Reading the Comics, January 18, 2020: Decimals In Fractions Edition


Let me first share the other comic strips from last week which mentioned mathematics, but in a casual way.

Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s Zits for the 14th used the phrase “do the math”, and snarked on the younger generation doing mathematics. This was as part of the longrunning comic’s attempt to retcon the parents from being Baby Boomers to being Generation X. Scott and Borgman can do as they like but, I mean, their kids are named Chad and Jeremy. That’s only tenable if they’re Boomers. (I’m not sure Chad has returned from college in the past ten years.) And even then it was marginal.

John Kovaleski’s Bo Nanas rerun for the 14th is a joke about the probability of birthdays.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 14th features “the Bertrand Russell Drinking Game”, playing on the famous paradox about self-referential statements of logic.

Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine for the 17th has Rat use a bunch of mathematical jargon to give his declarations authority.

Cy Olson’s Office Hours for the 18th, rerunning a strip from the 9th of November, 1971, is in the line of jokes about parents not understanding their children’s arithmetic. It doesn’t seem to depend on mocking the New Math, which is a slight surprise for a 1971 comic.


Classroom. The blackboard problem is 0.25 / 0.05 = ? Wavehead, to teacher: 'Decimals *in* fractions?! Have you no shame?!'
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 12th of January, 2020. This and other essays with some topic raised by Andertoons should appear at this link.

So Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 12th is the only comic strip of some substance that I noticed last week. You see what a slender month it’s been. It does showcase the unsettling nature of seeing notations for similar things mixed. It’s not that there’s anything which doesn’t parse about having decimals in the numerator or denominator. It just looks weird. And that can be enough to throw someone out of a problem. They might mistake the problem for one that doesn’t have a coherent meaning. Or they might mistake it for one too complicated to do. Learning to not be afraid of a problem that looks complicated is worth doing. As is learning how to tell whether a problem parses at all, even if it looks weird.


And that’s an end to last week in comics. I plan to have a fresh Reading the Comics post on Sunday. Thank you for reading in the meanwhile.

Reading the Comics, May 8, 2018: Insecure http Edition


Last week had enough mathematically-themed comics for me to split the content. Usually I split the comics temporally, and this time I will too. What’s unusual is that somewhere along the week the URLs that GoComics pages provide switched from http to https. https is the less-openly-insecure version of the messaging protocol that sends web pages around. It’s good practice; we should be using https wherever possible. I don’t know why they switched that on, and why switch it on midweek. I suppose someone there knew what they were doing.

Tom Wilson’s Ziggy for the 6th of May uses mathematical breakthroughs as shorthand for inspiration. In two ways, too, one with a basically geometric figure and one with a bunch of equations. The geometric figure doesn’t seem to have any significance to me. The equations … that’s a bit harder. They’re probably nonsense. But it’s hard to look at ‘a’ and not see acceleration; the letter is often used for that. And it’s hard to look at ‘v’ and not see velocity. ‘x’ is often a position and ‘t’ is often a time. ‘xf – xi‘ looks meaningful too. It almost begs to be read as “position, final, minus position, initial”. “tf – ti” almost begs to be read as “time, final, minus time, initial”. And the difference in position divided by a difference in time suggests a velocity.

People at Inspiration Point all saying Eureka. one things of an arithmetic formula, one of a geometric proof, one of a bar of music. Ziggy thinks of a vacuum cleaner.
Tom Wilson’s Ziggy for the 6th of May, 2018. I’m also curious whether the geometric figure means anything. But the spray of “x3 – 1” and “x2” and all don’t seem to fit a pattern to me.

So here’s something peculiar inspired by looking at the units that have to follow. If ‘v’ is velocity, then it’s got units of distance over time. \left(\frac{av}{V}\right)^2 and \left(\frac{av}{I}\right)^2 would have units of distance-squared over time-squared. At least unless ‘a ‘or ‘V’ or ‘I’ are themselves measurements. But the square root of their sum then gets us back to distance over time. And then a distance-over-time divided by … well, distance-over-time suggests a pure number. Or something of whatever units ‘R’ carries with it.

So this equation seems arbitrary, and of course the expression doesn’t need to make sense for the joke. But it’s odd that the most-obvious choice of meanings for v and x and t means that the symbols work out so well. At least almost: an acceleration should have units of distance-over-time-squared, and this has units of (nothing). But I may have guessed wrong in thinking ‘a’ meant acceleration here. It might be a description of how something in one direction corresponds to something in another. And that would make sense as a pure number. I wonder whether Wilson got this expression from from anything, or if any readers recognize something that I should have seen right away.

Monty: 'Exactly ONE month of school left, Mrs Lola!' Lola: 'How 'bout that, Monty.' Monty: 'So, subtracting weekends ... that's, um, let's see. Carry the 2, add the 6 ... only 47 days!' Lola: 'Your folks got you signed up for math camp?' Monty: 'How'd you know?'
Todd Clark’s Lola for the 7th of May, 2018. I’m not sure whether Monty means the 6th or the 7th of June is the last day of school, too, but either way I’m pretty sure that’s at least a week and maybe closer to two weeks before we ever got out of school. But we also never started before US Labor Day and it feels indecent when I see schools that do.

Todd Clark’s Lola for the 7th jokes about being bad at mathematics. The number of days left to the end of school isn’t something that a kid should have trouble working out. However, do remember the first rule of calculating the span between two dates on the calendar: never calculate the span between two dates on the calendar. There is so much that goes wrong trying. All right, there’s a method. That method is let someone else do it.

Mutt: 'You want to know what I bought you for Christmas? Think in the number ten!' Jeff: 'Ten? Done!' Mutt: 'Then divide it by two!' Jeff: 'Yes!' Mutt: 'Now you must take away five!' Jeff: 'Yes!' Mutt: 'How much is left?' Jeff: 'Nothing!' (Mutt leaves, while Jeff ponders '?'.)
Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff rerun for the 7th of May, 2018. No idea when the original was from and the word balloons have been relettered with a computer typeface. (Look at the K’s or E’s.) The copyright is given as Aedita S de Beaumont, rather than Bud Fisher or any of the unnamed assistants who actually wrote and drew the strip by this point. Beaumont had married Fisher in 1925 and while they separated after a month they never divorced, so on Fisher’s death Beaumont inherited the rights. Some strips have the signature Pierre S de Beaumont, her son and it happens founder of the Brookstone retail stores. Every bit of this seems strange but I keep looking it over and it seems like I have it right.

Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff for the 7th uses the form of those mathematics-magic games. You know, the ones where you ask someone to pick a number, then do some operations, and then tell you the result. From that you reverse-engineer the original number. They’re amusing enough tricks even if they are all basically the same. It’s instructive to figure out how they work. Replace your original number with symbols and follow the steps then. If you just need the number itself you can replace that with ‘x’. If you need the digits of the number then you’d replace it with something like “10*a + b”, to represent the numerals “ab”. Here, yeah, Mutt’s just being arbitrarily mean.

Robot 55: 'EXTERMINATE ALL LIFE!' Oliver, dressed as a robot: 'Quick, Jorge, act like a robot!' Jorge, dressed like a robot: '20 times 30 equals a million.' Robot 44: 'LIFE EMANATING FROM THIS DIRECTION.' (And approaches the kids.) Oliver: 'Just do the robot dance!' Jorge: 'That's ridiculous, Oliver. Who'd actually program a robot to dance?' (The robots laser-blast a flower.) Jorge, twitching: o/` BOOP BOOP BOOP-BE-BOOP! O/`
Paul Gilligan and Kory Merritt’s Poptropica rerun for the 7th of May, 2018. Sad to say the comic seems to have lapsed into perpetual rerun; I enjoyed the silly adventure and the illustration style.

Paul Gilligan and Kory Merritt’s Poptropica for the 7th depicts calculating stuff as the way to act like a robot. Can’t deny; calculation is pretty much what we expect computers to do. It may hide. It may be done so abstractly it looks like we’re playing Mini Metro instead. This is a new comics tag. I’m sad to say this might be the last use of that tag. Poptropica is fun, but it doesn’t touch on mathematics much at all.

Written on a wood fence: 'Kindergarten teachers know how to make the little things count'.
Gene Mora’s Graffiti for the 8th of May, 2018. I don’t know whether this is a rerun. The copyright date is new but so much about this comic’s worldview is from 1978 at the latest.

Gene Mora’s Graffiti for the 8th mentions arithmetic, albeit obliquely. It’s meant to be pasted on the doors of kindergarten teachers and who am I to spoil the fun?

Anthropomorphic 3/5: 'Honey, what's wrong?' Anthropomorphic 1/4: 'Sour son is leaving the faith! He said he's converting to decimals!'
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 9th of May, 2018. I like the shout-out to Archimedes in the background art, too. Archimedes, though, didn’t use fractions in the way we’d recognize them. He’d write out a number as a combination of ratios of some reference number. So he might estimate the length of something being as to the length of something else as 19 is to 7, or something like that. This seems like a longwinded and cumbersome way to write out numbers, or much of anything, and makes one appreciate his indefatigability as much as his insight.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 9th is the anthropomorphic-numerals joke for this week. Converting between decimals and fractions has been done since decimals got worked out in the late 16th century. There’s advantages to either representation. To my eyes the biggest advantage of fractions is they avoid hypnotizing people with the illusion of precision. 0.25 reads as more exact than 1/4. We can imagine it being 0.2500000000000000 and think we know the quantity to any desired precision. 1/4 reads (to me, anyway) as being open to the possibility we’re rounding off from 0.998 out of 4.00023.

Another advantage fractions do have is flexibility. There are infinitely many ways to express the same number as a fraction. In decimals, there are at most two. If you’re trying to calculate something that would be more easily done with a denominator of 30 than of 5, you’re free to do that. Decimals can have advantages in computing, certainly, especially if you’re already set up to manipulate digits. And you can tell at a glance whether, say, 14/29th is greater or less than 154/317th. In case you ever find reason to wonder, I mean. I’m not saying either is always the right way to go.

Silver-Leafed Numbers


In a comment on my “Gilded Ratios” essay fluffy wondered about a variation on the Golden and Golden-like ratios. What’s interesting about the Golden Ratio and similar numbers is that their reciprocal — one divided by them — is a whole number less than the original number. That is, 1 divided by 1.618(etc) is 0.618(etc), which is 1 less than the original number. 1 divided by 2.414(etc) is 0.414(etc), exactly 2 less than the original 2.414(etc). 1 divided by 3.302(etc) is 0.302(etc), exactly 3 less than the original 3.302(etc).

fluffy wondered about a variation. Is there some number x that’s exactly 2 less than 2 divided by x? Or a (presumably) differently number that’s exactly 3 less than 3 divided by it? Yes, there is.

Let me call the whole number difference — the 1 or 2 or 3 or so on, referred to above — by the name b. And let me call the other number — the one that’s b less than b divided by it — by the name x. Then a number x, for which b divided by x is exactly b less than itself, makes true the equation \frac{b}{x} = x - b . This is slightly different from the equation used last time, but not very different. Multiply both sides by x, which we know not to be zero, and we get a polynomial.

Yes, quadratic formula, I see you waving your hand in the back there. And you’re right. There are two x’s that will make that equation true. The positive one is x = \frac12\left( b + \sqrt{b^2 + 4b} \right) . The negative one you get by changing the + sign, just before the square root, to a – sign, but who cares about that root? Here’s the first several of the (positive) silver-leaf ratios:

Some More Numbers With Cute Reciprocals
Number Silver-Leaf
1 1.618033989
2 2.732050808
3 3.791287847
4 4.828427125
5 5.854101966
6 6.872983346
7 7.887482194
8 8.898979486
9 9.908326913
10 10.916079783
11 11.922616289
12 12.928203230
13 13.933034374
14 14.937253933
15 15.940971508
16 16.944271910
17 17.947221814
18 18.949874371
19 19.952272480
20 20.954451150

Looking over those hypnotic rows of digits past the decimal inspires thoughts. The part beyond the decimal keeps rising, closer and closer to 1. Does it ever get past 1? That is, might (say) the silver-leaf number that’s 2,038 more than its reciprocal be 2,039.11111 (or something)?

No, it never does. There are a couple of ways to prove that, if you feel like. We can take the approach that’s easiest (to my eyes) to imagine. It takes a little algebraic grinding to complete. That is to look for the smallest number b for which the silver-leaf number, \frac12\left(b + \sqrt{b^2 + 4b}\right) , is larger than b + 1 . Follow that out and you realize that it’s any value of b for which 0 is greater than 4. Logically, therefore, we need to take b into a private room and have a serious talk about its job performance, what with it not existing.

A harder proof to imagine working out, but that takes no symbol manipulation, comes from thinking about these reciprocals. Let’s imagine we had some b for which its corresponding silver-leaf number x is more than b + 1. Then, x – b has to be greater than 1. But if x is greater than 1, then its reciprocal has to be less than 1. We again have to talk with b about how its nonexistence is keeping it from doing its job.

Are there other proofs? Most likely. I was satisfied by this point, and resolved not to work on it more until the shower. Updates after breakfast, I suppose.

Gilded Ratios


I may have mentioned that I regard the Golden Ratio as a lot of bunk. If I haven’t, allow me to mention: the Golden Ratio is a lot of bunk. I concede it’s a cute number. I found it compelling when I first had a calculator that let me use the last answer for a new operation. You can pretty quickly find that 1.618033 (etc, and the next digit is a 9 by the way) has a reciprocal that’s 0.618033 (etc).

There’s no denying that. And there’s no denying that’s a neat pattern. But it is not some aesthetic ideal. When people evaluate rectangles that “look best” they go to stuff that’s a fair but not too much wider in one direction than the other. But people aren’t drawn to 1.618 (etc) any more reliably than they like 1.6, or 1.8, or 1.5, or other possible ratios. And it is not any kind of law of nature that the Golden Ratio will turn up. It’s often found within the error bars of a measurement, but so are a lot of numbers.

The Golden Ratio is an irrational number, but basically all real numbers are irrational except for a few peculiar ones. Those peculiar ones happen to be the whole numbers and the rational numbers, which we find interesting, but which are the rare exception. It’s not a “transcendental number”, which is a kind of real number I don’t want to describe here. That’s a bit unusual, since basically all real numbers are transcendental numbers except for a few peculiar ones. Those peculiar ones include whole and rational numbers, and square roots and such, which we use so much we think they’re common. But not being transcendental isn’t that outstanding a feature. The Golden Ratio is one of those strange celebrities who’s famous for being a celebrity, and not for any actual accomplishment worth celebrating.

I started wondering: are there other Golden-Ratio-like numbers, though? The title of this essay gives what I suppose is the best name for this set. The Golden Ratio is interesting because its reciprocal — 1 divided by it — is equal to it minus 1. Is there another number whose reciprocal is equal to it minus 2? Another number yet whose reciprocal is equal to it minus 3?

So I looked. Is there a number between 2 and 3 whose reciprocal is it minus 2? Certainly there is. How do I know this?

Let me call this number, if it exists, x. The reciprocal of x is the number 1/x. The number x minus 2 is the number x – 2. We’ll pick up the pace in a little bit. Now imagine trying out every single number from 2 to 3, in order. The reciprocals 1/x start out at 1/2 and drop to 1/3. The subtracted numbers start out at 0 and grow to 1. There’s no gaps or sudden jumps or anything in either the reciprocals or the subtracted numbers. So there must be some x for which 1/x and x – 2 are the same number.

In the trade we call that an existence proof. It shows there’s got to be some answer. It doesn’t tell us much about what the answer is. Often it’s worth looking for an existence proof first. In this case, it’s probably overkill. But you can go from this to reasoning that there have to be Golden-Like-Ratio numbers between any two counting numbers. So, yes, there’s some number between 2,038 and 2,039 whose reciprocal is that number minus 2,038. That’s nice to know.

So what is the number that’s two more than its reciprocal? That’s whatever number or numbers make true the equation \frac{1}{x} = x - 2 . That’s straightforward to solve. Multiply both sides by x, which won’t change whether the equation is true unless x is zero. (And x can’t be zero, or else we wouldn’t talk of 1/x except in hushed, embarrassed whispers.) This gets an equivalent equation 1 = x^2 - 2x . Subtract 1 from both sides, and we get 0 = x^2 - 2x - 1 and we’re set up to use the quadratic formula. The answer will be x = \left(\frac{1}{2}\right)\cdot\left(2 + \sqrt{2^2 + 4}\right) . The answer is about 2.414213562373095 (and on). (No, \left(\frac{1}{2}\right)\cdot\left(2 - \sqrt{2^2 + 4}\right) is not an answer; it’s not between 2 and 3.)

The number that’s three more than its reciprocal? We’ll call that x again, trusting that we remember this is a different number with the same name. For that we need to solve \frac{1}{x} = x - 3 and that turns into the equation 0 = x^2 - 3x - 1 . And so x = \left(\frac{1}{2}\right)\cdot\left(3 + \sqrt{3^2 + 4}\right) and so it’s about 3.30277563773200. Yes, there’s another possible answer we rule out because it isn’t between 3 and 4.

We can do the same thing to find another number, named x, that’s four more than its reciprocal. That starts with \frac{1}{x} = x - 4 and gets eventually to x = \left(\frac{1}{2}\right)\cdot\left(4 + \sqrt{4^2 + 4}\right) or about 4.23606797749979. We could go on like this. The number x that’s 2,038 more than its reciprocal is x = \left(\frac{1}{2}\right)\cdot\left(2038 + \sqrt{2038^2 + 4}\right) about 2038.00049082160.

If your eyes haven’t just slid gently past the equations you noticed the pattern. Suppose instead of saying 2 or 3 or 4 or 2038 we say the number b. b is some whole number, any that we like. The number whose reciprocal is exactly b less than it is the number x that makes true the equation \frac{1}{x} = x - b . And that leads to the finding the number that makes the equation x = \left(\frac{1}{2}\right)\cdot\left(b + \sqrt{b^2 + 4}\right) true.

And, what the heck. Here’s the first twenty or so gilded numbers. You can read this either as a list of the numbers I’ve been calling x — 1.618034, 2.414214, 3.302776 — or as an ordered list of the reciprocals of x — 0.618034, 0.414214, 0.302276 — as you like. I’ll call that the gilt; you add it to the whole number to its left to get that a number that, cutely, has a reciprocal that’s the same after the decimal.

I did think about including a graph of these numbers, but the appeal of them is that you can take the reciprocal and see digits not changing. A graph doesn’t give you that.

Some Numbers With Cute Reciprocals
Number Gilt
1 .618033989
2 .414213562
3 .302775638
4 .236067977
5 .192582404
6 .162277660
7 .140054945
8 .123105626
9 .109772229
10 .099019514
11 .090169944
12 .082762530
13 .076473219
14 .071067812
15 .066372975
16 .062257748
17 .058621384
18 .055385138
19 .052486587
20 .049875621

None of these are important numbers. But they are pretty, and that can be enough on a quiet day.

Reading the Comics, April 15, 2015: Tax Day Edition


Since it is mid-April, and most of the comic strips at Comics Kingdom and GoComics.com are based in the United States, Comic Strip Master Command ordered quite a few comics about taxes. Most of those are simple grumbling, but the subject naturally comes around to arithmetic and calculation and sometimes even logic. Thus, this is a Tax Day edition, though it’s bookended with Mutt and Jeff.

Bud Fisher’s Mutt And Jeff (April 11) — a rerun rom goodness only knows when, and almost certainly neither written nor drawn by Bud Fisher at that point — recounts a joke that has the form of a word problem in which a person’s age is deduced from information about the age. It’s an old form, but jokes about cutting the Gordion knot are probably always going to be reliable. I’m reminded there’s a story of Thomas Edison giving a new hire, mathematician, the problem of working out the volume of a light bulb. Edison got impatient with the mathematician treating it as a calculus problem — the volume of a rotationally symmetric object like a bulb is the sort of thing you can do by the end of Freshman Calculus — and instead filling a bulb with water, pouring the water into a graduated cylinder, and reading it off that.

Calculus under 50: vectors and stuff. Calculus over 50: diet and exercise problems.
Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 12th of April, 2015. The link will likely expire around the 12th of May.

Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends (April 12) uses Calculus as the shorthand for “the hardest stuff you might have to deal with”. The symbols on the left-hand side are fair enough, although I’d think of them more as precalculus or linear algebra or physics, but they do parse well enough as long as I suppose that what sure looks like a couple of extraneous + signs are meant to refer to “t”. But “t” is a common enough variable in calculus problems, usually representing time, sometimes just representing “some parameter whose value we don’t really care about, but we don’t want it to be x”, and it looks an awful lot like a plus sign there too. On the right side, I have no idea what a root of forty minutes on a treadmill might be. It’s symbolic.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, April 15, 2015: Tax Day Edition”