Reading The Comics, May 22, 2015: Might Be Giving Up Mickey Mouse Edition


We’re drawing upon the end of the school year, on the United States calendar. Comic Strip Master Command may have ordered fewer mathematically-themed comic strips to be run. That’s all right. I have plans. I also may need to stop paying attention to the Disney comic strips, reruns of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. I explain why within.

The line of equations droops to the floor, then rises again. 'Fortunately, I had a Red Bull handy.'
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 16th of May, 2015.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem made its first appearance in my pages here on the 16th of May. (It’s been newly introduced to United States comics. I’m sorry, I just can’t read all the syndicated newspaper comic strips in the world for mathematical content. If someone wants to franchise the Reading The Comics idea for a country they like, let’s talk. We can negotiate reasonable terms.) Anyway, it uses the usual string of mathematical symbols to express the idea of a lot of hard mathematical work. The big down-arrow just before superstar equation E = mc2 is authentic enough. Trying to show the chain of thought, or to point out the conclusions one hopes follow from the work done, is a common part of discovering or inventing mathematics.

Mother Goose reads how a woman over 50 supposedly has more chance of being struck by lightning than of marrying the right man. Grimm says she'll meet the right man someday, and scoots away.
Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 17th of May, 2015. Note: the claim in the second and third panels is transparent nonsense. But it’s a comic strip, after all.

Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm (May 17) riffs on that ancient and transparently stupid bit of folklore about the chance of an older woman having a better chance of dying in some improbable manner than of marrying successfully. It’s always been obvious nonsense and people passing along the claim uncritically should be ashamed of themselves. I’ll give Peters a pass since the point is to set up a joke, and joke-setup can get away with a lot. Still.

Continue reading “Reading The Comics, May 22, 2015: Might Be Giving Up Mickey Mouse Edition”

Reading the Comics, May 14, 2015: At The Cash Register Edition


This might not be the most exciting week of mathematically-themed comic strips. But it gives me the chance to be more autobiographical than usual. And it’s got more reruns than average, too.

Also, I’m trying out a new WordPress Theme. I’m a little suspicious of it myself, but will see what I think of it a week from now. Don’t worry, I remember the name of the old one in case I want to go back. Also, WordPress Master Command: stop hiding the option to live-preview themes instead of switching to them right away.

Epic Customer Fails: a customer insists a product, Regular $50.00, now 40% off, is ten bucks, not thirty.
Norm Feuti’s Retail For the 11th of May, 2015.

Norm Feuti’s Retail (May 11) led off a week of “Epic Customer Fails” with an arithmetic problem. My own work in retail was so long ago and for so short a time I don’t remember this happening. But I can believe in a customer being confused this way. I think there is a tendency to teach arithmetic problems as a matter of “pick out the numbers, pick out the operation, compute that”. This puts an emphasis placed on computing quickly. That seems to invite too-quick calculation of not-quite the right things. That percentages are a faintly exotic construct to many people doesn’t help either.

My own retail customers-with-percentages story is duller. A customer asked about a book, I believe an SAT preparation book, which had a 20 percent (or whatever) off sticker. He specifically wanted to know whether 20 percent was taken off the price before the sales tax (6 percent) was calculated, or whether the registers added the sales tax and then took 20 percent off that total. I tried to reassure him that it didn’t matter, the resulting price would be the same. He tried to reassure me that it did matter because the sales tax should be calculated on the price paid, not reduced afterward. I believed, then and now, that he was right legally, but for the practical point of how much he had to pay it made no difference.

He judged me warily, but I worked out what the price paid would be, and he let me ring the book up. And the price came out about a dollar too high. The bar code had a higher price for the book than the plain-english corner said. He snorted “Ha!” and may have told me so. I explained the problem, showing the bar code version of the price (it’s in the upper-right corner of the bar code on books) and the price I’d used to calculate. He repeated that this was why he had asked, while I removed the wrong price and entered the thing manually so I could put in the lower price. And took the 20 percent off, and added sales tax, which came out to what I had said the price was.

I don’t believe I ever saw him again, but I would like the world to know that I was right. And the SAT prep book-maker needed to not screw up their bar codes.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, May 14, 2015: At The Cash Register Edition”

Reading the Comics, May 4, 2014: Summing the Series Edition


Before I get to today’s round of mathematics comics, a legend-or-joke, traditionally starring John Von Neumann as the mathematician.

The recreational word problem goes like this: two bicyclists, twenty miles apart, are pedaling toward each other, each at a steady ten miles an hour. A fly takes off from the first bicyclist, heading straight for the second at fifteen miles per hour (ground speed); when it touches the second bicyclist it instantly turns around and returns to the first at again fifteen miles per hour, at which point it turns around again and head for the second, and back to the first, and so on. By the time the bicyclists reach one another, the fly — having made, incidentally, infinitely many trips between them — has travelled some distance. What is it?

And this is not hard problem to set up, inherently: each leg of the fly’s trip is going to be a certain ratio of the previous leg, which means that formulas for a geometric infinite series can be used. You just need to work out what the lengths of those legs are to start with, and what that ratio is, and then work out the formula in your head. This is a bit tedious and people given the problem may need some time and a couple sheets of paper to make it work.

Von Neumann, who was an expert in pretty much every field of mathematics and a good number of those in physics, allegedly heard the problem and immediately answered: 15 miles! And the problem-giver said, oh, he saw the trick. (Since the bicyclists will spend one hour pedaling before meeting, and the fly is travelling fifteen miles per hour all that time, it travels a total of a fifteen miles. Most people don’t think of that, and try to sum the infinite series instead.) And von Neumann said, “What trick? All I did was sum the infinite series.”

Did this charming story of a mathematician being all mathematicky happen? Wikipedia’s description of the event credits Paul Halmos’s recounting of Nicholas Metropolis’s recounting of the story, which as a source seems only marginally better than “I heard it on the Internet somewhere”. (Other versions of the story give different distances for the bicyclists and different speeds for the fly.) But it’s a wonderful legend and can be linked to a Herb and Jamaal comic strip from this past week.

Paul Trap’s Thatababy (April 29) has the baby “blame entropy”, which fits as a mathematical concept, it seems to me. Entropy as a concept was developed in the mid-19th century as a thermodynamical concept, and it’s one of those rare mathematical constructs which becomes a superstar of pop culture. It’s become something of a fancy word for disorder or chaos or just plain messes, and the notion that the entropy of a system is ever-increasing is probably the only bit of statistical mechanics an average person can be expected to know. (And the situation is more complicated than that; for example, it’s just more probable that the entropy is increasing in time.)

Entropy is a great concept, though, as besides capturing very well an idea that’s almost universally present, it also turns out to be meaningful in surprising new places. The most powerful of those is in information theory, which is just what the label suggests; the field grew out of the problem of making messages understandable even though the telegraph or telephone lines or radio beams on which they were sent would garble the messages some, even if people sent or received the messages perfectly, which they would not. The most captivating (to my mind) new place is in black holes: the event horizon of a black hole has a surface area which is (proportional to) its entropy, and consideration of such things as the conservation of energy and the link between entropy and surface area allow one to understand something of the way black holes ought to interact with matter and with one another, without the mathematics involved being nearly as complicated as I might have imagined a priori.

Meanwhile, Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate (April 30) mentions how Nate’s Earned Run Average has changed over the course of two innings. Baseball is maybe the archetypical record-keeping statistics-driven sport; Alan Schwarz’s The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination With Statistics notes that the keeping of some statistical records were required at least as far back as 1837 (in the Constitution of the Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia). Earned runs — along with nearly every other baseball statistic the non-stathead has heard of other than batting averages — were developed as a concept by the baseball evangelist and reporter Henry Chadwick, who presented them from 1867 as an attempt to measure the effectiveness of batting and fielding. (The idea of the pitcher as an active player, as opposed to a convenient way to get the ball into play, was still developing.) But — and isn’t this typical? — he would come to oppose the earned run average as a measure of pitching performance, because things that were really outside the pitcher’s control, such as stolen bases, contributed to it.

It seems to me there must be some connection between the record-keeping of baseball and the development of statistics as a concept in the 19th century. Granted the 19th century was a century of statistics, starting with nation-states measuring their populations, their demographics, their economies, and projecting what this would imply for future needs; and then with science, as statistical mechanics found it possible to quite well understand the behavior of millions of particles despite it being impossible to perfectly understand four; and in business, as manufacturing and money were made less individual and more standard. There was plenty to drive the field without an amusing game, but, I can’t help thinking of sports as a gateway into the field.

Creator.com's _Donald Duck_ for 2 May 2014: Ludwig von Drake orders his computer to stop with the thinking.

The Disney Company’s Donald Duck (May 2, rerun) suggests that Ludwig von Drake is continuing to have problems with his computing machine. Indeed, he’s apparently having the same problem yet. I’d like to know when these strips originally ran, but the host site of creators.com doesn’t give any hint.

Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal (May 3) has the kid whose name I don’t really know fret how he spent “so much time” on an equation which would’ve been easy if he’d used “common sense” instead. But that’s not a rare phenomenon mathematically: it’s quite possible to set up an equation, or a process, or a something which does indeed inevitably get you to a correct answer but which demands a lot of time and effort to finish, when a stroke of insight or recasting of the problem would remove that effort, as in the von Neumann legend. The commenter Dartpaw86, on the Comics Curmudgeon site, brought up another excellent example, from Katie Tiedrich’s Awkward Zombie web comic. (I didn’t use the insight shown in the comic to solve it, but I’m happy to say, I did get it right without going to pages of calculations, whether or not you believe me.)

However, having insights is hard. You can learn many of the tricks people use for different problems, but, say, no amount of studying the Awkward Zombie puzzle about a square inscribed in a circle inscribed in a square inscribed in a circle inscribed in a square will help you in working out the area left behind when a cylindrical tube is drilled out of a sphere. Setting up an approach that will, given enough work, get you a correct solution is worth knowing how to do, especially if you can give the boring part of actually doing the calculations to a computer, which is indefatigable and, certain duck-based operating systems aside, pretty reliable. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel dumb for missing the recasting.

Rick Detorie's _One Big Happy_ for 3 May 2014: Joe names the whole numbers.

Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy (May 3) puns a little on the meaning of whole numbers. It might sound a little silly to have a name for only a handful of numbers, but, there’s no reason not to if the group is interesting enough. It’s possible (although I’d be surprised if it were the case) that there are only 47 Mersenne primes (a number, such as 7 or 31, that is one less than a whole power of 2), and we have the concept of the “odd perfect number”, when there might well not be any such thing.

November 2013’s Statistics


Hi again. I was hesitant to look at this month’s statistics, as I pretty much fell off the face of the earth for a week there, but I didn’t have the chance to do the serious thinking that’s needed for mathematics writing. The result’s almost exactly the dropoff in readership I might have predicted: from 440 views in October down to 308, and from 220 unique visitors down to 158. That’s almost an unchanged number of views per visitor, 2.00 dropping to 1.95, so at least the people still interested in me are sticking around.

The countries sending me the most viewers were as ever the United States, then Austria (hi, Elke, and thank you), the United Kingdom and then Canada. Sending me a single visitor each were Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Ethiopia, France, Jordan, Lebanon, Nepal, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Thailand. This is also a drop in the number of single-viewer countries, although stalwarts Finland and the Netherlands are off the list. Slovenia’s the only country making a repeat appearance from last month, in fact.

The most popular articles the past month were:

And I apologize for not having produced many essays the past couple weeks, and can only fault myself for being more fascinated by some problems in my day job that’ve been taking up time and mental energy and waking me in the middle of the night with stuff I should try. I’ll be back to normal soon, I’m sure. Don’t tell my boss.

Reading the Comics, February 13, 2013


I will return to the plausibility of Rex Morgan, MD, considered as a statistics problem, though I need time to do that pesky thinking thing and I’ve had all sorts of unreasonable demands on my time, such as work expecting me to work, and scheduling it all is such a problem. But I’ve got a fresh batch of eight comic strips that in some way mention mathematics, and I wrote paragraphs on most of those as they turned up in the day’s pages, so I can share those with you. Also I’m pleased to see that posting a Rex Morgan strip for the purpose of talking about it hasn’t brought about the end of the world, so I may be able to resume covering King Features or North American Syndicate strips when they say things worth mentioning (which they seem to do less than the Gocomics.com comics do, but I haven’t done the statistics to make that claim seriously).

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, February 13, 2013”