m not even going to look up when it aired. But it uses your standard story problem to stand in for science-fiction gadget mathematics calculation.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 12th is the natural extension of sleep numbers. Yes, I’m relieved to see Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts around here again too. Feels weird when it’s not.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes rerun for the 13th is a resisting-the-story-problem joke. But Calvin resists so very well.

John Deering’s Strange Brew for the 13th is a “math club” joke featuring horses. Oh, it’s a big silly one, but who doesn’t like those too?

Dan Thompson’s Brevity for the 14th is one of the small set of punning jokes you can make using mathematician names. Good for the wall of a mathematics teacher’s classroom.

Shaenon K Garrity and Jefferey C Wells’s Skin Horse for the 14th is set inside a virtual reality game. (This is why there’s talk about duplicating objects.) Within the game, the characters are playing that game where you start with a set number (in this case 20) tokens and take turn removing a couple of them. The “rigged” part of it is that the house can, by perfect play, force a win every time. It’s a bit of game theory that creeps into recreational mathematics books and that I imagine is imprinted in the minds of people who grow up to design games.

Reading the Comics, July 7, 2015: Carrying On The Streak Edition


I admit I’ve been a little unnerved lately. Between the A To Z project and the flood of mathematics-themed jokes from Comic Strip Master Command — and miscellaneous follies like my WordPress statistics-reading issues — I’ve had a post a day for several weeks now. The streak has to end sometime, surely, right? So it must, but not today. I admit the bunch of comics mentioning mathematical topics the past couple days was more one of continuing well-explored jokes rather than breaking new territory. But every comic strip is somebody’s first, isn’t it? (That’s an intimidating thought.)

Mickey Mouse promises to help a nephew with his mathematics homework. The word problem is also a tongue-twister. It haunts Mickey all night.
Disney’s Mickey Mouse rerun the 6th of July, 2015. Probably rerun many more times, too.

Disney’s Mickey Mouse (June 6, rerun from who knows when) is another example of the word problem that even adults can’t do. I think it’s an interesting one for being also a tongue-twister. I tend to think of this sort of problem as a calculus question, but that’s surely just that I spend more time with calculus than with algebra or simpler arithmetic.

Donald keeps his nephews awake by counting sheep all night. They all get to sleep when he counts sheep by fours.
Disney’s Donald Duck for the 6th of July, 2015. Also probably rerun many times.

And then Disney’s Donald Duck (June 6 also, but probably a rerun from some other date) is a joke built on counting sheep. Might help someone practice their four-times table, too. I like the internal logic of this one. Maybe I just like sheep in comic strips.

Eric Teitelbaum and Bill Teitelbaum’s Bottomliners (June 6) is a bit of wordplay based on the idiom that figures will “add up” if they’re correct. There are so many things one can do with figures, though, aren’t there? Surely something will be right.

Justin Thompson’s Mythtickle (June 6, again a rerun) is about the curious way that objects are mostly empty space. The first panel shows on the alien’s chalkboard legitimate equations from quantum mechanics. The first line describes (in part) a function called psi that describes where a particle is likely to be found over time. The second and third lines describe how the probability distribution — where a particle is likely to be found — changes over time.

Doug Bratton’s Pop Culture Shock Therapy (July 7) just name-drops mathematics as something a kid will do badly in. In this case the kid is Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes. While it’s true he did badly in mathematics I suspect that’s because it’s so easy to fit an elementary-school arithmetic question and a wrong answer in a single panel.

The idea of mathematics as a way to bludgeon people into accepting your arguments must have caught someone’s imagination over at the Parker studios. Jeff Parker’s The Wizard of Id for July 7 uses this joke, just as Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. did back on June 19th. (Both comic strips were created by the prolific Johnny Hart. I was surprised to learn they’re not still drawn and written by the same teams.) As I mentioned at the time, smothering people beneath mathematical symbols is logically fallacious. This is not to say it doesn’t work.

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


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

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

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

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

Reading the Comics, September 15, 2014: Are You Trying To Overload Me Edition


One of the little challenges in writing about mathematics-themed comics is one of pacing: how often should I do a roundup? Posting weekly, say, helps figure out a reasonable posting schedule for those rare moments when I’m working ahead of deadline, but that leaves the problem of weeks that just don’t have anything. Waiting for a certain number of comics before writing about them seems more reasonable, but then I have to figure how many comics are enough. I’ve settled into five-to-six as my threshold for a new post, but that can mean I have weeks where it seems like I’m doing nothing but comic strips posts. And then there’s conditions like this one where Comic Strip Master Command had its cartoonists put up just enough that I’d started composing a fresh post, and then tossed in a whole bunch more the next day. It’s like they’re trying to shake me by having too many strips to write about. I’d have though they’d be flattered to have me writing about them so.

Tiger studied times tables today. Studied it, not learned it.
Bud Blake’s _Tiger_ for the 11th of September, 2014.

Bud Blake’s Tiger (September 11, rerun) mentions Tiger as studying the times tables and points out the difference between studying a thing and learning it.

Marc Anderson’s Andertoons (September 12) belongs to that vein of humor about using technology words to explain stuff to kids. I admit I’m vague enough on the concept of mashups that I can accept that it might be a way of explaining addition, but it feels like it might also be a way of describing multiplication or for that matter the composition of functions. I suppose the kids would be drawn as older in those cases, though.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot (September 13, rerun) does a word problem joke, but it does have the nice beat in the penultimate panel of Paige running a sanity check and telling at a glance that “two dollars” can’t possibly be the right answer. Sanity checks are nice things to have; they don’t guarantee against making mistakes, but they at least provide some protection against the easiest mistakes, and having some idea of what an answer could plausibly be might help in working out the answer. For example, if Paige had absolutely no idea how to set up equations for this problem, she could reason that the apple and the orange have to cost something from 1 to 29 cents, and could try out prices until finding something that satisfies both requirements. This is an exhausting method, but it would eventually work, too, and sometimes “working eventually” is better than “working cleverly”.

Bill Schorr’s The Grizzwells (September 13) starts out by playing on the fact that “yard” has multiple meanings; it also circles around one of those things that distinguishes word problems from normal mathematics. A word problem, by convention, normally contains exactly the information needed to solve what’s being asked — there’s neither useless information included nor necessary information omitted, except if the question-writer has made a mistake. In a real world application, figuring out what you need, and what you don’t need, is part of the work, possibly the most important part of the work. So to answer how many feet are in a yard, Gunther (the bear) is right to ask more questions about how big the yard is, as a start.

Ed would rather snack bars came in 100-calorie forms, rather than 70-calorie ones.
Steve Kelly and Jeff Parker’s _Dustin_ for the 14th of September, 2014.

Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker’s Dustin (September 14) is about one of the applications for mental arithmetic that people find awfully practical: counting the number of food calories that you eat. Ed’s point about it being convenient to have food servings be nice round numbers, as they’re easier to work with, is a pretty good one, and it’s already kind of accounted for in food labelling: it’s permitted (in the United States) to round off calorie counts to the nearest ten or so, on the rather sure grounds that if you are counting calories you’d rather add 70 to the daily total than 68 or 73. Don’t read the comments thread, which includes the usual whining about the Common Core and the wild idea that mental arithmetic might be well done by working out a calculation that’s close to the one you want but easier to do and then refining it to get the accuracy you need.

Mac and Bill King’s Magic In A Minute kids activity panel (September 14) presents a magic trick that depends on a bit of mental arithmetic. It’s a nice stunt, although it is certainly going to require kids to practice things because, besides dividing numbers by 4, it also requires adding 6, and that’s an annoying number to deal with. There’s also a nice little high school algebra problem to be done in explaining why the trick works.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (September 15, rerun) includes one of Hobbes’s brilliant explanations of how arithmetic works, and if I haven’t wasted the time spent memorizing the strips where Calvin tries to do arithmetic homework then Hobbes follows up tomorrow with imaginary numbers. Can’t wait.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (September 15) expresses skepticism about a projection being made for the year 2040. Extrapolations and interpolations are a big part of numerical mathematics and there’s fair grounds to be skeptical: even having a model of whatever your phenomenon is that accurately matches past data isn’t a guarantee that there isn’t some important factor that’s been trivial so far but will become important and will make the reality very different from the calculations. But that hardly makes extrapolations useless: for one, the fact that there might be something unknown which becomes important is hardly a guarantee that there is. If the modelling is good and the reasoning sound, what else are you supposed to use for a plan? And of course you should watch for evidence that the model and the reality aren’t too very different as time goes on.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures (September 15) describes mathematics as “insufferable and enigmatic”, which is a shame, as mathematics hasn’t said anything nasty about them, now has it?