Reading the Comics, July 12, 2022: Numerals Edition

The small set of comic strips with some interesting mathematical content for the first third of the month include an anthropomorphic numerals one and one about the representation of infinity. That’s enough to make a title.

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac repeat for the 3rd is making its third appearance in my column! I had mentioned it when it first ran, in July 2012, and then again in its July 2017 repeat. But in neither of those past times did I actually include the comic as I felt it likely GoComics would keep the link to it stable. I’m less confident now that they will keep the link up, as Thompson has died and his comic strip — this century’s best, to date — is in perpetual rerun.

A numeral 2 is on the page. Alice, offscreen, asks: 'Petey, what letter is that?' Petey: 'It's the *number* two.' Alice: 'Is it happy or sad?' Petey: 'I don't know.' Alice: 'It's a girl, right? And it's green?' The numeral is now green, has long hair, and a smile. Petey: 'Well --- ' Alice: 'Does she wear a hat? Like a beret?' 'A hat?' The numeral now has a beret. Alice: 'Does she have a pet? I'll give her a few hamsters. Petey: 'A pet?' There are a copule hamsters around the 2 now. Alice: 'She likes *this* number.' Petey: 'Why --- ' The other number is a 5. Alice: 'But not *this* number. [ It's a 9. ] Because he's not looking at her.' The 2 is frowning at the 9. Petey: 'How do you --- ' Alice: 'What kind of music does she listen to?' Petey: 'ALICE! Stop asking me all this stuff! *I'm* no good at math!' Alice, upset: 'So it's up to *me* to be the family genius ... '
Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac repeat for the 3rd of July, 2022. This and other essays mentioning Cul de Sac are at this link. I see not all of them are, though; early in my time here I did not consistently tag comic strips. I should go back and fix that but, you know, effort.

I admit not having many thoughts which I haven’t said twice already. It’s a joke about making a character out of the representation of a number. Alice gives it personality and backstory and, as the kids say these days, lore. Anyway, be sure to check out this blog for the comic’s repeat the 4th of July, 2027. I hope to still be reading then.

I think mathematicians do tend to give, if not personality, at least traits to mathematical constructs. Like, 60, a number with abundant divisors, is likely to be seen as a less difficult number to calculate with than 58 is. A mathematician is likely to see e^{\imath sin(x)} as a pleasant, well-behaved function, but is likely to see \sin(e^{\frac{\imath}{x}}) as a troublesome one. These examples all tie to how easy they are to do other stuff with. But it is natural to think fondly of things you see a lot that work nicely for you. These don’t always have to be “nice” things. If you want to test an idea about continuous curves, for example, it’s convenient to have handy the Koch curve. It’s this spiky fractal that’s nothing but corners, and you can use it to see if the idea holds up. Do this enough, and you come to see a reliable partner to your work.

Dad, grilling: 'Peter, will you be wanting a single burger? ... A double burger? ... A triple burger?' Peter, teenage son: 'Well, seeing as you're asking ... ' Last panel, Dad hands, 'Your infinity burger.' It's a hamburger with a patty shaped in the sideways-8 infinity symbol. Peter: 'I probably should have been more specific.'
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 3rd of July, 2022. This and other essays with a mention of FoxTrot (new run) or FoxTrot Classics (repeats) are at this link.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 3rd is the one built on representing infinity. Best that one could hope for given Peter’s ambitious hopes here. I know the characters in this strip and I just little brother Jason wanted a Möbius-strip burger.

Tauhid Bondia’a Crabgrass for the 7th — a strip new to newspaper syndication, by the way — is a cryptography joke. This sort of thing is deeply entwined into mathematics, most deeply probability. This because we know that a three-letter (English) word is more likely to be ‘the’ or ‘and’ or ‘you’ than it is to be ‘qua’ or ‘ado’ or ‘pyx’. And either of those is more likely than ‘pqd’. So, if it’s a simple substitution, a coded word like ‘zpv’ gives a couple likely decipherings. The longer the original message, and the more it’s like regular English, the more likely it is that we can work out the encryption scheme.

But this is simple substitution. What’s a complex substitution? There are many possible schemes here. Their goal is to try to make, in the code text, every set of three-letter combinations to appear about as often as every other pair. That is, so that we don’t see ‘zpv’ happen any more, or less, than ‘sgd’ or ‘zmc’ do, so there’s no telling which word is supposed to be ‘the’ and which is ‘pyx’. Doing that well is a genuinely hard problem, and why cryptographers are paid I assume big money. It demands both excellent design of the code and excellent implementation of it. (One cryptography success for the Allies in World War II came about because some German weather stations needed to transmit their observations using two different cipher schemes. The one which the Allies had already cracked then gave an edge to working out the other.)

Mrs Campbell, taking a note Kevin is passing to Miles: 'Passing notes, Kevin? I'm sure you won't mind if I share this with the class ...' Kevin: Sure thing, Mrs Campbell.' She opens the note: 'ep zpv ibwf boz dboez'. In the principal's office Kevin says, 'Do your *worst*, Principal Sanders! The code dies with us!' Miles: 'Shift every letter one place to the left.' Kevin is shocked and horrified by the betrayal. Miles: 'It's pizza day. I got places to be.'
Tauhid Bondia’a Crabgrass for the 7th of July, 2022. This and other essays mentioning Crabgrass are at this link. I’m surprised to learn this isn’t a new tag, but I have been following the strip in its web comic incarnation for several years.

It also requires thinking of the costs of implementation. Kevin and Miles could work out a more secure code, but would it be worth it? They just need people to decide their message is too much effort to be worth cracking. Mrs Campbell seems to have reached that conclusion, at a glance. Not sure what Principal Sanders would have decided, were Miles not eager to get out of there. Operational security is always a challenge.

And that’s enough for the start of the month. All my Reading the Comics posts should be at this link,. I hope to have some more of them to discuss next week. We’ll see what happens.

Reading the Comics, April 6, 2020: My Perennials Edition

As much as everything is still happening, and so much, there’s still comic strips. I’m fortunately able here to focus just on the comics that discuss some mathematical theme, so let’s get started in exploring last week’s reading. Worth deeper discussion are the comics that turn up here all the time.

Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate for the 5th is a casual mention. Nate wants to get out of having to do his mathematics homework. This really could be any subject as long as it fit the word balloon.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 6th is a funny-answers-to-story-problems joke. Edison Lee’s answer disregards the actual wording of the question, which supposes the group is travelling at an average 70 miles per hour. The number of stops doesn’t matter in this case.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 6th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. In it Wavehead gives the “just use a calculator” answer for geometry problems.

On the blackboard: Perimeter, with a quadrilateral drawn, the sides labelled A, B, C, and D, and the formula A + B + C + D on the board. Wavehead asks the teacher, 'Or you could just walk around thet edge and let your fitness tracker tell you the distance.'
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 6th of April, 2020. I haven’t mentioned this strip in two days. Essays featuring Andertoons are at this link, though.

Not much to talk about there. But there is a fascinating thing about perimeters that you learn if you go far enough in Calculus. You have to get into multivariable calculus, something where you integrate a function that has at least two independent variables. When you do this, you can find the integral evaluated over a curve. If it’s a closed curve, something that loops around back to itself, then you can do something magic. Integrating the correct function on the curve around a shape will tell you the enclosed area.

And this is an example of one of the amazing things in multivariable calculus. It tells us that integrals over a boundary can tell us something about the integral within a volume, and vice-versa. It can be worth figuring out whether your integral is better solved by looking at the boundaries or at the interiors.

Heron’s Formula, for the area of a triangle based on the lengths of its sides, is an expression of this calculation. I don’t know of a formula exactly like that for the perimeter of a quadrilateral, but there are similar formulas if you know the lengths of the sides and of the diagonals.

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac rerun for the 6th sees Petey working on his mathematics homework. As with the Big Nate strip, it could be any subject.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 5th depicts, fairly, the sorts of things that excite mathematicians. The number discussed here is about algorithmic complexity. This is the study of how long it takes to do an algorithm. How long always depends on how big a problem you are working on; to sort four items takes less time than sorting four million items. Of interest here is how much the time to do work grows with the size of whatever you’re working on.

Caption: 'Mathematicians are weird.' Mathematician: 'You know that thing that was 2.3728642?' Group of mathematicians: 'Yes?' Mathematician; 'I got it down to 2.3728639.' The mathematicians burst out into thunderous applause.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 5th of April, 2020. I haven’t mentioned this strip in two days. Essays featuring Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal are at this link, though.

The mathematician’s particular example, and I thank dtpimentel in the comments for finding this, is about the Coppersmith–Winograd algorithm. This is a scheme for doing matrix multiplication, a particular kind of multiplication and addition of squares of numbers. The squares have some number N rows and N columns. It’s thought that there exists some way to do matrix multiplication in the order of N2 time, that is, if it takes 10 time units to multiply matrices of three rows and three columns together, we should expect it takes 40 time units to multiply matrices of six rows and six columns together. The matrix multiplication you learn in linear algebra takes on the order of N3 time, so, it would take like 80 time units.

We don’t know the way to do that. The Coppersmith–Winograd algorithm was thought, after Virginia Vassilevska Williams’s work in 2011, to take something like N2.3728642 steps. So that six-rows-six-columns multiplication would take slightly over 51.796 844 time units. In 2014, François le Gall found it was no worse than N2.3728639 steps, so this would take slightly over 51.796 833 time units. The improvement doesn’t seem like much, but on tiny problems it never does. On big problems, the improvement’s worth it. And, sometimes, you make a good chunk of progress at once.

I’ll have some more comic strips to discuss in an essay at this link, sometime later this week. Thanks for reading.

Reading the Comics, October 4, 2019: Glances Edition

And here are the comic strips from last week that mentioned mathematics, but don’t need more said about them.

Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 28th of September has the kid, Hammie, test an answering machine by asking it to do arithmetic.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts rerun for the 30th of September has Sally Brown taking Introduction to Math. The strip originally ran the 2nd of October, 1972.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 1st of October is a calendar joke. Well, many of the months used to have names that denoted their count. Month names have changed more than you’d think. For a while there every Roman Emperor was renaming months after himself. Most of these name changes did not stick. Lucius Aurelius Commodus, who reined from 177 to 192, gave all twelve months one or another of his names.

Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 1st of October presents a quite silly artist who draws only geometric shapes “devoid of any pictorial or narrative content”.

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac rerun for the 2nd of October has Petey’s mathematics homework outgassing dangerously. The strip originally ran the 30th of September, 2009.

Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine for the 4th of October is another of those strange attempts to denounce the phrase “giving 110%”.

And thank you for reading. This and all Reading the Comics posts should be at this link and there should be a new one Sunday. Tomorrow I hope to post the letter ‘L’ in the Fall 2019 A-to-Z.

Reading the Comics, November 25, 2017: Shapes and Probability Edition

This week was another average-grade week of mathematically-themed comic strips. I wonder if I should track them and see what spurious correlations between events and strips turn up. That seems like too much work and there’s better things I could do with my time, so it’s probably just a few weeks before I start doing that.

Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pax Comics for the 19th is an installment of A Voice From Another Dimension. It’s in that long line of mathematics jokes that are riffs on Flatland, and how we might try to imagine spaces other than ours. They’re taxing things. We can understand some of the rules of them perfectly well. Does that mean we can visualize them? Understand them? I’m not sure, and I don’t know a way to prove whether someone does or does not. This wasn’t one of the strips I was thinking of when I tossed “shapes” into the edition title, but you know what? It’s close enough to matching.

Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 20th — and I haven’t looked, but it feels to me like I’m always featuring Imogen Quest lately — riffs on the Monty Hall Problem. The problem is based on a game never actually played on Monty Hall’s Let’s Make A Deal, but very like ones they do. There’s many kinds of games there, but most of them amount to the contestant making a choice, and then being asked to second-guess the choice. In this case, pick a door and then second-guess whether to switch to another door. The Monty Hall Problem is a great one for Internet commenters to argue about while the rest of us do something productive. The trouble — well, one trouble — is that whether switching improves your chance to win the car is that whether it does depends on the rules of the game. It’s not stated, for example, whether the host must open a door showing a goat behind it. It’s not stated that the host certainly knows which doors have goats and so chooses one of those. It’s not certain the contestant even wants a car when, hey, goats. What assumptions you make about these issues affects the outcome.

If you take the assumptions that I would, given the problem — the host knows which door the car’s behind, and always offers the choice to switch, and the contestant would rather have a car, and such — then Walch’s analysis is spot on.

Jonathan Mahood’s Bleeker: The Rechargeable Dog for the 20th features a pretend virtual reality arithmetic game. The strip is of incredibly low mathematical value, but it’s one of those comics I like that I never hear anyone talking about, so, here.

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac rerun for the 20th talks about shapes. And the names for shapes. It does seem like mathematicians have a lot of names for slightly different quadrilaterals. In our defense, if you’re talking about these a lot, it helps to have more specific names than just “quadrilateral”. Rhomboids are those parallelograms which have all four sides the same length. A parallelogram has to have two pairs of equal-sized legs, but the two pairs’ sizes can be different. Not so a rhombus. Mathworld says a rhombus with a narrow angle that’s 45 degrees is sometimes called a lozenge, but I say they’re fibbing. They make even more preposterous claims on the “lozenge” page.

Todd Clark’s Lola for the 20th does the old “when do I need to know algebra” question and I admit getting grumpy like this when people ask. Do French teachers have to put up with this stuff?

Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer rerun for the 23rd is from one of the delicate moments in her story. Fies’s mother just learned the average survival rate for her cancer treatment is about five percent and, after months of things getting haltingly better, is shaken. But as with most real-world probability questions context matters. The five-percent chance is, as described, the chance someone who’d just been diagnosed in the state she’d been diagnosed in would survive. The information that she’s already survived months of radiation and chemical treatment and physical therapy means they’re now looking at a different question. What is the chance she will survive, given that she has survived this far with this care?

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 24th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. It’s a protesting-student kind of joke. For the student’s question, I’m not sure how many sides a polygon has before we can stop memorizing them. I’d say probably eight. Maybe ten. Of the shapes whose names people actually care about, mm. Circle, triangle, a bunch of quadrilaterals, pentagons, hexagons, octagons, maybe decagon and dodecagon. No, I’ve never met anyone who cared about nonagons. I think we could drop heptagons without anyone noticing either. Among quadrilaterals, ugh, let’s see. Square, rectangle, rhombus, parallelogram, trapezoid (or trapezium), and I guess diamond although I’m not sure what that gets you that rhombus doesn’t already. Toss in circles, ellipses, and ovals, and I think that’s all the shapes whose names you use.

Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine for the 25th does the rounding-up joke that’s been going around this year. It’s got a new context, though.

Reading the Comics, July 8, 2017: Mostly Just Pointing Edition

Won’t lie: I was hoping for a busy week. While Comic Strip Master Command did send a healthy number of mathematically-themed comic strips, I can’t say they were a particularly deep set. Most of what I have to say is that here’s a comic strip that mentions mathematics. Well, you’re reading me for that, aren’t you? Maybe. Tell me if you’re not. I’m curious.

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac rerun for the 2nd of July is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. And a great one, as I’d expect of Thompson, since it also turns into a little bit about how to create characters.

Ralph Dunagin and Dana Summers’s Middletons for the 2nd uses mathematics as the example of the course a kid might do lousy in. You never see this for Social Studies classes, do you?

Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 3rd made the most overtly mathematical joke for most of the week at Math Camp. The strip hasn’t got to anything really annoying yet; it’s mostly been average summer-camp jokes. I admit I’ve been distracted trying to figure out if the minor characters are Tatulli redrawing Peanuts characters in his style. I mean, doesn’t Dana (the freckled girl in the third panel, here) look at least a bit like Peppermint Patty? I’ve also seen a Possible Marcie and a Possible Shermy, who’s the Peanuts character people draw when they want an obscure Peanuts character who isn’t 5. (5 is the Boba Fett of the Peanuts character set: an extremely minor one-joke character used for a week in 1963 but who appeared very occasionally in the background until 1983. You can identify him by the ‘5’ on his shirt. He and his sisters 3 and 4 are the ones doing the weird head-sideways dance in A Charlie Brown Christmas.)

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 4th is another use of mathematics, here algebra, as a default sort of homework assignment.

Brant Parker and Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id Classics for the 4th reruns the Wizard of Id for the 7th of July, 1967. It’s your typical calculation-error problem, this about the forecasting of eclipses. I admit the forecasting of eclipses is one of those bits of mathematics I’ve never understood, but I’ve never tried to understand either. I’ve just taken for granted that the Moon’s movements are too much tedious work to really enlighten me and maybe I should reevaluate that. Understanding when the Moon or the Sun could be expected to disappear was a major concern for people doing mathematics for centuries.

Keith Tutt and Daniel Saunders’s Lard’s World Peace Tips for the 5th is a Special Relativity joke, which is plenty of mathematical content for me. I warned you it was a week of not particularly deep discussions.

Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots rerun for the 5th is a cute little metric system joke. And I’m going to go ahead and pretend that’s enough mathematical content. I’ve come to quite like Brilliant’s cheerfully despairing tone.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs for the 7th mentions fractions, so you can see how loose the standards get around here when the week is slow enough.

Snuffy Smith: 'I punched Barlow 'cuz I knew in all probability he wuz about to punch me, yore honor!!' Judge: 'Th' law don't deal in probabilities, Smif, we deal in CERTAINTIES!!' Snuffy, to his wife: '... An' th'minute he said THAT, I was purty CERTAIN whar I wuz headed !!'
John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 8th of July, 2017. So I know it’s a traditional bit of comic strip graphic design to avoid using a . at the end of sentences, as it could be too easily lost — or duplicated — in a printing error. Thus the long history of comic strip sentences that end with a ! mark, unambiguous even if the dot goes missing or gets misaligned. But double exclamation points for everything? What goes on here?

John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 8th finally gives me a graphic to include this week. It’s about the joke you would expect from the topic of probability being mentioned. And, as might be expected, the comic strip doesn’t precisely accurately describe the state of the law. Any human endeavour has to deal with probabilities. They give us the ability to have reasonable certainty about the confusing and ambiguous information the world presents.

Einstein At Eight: equations scribbled all over the wall. Einstein Mom: 'Just look at what a mess you made here!' Einstein Dad: 'You've got some explaining to do, young man.'
Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 8th of July, 2017. I gotta say, I look at that equation in the middle with m raised to the 7th power and feel a visceral horror. And yet I dealt with exactly this horrible thing once and it came out all right.

Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 8th is another Albert Einstein mention. The bundle of symbols don’t mean much of anything, at least not as they’re presented, but of course superstar equation E = mc2 turns up. It could hardly not.

Reading the Comics, July 1, 2012

This will be a hastily-written installment since I married just this weekend and have other things occupying me. But there’s still comics mentioning math subjects so let me summarize them for you. The first since my last collection of these, on the 13th of June, came on the 15th, with Dave Whamond’s Reality Check, which goes into one of the minor linguistic quirks that bothers me: the claim that one can’t give “110 percent,” since 100 percent is all there is. I don’t object to phrases like “110 percent”, though, since it seems to me the baseline, the 100 percent, must be to some standard reference performance. For example, the Space Shuttle Main Engines routinely operated at around 104 percent, not because they were exceeding their theoretical limits, but because the original design thrust was found to be not quite enough, and the engines were redesigned to deliver more thrust, and it would have been far too confusing to rewrite all the documentation so that the new design thrust was the new 100 percent. Instead 100 percent was the design capacity of an engine which never flew but which existed in paper form. So I’m forgiving of “110 percent” constructions, is the important thing to me.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, July 1, 2012”

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