Reading the Comics, April 19, 2016: Mostly Reruns Edition


Though I believe all my commentary on this is new, most of the comic strips to mention mathematical subjects since last time were strips in reruns. It’ll pick up again.

Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate: First Class for the 16th of April originally ran the 11th of April, 1992. (First Class is a day-by-day reprinting of the comic strip.) Nate can’t believe that Francis is enchanted by the shapes in geometry. I can believe it, although I have a certain selection bias in the matter. Many fields of mathematics offer beauty. Geometry offers one that even the untrained eye can see. The diagrams that help along a geometric proof can be works of art, or at least suggest art. They also can be links to the world of Platonic ideals. The idea that there are perfect circles and squares and dodecahedrons and such is a strong one, at least in the Western tradition. And even a shaky sketch of that seems to evoke this perfection and render it understandable, even understood. There is joy to be had in this.

Nate Fakes’s Break Of Day for the 16th is a name-drop strip. Arithmetic serves as an easy-to-understand bit of work any reader can imagine making a mistake on. Really any work in any field can produce a mistake. And sometimes a mistake can be productive. This is as true in mathematics as it is in any creative field, and for much the same reason. It can teach why to do things one way rather than another. It can suggest alternate approaches. It can make you notice things you hadn’t noticed. But it’s easy in arithmetic to conclude that a mistake is just a wrongheaded effort, to be cut as soon as possible.

'You're lousy at math. That's why we've been lost for twenty years!' 'That really hurts.' 'You're right. How can we make it up to you?' 'Well, all five of you could apologize.' There are three of them.
Bill Rechin’s Crock for the 18th of April, 2016. It’s a rerun, I assume, although I can’t say from when. Also the ‘L’ of the Lost Squadron’s flag is challenging.

Bill Rechin’s Crock for the 18th (a rerun, though I don’t know from when) does mention mathematics in an appropriate context. Possibly the most important use of mathematics, after bookkeeping, is navigation. To know where one is, and where one means to go, is of great value. Finding ways to turn the observations and calculations needed to find one’s position into something that could be done in the field was a great challenge to armies and navies. You may remember the slide rule scene in the movie Apollo 13. The calculations there were all about converting navigational data for the Apollo Command Module to that for the Lunar Module. The Lunar Module was, relative to the Command Module, upside-down and rotated a little bit. Good navigation does demand a good sense of numbers.

Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set rerun from the 19th is about an application of mathematics I hear about but never see. I’m told there are many people in the world who need to halve or double recipes. And further, that the traditional English units of measure — three teaspoons in a tablespoon, two cups in a quart, four quarts in a gallon, et cetera — makes this sort of recipe scaling particularly easy. I am unconvinced, but I do like the array of extra size- and mathematics-related jokes stuffed into the background.

'Where are we now?' 'According to my calculations, we're about to enter a supermarket in downtown Topeka. Of course that's just a rough calculation.' They're on the high seas, as they were through the last Boner's Ark strip ever.
Mort Walker’s Boner’s Ark originally run the 1st of June, 1970. Why is Boner’s nose a poker chip?

Mort Walker’s Boner’s Ark for the 20th of April, originally run the 1st of June, 1970, is a curious pre-echo of the rock mentioned above. It’s a joke along the same lines anyway.

Reading the Comics, July 24, 2015: All The Popular Topics Are Here Edition


This week all the mathematically-themed comic strips seem to have come from Gocomics.com. Since that gives pretty stable URLs I don’t feel like I can include images of those comics. So I’m afraid it’s a bunch of text this time. I like to think you enjoy reading the text, though.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons seemed to make its required appearance here with the July 20th strip. And the kid’s right about parentheses being very important in mathematics and “just” extra information in ordinary language. Parentheses as a way of grouping together terms appear as early as the 16th century, according to Florian Cajori. But the symbols wouldn’t become common for a couple of centuries. Cajori speculates that the use of parentheses in normal rhetoric may have slowed mathematicians’ acceptance of them. Vinculums — lines placed over a group of terms — and colons before and after the group seem to have been more popular. Leonhard Euler would use parentheses a good bit, and that settled things. Besides all his other brilliances, Euler was brilliant at setting notation. There are still other common ways of aggregating terms. But most of them are straight brackets or curled braces, which are almost the smallest possible changes from parentheses you can make.

Though his place was secure, Mark Anderson got in another strip the next day. This one’s based on the dangers of extrapolating mindlessly. One trouble with extrapolation is that if we just want to match the data we have then there are literally infinitely many possible extrapolations, each equally valid. But most of them are obvious garbage. If the high temperature the last few days was 78, 79, 80, and 81 degrees Fahrenheit, it may be literally true that we could extrapolate that to a high of 120,618 degrees tomorrow, but we’d be daft to believe it. If we understand the factors likely to affect our data we can judge what extrapolations are plausible and what ones aren’t. As ever, sanity checking, verifying that our results could be correct, is critical.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics (July 20) continues Jason’s attempts at baking without knowing the unstated assumptions of baking. See above comments about sanity checking. At least he’s ruling out the obviously silly rotation angle. (The strip originally ran the 22nd of July, 2004. You can see it in color, there, if you want to see things like that.) Some commenters have gotten quite worked up about Jason saying “degrees Kelvin” when he need only say “Kelvin”. I can’t join them. Besides the phenomenal harmlessness of saying “degrees Kelvin”, it wouldn’t quite flow for Jason to think “350 degrees” short for “350 Kelvin” instead of “350 degrees Kelvin”.

Nate Frakes’s Break of Day (July 21) is the pure number wordplay strip for this roundup. This might be my favorite of this bunch, mostly because I can imagine the way it would be staged as a bit on The Muppet Show or a similar energetic and silly show. John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for July 23 is this roundup’s general mathematics wordplay strip. And Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark for July 22nd is the mathematics-literalist strip for this roundup.

Ruben Bolling’s Tom The Dancing Bug (July 23, rerun) is nominally an economics strip. Its premise is that since rational people do what maximizes their reward for the risk involved, then pointing out clearly how the risks and possible losses have changed will change their behavior. Underlying this are assumptions from probability and statistics. The core is the expectation value. That’s an average of what you might gain, or lose, from the different outcomes of something. That average is weighted by the probability of each outcome. A strictly rational person who hadn’t ruled anything in or out would be expected to do the thing with the highest expected gain, or the smallest expected loss. That people do not do things this way vexes folks who have not known many people.

Reading the Comics, July 19, 2015: Rerun Comics Edition


I’m stepping my blog back away from the daily posting schedule. It’s fun, but it’s also exhausting. Sometimes, Comic Strip Master Command helps out. It slowed the rate of mathematically-themed comics just enough.

By this post’s title I don’t mean that my post is a rerun. But several of the comics mentioned happen to be. One of the good — maybe best — things about the appearance of comics on Gocomics.com and ComicsKingdom is that comic strips that have ended, such as Randolph Itch, 2 am or (alas) Cul de Sac can still appear without taking up space. And long-running comic strips such as Luann can have earlier strips be seen to a new audience, again without doing any harm to the newest generation of cartoonists. So, there’s that.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn (July 13, originally run July 13, 1987) makes a joke of Tiffany not understanding the odds of a contest. That’s amusing enough. Estimating the probability of something happening does require estimating how many things are possible, though, and how likely they are relative to one another. Supposing that every entry in a sweepstakes is equally likely to win seems fair enough. Estimating the number of sweepstakes entries is another problem.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am (July 13, rerun from July 29, 2002) tells a silly little pirates-and-algebra joke. I like this one for the silliness and the artwork. The only sad thing is there wasn’t a natural way to work equations for a circle into it, so there’d be a use for “r”.

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Quartering a Cake in One Slice


I follow several Mathematics twitter accounts, mostly so that I can run across some interesting points I didn’t know about and feel a little dumber the rest of the day (oh, good grief, of course if f is a quasi-convex function and y a convex combination of x and z then f(y) is less than or equal to the maximum of f(x) and f(z)). Mostly they’re little “huh” bits. Unfortunately I’ve lost which one I found this item from originally, but it was just a link to an interesting puzzle result: how to cut a cake into four equal pieces using a single slice.

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