Reading the Comics, August 9, 2017: Pets Doing Mathematics Edition


I had just enough comic strips to split this week’s mathematics comics review into two pieces. I like that. It feels so much to me like I have better readership when I have many days in a row with posting something, however slight. The A to Z is good for three days a week, and if comic strips can fill two of those other days then I get to enjoy a lot of regular publication days. … Though last week I accidentally set the Sunday comics post to appear on Monday, just before the A To Z post. I’m curious how that affected my readers. That nobody said anything is ominous.

Border collies are, as we know, highly intelligent. (Looking over a chalkboard diagramming 'fetch', with symbols.) 'There MUST be some point to it, but I guess we don't have the mathematical tools to crack it at the moment.'
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 7th of August, 2017. I have to agree the border collies haven’t worked out the point of fetch. I also question whether they’ve worked out the simple ballistics of the tossed stick. If the variables mean what they suggest they mean, then dimensional analysis suggests they’ve got at least three fiascos going on here. Maybe they have an idiosyncratic use for variables like ‘v’.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 7th of August uses mathematics as the signifier for intelligence. I’m intrigued by how the joke goes a little different: while the border collies can work out the mechanics of a tossed stick, they haven’t figured out what the point of fetch is. But working out people’s motivations gets into realms of psychology and sociology and economics. There the mathematics might not be harder, but knowing that one is calculating a relevant thing is. (Eriksson’s making a running theme of the intelligence of border collies.)

Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia rerun for the 7th tosses off a mention that “we’re the first generation of girls who do math”. And that therefore there will be a cornucopia of new opportunities and good things to come to them. There’s a bunch of social commentary in there. One is the assumption that mathematics skill is a liberating thing. Perhaps it is the gloom of the times but I doubt that an oppressed group developing skills causes them to be esteemed. It seems more likely to me to make the skills become devalued. Social justice isn’t a matter of good exam grades.

Then, too, it’s not as though women haven’t done mathematics since forever. Every mathematics department on a college campus has some faded posters about Emmy Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya and maybe Sophie Germaine. Probably high school mathematics rooms too. Again perhaps it’s the gloom of the times. But I keep coming back to the goddess’s cynical dismissal of all this young hope.

Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Hi and Lois for the 10th of February, 1960 and rerun the 8th portrays arithmetic as a grand-strategic imperative. Well, it means education as a strategic imperative. But arithmetic is the thing Dot uses. I imagine because it is so easy to teach as a series of trivia and quiz about. And it fits in a single panel with room to spare.

Dot: 'Now try it again: two and two is four.' Trixie: 'Fwee!' Dot: 'You're not TRYING! Do you want the Russians to get AHEAD of US!?' Trixie looks back and thinks: 'I didn't even know there was anyone back there!'
Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Hi and Lois for the 10th of February, 1960 and rerun the 8th of August, 2017. Remember: you’re only young once, but you can be geopolitically naive forever!

Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 8th is not quite the anthropomorphic-numerals joke of the week. It circles around that territory, though, giving a couple of odd numbers some personality.

Brian Anderson’s Dog Eat Doug for the 9th finally justifies my title for this essay, as cats ponder mathematics. Well, they ponder quantum mechanics. But it’s nearly impossible to have a serious thought about that without pondering its mathematics. This doesn’t mean calculation, mind you. It does mean understanding what kinds of functions have physical importance. And what kinds of things one can do to functions. Understand them and you can discuss quantum mechanics without being mathematically stupid. And there’s enough ways to be stupid about quantum mechanics that any you can cut down is progress.

Reading the Comics, October 29, 2016: Rerun Comics Edition


There were a couple of rerun comics in this week’s roundup, so I’ll go with that theme. And I’ll put in one more appeal for subjects for my End of 2016 Mathematics A To Z. Have a mathematics term you’d like to see me go on about? Just ask! Much of the alphabet is still available.

John Kovaleski’s Bo Nanas rerun the 24th is about probability. There’s something wondrous and strange that happens when we talk about the probability of things like birth days. They are, if they’re in the past, determined and fixed things. The current day is also a known, determined, fixed thing. But we do mean something when we say there’s a 1-in-365 (or 366, or 365.25 if you like) chance of today being your birthday. It seems to me this is probability based on ignorance. If you don’t know when my birthday is then your best guess is to suppose there’s a one-in-365 (or so) chance that it’s today. But I know when my birthday is; to me, with this information, the chance today is my birthday is either 0 or 1. But what are the chances that today is a day when the chance it’s my birthday is 1? At this point I realize I need much more training in the philosophy of mathematics, and the philosophy of probability. If someone is aware of a good introductory book about it, or a web site or blog that goes into these problems in a way a lay reader will understand, I’d love to hear of it.

I’ve featured this installment of Poor Richard’s Almanac before. I’ll surely feature it again. I like Richard Thompson’s sense of humor. The first panel mentions non-Euclidean geometry, using the connotation that it does have. Non-Euclidean geometries are treated as these magic things — more, these sinister magic things — that defy all reason. They can’t defy reason, of course. And at least some of them are even sensible if we imagine we’re drawing things on the surface of the Earth, or at least the surface of a balloon. (There are non-Euclidean geometries that don’t look like surfaces of spheres.) They don’t work exactly like the geometry of stuff we draw on paper, or the way we fit things in rooms. But they’re not magic, not most of them.

Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal for the 25th I believe is a rerun. I admit I’m not certain, but it feels like one. (Bentley runs a lot of unannounced reruns.) Anyway I’m refreshed to see a teacher giving a student permission to count on fingers if that’s what she needs to work out the problem. Sometimes we have to fall back on the non-elegant ways to get comfortable with a method.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 25th name-drops Einstein and one of the three equations that has any pop-culture currency.

Guy Gilchrist’s Today’s Dogg for the 27th is your basic mathematical-symbols joke. We need a certain number of these.

Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County for the 28th is another rerun, from 1981. And it’s been featured here before too. As mentioned then, Milo is using calculus and logarithms correctly in his rather needless insult of Freida. 10,000 is a constant number, and as mentioned a few weeks back its derivative must be zero. Ten to the power of zero is 1. The log of 10, if we’re using logarithms base ten, is also 1. There are many kinds of logarithms but back in 1981, the default if someone said “log” would be the logarithm base ten. Today the default is more muddled; a normal person would mean the base-ten logarithm by “log”. A mathematician might mean the natural logarithm, base ‘e’, by “log”. But why would a normal person mention logarithms at all anymore?

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 28th is mostly a bit of wordplay on evens and odds. It’s marginal, but I do want to point out some comics that aren’t reruns in this batch.

Reading the Comics, June 25, 2016: What The Heck, Why Not Edition


I had figured to do Reading the Comics posts weekly, and then last week went and gave me too big a flood of things to do. I have no idea what the rest of this week is going to look like. But given that I had four strips dated before last Sunday I’m going to err on the side of posting too much about comic strips.

Scott Metzger’s The Bent Pinky for the 24th uses mathematics as something that dogs can be adorable about not understanding. Thus all the heads tilted, as if it were me in a photograph. The graph here is from economics, which has long had a challenging relationship with mathematics. This particular graph is qualitative; it doesn’t exactly match anything in the real world. But it helps one visualize how we might expect changes in the price of something to affect its sales. A graph doesn’t need to be precise to be instructional.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 24th is this essay’s anthropomorphic-numerals joke. And it’s a reminder that something can be quite true without being reassuring. It plays on the difference between “real” numbers and things that really exist. It’s hard to think of a way that a number such as two could “really” exist that doesn’t also allow the square root of -1 to “really” exist.

And to be a bit curmudgeonly, it’s a bit sloppy to speak of “the square root of negative one”, even though everyone does. It’s all right to expand the idea of square roots to cover stuff it didn’t before. But there’s at least two numbers that would, squared, equal -1. We usually call them i and -i. Square roots naturally have this problem,. Both +2 and -2 squared give us 4. We pick out “the” square root by selecting the positive one of the two. But neither i nor -i is “positive”. (Don’t let the – sign fool you. It doesn’t count.) You can’t say either i or -i is greater than zero. It’s not possible to define a “greater than” or “less than” for complex-valued numbers. And that’s even before we get into quaternions, in which we summon two more “square roots” of -1 into existence. Octonions can be even stranger. I don’t blame 1 for being worried.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 24th is a pleasant bit of pop-mathematics debunking. I’ve explained in the past how I’m a doubter of the golden ratio. The Fibonacci Sequence has a bit more legitimate interest to it. That’s sequences of numbers in which the next term is the sum of the previous two terms. The famous one of that is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, et cetera. It may not surprise you to know that the Fibonacci Sequence has a link to the golden ratio. As it goes on, the ratio between one term and the next one gets close to the golden ratio.

The Harmonic Series is much more deeply weird. A series is the number we get from adding together everything in a sequence. The Harmonic Series grows out of the first sequence you’d imagine ever adding up. It’s 1 plus 1/2 plus 1/3 plus 1/4 plus 1/5 plus 1/6 plus … et cetera. The first time you hear of this you get the surprise: this sum doesn’t ever stop piling up. We say it ‘diverges’. It won’t on your computer; the floating-point arithmetic it does won’t let you add enormous numbers like ‘1’ to tiny numbers like ‘1/531,325,263,953,066,893,142,231,356,120’ and get the right answer. But if you actually added this all up, it would.

The proof gets a little messy. But it amounts to this: 1/2 plus 1/3 plus 1/4? That’s more than 1. 1/5 + 1/6 + 1/7 + 1/8 + 1/9 + 1/10 + 1/11 + 1/12? That’s also more than 1. 1/13 + 1/14 + 1/15 + et cetera up through + 1/32 + 1/33 + 1/34 is also more than 1. You need to pile up more and more terms each time, but a finite string of these numbers will add up to more than 1. So the whole series has to be more than 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 … and so more than any finite number.

That’s all amazing enough. And then the series goes on to defy all kinds of intuition. Obviously dropping a couple of terms from the series won’t change whether it converges or diverges. Multiplying alternating terms by -1, so you have (say) 1 – 1/2 + 1/3 – 1/4 + 1/5 et cetera produces something that looks like it converges. It equals the natural logarithm of 2. But if you take those terms and rearrange them, you can produce any real number, positive or negative, that you want.

And, as Weinersmith describes here, if you just skip the correct set of terms, you can make the sum converge. The ones with 9 in the denominator will be, then, 1/9, 1/19, 1/29, 1/90, 1/91, 1/92, 1/290, 1/999, those sorts of things. Amazing? Yes. Absurd? I suppose so. This is why mathematicians learn to be very careful when they do anything, even addition, infinitely many times.

John Deering’s Strange Brew for the 25th is a fear-of-mathematics joke. The sign the warrior’s carrying is legitimate algebra, at least so far as it goes. The right-hand side of the equation gets cut off. In time, it would get to the conclusion that x equals –19/2, or -9.5.

Reading the Comics, May 3, 2016: Lots Of Images Edition


After the heavy pace of March and April I figure to take it easy and settle to about a three-a-week schedule around here. That doesn’t mean that Comic Strip Master Command wants things to be too slow for me. And this time they gave me more comics than usual that have expiring URLs. I don’t think I’ve had this many pictures to include in a long while.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range for the 28th presents an equation-solving nightmare. From my experience, this would be … a great pain, yes. But it wouldn’t be a career-wrecking mess. Typically a problem that’s hard to solve is hard because you have no idea what to do. Given an expression, you’re allowed to do anything that doesn’t change its truth value. And many approaches might look promising without quite resolving to something useful. The real breakthrough is working out what approach should be used. For an astrophysics problem, there are some classes of key decisions to make. One class is what to include and what to omit in the model. Another class is what to approximate — and how — versus what to treat exactly. Another class is what sorts of substitutions and transformations turn the original expression into one that reveals what you want. Those are the hard parts, and those are unlikely to have been forgotten. Applying those may be tedious, and I don’t doubt it would be anguishing to have the finished work wiped out. But it wouldn’t set one back years either. It would just hurt.

Christopher Grady’s Lunar Babboon for the 29th I classify as the “anthropomorphic numerals” joke for this essay. Boy, have we all been there.

'Numbers are boring!' complains the audience. 'Not so. They contain high drama and narrative. Here's an expense account that was turned in to me last week. Can you create a *story* based on these numbers?' 'Once upon a time, a guy was fired for malfeasance ... ' 'If you skip right to the big finish, sure.'
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 29th of April, 2016. Spoiler: there aren’t any numbers in the second panel.

Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 29th continues the storyline about Fi giving her STEM talk. She is right, as I see it, in attributing drama and narrative to numbers. This is most easily seen in the sorts of finance and accounting mathematics which the character does. And the inevitable answer to “numbers are boring” (or “mathematics is boring”) is surely to show how they are about people. Even abstract mathematics is about things (some) people find interesting, and that must be about the people too.

'Look, Grandpa! I got 100% on my math test! Do you know what that means? It means that out of ten questions, I got at least half of them correct!' 'It must be that new, new, new math.' 'So many friendly numbers!'
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 3rd of May, 2016. Ever notice how many shirt pockets Grandpa has? I’m not saying it’s unrealistic, just that it’s more than the average.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 16th is a confused-mathematics joke. Grandpa tosses off a New Math joke that’s reasonably age-appropriate too, which is always nice to see in a comic strip. I don’t know how seriously to take Ruthie’s assertion that a 100% means she only got at least half of the questions correct. It could be a cartoonist grumbling about how kids these days never learn anything, the same way ever past generation of cartoonists had complained. But Ruthie is also the sort of perpetually-confused, perpetually-confusing character who would get the implications of a 100% on a test wrong. Or would state them weirdly, since yes, a 100% does imply getting at least half the test’s questions right.

Border Collies, as we know, are highly intelligent. 'Yup, the math confirms it --- we can't get by without people.'
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 3rd of May, 2016. I’m a little unnerved there seems to be a multiplication x at the end of the square root vinculum on the third line there.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 3rd uses the traditional board full of mathematical symbols as signifier of intelligence. There’s some interesting mixes of symbols here. The c2, for example, isn’t wrong for mathematics. But it does evoke Einstein and physics. There’s the curious mix of the symbol π and the approximation 3.14. But then I’m not sure how we would get from any of this to a proposition like “whether we can survive without people”.

'What comes after eleven?' 'I can't do it. I don't have enough fingers to count on!' Tiger hands him a baseball glove. 'Use this.'
Bud Blake’s Tiger for the 3rd of May, 2016. How did Punkinhead get up to eleven?

Bud Blake’s Tiger for the 3rd is a cute little kids-learning-to-count thing. I suppose it doesn’t really need to be here. But Punkinhead looks so cute wearing his tie dangling down onto the floor, the way kids wear their ties these days.

Tony Murphy’s It’s All About You for the 3rd name-drops algebra. I think what the author really wanted here was arithmetic, if the goal is to figure out the right time based on four clocks. They seem to be trying to do a simple arithmetic mean of the time on the four clocks, which is fair if we make some assumptions about how clocks drift away from the correct time. Mostly those assumptions are that the clocks all started right and are equally likely to drift backwards or forwards, and do that drifting at the same rate. If some clocks are more reliable than others, then, their claimed time should get more weight than the others. And something like that must be at work here. The mean of 7:56, 8:02, 8:07, and 8:13, uncorrected, is 8:04 and thirty seconds. That’s not close enough to 8:03 “and five-eighths” unless someone’s been calculating wrong, or supposing that 8:02 is more probably right than 8:13 is.

Reading the Comics, August 16, 2014: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Edition


Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is a long-running and well-regarded web comic that I haven’t paid much attention to because I don’t read many web comics. XKCD, Newshounds, and a couple others are about it. I’m not opposed to web comics, mind you, I just don’t get around to following them typically. But Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal started running on Gocomics.com recently, and Gocomics makes it easy to start adding comics, and I did, and that’s served me well for the mathematical comics collections since it’s been a pretty dry spell. I bet it’s the summer vacation.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (July 30) seems like a reach for inclusion in mathematical comics since its caption is “Physicists make lousy firemen” and it talks about the action of a fire — and of the “living things” caught in the fire — as processes producing wobbling and increases in disorder. That’s an effort at describing a couple of ideas, the first that the temperature of a thing is connected to the speed at which the molecules making it up are moving, and the second that the famous entropy is a never-decreasing quantity. We get these notions from thermodynamics and particularly the attempt to understand physically important quantities like heat and temperature in terms of particles — which have mass and position and momentum — and their interactions. You could write an entire blog about entropy and probably someone does.

Randy Glasbergen’s Glasbergen Cartoons (August 2) uses the word-problem setup for a strip of “Dog Math” and tries to remind everyone teaching undergraduates the quotient rule that it really could be worse, considering.

Nate Fakes’s Break of Day (August 4) takes us into an anthropomorphized world that isn’t numerals for a change, to play on the idea that skill in arithmetic is evidence of particular intelligence.

Jiggs tries to explain addition to his niece, and learns his brother-in-law is his brother-in-law.
George McManus’s _Bringing Up Father_, originally run the 12th of April, 1949.

George McManus’s Bringing Up Father (August 11, rerun from April 12, 1949) goes to the old motif of using money to explain addition problems. It’s not a bad strategy, of course: in a way, arithmetic is one of the first abstractions one does, in going from the idea that a hundred of something added to a hundred fifty of something will yield two hundred fifty of that thing, and it doesn’t matter what that something is: you’ve abstracted out the ideas of “a hundred plus a hundred fifty”. In algebra we start to think about whether we can add together numbers without knowing what one or both of the numbers are — “x plus y” — and later still we look at adding together things that aren’t necessarily numbers.

And back to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (August 13), which has a physicist type building a model of his “lack of dates” based on random walks and, his colleague objects, “only works if we assume you’re an ideal gas molecule”. But models are often built on assumptions that might, taken literally, be nonsensical, like imagining the universe to have exactly three elements in it, supposing that people never act against their maximal long-term economic gain, or — to summon a traditional mathematics/physics joke — assuming a spherical cow. The point of a model is to capture some interesting behavior, and avoid the complicating factors that can’t be dealt with precisely or which don’t relate to the behavior being studied. Choosing how to simplify is the skill and art that earns mathematicians the big money.

And then for August 16, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal does a binary numbers joke. I confess my skepticism that there are any good alternate-base-number jokes, but you might like them.