Reading the Comics, June 6, 2019: Not The Slowest Week Edition


Comic Strip Master Command started the summer vacation early this year. There have been even slower weeks for mathematically-themed comics, but not many, and not much slower. Well, it’s looking like a nice weekend anyway. We can go out and do something instead.

And I’m doing a little experiment to see what happens if I publish posts a bit earlier in the day. My suspicion is nothing that reaches statistical significance. But statistical significance isn’t everything. I can devote a month or two to a lark.

Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin for the 2nd is a rerun. The strip ended several years ago, and has not been one of those formerly syndicated comics gone to web-only publication. And it’s one that I’ve discussed before, in a 2014 repeat and briefly in 2015. I don’t know why it reran six months apart. Having a particular daily strip repeat so often is usually a sign I should retire the strip from this blog. Likely I won’t retire it from my reading. I like its style a bit too much.

Quentin: 'Sorry you aren't feeling happy today.' Ollie: 'Why do you think I'm not happy?' Quentin: 'Studies show 50% of people aren't happy, and I'm in a great mood.' Ollie: 'You idiot! It doesn't work like that!' Quentin: 'Yes it does, every second person isn't happy, I'm happy, so you can't be.' Ollie: 'I am happy you moron!' Quentin: 'No you're not.' Ollie: 'I AM!' Quentin: 'You don't sound it!' Ollie: 'AAAARGH!' (And he storms off, cursing.) Quentin: 'Sorry you aren't feeling happy today.'
Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin for the 2nd of June, 2019. I find that I’ve discussed this strip less often than I imagined. Essays including some mention of Ollie and Quentin appear at this link. There are some appearances of the strip which predate my using the comic as a tag, however.

The joke is built on Quentin hearing that only 50% of people are not happy. And as he is happy, and he and Ollie are two people, it follows Ollie can’t be. The joke builds on the logic of the gambler’s fallacy. This is the idea that the probability of some independent event depends on what has recently happened. Here “event” means what it does to statisticians, what it turns out something is. This can be the result of a coin toss. This can be finding out whether a person is happy or not. The gambler’s fallacy has a hard-to-resist logic to it. We know it is unlikely that a coin tossed fairly ten times will come up tails each time. We also know it is even more unlikely that a coin tossed fairly eleven times will turn up tails every time. So if the coin has already come up tails ten times? It’s easy in the abstract to sneer at people who make this mistake. But at some point or other we all think some unpredictable event is “due”.

There is a catch here, though. The gambler’s fallacy covers independent events. One coin’s toss does not affect whether the next toss should be heads or tails. But personal happiness? That is something affected by other people. Perhaps not dramatically. But one person’s mood can certainly alter another’s, just as the strip demonstrates. In past appearances of this strip I’ve written about it as though the mathematical comedy element were obvious. Now I realize I may have under-explored what is happening here.

Student at blackboard, working problems like 3+2 and 2+2, to the teacher: 'Do we need to learn this in case our smart devices are down?'
Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 for the 3rd of June, 2019. This strip I mention rarely, but that’s about as often as I expect. Essays inspired by something in 9 to 5 appear at this link.

Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 for the 3rd is a student-at-the-blackboard joke. And a joke about the uselessness of learning arithmetic if there are computing devices around. There have always been computing devices around, though. I’d prefer them for tedious problems, or for problems in which mistakes have serious consequences. But I think it’s worth knowing at least what to do. But I like mathematics. Of course I would.

Student at blackboard, having written out 7 x 6 = 50, to the teacher: 'I added a tip.'
Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 6th of June, 2019. This comic comes up sometimes. Cornered appears in essays at this link.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 6th is another student-at-the-blackboard joke. This one has the student excusing his wrong answer, a number too high, as a tip. In the student’s defense, I’ll say being able to come up with a decent approximate answer, even one you know is a little too high, is worth it. Often an important step in a problem is knowing about what a reasonable answer is. This can involve mental-mathematics tricks. For example, remembering that 7 times 7 is just under fifty, which would help with a problem like 7 times 6.


And that’s all the comic strips I found worth any mention last week. There weren’t even any that rated a “there’s a comic that said ‘math class’, so here you go” aside. This bodes well for an interesting week of content around here. My next Reading the Comics post should appear next Sunday at this link. All the past comic strip discussion should, too. If you should find a comics essay that doesn’t appear in those archives please let me know. I’ll fix it.

Reading the Comics, April 5, 2019: The Slow Week Edition


People reading my Reading the Comics post Sunday maybe noticed something. I mean besides my correct, reasonable complaining about the Comics Kingdom redesign. That is that all the comics were from before the 30th of March. That is, none were from the week before the 7th of April. The last full week of March had a lot of comic strips. The first week of April didn’t. So things got bumped a little. Here’s the results. It wasn’t a busy week, not when I filter out the strips that don’t offer much to write about. So now I’m stuck for what to post Thursday.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby for the 3rd is a Library of Babel comic strip. This is mathematical enough for me. Jorge Luis Borges’s Library is a magnificent representation of some ideas about infinity and probability. I’m surprised to realize I haven’t written an essay specifically about it. I have touched on it, in writing about normal numbers, and about the infinite monkey theorem.

At a tower. Bobby: 'The library of Babel!' Robbie: 'Inside is every book that will ever be written! It may take the rest of our lives to search, but it'll be worth it!' Bobby: 'What? No index?' Robbie: 'The search for meaning has no index.' Bobby (on the phone): 'I just downloaded one.' Robbie: 'It can't have everything. ... Mark Twain vs Frankenstein? Dante in Space? Harry Potter Infinity?' Bobby: 'Yep. All available as e-books too! Wow, Jeff Goldblum does the audio books.' Robbie: 'pfff. Well, forget this place!' (They leave a 'BORING' sign across the library's door.)
Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby for the 3rd of April, 2019. I would have sworn that I write more about this strip. But this seems to be the first time I’ve mentioned it since 2017. Well, that and other Robbie and Bobby-based essays are at this link.

The strip explains things well enough. The Library holds every book that will ever be written. In the original story there are some constraints. Particularly, all the books are 410 pages. If you wanted, say, a 600-page book, though, you could find one book with the first 410 pages and another book with the remaining 190 pages and then some filler. The catch, as explained in the story and in the comic strip, is finding them. And there is the problem of finding a ‘correct’ text. Every possible text of the correct length should be in there. So every possible book that might be titled Mark Twain vs Frankenstein, including ones that include neither Mark Twain nor Frankenstein, is there. Which is the one you want to read?

Over a pizza. Reggie: 'Don't let Jughead near the pizza! He always ends up eating half of it!' Jughead, with the cutter: 'Relax! I've divided it into four equal slices! Check it yourself!' Reggie: 'OK, I guess they do look equal.' Archie: 'Except for one thing! There are only three of us!' (Reggie and Archie each have one slice; Jughead has two.)
Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie for the 4th of April, 2019. Now this strip I’ve written about as recently as October. That appearance, and other Archie strips, are discussed at this link.

Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie for the 4th features an equal-divisions problem. In principle, it’s easy to divide a pizza (or anything else) equally; that’s what we have fractions for. Making them practical is a bit harder. I do like Jughead’s quick work, though. It’s got the slight-of-hand you expect from stage magic.

Caterpillars in an algebra classroom. On the back of one caterpillar student is a sign, 'Kick^{10} me'.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 4th of April, 2019. And this strip I’ve written about … wait, can I really have gone since early March without mentioning? Huh. Well, so it appears. Essays discussing The Argyle Sweater appear at this link.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 4th takes place in an algebra class. I’m not sure what algebraic principle 7^4 \times 13^6 demonstrates, but it probably came from somewhere. It’s 4,829,210. The exponentials on the blackboard do cue the reader to the real joke, of the sign reading “kick10 me”. I question whether this is really an exponential kicking situation. It seems more like a simple multiplication to me. But it would be harder to make that joke read clearly.

Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 5th is part of a sequence investigating how magnets work. Agnes and Trout find just … magnet parts inside. This is fair. It’s even mathematics.

Looking over a pile of debris and a hammer on the table. Agnes: 'OK, we smashed a magnet. What do we see?' Trout: 'Uh. Magnet crumbs.' Agnes: 'Me too. I see magnet crumbs.' Trout: 'No gizmos, no gears, no wires. Just dirty black magnet crumbs.' Agnes: 'So what does this tell us about magnet function?' Trout: 'That it's one of God's many mysteries. Let's go eat.'
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 5th of April, 2019. And this strip I quite like, but don’t get to discuss enough. My essays featuring Agnes appears at this link.

Thermodynamics classes teach one of the great mathematical physics models. This is about what makes magnets. Magnets are made of … smaller magnets. This seems like question-begging. Ultimately you get down to individual molecules, each of which is very slightly magnetic. When small magnets are lined up in the right way, they can become a strong magnet. When they’re lined up in another way, they can be a weak magnet. Or no magnet at all.

How do they line up? It depends on things, including how the big magnet is made, and how it’s treated. A bit of energy can free molecules to line up, making a stronger magnet out of a weak one. Or it can break up the alignments, turning a strong magnet into a weak one. I’ve had physics instructors explain that you could, in principle, take an iron rod and magnetize it just by hitting it hard enough on the desk. And then demagnetize it by hitting it again. I have never seen one do this, though.

This is more than just a physics model. The mathematics of it is … well, it can be easy enough. A one-dimensional, nearest-neighbor model, lets us describe how materials might turn into magnets or break apart, depending on their temperature. Two- or three-dimensional models, or models that have each small magnet affected by distant neighbors, are harder.


And then there’s the comic strips that didn’t offer much to write about.
Brian Basset’s Red and Rover for the 3rd,
Liniers’s Macanudo for the 5th, Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal rerun for the 5th, and Gordon Bess’s Redeye rerun for the 5th all idly mention mathematics class, or things brought up in class.

Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens for the 2nd is another more-than-100-percent strip. Richard Thompson’s Richard’s Poor Almanac for the 3rd is a reprint of his Christmas Tree guide including a fir that “no longer inhabits Euclidean space”.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 31st depicts a common idiom about numbers. Eric the Circle for the 5th, by Rafoliveira, plays on the ∞ symbol.


And that covers the mathematically-themed comic strips from last week. There are more coming, though. I’ll show them on Sunday. Thanks for reading.

Reading the Comics, October 18, 2018: Quick Half-Week Edition


There were enough mathematically-themed comic strips last week to split across two essays. The first half of them don’t take too much time to explain. Let me show you.

Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie for the 15th is the pie-chart wordplay joke for the week. I don’t remember there ever being pie at the high school cafeteria, but back when I was in high school I often skipped lunch to hang out in the computer room.

Jughead: 'Ummm! Nummm!' Archie: 'Quiet, Jug! We've got to get this group project finished!' Jughead: 'Mmm! I'm hungry! I'm off to the lunchroom for a snack!' Archie: 'I told you it was a mistake to include a pie chart in our report!'
Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie rerun for the 15th of October, 2018. Oh gads. If Jughead makes this much noise just imagining food then when he really eats he’s got to be one of those people you can hear from the next state over. I have no information about when this strip first ran.

Will Henry’s Wallace the Brave for the 15th alludes to a report on trapezoids. I can’t imagine what about this would be so gold-star-worthy when I’ve surely already written plenty about trapezoids. … Really, that thing trying to classify how many different kinds of trapezoids there are would be my legacy to history if I hadn’t also written about how many grooves are on a record’s side.

Teacher: 'Wallace, Spud, fantastic report on trapezoids. Gold stars for each.' (Both are delighted; girl in the back says 'Lamesville.') Spud: 'I haven't gotten a gold star since I got my head stuck in that bannister.' Wallace: 'They buttered you up like an ear of corn.'
Will Henry’s Wallace the Brave for the 15th of October, 2018. All right, the strip is only marginally on topic. It and Breaking Cat News are the syndicated comic strips I’ve been most excited for since Richard Thompson wasn’t able to continue Cul de Sac.

Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 17th is, for me, extremely relatable content. I don’t say that my interest in mathematics is entirely because there was this Berenstain Bears book about jobs which made it look like a mathematician’s job was to do sums in an observatory on the Moon. But it didn’t hurt. When I joke about how seven-year-old me wanted to be the astronaut who drew Popeye, understand, that’s not much comic exaggeration.

Student in mathematics class: 'I'd like a career where I solve simple subtraction problems like this. I'd be making a difference.'
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 17th of October, 2018. “I’d be getting taped to the doors of mathematics teacher’s classrooms — saaaaaay!”

Justin Thompson’s Mythtickle rerun for the 17th is a timely choice about lotteries and probabilities. Vlad raises a fair point about your chance of being struck by lightning. It seems like that’s got to depend on things like where you are. But it does seem like we know what we mean when we say “the chance you’ll be hit by lightning”. At least I think it means “the probability that a person will be hit by lightning at some point in their life, if we have no information about any environmental facts that might influence this”. So it would be something like the number of people struck by lightning over the course of a year divided by the number of people in the world that year. You might have a different idea of what “the chance you’ll be hit by lightning” means, and it’s worth trying to think what precisely that does mean to you.

Dziva: 'Lottery tickets? Are you bats? Vlad, your chances of getting hit by lightning are better than winning a lottery jackpot.' Vlad: 'Lightning where? The location of the lightning is a variable that should be included in your determination. So do you mean like, lightning in the Atacama Desert where it never rains, or like lightning in, say, Transylvania? Cause back home, let me tell ya ... ' Dziva: 'Oh, I got it, I got it, I ... um.' [ Transylvanian convenience store with a werewolf cashier; lightning outside. ] Dziva: 'Two computer lotto-picks on the BIG one and make it SNAPPY, wolfie!!!'
Justin Thompson’s Mythtickle rerun for the 17th of October, 2018. Not to step on a joke Thompson left nicely underplayed, but I find funny the premise that of course the clerk in the Transylvanian convenience store is a werewolf. I have no information about when this strip first ran.

Lotteries are one of those subjects that a particular kind of nerd likes to feel all smug about. Pretty sure every lottery comic ever has drawn a comment about a tax on people who can’t do mathematics. This one did too. But then try doing the mathematics. The Mega Millions lottery, in the US, has a jackpot for the first drawing this week estimated at more than a billion dollars. The chance of winning is about one in 300 million. A ticket costs two dollars. So what is the expectation value of playing? You lose two dollars right up front, in the cost of the ticket. What do you get back? A one-in-300-million chance of winning a billion dollars. That is, you can expect to get back a bit more than three dollars. The implication is: you make a profit of dollar on each ticket you buy. There’s something a bit awry here, as you can tell from my decision not to put my entire savings into lottery tickets this week. But I won’t say someone is foolish or wrong if they buy a couple.

Student, to the teacher in front of a blackboard full of symbols: 'Can't you just round it off?'
Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 18th of October, 2018. What is that grit on the teacher’s desk, to the reader’s right of the pen?

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 18th is a bit of mathematics-circling wordplay, featuring the blackboard full of equations. The blackboard doesn’t have any real content on it, but it is a good visual shorthand. And it does make me notice that rounding a quantity off is, in a way, making it simpler. If we are only a little interested in the count of the thing, “two thousand forty” or even “two thousand” may be more useful than the exact 2,038. The loss of precision may be worth it for the ease with which the rounded-off version is remembered and communicated.


If you’d like to see more Reading the Comics posts then try this link. Other essays which mention Archie should be at this link. Topics raised by Wallace the Brave should be at this link. Frank and Ernest is the subject of essays at this link. Topics brought up by Mythtickle are at this link. It’s a new tag, though, and I’m not sure there’ll ever be another use of it. And this and other essays mentioning Cornered are at this link. And do please stick around for more of my Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z, coming twice a week through the rest of the year, I hope.

Reading the Comics, June 27, 2018: Stitch Day Edition


For a while I thought this essay would include only the mathematically-themed strips which Comic Strip Master Command sent out through to June 26th, which is picking up the nickname Stitch Day (for 6-26, the movie character’s experiment number). And then I decided some from last Sunday weren’t on-point enough (somehow), and there were enough that came later in the week that I couldn’t do a June 26th Only edition. Which is my longwinded way of saying this one doesn’t have a nonsense name. It just has a name that’s only partially on point.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 26th is the Rubik’s Cube/strange geometry joke for the week. It seems to me I ought to be able to make some link between the number of various ways to arrange a Rubik’s Cube — which pieces can and which ones cannot be neighbors to a red piece, say, no matter how one scrambles the cube — and the networking between people that you can get from an office where people have to see each other. But I’m not sure that I can make that metaphor work. I’m blaming the temperature, both mine (I have a cold) and the weather’s (it’s a heat wave).

Man sitting behind an upside-down desk, to a person standing on a horizontal wall-with-window: 'Hang on --- I've almost got it.' Caption: Rubik's Cubicle.
Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 26th of June, 2018. Say what you will; at least it’s not an open-office plan.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy for the 26th makes literal the trouble some people have with the phrase “110 percent”. Read uncharitably, yes, “110 of a hundred” doesn’t make sense, if 100 percent is all that could conceivably be of the thing. But if we can imagine, say, the number of cars passing a point on the highway being 90 percent of the typical number, surely we can imagine the number of cars also being 110 percent. To give an example of why I can’t side with pedants in objecting to the phrase.

Boy (Billy), playing chess with Cow: 'I hate it when people say they're giving a hundred and ten percent. I mean, how is that even possible? Wouldn't you be trying so hard that your body couldn't contain the extra ten percent of effort and your head would explode?' Cow: 'Check mate!' [ Cow's head explodes. ] Boy: 'OK, but I was only giving it like 35 percent.' Headless Cow: 'Darn.'
Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy for the 26th of June, 2018. This strip originally ran the 12th of October, 2011 and it’s not usually so gruesome.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 26th is just itching for a fight. From me and from the Creative Writing department. Yes, mathematics rewards discipline. All activities do. At the risk of making a prescription: if you want to do something well, spend time practicing the boring parts. For arithmetic, that’s times tables and regrouping calculations and factoring and long division. For writing, that’s word choice and sentence structure and figuring how to bring life to describing dull stuff. Do the fun stuff too, yes, but because it is fun. Getting good at the boring stuff makes you an expert. When you discover that the boring stuff is also kinda fun, you will do the fun stuff masterfully.

Student presenting 'What I Learned This Year': 'Writing rewards creativity while math rewards a disciplined pursuit of a single right answer.' Later, Frazz: 'So, what'd you learn this year?' Student: 'Apparently we don't learn how to fudge the numbers until business school.'
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 26th of June, 2018. Again I apologize; I don’t know who the student is. Cast lists, cartoonists. Get your cast on your web page.

But to speak of mathematics as pursuing a single right answer — well, perhaps. In an elementary-school problem there is typically just the one right answer, and the hope is that students learn how to get there efficiently. But if the subject is something well-worn, then there are many ways to do any problem. All are legitimate and the worst one can say of a method is maybe it’s not that efficient, or maybe it’s good here but doesn’t generally work. If the subject is on the edge of what mathematics we know, there may be only one way to get there. But there are many things to find, including original ways to understand what we have already found. To not see that mathematics is creative is to not see mathematics. Or, really, any field of human activity.

Horace, reading the newspaper: 'Your horoscope: you will be positively surprised.' A giant + sign drops from the sky, barely missing Horace.
Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 27th of June, 2018. So, how would you rewrite the horoscope to make this work for multiplication? ‘You’re encountering some surprising times’?

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 27th edges up to being the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. I need a good name for this sort of joke about mathematical constructs made tangible, even if they aren’t necessarily characters.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 27th I hope makes sense if you just know the words “graph” and “drunk”, and maybe “McNugget”. That’s all you truly need to understand why this contains a joke. But there is some good serious mathematical terminology at work here.

Mathematics instructor: 'Here we have a graph which embodies a stochastic process. Now, we perform a random walk on the graph for n steps and --- HEY! [ Curses ] The graph went out for McNuggets!' (The graph looks faintly more like a person, has a basket of McNuggets, and is saying, 'Nuggs nuggs nuggie nuggie nugg WOOH! God you're so hot.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 27th of June, 2018. Can’t be intended, but that graph looks to me like plots of what the constellation Orion is expected to look like after several ten thousand years of stellar movement.

So. A “graph” is a thing that’s turned up in my A To Z serieses. In this context a graph is a collection of points, called “vertices”, and a collection of “edges” that connect vertices. Often the vertices represent something of interest and the edges ways to turn one thing into another. Sometimes the edges are the thing of interest and the vertices are just there to be manipulated in some way by edges. It’s a way to make visual the studying of how stuff is connected, and how things can pass from one to another.

A “stochastic process” is about random variables. Random variables are some property about a system. And you know some things about that variable’s value. You know maybe the range of possible values it could have. You know whether some values are more likely than others. But you do not know what the value is at any particular moment. Consider, say, the temperature outside where you live at a particular time of day. You may have no idea what that is. But you can say, for example, whether today it is more likely to be 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 60 degrees Fahrenheit or 20 degrees Fahrenheit. For a stochastic process we have some kind of index. We can say, for example, which values of temperature are more likely today, the 1st of July, and which ones will be more likely the 1st of August, and which ones will be less likely the 1st of December. Calling it a “process”, to my intuition, makes it sound like we expect something to happen that causes the likelihood of some temperatures to change. And many processes are time-indexed. They study problems where something interesting changes in time, predictable in aggregate but not in detail.

So a graph like this, representing a stochastic process, is a shorthand. Each vertex is a state that something might be in. Each edge is a way to get from one state to another when — something — happens. Doesn’t matter what thing.

A “drunk walk”, or as it’s known to tenderer writers a “random walk”, is a term of art. Not a deep one. It’s meant to evoke the idea of a severely drunk person who yes, can move, but has no control over which way. Thus he wanders around, reaching any point only by luck. Many things look like random walks, in which there is no overall direction, just an unpredictable shuffling around. A drunk walk on this graph would be, well, start at any of the vertices. Then follow edges, chosen randomly. If you start at the uppermost point of the triangle on top, for example, there’s two places to go on the second step: the lower-left or the center-right vertex on the upper triangle. Suppose you go to the center-right vertex. On the next step, you might go right back where you started. You might go to the lower-left vertex on the triangle. You might drop down that bridge to the top of that quadrilateral. And so on, for another step.

Do that some presumably big number of times. Where are you? … Anywhere, of course. But are there vertices you’re more likely to be on? Ones you’re less likely to be on? How does the shape of the graph affect that likelihood? How does how long you spend walking affect that? These tell us things about the process, and are why someone would draw this graph and talk about a random walk on it.


If you’d like to read more of my comic-strip review posts please do! They all should be available at this link, listed in reverse chronological order.

To read more of the individual comics? Here are essays with Cornered in them. These are Cow and Boy comics at this link. Frazz strips are here. Essays including Dark Side of the Horse are here. And Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which is threatening to take over “being the majority of my blog” from Andertoons, I have at that link.

Reading the Comics, March 5, 2018: If It’s Even Mathematics Edition


Many of the strips from the first half of last week are ones that just barely touch on mathematical content. I’m not sure how relevant they all are. I hope you like encountering them anyway.

Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 4th of March offers “an infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar” as a joke’s setup. Mathematics popularizers have a small set of jokes about infinite numbers of mathematicians, often arriving at hotels. They’re used to talk about how we now understand infinitely large sets. There’s often counter-intuitive or just plain weird results that follow. And presenting it as a joke works surprisingly well in introducing the ideas. There’s a kind of joke that is essentially a tall tale, spinning out an initial premise to as far and as absurd a consequence as you can get. In structure, that’s not much different to a proof, a discussion of the consequences of an idea. It’s a shame that it’s hard to make jokes or anecdotes about more fields of mathematics. Somehow infinitely large groups of people are funnier than, say, upper-bounded nondecreasing sequences.

['A Pinhead Walks Into A Bar' Jokes That Are Only Funny To Other Pinheads.'] An Atheist, a Vegan, and a Crossfitter walk into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' A gorilla in a tuxedo walks into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' An amnesiac walks into a bar. Zippy: '( Empty word balloon )'.
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 4th of March, 2018. You know, it’s kind of a peculiar thing that Zippy the Pinhead is a syndicated daily newspaper comic strip, isn’t it? I’m glad we live in a world strange enough for this to be the case.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 4th has a bit of fraction-based wordplay. I’m not sure how mathematical this is, but I grinned.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 4th has Jason try to make a “universal” loot box that consists of zeroes and ones. As he says, accumulate enough and put them in the right order and you have any digital prize imaginable. Implementation is, as joked, the problem. Assembling ones and zeroes at random isn’t likely to turn up anything you might care about in a reasonable time. (It’s the monkeys-at-typewriters problem.) If you know how to assemble ones and zeroes to get what you want, well, what do you need Jason’s boxes for? As with most clever ideas by computer-oriented boys it shouldn’t really be listened to.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 4th has Neil make an order-of-magnitude error estimating what animal power can do. We’ve all made them. They’re particularly easy to make when switching the unit measure. Trying to go from meters to kilometers and multiplying the distance by a thousand, say. Which is annoying since often it’s easiest to estimate the order of magnitude of something first. I can’t find easily an estimate of how many calories a hamster eats over the course of the day. That seems like it would give an idea of how much energy a hamster could possibly be expected to provide, and so work out whether the estimate of four million hamsters to power a car is itself plausible. If someone has information, I’d take it.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 4th is a Rubik’s Cube joke. Also a random processes joke. If a blender could turn the faces of a cube, and could turn them randomly, and could run the right period of time … well, yeah, it could unscramble a cube. But see the previous talk about Jason Fox and the delivery of ones and zeroes.

Mark Tatulli’s Lio for the 5th is a solid geometry joke. I’ve put more thought into whether and where to put hyphens in the last three words of that sentence than is worth it.

Steve Sicula’s Home and Away rerun for the 6th has the father and son happily doing some mathematics. It’s in the service of better gambling on sports. But at least they know why they would like to do these calculations.

Reading the Comics, February 17, 2018: Continuing Deluge Month


February’s been a flooding month. Literally (we’re about two blocks away from the Voluntary Evacuation Zone after the rains earlier this week) and figuratively, in Comic Strip Master Command’s suggestions about what I might write. I have started thinking about making a little list of the comics that just say mathematics in some capacity but don’t give me much to talk about. (For example, Bob the Squirrel having a sequence, as it does this week, with a geometry tutor.) But I also know, this is unusually busy this month. The problem will recede without my having to fix anything. One of life’s secrets is learning how to tell when a problem’s that kind.

Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 12th just shows off an arithmetic problem — fractions — as the thing that can be put on the board and left for students to do.

Todd: *Sniff sniff* 'Hey! What's that on the floor?' (He follows a trail of beef jerky, eating, until he's at the chalkboard.) Teacher: 'Well, hello, Todd! Say, while you're up there, why don't you do that fractions problem on the board?' Todd: 'Darn you, tasty Slim jims!'
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 12th of February, 2018. I’ll risk infecting you with one of my problems: I look at this particular comic and wonder what happened right before the first panel to lead to this happening.

Ham’s Life on Earth for the 12th has a science-y type giving a formula as “something you should know”. The formula’s gibberish, so don’t worry about it. I got a vibe of it intending to be some formula from statistics, but there’s no good reason for that. I’ve had some statistical distribution problems on my mind lately.

Eric Teitelbaum and Bill Teitelbaum’s Bottomliners for the 12th maybe influenced my thinking. It has a person claiming to be a former statistician, and his estimate of how changing his job’s affected his happiness. Could really be any job that encourages people to measure and quantify things. But “statistician” is a job with strong connotations of being able to quantify happiness. To have that quantity feature a decimal point, too, makes him sound more mathematical and thus, more surely correct. I’d be surprised if “two and a half times” weren’t a more justifiable estimate, given the margin for error on happiness-measurement I have to imagine would be there. (This seems to be the first time I’ve featured Bottomliners at least since I started tagging the comic strips named. Neat.)

Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 12th reprinted a panel called The Uncertainty Principal that baffled commenters there. It’s a pun on “Uncertainty Principle”, the surprising quantum mechanics result that there are some kinds of measurements that can’t be taken together with perfect precision. To know precisely where something is destroys one’s ability to measure its momentum. To know the angular momentum along one axis destroys one’s ability to measure it along another. This is a physics result (note that the panel’s signed “Heisenberg”, for the name famously attached to the Uncertainty Principle). But the effect has a mathematical side. The operations that describe finding these incompatible pairs of things are noncommutative; it depends what order you do them in.

We’re familiar enough with noncommutative operations in the real world: to cut a piece of paper and then fold it usually gives something different to folding a piece of paper and then cutting it. To pour batter in a bowl and then put it in the oven has a different outcome than putting batter in the oven and then trying to pour it into the bowl. Nice ordinary familiar mathematics that people learn, like addition and multiplication, do commute. These come with partners that don’t commute, subtraction and division. But I get the sense we don’t think of subtraction and division like that. It’s plain enough that ‘a’ divided by ‘b’ and ‘b’ divided by ‘a’ are such different things that we don’t consider what’s neat about that.

In the ordinary world the Uncertainty Principle’s almost impossible to detect; I’m not sure there’s any macroscopic phenomena that show it off. I mean, that atoms don’t collapse into electrically neutral points within nanoseconds, sure, but that isn’t as compelling as, like, something with a sodium lamp and a diffraction grating and an interference pattern on the wall. The limits of describing certain pairs of properties is about how precisely both quantities can be known, together. For everyday purposes there’s enough uncertainty about, say, the principal’s weight (and thus momentum) that uncertainty in his position won’t be noticeable. There’s reasons it took so long for anyone to suspect this thing existed.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 13th uses a spot of arithmetic as the sort of problem coffee helps Horace solve. The answer’s 1.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 14th is a blackboard-full-of-symbols panel. Well, a whiteboard. It’s another in the line of mathematical proofs of love.

Dana Simpson’s Ozy and Millie rerun for the 14th has the title characters playing “logical fallacy tag”. Ozy is, as Millie says, making an induction argument. In a proper induction argument, you characterize something with some measure of size. Often this is literally a number. You then show that if it’s true that the thing is true for smaller problems than you’re interested in, then it has to also be true for the problem you are interested in. Add to that a proof that it’s true for some small enough problem and you’re done. In this case, Ozy’s specific fallacy is an appeal to probability: all but one of the people playing tag are not it, and therefore, any particular person playing the game isn’t it. That it’s fallacious really stands out when there’s only two people playing.

Ed: 'Only recently, scientists discovered pigeons understand space and time.' Pigeon: 'They never questioned us before. We're waiting for them to ask us about the Grand Unified Theory of Physics next.'
Alex Hallatt’s Arctic Circle for the 16th of February, 2018. As ever, I learn things from doing this! Specifically the names of the penguins which I’d somehow not thought about before. Ed’s the one with a pair of antenna-like feathers on his head. Oscar has the smooth head. Gordo has the set of bumps.

Alex Hallatt’s Arctic Circle for the 16th riffs on the mathematics abilities of birds. Pigeons, in this case. The strip starts from their abilities understanding space and time (which are amazing) and proposes pigeons have some insight into the Grand Unified Theory. Animals have got astounding mathematical abilities, should point out. Don’t underestimate them. (This also seems to be the first time I’ve tagged Arctic Circle which doesn’t seem like it could be right. But I didn’t remember naming the penguins before so maybe I haven’t? Huh. Mind, I only started tagging the comic strip titles a couple months ago.)

Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 17th has the title character try bluffing her way out of mathematics homework. Could there be a fundamental flaw in mathematics as we know it? Possibly. It’s hard to prove that any field complicated enough to be interesting is also self-consistent. And there’s a lot of mathematics out there. And mathematics subjects often develop with an explosion of new ideas and then a later generation that cleans them up and fills in logical gaps. Symplectic geometry is, if I’m following the news right, going into one of those cleaning-up phases now. Is it likely to be uncovered by a girl in elementary school? I’m skeptical, and also skeptical that she’d have a replacement system that would be any better. I admire Agnes’s ambition, though.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 17th plays on the reputation for quantum mechanics as a bunch of mathematically weird, counter-intuitive results. In fairness to the TV program, I’ve had series run longer than I originally planned too.

Reading the Comics, September 24, 2017: September 24, 2017 Edition


Comic Strip Master Command sent a nice little flood of comics this week, probably to make sure that I transitioned from the A To Z project to normal activity without feeling too lost. I’m going to cut the strips not quite in half because I’m always delighted when I can make a post that’s just a single day’s mathematically-themed comics. Last Sunday, the 24th of September, was such a busy day. I’m cheating a little on what counts as noteworthy enough to talk about here. But people like comic strips, and good on them for liking them.

Norm Feuti’s Gil for the 24th sees Gil discover and try to apply some higher mathematics. There’s probably a good discussion about what we mean by division to explain why Gil’s experiment didn’t pan out. I would pin it down to eliding the difference between “dividing in half” and “dividing by a half”, which is a hard one. Terms that seem almost alike but mean such different things are probably the hardest part of mathematics.

Gil, eating cookies and doing mathematics. 'Dividing fractions. 1/2 divided by 1/2', which he works out to be 1. 'One half divided in half equals one? Wait a minute. If these calculations are correct, then that means ... ' And he takes a half-cookie and snaps it in half, to his disappointment. 'Humph. what's the point of this advanced math if it only works on paper?'
Norm Feuti’s Gil for the 24th of September, 2017, didn’t appear on Gocomics.com or Comics Kingdom, my usual haunts for these comics. But I started reading the strip when it was on Comics Kingdom, and keep reading its reruns. Feuti has continued the comic strip on his own web site, and posts it on Twitter. So it’s quite easy to pick the strip back up, if you have a Twitter account or can read RSS from it. I assume you can read RSS from it.

Russell Myers’s Broom Hilda looks like my padding. But the last panel of the middle row gets my eye. The squirrels talk about how on the equinox night and day “can never be of identical length, due to the angular size of the sun and atmospheric refraction”. This is true enough for the equinox. While any spot on the Earth might see twelve hours facing the sun and twelve hours facing away, the fact the sun isn’t a point, and that the atmosphere carries light around to the “dark” side of the planet, means daylight lasts a little longer than night.

Ah, but. This gets my mathematical modelling interest going. Because it is true that, at least away from the equator, there’s times of year that day is way shorter than night. And there’s times of year that day is way longer than night. Shouldn’t there be some time in the middle when day is exactly equal to night?

The easy argument for is built on the Intermediate Value Theorem. Let me define a function, with domain each of the days of the year. The range is real numbers. It’s defined to be the length of day minus the length of night. Let me say it’s in minutes, but it doesn’t change things if you argue that it’s seconds, or milliseconds, or hours, if you keep parts of hours in also. So, like, 12.015 hours or something. At the height of winter, this function is definitely negative; night is longer than day. At the height of summer, this function is definitely positive; night is shorter than day. So therefore there must be some time, between the height of winter and the height of summer, when the function is zero. And therefore there must be some day, even if it isn’t the equinox, when night and day are the same length

There’s a flaw here and I leave that to classroom discussions to work out. I’m also surprised to learn that my onetime colleague Dr Helmer Aslaksen’s grand page of mathematical astronomy and calendar essays doesn’t seem to have anything about length of day calculations. But go read that anyway; you’re sure to find something fascinating.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered features an old-fashioned adding machine being used to drown an audience in calculations. Which makes for a curious pairing with …

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, and its representation of “math hipsters”. I hate to encourage Jason or Marcus in being deliberately difficult. But there are arguments to make for avoiding digital calculators in favor of old-fashioned — let’s call them analog — calculators. One is that people understand tactile operations better, or at least sooner, than they do digital ones. The slide rule changes multiplication and division into combining or removing lengths of things, and we probably have an instinctive understanding of lengths. So this should train people into anticipating what a result is likely to be. This encourages sanity checks, verifying that an answer could plausibly be right. And since a calculation takes effort, it encourages people to think out how to arrange the calculation to require less work. This should make it less vulnerable to accidents.

I suspect that many of these benefits are what you get in the ideal case, though. Slide rules, and abacuses, are no less vulnerable to accidents than anything else is. And if you are skilled enough with the abacus you have no trouble multiplying 18 by 7, you probably would not find multiplying 17 by 8 any harder, and wouldn’t notice if you mistook one for the other.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz asserts that numbers are cool but the real insight is comparisons. And we can argue that comparisons are more basic than numbers. We can talk about one thing being bigger than another even if we don’t have a precise idea of numbers, or how to measure them. See every mathematics blog introducing the idea of different sizes of infinity.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range features Albert Einstein, universal symbol for really deep thinking about mathematics and physics and stuff. And even a blackboard full of equations for the title panel. I’m not sure whether the joke is a simple absent-minded-professor joke, or whether it’s a relabelled joke about Werner Heisenberg. Absent-minded-professor jokes are not mathematical enough for me, so let me point once again to American Cornball. They’re the first subject in Christopher Miller’s encyclopedia of comic topics. So I’ll carry on as if the Werner Heisenberg joke were the one meant.

Heisenberg is famous, outside World War II history, for the Uncertainty Principle. This is one of the core parts of quantum mechanics, under which there’s a limit to how precisely one can know both the position and momentum of a thing. To identify, with absolutely zero error, where something is requires losing all information about what its momentum might be, and vice-versa. You see the application of this to a traffic cop’s question about knowing how fast someone was going. This makes some neat mathematics because all the information about something is bundled up in a quantity called the Psi function. To make a measurement is to modify the Psi function by having an “operator” work on it. An operator is what we call a function that has domains and ranges of other functions. To measure both position and momentum is equivalent to working on Psi with one operator and then another. But these operators don’t commute. You get different results in measuring momentum and then position than you do measuring position and then momentum. And so we can’t know both of these with infinite precision.

There are pairs of operators that do commute. They’re not necessarily ones we care about, though. Like, the total energy commutes with the square of the angular momentum. So, you know, if you need to measure with infinite precision the energy and the angular momentum of something you can do it. If you had measuring tools that were perfect. You don’t, but you could imagine having them, and in that case, good. Underlying physics wouldn’t spoil your work.

Probably the panel was an absent-minded professor joke.

Reading the Comics, August 12, 2017: August 10 and 12 Edition


The other half of last week’s comic strips didn’t have any prominent pets in them. The six of them appeared on two days, though, so that’s as good as a particular theme. There’s also some π talk, but there’s enough of that I don’t want to overuse Pi Day as an edition name.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 10th is a classroom joke. It’s built on a common problem in teaching by examples. The student can make the wrong generalization. I like the joke. There’s probably no particular reason seven was used as the example number to have zero interact with. Maybe it just sounded funnier than the other numbers under ten that might be used.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 10th uses a chalkboard of symbols to imply deep thinking. The symbols on the board look to me like they’re drawn from some real mathematics or physics source. There’s force equations appropriate for gravity or electric interactions. I can’t explain the whole board, but that’s not essential to work out anyway.

Marty Links’s Emmy Lou for the 17th of March, 1976 was rerun the 10th of August. It name-drops the mathematics teacher as the scariest of the set. Fortunately, Emmy Lou went to her classes in a day before Rate My Professor was a thing, so her teacher doesn’t have to hear about this.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 12th is a timely remidner that Scott Hilburn has way more Pi Day jokes than we have Pi Days to have. Also he has octopus jokes. It’s up to you to figure out whether the etymology of the caption makes sense.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Working Daze for the 12th presents the “accountant can’t do arithmetic” joke. People who ought to be good at arithmetic being lousy at figuring tips is an ancient joke. I’m a touch surprised that Christopher Miller’s American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny doesn’t have an entry for tips (or mathematics). But that might reflect Miller’s mission to catalogue jokes that have fallen out of the popular lexicon, not merely that are old.

Michael Cavna’s Warped for the 12th is also a Pi Day joke that couldn’t wait. It’s cute and should fit on any mathematics teacher’s office door.

Reading the Comics, June 13, 2012


Because there weren’t many math-themed comic strips, that’s why I went so long without an update in my roster of comic strips that mention math subjects. After Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm put in the start of a binomial expression the comics pages — through King Features Syndicate and gocomics.com — decided to drop the whole subject pretty completely for the rest of May. It picked up a little in June.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, June 13, 2012”

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