Reading the Comics, January 30, 2019: Interlude Edition

I think there are just barely enough comic strips from the past week to make three essays this time around. But one of them has to be a short group, only three comics. That’ll be for the next essay when I can group together all the strips that ran in February. One strip that I considered but decided not to write at length about was Ed Allison’s dadaist Unstrange Phenomena for the 28th. It mentions Roman Numerals and the idea of sneaking message in through them. But that’s not really mathematics. I usually enjoy the particular flavor of nonsense which Unstrange Phenomena uses; you might, too.

John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 29th uses an arithmetic problem as shorthand for an accomplished education. The problem is solvable. Of course, you say. It’s an equation with quadratic polynomial; it can hardly not be solved. Yes, fine. But McPherson could easily have thrown together numbers that implied x was complex-valued, or had radicals or some other strange condition. This is one that someone could do in their heads, at least once they practiced in mental arithmetic.

Cars lined up at a toll booth. The sign reads: 'Welcome to New York State! To enter the state, please solve the following problem: (2x^2 + 7)/3 = 13, solve for x'. Attendant telling a driver: 'It's part of the state's new emphasis on improving education. I'm afraid you'll have to turn around, Mr Strob.'
John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 29th of January, 2019. Essays inspired by Close To Home should appear at this link.

I feel reasonably confident McPherson was just having a giggle at the idea of putting knowledge tests into inappropriate venues. So I’ll save the full rant. But there is a long history of racist and eugenicist ideology that tried to prove certain peoples to be mentally incompetent. Making an arithmetic quiz prerequisite to something unrelated echoes that. I’d have asked McPherson to rework the joke to avoid that.

(I’d also want to rework the composition, since the booth, the swinging arm, and the skirted attendant with the clipboard don’t look like any tollbooth I know. But I don’t have an idea how to redo the layout so it’s more realistic. And it’s not as if that sort of realism would heighten the joke.)

Lecturer: 'Since Babylonian days mathematicians have wondered if it were possible to 'square the circle' using only a compass and straightedge. Mathematicians *supposedly* proved you couldn't back in 1882. They were wrong. Imagine your compass and straightedge. First, put a pencil on one end of the compass and an eraser on the other. Second, designate any number of tiny boxes on your straightedge. Using the compass, you can draw or erase symbols on the straightedge. And what's *that* called? A Turing machine. So now we can rephrase the problem: using only a *computer*, can you construct a square with the same area as a given circle? Using this general method we can unlock *all* 'compass and straightedge' problems! Attendee: 'Are you missing the point accidentally or strategically?' Lecturer: 'I'm mostly trying to make the philosophy students sad.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 29th of January, 2019. Every Reading the Comics essay has a bit of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal in it. The essays with a particularly high Breakfast Cereal concentration appear at this link, though.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 29th riffs on the problem of squaring the circle. This is one of three classical problems of geometry. The lecturer describes it just fine: is it possible to make a square that’s got the same area as a given circle, using only straightedge and compass? There are shapes it’s easy to do this for, such as rectangles, parallelograms, triangles, and (why not?) this odd crescent-moon shaped figure called the lune. Circles defied all attempts. In the 19th century mathematicians found ways to represent the operations of classical geometry with algebra, and could use the tools of algebra to show squaring the circle was impossible. The squaring would be equivalent to finding a polynomial, with integer coefficients, that has \sqrt{\pi} as a root. And we know from the way algebra works that this can’t be done. So squaring the circle can’t be done.

The lecturer’s hack, modifying the compass and straightedge, lets you in principle do whatever you want. The hack isn’t new either. Modifying the geometric tools changes what you can and can’t do. The Ancient Greeks recognized that adding some specialized tools would make the problem possible. But that falls outside the scope of the problem.

Which feeds to the secondary joke, of making the philosophers sad. Often philosophy problems test one’s intuition about an idea by setting out a problem, often with unpleasant choices. A common problem with students that I’m going ahead and guessing are engineers is then attacking the setup of the question, trying to show that the problem couldn’t actually happen. You know, as though there were ever a time significant numbers of people were being tied to trolley tracks. (By the way, that thing about silent movie villains tying women to railroad tracks? Only happened in comedies spoofing Victorian melodramas. It’s always been a parody.) Attacking the logic of a problem may make for good movie drama. But it makes for a lousy student and a worse class discussion.

Li'l Bo: 'How are you on logic, Quincy?' Quincy: 'Average, I guess. I can usually put two and two together, but sometimes I have a fraction or so left over.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 30th of January, 2019. It originally ran the 6th of December, 1979. I’m usually happy when I get the chance to talk about this strip. The art’s pretty sweet. When I do discuss Quincy the essays should appear at this link.

Ted Shearer’s Quincy rerun for the 30th uses a bit of mathematics and logic talk. It circles the difference between the feeling one can have about the rational meaning of a situation and how the situation feels to someone. It seems like a jump that Quincy goes from being asked about logic to talking about arithmetic. Possibly Quincy’s understanding of logic doesn’t start from the sort of very abstract concept that makes arithmetic hard to get to, though.

There should be another Reading the Comics post this week. It should be here, when it appears. There should also be one on Sunday, as usual.


Reading the Comics, July 17, 2018: These Are Comic Strips Edition

Some of the comics last week don’t leave me much to talk about. Well, there should be another half-dozen comics under review later in the week. You’ll stick around, won’t you please?

Anthony Blades’s Bewley for the 16th is a rerun, and an old friend. It’s appeared the 14th of August, 2016, and in April 2015 and in May 2013. Maybe it’s time I dropped the strip from my reading. The scheme by which the kids got the right answer out of their father is a variation on the Clever Hans trick. Clever Hans was a famous example of animal perception: the horse appeared to be able to do arithmetic, tapping his hoof to signal a number. Brilliant experimental design found what was going on. Not that the horse was clever enough to tell (to make up an example) 18 divided by 3. But that the horse was clever enough to recognize the slight change in his trainer’s expression when he had counted off six. Animals (besides humans) do have some sense of numbers, but not that great a sense.

Father: 'You can do the next question yourselves. I'm not giving you any more help.' Bea: 'Okay, 18 / 3. Well, that's an easy one. Two.' (Father looks disbelieving.) Bea: 'Three.' (Same.) 'Four. Five. Six.' Tonus: 'There! His eye twitched!' Bea: 'Six it is.' Father: 'This can't be what they teach you at school!'
Anthony Blades’s Bewley rerun for the 16th of July, 2018. I don’t know, I’d check with someone who seemed more confident in their work.

Jeff Stahler’s Moderately Confused for the 16th is the old joke told about accountants and lawyers when they encounter mathematics, recast to star the future disgraced former president. The way we normally define ‘two’ and ‘plus’ and ‘two’ and ‘equals’ and ‘four’ there’s not room for quibbling about their relationship. Not without just lying, anyway. Thus this satisfies the rules of joke formation.

Kid writing 2 + 2 = 4 on the board. Trump: 'The correct answer would be many thousands ... many, many. Never settle for just four.'
Jeff Stahler’s Moderately Confused for the 16th of July, 2018. Sorry to throw this at you without adequate warning. I got it that way myself.

Olivia Jaimes’s Nancy for the 16th is, I think, the point that Jaimes’s Nancy has appeared in my essays more than Guy Gilchrist’s ever did. Well, different artists have different interests. This one depicts Nancy getting the motivation she needed to excel in arithmetic. I’m not convinced of the pedagogical soundness of the Nancy comic strip. But it’s not as though people won’t practice things for rewards.

Esther: 'Wow, Nancy, you can multiply really fast.' Nancy: 'It's probably because I'm a beautiful genius. Perhaps the most beautiful genius of all.' [ Every day the prior week ] Aunt Frizz: 'No Wi-fi until you do *some* work today.' (She holds up a paper. New Password: 12124 x 316 = ???'
Olivia Jaimes’s Nancy for the 16th of July, 2018. If Nancy’s phrasing seems needlessly weird in the second and third panels (as it did to me) you might want to know that A Beautiful Genius was the name of a biography of the mathematician/economist John Nash. Yes, the Nash whose life inspired the movie A Beautiful Mind. So now it should seem a little less bizarre. Does it?

Jerry van Amerongen’s Ballard Street for the 17th is somehow a blend of the Moderately Confused and Nancy strips from the day before. All right, then. It’s nice when people share their enthusiasms.

Man standing behind a small table, with pamphlets, and a sign: 'I support 2 x 2 = 4 and more!' Caption: Eric's getting more involved with multiplication.
Jerry van Amerongen’s Ballard Street for the 17th of July, 2018. I do like how eager Eric looks about sharing multiplication with people. I’ve never looked that cheery even while teaching stuff I loved.

John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 17th is the Roman Numerals joke for the week. Enjoy.

Roman types playing golf on hole XXIV, in front of a Colosseum prop. One cries out, 'IV!'.
John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 17th of July, 2018. You might think that’s a pretty shaky Colosseum in the background, but McPherson did have to communicate that this was happening in Ancient Rome faster than the reader could mistake the word balloon for a homonym of “ivy”. How would you do it?

Terri Liebenson’s Pajama Diaries for the 18th is the Venn Diagram joke for the week. Enjoy.

Venn Diagram of my Kids' Volume Levels: Mumble; Shout; the tiny intersection, 'What happens when I'm not around'.
Terri Liebenson’s Pajama Diaries for the 18th of July, 2018. … Yeah, I don’t have further commentary for this. Sorry.

I try to put all my Reading the Comics posts at this link, based on the ‘Comic Strips’ tag. Essays that mention Bewley are at this link. The essays which discuss Moderately Confused should be gathered at this link. The increasing number of essays mentioning Nancy are at this link. The Ballard Street strips discussed should be at this link; it turns out to be a new tag. Huh. Any Close To Home strips reviewed here should be at this link; it, too, is a new tag. And more Pajama Diaries comments should be at this link. Thanks for reading.