Reading the Comics, November 9, 2018: Standing For Things Edition


There was something in common in two of the last five comic strips worth attention from last week. That’s good enough to give the essay its name.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 8th showcases Toby discovering the point of letters in algebra. It’s easy to laugh at him being ignorant. But the use of letters this way is something it’s easy to miss. You need first to realize that we don’t need to have a single way to represent a number. Which is implicit in learning, say, that you can write ‘7’ as the Roman numeral ‘VII’ or so, but I’m not sure that’s always clear. And realizing that you could use any symbol to write out ‘7’ if you agree that’s what the symbol means? That’s an abstraction tossed onto people who often aren’t really up for that kind of abstraction. And that we can have a symbol for “a number whose identity we don’t yet know”? Or even “a number whose identity we don’t care about”? Don’t blame someone for rearing back in confusion at this.

Friend 1: 'That algebra test was awful.' Friend 2: 'Toby just gave up and handed his paper in!' Toby: 'No, I finished. My mom said as long as I studied I didn't have to do any chores.' Friend 1: 'That'd eat up all your gaming hours!' Toby: 'Yep. Hey, did you know algebra letters stand for things?'
Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 8th of November, 2018. I’m sorry I can’t figure out the names of Toby’s friends here. Character lists, cartoonists, please.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 8th talks about vectors and scalars. And about the little ways that instructors in one subject can sabotage one another. In grad school I was witness to the mathematics department feeling quite put-upon by the engineering departments, who thought we were giving their students inadequate calculus training. Meanwhile we couldn’t figure out what they were telling students about calculus except that it was screwing up their understanding.

Funtime Activity: Ruining students forever. Teacher: 'Physics students must learn the difference between vectors and scalars is that scalars don't exist.' Student: 'What about 'amount of apples'?' Teacher: 'Huh? Oh, you're referring to 'distance in apple-space'.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 8th of November, 2018. Also, shouldn’t that be “displacement in apple-space”?

To a physicist, a vector is a size and a direction together. (At least until they get seriously into mathematical physics when they need a more abstract idea.) A scalar is a number. Like, a real-valued number such as ‘4’. Maybe a complex-valued number such as ‘4 + 6i’. Vectors are great because a lot of physics problems become easier when thought of in terms of directions and amounts in that direction.

A mathematician would start out with vectors and scalars like that. But then she’d move into a more abstract idea. A vector, to a mathematician, is a thing you can add to another vector and get a vector out. A scalar is something that’s not a vector but that, multiplied by a vector, gets you a vector out. This sounds circular. But by defining ‘vector’ and ‘scalar’ in how they interact with each other we get a really sweet flexibility. We can use the same reasoning — and the same proofs — for lots of things. Directions, yes. But also matrices, and continuous functions, and probabilities of events, and more. That’s a bit much to give the engineering student who’s trying to work out some problem about … I don’t know. Whatever they do over in that department. Truss bridges or electrical circuits or something.

Billy: 'On the 80s station I think I just heard my favorite song ever! It's about carrying a laser down some road. I think it's called 'Carry a laser' and it's all about lasers!' Cow: 'Actually, it's 'Kyrie Eleison'. It means 'Lord, have Mercy'. It has nothing at all to do with lasers.' Billy: 'Right, and 'Hip to b^2' has nothing to do with algebra.' Cow: 'That I don't know.'s
Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy rerun for the 9th of November, 2018. It first ran the 19th of March, 2012.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy for the 9th is really about misheard song lyrics, a subject that will never die now that we don’t have the space to print lyrics in the album lining anymore, or album linings. But it has a joke resonant with that of The Buckets, in supposing that algebra is just some bunch of letters mixed up with numbers. And Cow and Boy was always a strip I loved, as baffling as it might be to a casual reader. It had a staggering number of running jokes, although not in this installment.

Brad: 'I think I've got this worked out. It takes 500 half-inch hairs to make a good moustache. If I grow one hair a week, and each new hair grows 1/8 inch per month, I can grow a perfect moustache in ... ' Luann: '225 years, not bad!'
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 9th of November, 2018. It first ran the 9th of November, 1990.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 9th shows Brad happy to work out arithmetic when it’s for something he’d like to know. The figure Luan gives is ridiculously high, though. If he needs 500 hairs, and one new hair grows in each week, then that’s a little under ten years’ worth of growth. Nine years and a bit over seven months to be exact. If a moustache hair needs to be a half-inch long, and it grows at 1/8th of an inch per month, then it takes four months to be sufficiently long. So in the slowest possible state it’d be nine years, eleven months. I can chalk Luann’s answer up to being snidely pessimistic about his hair growth. But his calculator seems to agree and that suggests something went wrong along the way.

Test Question: 'Mr Gray drove 55 mph to a city 80 miles away. He made two stops: one for 20 minutes, and one for 5. How long did it take Mr Gray to reach the city?' Student's answer: 'This made my head hurt, so I'm just going to say 'the whole trip'. You can't argue that.'
John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 9th of November, 2018. Again, character lists. I don’t know which of the characters this is except that he’s either very small or has an enormous pencil.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 9th is a story problem joke. It looks to me like a reasonable story problem, too: the distance travelled and the speed are reasonable, and give sensible numbers. The two stops add a bit of complication that doesn’t seem out of line. And the kid’s confusion is fair enough. It takes some experience to realize that the problem splits into an easy part, a hard part, and an easy part. The first easy part is how long the stops take all together. That’s 25 minutes. The hard part is realizing that if you want to know the total travel time it doesn’t matter when the stops are. You can find the total travel time by adding together the time spent stopped with the time spent driving. And the other easy part is working out how long it takes to go 80 miles if you travel at 55 miles per hour. That’s just a division. So find that and add to it the 25 minutes spent at the two stops.


The various Reading the Comics posts should all be at this link. Essays which discuss The Buckets are at this link. The incredibly many essays mentioning Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal are at this link. Essays which mention Cow and Boy are at this link. Essays inspired in part by Luann, both the current-day and the vintage 1990 run, are at this link. The credibly many essays mentioning Maria’s Day are at this link.

And through the end of December my Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z should have two new posts a week. You might like some of them.

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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, January 23, 2018: Adult Content Edition


I was all set to say how complaining about GoComics.com’s pages not loading had gotten them fixed. But they only worked for Monday alone; today they’re broken again. Right. I haven’t tried sending an error report again; we’ll see if that works. Meanwhile, I’m still not through last week’s comic strips and I had just enough for one day to nearly enough justify an installment for the one day. Should finish off the rest of the week next essay, probably in time for next week.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy rerun for the 23rd circles around some of Zeno’s Paradoxes. At the heart of some of them is the question of whether a thing can be divided infinitely many times, or whether there must be some smallest amount of a thing. Zeno wonders about space and time, but you can do as well with substance, with matter. Mathematics majors like to say the problem is easy; Zeno just didn’t realize that a sum of infinitely many things could be a finite and nonzero number. This misses the good question of how the sum of infinitely many things, none of which are zero, can be anything but infinitely large? Or, put another way, what’s different in adding \frac11 + \frac12 + \frac13 + \frac14 + \cdots and adding \frac11 + \frac14 + \frac19 + \frac{1}{16} + \cdots that the one is infinitely large and the other not?

Or how about this. Pick your favorite string of digits. 23. 314. 271828. Whatever. Add together the series \frac11 + \frac12 + \frac13 + \frac14 + \cdots except that you omit any terms that have your favorite string there. So, if you picked 23, don’t add \frac{1}{23} , or \frac{1}{123} , or \frac{1}{802301} or such. That depleted series does converge. The heck is happening there? (Here’s why it’s true for a single digit being thrown out. Showing it’s true for longer strings of digits takes more work but not really different work.)

J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts for the 23rd is, I think, the first time I have to give a content warning for one of these. It’s a porn-movie advertisement spoof. But it mentions Einstein and Pi and has the tagline “she didn’t go for eggheads … until he showed her a new equation!”. So, you know, it’s using mathematics skill as a signifier of intelligence and riffing on the idea that nerds like sex too.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not for the 23rd has a trivia that made me initially think “not”. It notes Vince Parker, Senior and Junior, of Alabama were both born on Leap Day, the 29th of February. I’ll accept this without further proof because of the very slight harm that would befall me were I to accept this wrongly. But it also asserted this was a 1-in-2.1-million chance. That sounded wrong. Whether it is depends on what you think the chance is of.

Because what’s the remarkable thing here? That a father and son have the same birthday? Surely the chance of that is 1 in 365. The father could be born any day of the year; the son, also any day. Trusting there’s no influence of the father’s birthday on the son’s, then, 1 in 365 it is. Or, well, 1 in about 365.25, since there are leap days. There’s approximately one leap day every four years, so, surely that, right?

And not quite. In four years there’ll be 1,461 days. Four of them will be the 29th of January and four the 29th of September and four the 29th of August and so on. So if the father was born any day but leap day (a “non-bissextile day”, if you want to use a word that starts a good fight in a Scrabble match), the chance the son’s birth is the same is 4 chances in 1,461. 1 in 365.25. If the father was born on Leap Day, then the chance the son was born the same day is only 1 chance in 1,461. Still way short of 1-in-2.1-million. So, Graziano’s Ripley’s is wrong if that’s the chance we’re looking at.

Ah, but what if we’re looking at a different chance? What if we’re looking for the chance that the father is born the 29th of February and the son is also born the 29th of February? There’s a 1-in-1,461 chance the father’s born on Leap Day. And a 1-in-1,461 chance the son’s born on Leap Day. And if those events are independent, the father’s birth date not influencing the son’s, then the chance of both those together is indeed 1 in 2,134,521. So Graziano’s Ripley’s is right if that’s the chance we’re looking at.

Which is a good reminder: if you want to work out the probability of some event, work out precisely what the event is. Ordinary language is ambiguous. This is usually a good thing. But it’s fatal to discussing probability questions sensibly.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 23rd presents his mathematician discovering a new set of numbers. This will happen. Mathematics has had great success, historically, finding new sets of things that look only a bit like numbers were understood. And showing that if they follow rules that are, as much as possible, like the old numbers, we get useful stuff out of them. The mathematician claims to be a formalist, in the punch line. This is a philosophy that considers mathematical results to be the things you get by starting with some symbols and some rules for manipulating them. What this stuff means, and whether it reflects anything of interest in the real world, isn’t of interest. We can know the results are good because they follow the rules.

This sort of approach can be fruitful. It can force you to accept results that are true but intuition-defying. And it can give results impressive confidence. You can even, at least in principle, automate the creating and the checking of logical proofs. The disadvantages are that it takes forever to get anything done. And it’s hard to shake the idea that we ought to have some idea what any of this stuff means.

Reading the Comics, September 9, 2017: First Split Week Edition, Part 2


I don’t actually like it when a split week has so many more comics one day than the next, but I also don’t like splitting across a day if I can avoid it. This week, I had to do a little of both since there were so many comic strips that were relevant enough on the 8th. But they were dominated by the idea of going back to school, yet.

Randy Glasbergen’s Glasbergen Cartoons rerun for the 8th is another back-to-school gag. And it uses arithmetic as the mathematics at its most basic. Arithmetic might not be the most fundamental mathematics, but it does seem to be one of the parts we understand first. It’s probably last to be forgotten even on a long summer break.

Mark Pett’s Mr Lowe rerun for the 8th is built on the familiar old question of why learn arithmetic when there’s computers. Quentin is unconvinced of this as motive for learning long division. I’ll grant the case could be made better. I admit I’m not sure how, though. I think long division is good as a way to teach, especially, the process of estimating and improving estimates of a calculation. There’s a lot of real mathematics in doing that.

Guy Gilchrist’s Nancy for the 8th is another back-to-school strip. Nancy’s faced with “this much math” so close to summer. Her given problem’s a bit of a mess to me. But it’s mostly teaching whether the student’s got the hang of the order of operations. And the instructor clearly hasn’t got the sense right. People can ask whether we should parse “12 divided by 3 times 4” as “(12 divided by 3) times 4” or as “12 divided by (3 times 4)”, and that does make a major difference. Multiplication commutes; you can do it in any order. Division doesn’t. Leaving ambiguous phrasing is the sort of thing you learn, instinctively, to avoid. Nancy would be justified in refusing to do the problem on the grounds that there is no unambiguous way to evaluate it, and that the instructor surely did not mean for her to evaluate it all four different plausible ways.

By the way, I’ve seen going around Normal Person Twitter this week a comment about how they just discovered the division symbol ÷, the obelus, is “just” the fraction bar with dots above and below where the unknown numbers go. I agree this is a great mnemonic for understanding what is being asked for with the symbol. But I see no evidence that this is where the symbol, historically, comes from. We first see ÷ used for division in the writings of Johann Henrich Rahn, in 1659, and the symbol gained popularity particularly when John Pell picked it up nine years later. But it’s not like Rahn invented the symbol out of nowhere; it had been used for subtraction for over 125 years at that point. There were also a good number of writers using : or / or \ for division. There were some people using a center dot before and after a / mark for this, like the % sign fell on its side. That ÷ gained popularity in English and American writing seems to be a quirk of fate, possibly augmented by it being relatively easy to produce on a standard typewriter. (Florian Cajori notes that the National Committee on Mathematical Requirements recommended dropping ÷ altogether in favor of a symbol that actually has use in non-mathematical life, the / mark. The Committee recommended this in 1923, so you see how well the form agenda is doing.)

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 8th is the anthropomorphic-numerals joke for this week. A week without one is always a bit … peculiar.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy rerun for the 9th only mentions mathematics, and that as a course that Billy would rather be skipping. But I like the comic strip and want to promote its memory as much as possible. It’s a deeply weird thing, because it has something like 400 running jokes, and it’s hard to get into because the first couple times you see a pastoral conversation interrupted by an orca firing a bazooka at a cat-helicopter while a panda brags of blowing up the moon it seems like pure gibberish. If you can get through that, you realize why this is funny.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 9th uses chalkboards full of stuff as the sign of a professor doing serious thinking. Mathematics is will-suited for chalkboards, at least in comic strips. It conveys a lot of thought and doesn’t need much preplanning. Although a joke about the difficulties in planning out blackboard use does take that planning. Yes, there is a particular pain that comes from having more stuff to write down in the quick yet easily collaborative medium of the chalkboard than there is board space to write.

Brian Basset’s Red and Rover for the 9th also really only casually mentions mathematics. But it’s another comic strip I like a good deal so would like to talk up. Anyway, it does show Red discovering he doesn’t mind doing mathematics when he sees the use.

2012 in Review


I should maybe close out the Christmas/New Year season with the report of statistics which WordPress prepared about my little blog here. Of course they keep statistics; one of the big changes in human thought in the 20th century was that pretty near everything could not only be measured but that they could be measured statistically: what are the mean, the mode, the variances, how do things correlate, what can be done to maximize the desired and minimize the unwanted?

I don’t do quite that much tracking myself, as it’s a little too much work when all I’m doing is pointing out how Cow and Boy mentioned frustum volume formulas or something, but I do like watching the counter flicker as people find that, mostly, they want to see me talking about the area of a trapezoid. That’s by far the most popular thing I wrote in 2012, and all based on my fumbling the middle of a class. Had I not attempted to improvise in class, I would be less popular on the Internet. There’s a lesson here for our times and I don’t know what it is.

Continue reading “2012 in Review”

Reading the Comics, July 28, 2012


I intend to be back to regular mathematics-based posts soon. I had a fine idea for a couple posts based on Sunday’s closing of the Diaster Transport roller coaster ride at Cedar Point, actually, although I have to technically write them first. (My bride and I made a trip to the park to get a last ride in before its closing, and that lead to inspiration.) But reviews of math-touching comic strips are always good for my readership, if I’m readin the statistics page here right, so let’s see what’s come up since the last recap, going up to the 14th of July.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, July 28, 2012”