Reading the Comics, May 15, 2020: Squared Away Edition

The end of last week offered just a few more comic strips, and some pretty casual mathematics content. Let me wrap that up.

Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 13th has the “math department lavatory” represented as a door labelled $1 \pm 2$. It’s an interesting joke in that it reads successfully, but doesn’t make sense. To match the references to the commonly excreted substances they’d want $\frac32 \pm \frac12$.

On funny labels, though, I did once visit a mathematics building in which the dry riser had the label N Bourbaki. Nicholas Bourbaki was not a member of that college’s mathematics department, of course. This is why the joke was correctly formed and therefore funny.

Keith Tutt and Daniel Saunders’s Lard’s World Peace Tips for the 13th features the rounding-up-sheep joke.

Gary Larson’s The Far Side strips for the 14th includes the famous one of Albert Einstein coming so close to working out $E = mc^2$. The usual derivations for $E = mc^2$ don’t start with that and then explore whether it makes sense, which is what Einstein seems to be doing here. Instead they start from some uncontroversial premises and find that they imply this $E = mc^2$ business. Dimensional analysis would also let you know that, if c is involved, it’s probably to the second power rather than anything else.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine Einstein assuming there must be a relationship between energy and mass, finding one that makes sense, and then finding a reason it’s that rather than something else. That’s a common enough pattern of mathematical discovery. Also, a detail I hadn’t noticed before, is that Einstein tried out $E = mc^3$, rejected it, and then tried it again. This is also a common pattern of discovery.

Mark Litzler’s Joe Vanilla for the 14th has a vague recollection of the Pythagorean Theorem be all that someone says he remembers of mathematics.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 15th depicts a couple ancient Greek deep-thinkers. A bit of mathematics, specifically geometry, is used as representative of that deep thinking.

This wraps up the past week’s mathematically-themed comics. Read this and next week’s comic strips at this link. Thank you.

Reading the Comics, February 8, 2020: Delta Edition

With this essay, I finally finish the comic strips from the first full week of February. You know how these things happen. I’ll get to the comics from last week soon enough, at an essay gathered under this link. For now, some pictures with words:

Art Sansom and Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser for the 7th builds on one of the probability questions people often use. That is the probability of an event, in the weather forecast. Predictions for what the weather will do are so common that it takes work to realize there’s something difficult about the concept. The weather is a very complicated fluid-dynamics problem. It’s almost certainly chaotic. A chaotic system is deterministic, but unpredictable, because to get a meaningful prediction requires precision that’s impossible to ever have in the real world. The slight difference between the number π and the number 3.1415926535897932 throws calculations off too quickly. Nevertheless, it implies that the “chance” of snow on the weekend means about the same thing as the “chance” that Valentinte’s Day was on the weekend this year. The way the system is set up implies it will be one or the other. This is a probability distribution, yes, but it’s a weird one.

What we talk about when we say the “chance” of snow or Valentine’s on a weekend day is one of ignorance. It’s about our estimate that the true value of something is one of the properties we find interesting. Here, past knowledge can guide us. If we know that the past hundred times the weather was like this on Friday, snow came on the weekend less than ten times, we have evidence that suggests these conditions don’t often lead to snow. This is backed up, these days, by numerical simulations which are not perfect models of the weather. But they are ones that represent something very like the weather, and that stay reasonably good for several days or a week or so.

And we have the question of whether the forecast is right. Observing this fact is used as the joke here. Still, there must be some measure of confidence in a forecast. Around here, the weather forecast is for a cold but not abnormally cold week ahead. This seems likely. A forecast that it was to jump into the 80s and stay there for the rest of February would be so implausible that we’d ignore it altogether. A forecast that it would be ten degrees (Fahrenheit) below normal, or above, though? We could accept that pretty easily.

Proving a forecast is wrong takes work, though. Mostly it takes evidence. If we look at a hundred times the forecast was for a 10% chance of snow, and it actually snowed 11% of the time, is it implausible that the forecast was right? Not really, not any more than a coin coming up tails 52 times out of 100 would be suspicious. If it actually snowed 20% of the time? That might suggest that the forecast was wrong. If it snowed 80% of the time? That suggests something’s very wrong with the forecasting methods. It’s hard to say one forecast is wrong, but we can have a sense of what forecasters are more often right than others are.

Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens for the 7th is a cute little bit about counting. Counting things out is an interesting process; for some people, hearing numbers said aloud will disrupt their progress. For others, it won’t, but seeing numbers may disrupt it instead.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 8th is a bit of silliness about the mathematical sense of animals. Studying how animals understand number is a real science, and it turns up interesting results. It shouldn’t be surprising that animals can do a fair bit of counting and some geometric reasoning, although it’s rougher than even our untrained childhood expertise. We get a good bit of our basic mathematical ability from somewhere, because we’re evolved to notice some things. It’s silly to suppose that dogs would be able to state the Pythagorean Theorem, at least in a form that we recognize. But it is probably someone’s good research problem to work out whether we can test whether dogs understand the implications of the theorem, and whether it helps them go about dog work any.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 8th speaks of the “Cinnamon Roll Delta Function”. The point is clear enough on its own. So let me spoil a good enough bit of fluff by explaining that it’s a reference to something. There is, lurking in mathematical physics, a concept called the “Dirac delta function”, named for that innovative and imaginative fellow Paul Dirac. It has some weird properties. Its domain is … well, it has many domains. The real numbers. The set of ordered pairs of real numbers, R2. The set of ordered triples of real numbers, R3. Basically any space you like, there’s a Dirac delta function for it. The Dirac delta function is equal to zero everywhere in this domain, except at one point, the “origin”. At that one function, though? There it’s equal to …

Here we step back a moment. We really, really, really want to say that it’s infinitely large at that point, which is what Weinersmith’s graph shows. If we’re being careful, we don’t say that though. Because if we did say that, then we would lose the thing that we use the Dirac delta function for. The Dirac delta function, represented with δ, is a function with the property that for any set D, in the domain, that you choose to integrate over

$\int_D \delta(x) dx = 1$

whenever the origin is inside the interval of integration D. It’s equal to 0 if the origin is not inside the interval of integration. This, whatever the set is. If we use the ordinary definitions for what it means to integrate a function, and say that the delta function is “infinitely big” at the origin, then this won’t happen; the integral will be zero everywhere.

This is one of those cases where physicists worked out new mathematical concepts, and the mathematicians had to come up with a rationalization by which this made sense. This because the function is quite useful. It allows us, mathematically, to turn descriptions of point particles into descriptions of continuous fields. And vice-versa: we can turn continuous fields into point particles. It turns out we like to do this a lot. So if we’re being careful we don’t say just what the Dirac delta function “is” at the origin, only some properties about what it does. And if we’re being further careful we’ll speak of it as a “distribution” rather than a function.

But colloquially, we think of the Dirac delta function as one that’s zero everywhere, except for the one point where it’s somehow “a really big infinity” and we try to not look directly at it.

The sharp-eyed observer may notice that Weinersmith’s graph does not put the great delta spike at the origin, that is, where the x-axis represents zero. This is true. We can create a delta-like function with a singular spot anywhere we like by the process called “translation”. That is, if we would like the function to be zero everywhere except at the point $a$, then we define a function $\delta_a(x) = \delta(x - a)$ and are done. Translation is a simple step, but it turns out to be useful all the time.

Thanks again for reading. See you soon.

Reading the Comics, August 9, 2019: Venn Diagrams Edition

Thanks for sticking around as I finally got to the past week’s comic strips. There were just enough for me to divide them into two chunks and not feel like I’m cheating anyone of my sparkling prose.

Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 4th is another entry in this strip’s string of not-quite-Venn-Diagram jokes. As will happen, the point of the diagram seems clear enough even if it doesn’t quite parse. And it isn’t a proper Venn diagram, of course; a Venn diagram for five propositions has to have 31 regions, representing all the possible ways five things can combine or be excluded. They can be beautiful to look at, but start losing their value as ways to organize thought. This is again a Euclid diagram, which doesn’t need to show every possible overlap.

Michael Jantze’s The Norm 4.0 for the 5th is the other Venn Diagram joke for the week. Again properly the first one, showing the complete lack of overlap between two positions, is an Euler rather than a Venn diagram. The second, the “Amity Venn diagram on planet X”, is a Venn diagram and showing the intersection of blue and yellow regions as green is a nice way to show that. (I’m not fond of the gender stereotyping here, nor of the conflation of gender and chromosomes. But the comic strip does have to rely on shorthands or there’s just not going to be the space to compose a joke.)

Harry Bliss’s Bliss for the 6th name-checks tetrahedrons. These are the shapes the rest of us would probably call pyramids or perhaps d4. It’s a bit silly to suppose a hairball should be a tetrahedron. But natural processes will form particular shapes. The obvious example is the hexagonal prisms of honeycombs, which come about for reasons … I’m not sure biologists are completely agreed on. Hexagons do seem to be efficient ways to encompass a lot of volume with a minimum of material, at least. But even the classic hairball looks like that for reasons, related to how it’s created and how it’s expelled from the cat. They just don’t usually have corners.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 9th has you common blackboard full of symbols to represent mathematical work. It also evokes a well-worn joke that defines a mathematician as a mechanism for turning coffee into theorems. The explosion of creativity though is true to mathematicians, though. When inspiration is flowing the notes will get abundant and start going in many different wild directions. The symbols in the comic strip don’t mean anything. But that’s not inauthentic. The notes written during an inspired burst will be nonsensical. The great idea needs to be preserved. It can be cleaned up and, one hopes, made presentable later.

This and other Reading the Comics posts are at this link. I should have a fresh one on Thursday, wrapping up the past week.

Reading the Comics, April 26, 2019: Absurd Equation Edition

And now I’ll cover the handful of comic strips which ran last week and which didn’t fit in my Sunday report. And link to a couple of comics that ultimately weren’t worth discussion in their own right, mostly because they were repeats of ones I’ve already discussed. I have been trimming rerun comics out of my daily reading. But there are ones I like too much to give up, at least not right now.

Bud Blake’s Tiger for the 25th has Tiger quizzing Punkinhead on counting. The younger kid hasn’t reached the point where he can work out numbers without a specific physical representation. It would come, if he were in one of those comics where people age.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 24th is an optimization problem, and an expectation value problem. The wisdom-seeker searches for the most satisfying life. The mathematician-guru offers an answer based in probability and expectation values. List all the possible outcomes, and how probable each are, and how much of the relevant quantity you get (or lose) with each outcome. This is a quite utilitarian view of life-planning. Finding the best possible outcome, given certain constraints, is another big field of mathematics.

John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for the 26th is a nonsense-equation panel. It’s built on a cute idea. If you do wan to know how many bears you can fit in the kitchen you would need something like this. Not this, though. You can tell by the dimensions. ‘x’, as the area of the kitchen, has units of, well, area. Square feet, or square meters, or square centimeters, or whatever is convenient to measure its area. The average volume of a bear, meanwhile, has units of … volume. Cubic feet, or cubic meters, or cubic centimeters, or the like. The one divided by the other has units of one-over-distance.

And I don’t know what the units of desire to have bears in your kitchen are, but I’m guessing it’s not “bear-feet”, although that would be worth a giggle. The equation would parse more closely if y were the number of bears that can fit in a square foot, or something similar. I say all this just to spoil Atkinson’s fine enough bit of nonsense.

Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 26th is a joke built on inappropriate extrapolation. 3520 seconds is a touch under an hour. Skippy’s pace, if he could keep it up, would be running a mile every five minutes, 52 seconds. That pace isn’t impossible — I find it listed on charts for marathon runners. But that would be for people who’ve trained to be marathon or other long-distance runners. They probably have different fifty-yard run times.

And now for some of the recent comics that didn’t seem worth their own discussion, and why they didn’t.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 20th features reciting the digits of π as a pointless macho stunt. There are people who make a deal of memorizing digits of π. Everyone needs hobbies, and memorizing meaningless stuff is a traditional fanboy’s way of burying oneself in the thing appreciated. Me, I can give you π to … I want to say sixteen digits. I might have gone farther in my youth, but I was heartbroken when I learned one of the digits I had memorized I got wrong, and so after correcting that mess I gave up going farther.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy rerun for the 22nd has Ruthie seeking mathematics help from the homework hotline. The mathematics is just a pretext. And Richard Thompson’s Richard’s Poor Almanac for the 22nd is the color version of that comic with the Platonic Fir tree, discussed several times. Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff for the 25th reprints the pre-relettering version of >the eating-the-roast-beef joke This is the strip that I’d found changed to “eating ham” in 2018, part of the strip’s mysterious and unexplained relettering.

And now I am, briefly, caught up on the comic strips. I’ll be behind again by Sunday, though. I’ll do something about that, in an essay you should be able to find at this link.

Reading the Comics, February 16, 2019: The Rest And The Rejects

I’d promised on Sunday the remainder of last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. I got busy with house chores yesterday and failed to post on time. That’s why this is late. It’s only a couple of comics here, but it does include my list of strips that I didn’t think were on-topic enough. You might like them, or be able to use them, yourself, though.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 14th depicts a kid enthusiastic about the abilities of mathematics to uncover truths. Suppressed truths, in this case. Well, it’s not as if mathematics hasn’t been put to the service of conspiracy theories before. Mathematics holds a great promise of truth. Answers calculated correctly are, after all, universally true. They can also offer a hypnotizing precision, with all the digits past the decimal point that anyone could want. But one catch among many is whether your calculations are about anything relevant to what you want to know. Another is whether the calculations were done correctly. It’s easy to make a mistake. If one thinks one has found exciting results it’s hard to imagine even looking for one.

You can’t use shadow analysis to prove the Moon landings fake. But the analysis of shadows can be good mathematics. It can locate things in space and in time. This is a kind of “inverse problem”: given this observable result, what combinations of light and shadow and position would have caused that? And there is a related problem. Johannes Vermeer produced many paintings with awesome, photorealistic detail. One hypothesis for how he achieved this skill is that he used optical tools, including a camera obscura and appropriate curved mirrors. So, is it possible to use the objects shown in perspective in his paintings to project where the original objects had to be, and where the painter had to be, to see them? We can calculate this, at least. I am not well enough versed in art history to say whether we have compelling answers.

Art Sansom and Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser for the 16th is the rare Roman Numerals joke strip that isn’t anthropomorphizing the numerals. Or a play on how the numerals used are also letters. But yeah, there’s not much use for them that isn’t decorative. Hindu-Arabic numerals have great advantages in compactness, and multiplication and division, and handling fractions of a whole number. And handling big numbers. Roman numerals are probably about as good for adding or subtracting small numbers, but that’s not enough of what we do anymore.

And past that there were three comic strips that had some mathematics element. But they were slight ones, and I didn’t feel I could write about them at length. Might like them anyway. Gordon Bess’s Redeye for the 10th of February, and originally run the 24th of September, 1972, has the start of a word problem as example of Pokey’s homework. Mark Litzler’s Joe Vanilla for the 11th has a couple scientist-types standing in front of a board with some mathematics symbols. The symbols don’t quite parse, to me, but they look close to it. Like, the line about $l(\omega) = \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} l(x) e$ is close to what one would write for the Fourier transformation of the function named l. It would need to be more like $L(\omega) = \int_{-\infty}^{\infty} l(x) e^{\imath \omega x} dx$ and even then it wouldn’t be quite done. So I guess Litzler used some actual reference but only copied as much as worked for the composition. (Which is not a problem, of course. The mathematics has no role in this strip beyond its visual appeal, so only the part that looks good needs to be there.) The Fourier transform’s a commonly-used trick; among many things, it lets us replace differential equations (hard, but instructive, and everywhere) with polynomials (comfortable and familiar and well-understood). Finally among the not-quite-comment-worthy is Pascal Wyse and Joe Berger’s Berger And Wyse for the 12th, showing off a Venn Diagram for its joke.

Next Sunday should be a fresh Reading the Comics post, which like all its kind, should appear at this link.

Reading the Comics, January 1, 2019: New Year’s Day Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the Comics, October 24, 2018: Frazz Really Wants To Be My Friend Edition

It’s another week with several on-topic installments of Frazz. Again, Jef Mallet, you and I live in the same metro area. Wave to me at the farmer’s market or something. I’m kind of able to talk to people in real life, if I can keep in view three different paths to escape and know two bathrooms to hide in. Horrock’s is great for that.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 22nd is a bit of wordplay. It’s built on the association between “negative” and “wrong”. And the confusing fact that multiplying a negative number by a negative number results in a positive number. It sounds like a trick. Still, negative numbers are tricky. The name connotes something that’s gone a bit wrong. It took time to understand what they were and how they should work. This weird multiplication rule follows from that. If we don’t suppose this to be true, then we break other ideas we have about multiplication and comparative sizes and such. Mathematicians needed to get comfortable with negative numbers. For a long time, for example, mathematicians would treat $x^2 - 4x + 4 = 0$ and $x^4 + 4x + 4 = 0$ as different kinds of polynomials to solve. Today we see a -4 as no harder than a +4, now that we’re good at multiplying it out. And I have read, but have not seen explained, that there was uncertainty among the philosophers of mathematics about whether we should consider negative numbers, as a group, to be greater than or less than positive numbers. (I have reasons for thinking this a mighty interesting speculation.) There’s reasons to doubt them, is what I have to say.

Bob Weber Jr and Jay Stephens’s Oh Brother for the 22nd reminds me of my childhood. At some point I was pairing up the counting numbers and the letters of the alphabet, and realized that the alphabet ended while the numbers did not. Something about that offended my young sense of justice. I’m not sure how, anymore. But that it was always possible to find a bigger number than whatever you thought was the biggest caught my imagination.

There is, surely, a largest finite number that anybody will ever use for something, even if it’s just hyperbole. I’m curious what it will be. Surely we can’t have already used it. A number named Skewes’s Number was famous, for a while, as the largest number actually used in a proof of something. The fame came from Isaac Asimov writing an essay about the number, and why someone might care, and how hard it is just describing how big the number is in a comprehensible way. Wikipedia tells me this number’s far been exceeded by, among other things, something called Rayo’s Number. It’s “the smallest number bigger than any finite number named by an expression in the language of set theory with a googol symbols or less” (plus some technical points to keep you from cheating). Which, all right, but I’d like to know if we think the first digit is a 1, maybe a 2? Somehow I don’t demand that of Skewes, perhaps because I read that Asimov essay when I was at an impressionable age.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 23rd has Caulfield talk about a fraction divided by a fraction. And particularly he says “a fraction divided by a fraction is just a fraction times a flipped fraction”. This offends me, somehow. This even though that is how I’d calculate the value of the division, if I needed to know that. But it seems to me like automatically going to that process skips recognizing that, say, $\frac{2}{5} \div \frac{1}{10}$ shouldn’t be surprising if it turns out not to be a fraction. Well, Caulfield’s just looking to cause trouble with a string of wordplay. I can think of how to divide a fraction by a fraction and get zero.

Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots for the 23rd promises to recapitulate the whole history of mathematics in a single panel. Ambitious bit of work. It’s easy to picture going from the idea of 1 to any of the positive whole numbers, though. It’s so easy it doesn’t even need humans to do it; animals can count, at least a bit. We just carry on to a greater extent than the crows or the raccoons do, so far as we’ve heard. From those, it takes some squinting, but you can think of negative whole numbers. And from that you get zero pretty quickly. You can also get rational numbers. The western mathematical tradition did this by looking at … er … ratios, that something might be to another thing as two is to five. Circumlocutions like that. Getting to irrational numbers is harder. Can be harder. Some irrational numbers beg you to notice them: the square root of two, for example. Square root of three. Numbers that come up from solving polynomial equations. But there are more number than those. Many more numbers. You might suspect the existence of a transcendental number, that isn’t the root of any polynomial that’s decently behaved. But finding one? Or finding that there are more transcendental number than there are real numbers? This takes a certain brilliance to suspect, and to prove out. But we can get there with rational numbers — which we get to from collections of ones — and the idea of cutting sets of numbers into those smaller than and those bigger than something. Ashleigh Brilliant has more truth than, perhaps, he realized when he drew this panel.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 24th has goldfish work out the shape of space. A goldfish in this case has the advantage of being able to go nearly everywhere in the space. But working out what the universe must look like, when you can only run local experiments, is a great geometric problem. It’s akin to working out that the Earth must be a sphere, and about how big a sphere, from the surveying job one can do without travelling more than a few hundred kilometers.

If you’re interested in reading the comics, you might want to see Reading the Comics posts. They’re here. More essays mentioning Frazz should be at this link. Essays that discuss ideas brought up by Oh Brother! should be this link. Essays which talk about Frazz — wait. I said that. This and other appearances by Pot Shots should be at this link. And posts which feature Carpe Diem should be at link. Do please stick around for more of my Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z, too. I’m trying to keep up at two essays a week through the end of the year, which is not precisely fall.

Reading the Comics, April 2018: Another Normal Week Edition

And for another week running the pace of mathematically-themed comic strips has been near normal. There’s nowhere near enough to split the essay into two pieces, which is fine. There is some more work involved in including images for all the strips I discuss and this pace better fits the time I could make for writing this week. Will admit I’m scared of what’s going to happen when I have a busy week and Comic Strip Master Command orders more comics for me. I admit this isn’t an inspired name for the Edition. But the edition names are mostly there so people have a chance of telling whether they’ve read an installment before. The date alone doesn’t do it. A couple of words will. Maybe I should give up on meaningful names if there isn’t an obvious theme for the week. It’s got to be at least as good to name something “Coronet Blue Edition” as to name it “Lots Of Andertoons Edition”.

Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows rerun for the 1st riffs on quantum computers. You’ve maybe seen much talk about them in pop science columns and blogs. They require a bunch of stuff that gets talked about as if it were magical. Quantum mechanics, obviously, the biggest bit of magic in popular science today. Complex-valued numbers, which make for much more convenient mathematical descriptions. Probability, which everyone thinks they understand and which it turns out nobody does. Vector spaces and linear algebra, which mathematics (and physics) majors get to know well. The mathematics of how a quantum computer computes is well-described as this sort of matrix and vector work. Quantum computing promises to be a really good way to do problems where the best available approach is grinding it out: testing every possibility and finding the best ones. No part of making a quantum computer is easy, though, so it’s hard to say when we’ll have the computing power to make a version of SimCity with naturally curving roads. (This is a new tag for my Reading the Comics essays, but I’ve surely featured the strip some before.)

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 2nd is a mathematics-education-these-days joke. The extremely small child talking about counting-without-a-calculator as a subject worth studying. People are always complaining that people don’t do arithmetic well enough in their heads. I understand the frustration, considering last week I stymied a cashier at a Penn Station by giving $22.11 for my$11.61 order. I don’t know why he put in my payment as $20; why not let the machine designed to do this work, do the work? He did fine working out that I should get$10 in bills back but muddled up the change. As annoyances go it ranks up there with the fast food cashier asking my name for the order and entering it as “Joeseph”.

Lard’s World Peace Tips for the 4th mentions the Möbius Strip. It’s got to be the most famous exotic piece of geometry to have penetrated the popular culture. It’s also a good shape to introduce geometry students to a “non-orientable” surface. Non-orientable means about what you’d imagine. There’s not a way to put coordinates on it that don’t get weird. For example, try drawing an equator on the surface of the strip. Any curve along the surface that doesn’t run off the edges will do. The curve just has to meet itself. It looks like this divides the strip into two pieces. Fine, then; which of these two pieces is “north” and which is “south” of this equator? There’s not a way to do that. You get surprising results if you try.

Karen Montague-Reyes’s Clear Blue Water rerun for the 5th has Eve deploying a mathematical formula. She’s trying to describe the way that perception of time changes over the course of events. It’s not a bad goal. Many things turn out to be mathematically describable. I don’t see what the equation is supposed to even mean, but then, I haven’t seen the model she developed that implies this equation. (This is not a new tag and I’m surprised by that.)

Dan Thompson’s Brevity for the 6th is some mathematics wordplay, built on the abacus. I’m not sure there’s more to say about this, past that you can do much more on an abacus. You can, at least. I keep reading directions about how to multiply with it and then I look at mine and I feel helpless.

Bil Keane and Jeff Keane’s Family Circus for the 7th is a kids-mispronouncing-a-mathematics-word strip. I have even less to say about this. It’s a normal week.

Reading the Comics, September 16, 2017: Wait, Are Elviney and Miss Prunelly The Same Character Week

It was an ordinary enough week when I realized I wasn’t sure about the name of the schoolmarm in Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. So I looked it up on Comics Kingdom’s official cast page for John Rose’s comic strip. And then I realized something about the Smiths’ next-door neighbor Elviney and Jughaid’s teacher Miss Prunelly:

Are … are they the same character, just wearing different glasses? I’ve been reading this comic strip for like forty years and I’ve never noticed this before. I’ve also never heard any of you all joking about this, by the way, so I stand by my argument that if they’re prominent enough then, yes, glasses could be an adequate disguise for Superman. Anyway, I’m startled. (Are they sisters? Cousins? But wouldn’t that make mention on the cast page? There are missing pieces here.)

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic In A Minute feature for the 10th sneaks in here yet again with a magic trick based in arithmetic. Here, they use what’s got to be some Magic Square-based technology for a card trick. This probably could be put to use with other arrangements of numbers, but cards have the advantage of being stuff a magician is likely to have around and that are expected to do something weird.

Susan Camilleri Konair’s Six Chix for the 13th name-drops mathematics as the homework likely to be impossible doing. I think this is the first time Konair’s turned up in a Reading The Comics survey.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains for the 13th is an Albert Einstein Needing Help panel. It’s got your blackboard full of symbols, not one of which is the famous E = mc2 equation. But given the setup it couldn’t feature that equation, not and be a correct joke.

John Rose’s Barney Google for the 14th does a little more work than necessary for its subtraction-explained-with-candy joke. I non-sarcastically appreciate Rose’s dodging the obvious joke in favor of a guy-is-stupid joke.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 14th is a kind of lying-with-statistics joke. That’s as much as it needs to be. Still, thought always should go into exactly how one presents data, especially visually. There are connotations to things. Just inverting an axis is dangerous stuff, though. The convention of matching an increase in number to moving up on the graph is so ingrained that it should be avoided only for enormous cause.

This joke also seems conceptually close, to me, to the jokes about the strangeness of how a “negative” medical test is so often the good news.

Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 15th is not about solitaire. But “solving” a game by simulating many gameplays and drawing strategic advice from that is a classic numerical mathematics trick. Whether a game is fun once it’s been solved so is up to you. And often in actual play, for a game with many options at each step, it’s impossible without a computer to know the best possible move. You could use simulations like this to develop general guidelines, and a couple rules that often pan out.

Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 16th qualifies as the anthropomorphic-numerals joke for this week. I’m glad to have got one in.

Reading the Comics, August 9, 2017: Pets Doing Mathematics Edition

I had just enough comic strips to split this week’s mathematics comics review into two pieces. I like that. It feels so much to me like I have better readership when I have many days in a row with posting something, however slight. The A to Z is good for three days a week, and if comic strips can fill two of those other days then I get to enjoy a lot of regular publication days. … Though last week I accidentally set the Sunday comics post to appear on Monday, just before the A To Z post. I’m curious how that affected my readers. That nobody said anything is ominous.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 7th of August uses mathematics as the signifier for intelligence. I’m intrigued by how the joke goes a little different: while the border collies can work out the mechanics of a tossed stick, they haven’t figured out what the point of fetch is. But working out people’s motivations gets into realms of psychology and sociology and economics. There the mathematics might not be harder, but knowing that one is calculating a relevant thing is. (Eriksson’s making a running theme of the intelligence of border collies.)

Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia rerun for the 7th tosses off a mention that “we’re the first generation of girls who do math”. And that therefore there will be a cornucopia of new opportunities and good things to come to them. There’s a bunch of social commentary in there. One is the assumption that mathematics skill is a liberating thing. Perhaps it is the gloom of the times but I doubt that an oppressed group developing skills causes them to be esteemed. It seems more likely to me to make the skills become devalued. Social justice isn’t a matter of good exam grades.

Then, too, it’s not as though women haven’t done mathematics since forever. Every mathematics department on a college campus has some faded posters about Emmy Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya and maybe Sophie Germaine. Probably high school mathematics rooms too. Again perhaps it’s the gloom of the times. But I keep coming back to the goddess’s cynical dismissal of all this young hope.

Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Hi and Lois for the 10th of February, 1960 and rerun the 8th portrays arithmetic as a grand-strategic imperative. Well, it means education as a strategic imperative. But arithmetic is the thing Dot uses. I imagine because it is so easy to teach as a series of trivia and quiz about. And it fits in a single panel with room to spare.

Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 8th is not quite the anthropomorphic-numerals joke of the week. It circles around that territory, though, giving a couple of odd numbers some personality.

Brian Anderson’s Dog Eat Doug for the 9th finally justifies my title for this essay, as cats ponder mathematics. Well, they ponder quantum mechanics. But it’s nearly impossible to have a serious thought about that without pondering its mathematics. This doesn’t mean calculation, mind you. It does mean understanding what kinds of functions have physical importance. And what kinds of things one can do to functions. Understand them and you can discuss quantum mechanics without being mathematically stupid. And there’s enough ways to be stupid about quantum mechanics that any you can cut down is progress.

Reading the Comics, July 22, 2017: Counter-mudgeon Edition

I’m not sure there is an overarching theme to the past week’s gifts from Comic Strip Master Command. If there is, it’s that I feel like some strips are making cranky points and I want to argue against their cases. I’m not sure what the opposite of a curmudgeon is. So I shall dub myself, pending a better idea, a counter-mudgeon. This won’t last, as it’s not really a good name, but there must be a better one somewhere. We’ll see it, now that I’ve said I don’t know what it is.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 17th features the blackboard full of equations as icon for serious, deep mathematical work. It also features rabbits, although probably not for their role in shaping mathematical thinking. Rabbits and their breeding were used in the simple toy model that gave us Fibonacci numbers, famously. And the population of Arctic hares gives those of us who’ve reached differential equations a great problem to do. The ecosystem in which Arctic hares live can be modelled very simply, as hares and a generic predator. We can model how the populations of both grow with simple equations that nevertheless give us surprises. In a rich, diverse ecosystem we see a lot of population stability: one year where an animal is a little more fecund than usual doesn’t matter much. In the sparse ecosystem of the Arctic, and the one we’re building worldwide, small changes can have matter enormously. We can even produce deterministic chaos, in which if we knew exactly how many hares and predators there were, and exactly how many of them would be born and exactly how many would die, we could predict future populations. But the tiny difference between our attainable estimate and the reality, even if it’s as small as one hare too many or too few in our model, makes our predictions worthless. It’s thrilling stuff.

Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 17th reads, to me, as a word problem joke. The talk about how much change Marian should get back from Blake could be any kind of minor hassle in the real world where one friend covers the cost of something for another but expects to be repaid. But counting how many more nickels one person has than another? That’s of interest to kids and to story-problem authors. Who else worries about that count?

Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 17th straddles that triple point joining mathematics, philosophy, and economics. It seems sensible, in an age that embraces the idea that everything can be measured, to try to quantify happiness. And it seems sensible, in age that embraces the idea that we can model and extrapolate and act on reasonable projections, to try to see what might improve our happiness. This is so even if it’s as simple as identifying what we should or shouldn’t be happy about. Caulfield is circling around the discovery of utilitarianism. It’s a philosophy that (for my money) is better-suited to problems like how ought the city arrange its bus lines than matters too integral to life. But it, too, can bring comfort.

Corey Pandolph’s Barkeater Lake rerun for the 20th features some mischievous arithmetic. I’m amused. It turns out that people do have enough of a number sense that very few people would let “17 plus 79 is 4,178” pass without comment. People might not be able to say exactly what it is, on a glance. If you answered that 17 plus 79 was 95, or 102, most people would need to stop and think about whether either was right. But they’re likely to know without thinking that it can’t be, say, 56 or 206. This, I understand, is so even for people who aren’t good at arithmetic. There is something amazing that we can do this sort of arithmetic so well, considering that there’s little obvious in the natural world that would need the human animal to add 17 and 79. There are things about how animals understand numbers which we don’t know yet.

Alex Hallatt’s Human Cull for the 21st seems almost a direct response to the Barkeater Lake rerun. Somehow “making change” is treated as the highest calling of mathematics. I suppose it has a fair claim to the title of mathematics most often done. Still, I can’t get behind Hallatt’s crankiness here, and not just because Human Cull is one of the most needlessly curmudgeonly strips I regularly read. For one, store clerks don’t need to do mathematics. The cash registers do all the mathematics that clerks might need to do, and do it very well. The machines are cheap, fast, and reliable. Not using them is an affectation. I’ll grant it gives some charm to antiques shops and boutiques where they write your receipt out by hand, but that’s for atmosphere, not reliability. And it is useful the clerk having a rough idea what the change should be. But that’s just to avoid the risk of mistakes getting through. No matter how mathematically skilled the clerk is, there’ll sometimes be a price entered wrong, or the customer’s money counted wrong, or a one-dollar bill put in the five-dollar bill’s tray, or a clerk picking up two nickels when three would have been more appropriate. We should have empathy for the people doing this work.

Reading the Comics, June 17, 2017: Icons Of Mathematics Edition

Comic Strip Master Command just barely missed being busy enough for me to split the week’s edition. Fine for them, I suppose, although it means I’m going to have to scramble together something for the Tuesday or the Thursday posting slot. Ah well. As befits the comics, there’s a fair bit of mathematics as an icon in the past week’s selections. So let’s discuss.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is our Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this essay. Kind of a relief to have that in right away. And while the cartoon shows a real disaster of a student at the chalkboard, there is some truth to the caption. Ruling out plausible-looking wrong answers is progress, usually. So is coming up with plausible-looking answers to work out whether they’re right or wrong. The troubling part here, I’d say, is that the kid came up with pretty poor guesses about what the answer might be. He ought to be able to guess that it’s got to be an odd number, and has to be less than 10, and really ought to be less than 7. If you spot that then you can’t make more than two wrong guesses.

Patrick J Marrin’s Francis for the 12th starts with what sounds like a logical paradox, about whether the Pope could make an infallibly true statement that he was not infallible. Really it sounds like a bit of nonsense. But the limits of what we can know about a logical system will often involve questions of this form. We ask whether something can prove whether it is provable, for example, and come up with a rigorous answer. So that’s the mathematical content which justifies my including this strip here.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 13th is a traditional use of the blackboard full of mathematics as symbolic of intelligence. Of course ‘E = mc2‘ gets in there. I’m surprised that both π and 3.14 do, too, for as little as we see on the board.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 14th is a nice bit of reassurance. Maybe the cartoonist was worried this would be a split-week edition. The kid seems to be the same one as the 11th, but the teacher looks different. Anyway there’s a lot you can tell about shapes from their perimeter alone. The one which most startles me comes up in calculus: by doing the right calculation about the lengths and directions of the edge of a shape you can tell how much area is inside the shape. There’s a lot of stuff in this field — multivariable calculus — that’s about swapping between “stuff you know about the boundary of a shape” and “stuff you know about the interior of the shape”. And finding area from tracing the boundary is one of them. It’s still glorious.

Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse for the 14th is a counting-sheep joke and a Pi Day joke. I suspect the digits of π would be horrible for lulling one to sleep, though. They lack the just-enough-order that something needs for a semiconscious mind to drift off. Horace would probably be better off working out Collatz sequences.

Dana Simpson’s Phoebe and her Unicorn for the 14th mentions mathematics as iconic of what you do at school. Book reports also make the cut.

Dan Barry’s Flash Gordon for the 31st of July, 1962 and rerun the 16th I’m including just because I love the old-fashioned image of a mathematician in Professor Quita here. At this point in the comic strip’s run it was set in the far-distant future year of 1972, and the action here is on one of the busy multinational giant space stations. Flash himself is just back from Venus where he’d set up some dolphins as assistants to a fish-farming operation helping to feed that world and ours. And for all that early-60s futurism look at that gorgeous old adding machine he’s still got. (Professor Quinta’s discovery is a way to peer into alternate universes, according to the next day’s strip. I’m kind of hoping this means they’re going to spend a week reading Buck Rogers.)

Reading the Comics, June 10, 2017: Some Vintage Comics Edition

It’s too many comics to call this a famine edition, after last week’s feast. But there’s not a lot of theme to last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. There’s a couple that include vintage comic strips from before 1940, though, so let’s run with that as a title.

Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Flying McCoys for the 4th of June is your traditional blackboard full of symbols to indicate serious and deep thought on a subject. It’s a silly subject, but that’s fine. The symbols look to me gibberish, but clown research will go along non-traditional paths, I suppose.

Bill Hinds’s Tank McNamara for the 4th is built on mathematics’ successful invasion and colonization of sports management. Analytics, sabermetrics, Moneyball, whatever you want to call it, is built on ideas not far removed from the quality control techniques that changed corporate management so. Look for patterns; look for correlations; look for the things that seem to predict other things. It seems bizarre, almost inhuman, that we might be able to think of football players as being all of a kind, that what we know about (say) one running back will tell us something about another. But if we put roughly similarly capable people through roughly similar training and set them to work in roughly similar conditions, then we start to see why they might perform similarly. Models can help us make better, more rational, choices.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 4th is another word-problem resistance joke. I suppose it’s also a reminder about the unspoken assumptions in a problem. It also points out why mathematicians end up speaking in an annoyingly precise manner. It’s an attempt to avoid being shown up like Oliver is.

Which wouldn’t help with Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 7th of April, 1930, and rerun the 5th. Skippy’s got a smooth line of patter to get out of his mother’s tutoring. You can see where Percy Crosby has the weird trait of drawing comics in 1930 that would make sense today still; few pre-World-War-II comics do.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 7th is a joke about mathematics anxiety. I don’t know that it actually explains anything, but, eh. I’m not sure there is a rational explanation for mathematics anxiety; if there were, I suppose it wouldn’t be anxiety.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat for the 15th of July, 1939, and rerun the 8th, extends that odd little faintly word-problem-setup of the strips I mentioned the other day. I suppose identifying when two things moving at different speeds will intersect will always sound vaguely like a story problem.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am rerun for the 9th is about the sometimes-considered third possibility from a fair coin toss, and how to rig the results of that.