## Reading the Comics, June 23, 2018: Big Duck Energy Edition

I didn’t have even some good nonsense for this edition’s title and it’s a day late already. And that for only having a couple of comics, most of them reruns. And then this came across my timeline:

Please let it not be a big milkshake duck. I can’t take it if it is.

Larry Wright’s Motley for the 21st uses mathematics as emblem of impossibly complicated stuff to know. I’m interested to see that biochemistry was also called in to represent something that needs incredible brainpower to know things that can be expressed in one panel. Another free little question: what might “2,368 to the sixth power times pi” be an answer to? The obvious answer to me is “what’s the area of a circle of radius 2,368 to the third power”. That seems like a bad quiz-show question to me, though. It tests a legitimate bit of trivia, but the radius is such an ugly number. There are some other obvious questions that might fit, like “what is the circumference of a circle of radius [ or diameter ] of (ugly number here)?” Or “what is the volume of a circle of radius (similarly ugly number here)?” But the radius (or diameter) of those surfaces would have to be really nasty numbers, ones with radicals of 2,368 — itself no charming number — in it.

And “2,368 to the sixth power times pi” is the answer to infinitely many questions. The challenge is finding one that’s plausible as a quiz-show question. That is it should test something that’s reasonable for a lay person to know, and to calculate while on stage, without pen or paper or much time to reflect. Tough set of constraints, especially to get that 2,368 in there. The sixth power isn’t so easy either.

Well, the biochemistry people don’t have an easy time thinking of a problem to match Debbie’s answer either. “Hydro- ” and “mono- ” are plausible enough prefixes, but as far as I know there’s no “nucleatic acid” to have some modified variant. Wright might have been thinking of nucleic acid, but as far as I know there’s no mononucleic acid, much less hydromononucleic acid. But, yes, that’s hardly a strike against the premise of the comic. It’s just nitpicking.

Charlie Pondrebarac’s CowTown for the 22nd is on at least its third appearance since I started reading the comics for the mathematics stuff regularly. I covered it in June 2016 and also in August 2015. This suggests a weird rerun cycle for the comic. Popping out of Jim Smith’s mouth is the null symbol, which represents a set that hasn’t got any elements. That set is known as the null set. Every set, including the null set, contains a null set. This fact makes set theory a good bit easier than it otherwise would be. That’s peculiar, considering that it is literally nothing. But everything one might want to say about “nothing” is peculiar. That doesn’t make it dispensable.

Julie Larson’s Dinette Set for the 22nd sees the Penny family’s adults bemoaning the calculator their kid needs for middle school. I admit feeling terror at being expected to buy a hundred-dollar calculator for school. But I also had one (less expensive) when I was in high school. It saves a lot of boring routine work. And it allows for playful discoveries about arithmetic. Some of them are cute trivialities, such as finding the Golden Ratio and similar quirks. And a calculator does do essentially the work that a slide rule might, albeit more quickly and with more digits of precision. It can’t help telling you what to calculate or why, but it can take the burden out of getting the calculation done. Still, a hundred bucks. Wow.

Tony Carrillo’s F Minus for the 23rd puts out the breaking of a rule of arithmetic as a whimsical, inexplicable event. A moment of two plus two equalling five, whatever it might do for the structure of the universe, would be awfully interesting for the philosophy of mathematics. Given what we ordinarily think we mean by ‘two’ and ‘plus’ and ‘equals’ and ‘five’ that just can’t happen. And what would it mean for two plus to to equal five for a few moments? Mathematicians often think about the weird fact that mathematical structures — crafted from definitions and logic — describe the real world stunningly well. Would this two plus two equalling five be something that was observed in the real world, and checked against definitions that suddenly allowed this? Would this be finding a chain of reasoning that supported saying two plus two equalled five, only to find a few minutes later that a proof everyone was satisfied with was now clearly wrong?

That’s a particularly chilling prospect, if you’re in the right mood. We like to think mathematical proofs are absolute and irrefutable, things which are known to be true regardless of who knows them, or what state they’re in, or anything. And perhaps they are. They seem to come as near as mortals can to seeing Platonic forms. (My understanding is that mathematical constructs are not Platonic forms, at least in Plato’s view of things. But they are closer to being forms than, say, apples put on a table for the counting would be.) But what we actually know is whether we, fallible beings comprised of meat that thinks, are satisfied that we’ve seen a proof. We can be fooled. We can think something is satisfactory because we haven’t noticed an implication that’s obviously wrong or contradictory. Or because we’re tired and are feeling compliant. Or because we ate something that’s distracting us before we fully understand an argument. We may have a good idea of what a satisfactory logical proof would be. But stare at the idea hard enough and we realize we might never actually know one.

If you’d like to see more Reading the Comics posts, you can find them at this link. If you’re interested in the individual comics, here you go. My essays tagged with CowTown are here. Essays tagged Dinette Set are at this link. The essays that mention F Minus since I started adding strip tags are here. And this link holds the Motley comics.

## Reading the Comics, April 14, 2018: Friday the 13th Edition?

And now I can close out last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. There was a bunch toward the end of the week. And I’m surprised that none of the several comics to appear on Friday the 13th had anything to do with the calendar. Or at least not enough for me to talk about them.

Julie Larson’s Dinette Set rerun for the 12th is a joke built on the defining feature of (high school) algebra. The use of a number whose value we hope to figure out isn’t it. Those appear from the start of arithmetic, often as an empty square or circle or a spot of ____ that’s to be filled out. We used to give these numbers names like “thing” or “heap” or “it” or the like. Something pronoun-like. The shift to using ‘x’ as the shorthand is a legacy of the 16th century, the time when what we see as modern algebra took shape. People are frightened by it, to suddenly see letters in the midst of a bunch of numbers. But it’s no more than another number. And it communicates “algebra” in a way maybe nothing else does.

Ruben Bolling’s Tom the Dancing Bug rerun for the 12th is one of the God-Man stories. I’m delighted by the Freshman Philosophy-Major Man villain. The strip builds on questions of logic, and about what people mean by “omnipotence”. I don’t know how much philosophy of mathematics the average major takes. I suspect it’s about as much philosophy of mathematics as the average mathematics major is expected to take. (It’s an option, but I don’t remember anyone suggesting I do it, and I do feel the lost opportunity.) But perhaps later on Freshman Philosophy-Major Man would ask questions like what do we mean by “one” and “plus” and “equals” and “three”. And whether anything could, by a potent enough entity, be done about them. For the easiest way to let an omnipotent creature change something like that. WordPress is telling me this is a new tag for me. That can’t be right.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 13th is another resisting-the-story-problem joke, attacking the idea that a person would have ten apples. People like to joke about story problems hypothesizing people with ridiculous numbers of pieces of fruit. But ten doesn’t seem like an excessive number of apples to me; my love and I could eat that many in two weeks without trying hard. The attempted diversion would work better if it were something like forty watermelons or the like.

Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 13th has Heart and Dean complaining about their arithmetic class. I rate it as enough to include here because they go into some detail about things. I find it interesting they’re doing story problems with decimal points; that seems advanced for what I’d always taken their age to be. But I don’t know. I have dim memories of what elementary school was like, and that was in a late New Math-based curriculum.

Nick Galifianakis’s Nick and Zuzu for the 13th is a Venn diagram joke, the clearest example of one we’ve gotten in a while. I believe WordPress when it tells me this is a new tag for the comic strip.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 14th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. It starts at least with teaching ordinal numbers. In normal English that’s the adjective form of a number. Ordinal numbers reappear in the junior or senior year of a mathematics major’s work, as they learn enough set theory to be confused by infinities. In this guise they describe the sizes of sets of things. And they’re introduced as companions to cardinal numbers, which also describe the sizes of sets of things. They’re different, in ways that I feel like I always forget in-between reading books about infinitely large sets. The kids don’t need to worry about this yet.

## Reading the Comics, March 2, 2018: Socks Edition

There were enough comics last week to justify splitting them across two posts. But several of them were on a single theme. So they’re bundled together and you see what the theme is already if you pay attention to the edition titles.

Jeff Mallet’s Frazz on the 26th of February had a joke about a story problem going awry. Properly this should’ve been included in the Sunday update, but the theme was riffed on the next several days, and so I thought moving this made for a better split. In this case the kids resist the problem on the grounds that the cost (\$1.50 for a pair of socks) is implausibly low. And now I’m reminded that a couple months ago I wondered if a comic strip (possibly Frazz again) gave a plausible price for apples. And I go to a great farmer’s market nearly every week and look at the apple prices and never think to write them down so I can check.

But the topic, and the attempt to use the price of socks as a joke, continued on the 27th. Here the resistance was on the grounds there might be a sale on. Fair enough, although the students should feel free to ask about sales. And the teacher ought to be able to offer that. Also, it seems to me that “twice \$5” is a different problem to “twice \$1.50”, at least at this level. An easier one, I’d say, too. If the pair of socks were \$4.50 it would preserve what I imagine is the point being tested. I think that’s how to multiply a compound fraction or a number with a decimal. But Frazz’s characters know the objectives better than I do.

The topic gets clarified on the 28th, which doesn’t end the students’ resistance on the grounds of plausibility. This seems to portray the kids as more conscious of clothing prices than I think I was as a kid, but it’s Mallet’s comic strip. He knows what his kids care about. The sequence closes out the 1st of March with a coda that’s the sort of joke every academic department tells about the others.

Julie Larson’s Dinette Set rerun for the 27th is an extended bit of people not understanding two-for-one sales. I’m tickled by it, but I won’t think ill of you if you decide you don’t want to read all those word balloons. There’s some further jokes in the signs and the t-shirts people are wearing, but they’re not part of the main joke. (Larson would often include stray extra jokes like that. It always confuses people who didn’t get the strip’s humor style.)

Dan Thompson’s Brevity for the 1st of March is close enough to the anthropomorphic numerals joke of the week.

Jeffery Lambros’s Domestic Abuse for the 1st is the spare numerical symbols joke for the week, too.

## Reading the Comics, January 14, 2017: Redeye and Reruns Edition

So for all I worried about the Gocomics.com redesign it’s not bad. The biggest change is it’s removed a side panel and given the space over to the comics. And while it does show comics you haven’t been reading, it only shows one per day. One week in it apparently sticks with the same comic unless you choose to dismiss that. So I’ve had it showing me The Comic Strip That Has A Finale Every Day as a strip I’m not “reading”. I’m delighted how thisbreaks the logic about what it means to “not read” an “ongoing comic strip”. (That strip was a Super-Fun-Pak Comix offering, as part of Ruben Bolling’s Tom the Dancing Bug. It was turned into a regular Gocomics.com feature by someone who got the joke.)

Comic Strip Master Command responded to the change by sending out a lot of comic strips. I’m going to have to divide this week’s entry into two pieces. There’s not deep things to say about most of these comics, but I’ll make do, surely.

Julie Larson’s Dinette Set rerun for the 8th is about one of the great uses of combinatorics. That use is working out how the number of possible things compares to the number of things there are. What’s always staggering is that the number of possible things grows so very very fast. Here one of Larson’s characters claims a science-type show made an assertion about the number of possible ideas a brain could hold. I don’t know if that’s inspired by some actual bit of pop science. I can imagine someone trying to estimate the number of possible states a brain might have.

And that has to be larger than the number of atoms in the universe. Consider: there’s something less than a googol of atoms in the universe. But a person can certainly have the idea of the number 1, or the idea of the number 2, or the idea of the number 3, or so on. I admit a certain sameness seems to exist between the ideas of the numbers 2,038,412,562,593,604 and 2,038,412,582,593,604. But there is a difference. We can out-number the atoms in the universe even before we consider ideas like rabbits or liberal democracy or jellybeans or board games. The universe never had a chance.

Or did it? Is it possible for a number to be too big for the human brain to ponder? If there are more digits in the number than there are atoms in the universe we can’t form any discrete representation of it, after all. … Except that we kind of can. For example, “the largest prime number less than one googolplex” is perfectly understandable. We can’t write it out in digits, I think. But you now have thought of that number, and while you may not know what its millionth decimal digit is, you also have no reason to care what that digit is. This is stepping into the troubled waters of algorithmic complexity.

Bob Weber Jr’s Slylock Fox and Comics for Kids for the 9th is built on soap bubbles. The link between the wand and the soap bubble vanishes quickly once the bubble breaks loose of the wand. But soap films that keep adhered to the wand or mesh can be quite strangely shaped. Soap films are a practical example of a kind of partial differential equations problem. Partial differential equations often appear when we want to talk about shapes and surfaces and materials that tug or deform the material near them. The shape of a soap bubble will be the one that minimizes the torsion stresses of the bubble’s surface. It’s a challenge to solve analytically. It’s still a good challenge to solve numerically. But you can do that most wonderful of things and solve a differential equation experimentally, if you must. It’s old-fashioned. The computer tools to do this have gotten so common it’s hard to justify going to the engineering lab and getting soapy water all over a mathematician’s fingers. But the option is there.

Gordon Bess’s Redeye rerun from the 28th of August, 1970, is one of a string of confused-student jokes. (The strip had a Generic Comedic Western Indian setting, putting it in the vein of Hagar the Horrible and other comic-anachronism comics.) But I wonder if there are kids baffled by numbers getting made several different ways. Experience with recipes and assembly instructions and the like might train someone to thinking there’s one correct way to make something. That could build a bad intuition about what additions can work.

Corey Pandolph’s Barkeater Lake rerun for the 9th just name-drops algebra. And that as a word that starts with the “alj” sound. So far as I’m aware there’s not a clear etymological link between Algeria and algebra, despite both being modified Arabic words. Algebra comes from “al-jabr”, about reuniting broken things. Algeria comes from Algiers, which Wikipedia says derives from `al-jaza’ir”, “the Islands [of the Mazghanna tribe]”.

Guy Gilchrist’s Nancy for the 9th is another mathematics-cameo strip. But it was also the first strip I ran across this week that mentioned mathematics and wasn’t a rerun. I’ll take it.

Donna A Lewis’s Reply All for the 9th has Lizzie accuse her boyfriend of cheating by using mathematics in Scrabble. He seems to just be counting tiles, though. I think Lizzie suspects something like Blackjack card-counting is going on. Since there are only so many of each letter available knowing just how many tiles remain could maybe offer some guidance how to play? But I don’t see how. In Blackjack a player gets to decide whether to take more cards or not. Counting cards can suggest whether it’s more likely or less likely that another card will make the player or dealer bust. Scrabble doesn’t offer that choice. One has to refill up to seven tiles until the tile bag hasn’t got enough left. Perhaps I’m overlooking something; I haven’t played much Scrabble since I was a kid.

Perhaps we can take the strip as portraying the folk belief that mathematicians get to know secret, barely-explainable advantages on ordinary folks. That itself reflects a folk belief that experts of any kind are endowed with vaguely cheating knowledge. I’ll admit being able to go up to a blackboard and write with confidence a bunch of integrals feels a bit like magic. This doesn’t help with Scrabble.

Gordon Bess’s Redeye continued the confused-student thread on the 29th of August, 1970. This one’s a much older joke about resisting word problems.

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics rerun for the 10th talks about multiverses. If we allow there to be infinitely many possible universes that would suggest infinitely many different Shakespeares writing enormously many variations of everything. It’s an interesting variant on the monkeys-at-typewriters problem. I noticed how T-Rex put Shakespeare at typewriters too. That’ll have many of the same practical problems as monkeys-at-typewriters do, though. There’ll be a lot of variations that are just a few words or a trivial scene different from what we have, for example. Or there’ll be variants that are completely uninteresting, or so different we can barely recognize them as relevant. And that’s if it’s actually possible for there to be an alternate universe with Shakespeare writing his plays differently. That seems like it should be possible, but we lack evidence that it is.