## Reading the Comics, March 30, 2019: Comics Kingdom is Screwed Up Edition

It doesn’t affect much this batch of comics, as they’re a bunch that all came from GoComics.com. But Comics Kingdom suffered a major redesign of the web site this week, and so it’s lost a lot of functionality. The ability to load your whole comics page at once, for example. Or the ability of archives to work. I’d had the URL for one strip copied down because it mentioned mathematics, albeit in so casual a manner I didn’t mean to write a paragraph about it. Good luck that I didn’t, as that URL now directs to a Spanish translation of a Katzenjammer Kids strip. Why? That’s a good question, and one that deserves an answer.

Anyway, I’m hoping that Comics Kingdom is able to get over their redesign soon. But I know they won’t. There’s never been a web site redesign that lowered functionality and made the page more infuriating to work with that was ever abandoned for the older, working version instead.

Enough about Comics Kingdom. Let me share a couple comic strips from a web site that works, although not as well as it did before its 2018 redesign.

Jim Meddick’s Monty for the 27th is part of a fun storyline. In it Monty and Moondog’s cell phones start texting on their own. It’s presented as the start of an Artificial Intelligence-based singularity, computers transcending human thought and going into business for themselves. This is shown by their working out mathematical truths, starting with arithmetic and going into Boolean algebra. Humans learn arithmetic first and Boolean algebra — logical statements and their combinations — later on, if ever.

Computers are certainly able to discover mathematics on their own. Or at least without close guidance; someone still has to write a program to do it. Automated proof finders are a well-established thing, though. They have not, so far as I’ve heard, discovered anything likely to threaten humanity.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers for the 28th is built on representing huge numbers. 818613 is a big number: 548,568,842,280,381. Even bigger is 37575: it’s 748,524,423,279,410,560. It’s silly to imagine needing an identification number that large. But it’s also a remarkable coincidence that both prisoners here have numbers that can be represented with no more than six digits. There aren’t so many 15-digit numbers that could be represented with as few as six digits. But then it would be an absurdly large prison if it “only” had 818,613 prisoners in it. That seems like the joke would have been harder to recognize, though.

Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark for the 28th is sort of the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. It’s also a joke for my friend with the meteorology degree, who I think doesn’t actually read these posts. Well, he probably got the comic forwarded to him anyway.

Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 29th is another prison joke. I’m not sure if someone at Comic Strip Master Command was worried about something. But a scrawl of mathematics is used as icon of skills learned in prison.

Mathematics has the reputation of being a subject someone can still do useful work in while in prison. Maybe even do more work, as it seems to offer the prospect of undistracted time to think. And there are examples of mathematicians doing noteworthy work while imprisoned. Bertrand Russell wrote the Introduction To Mathematical Philosophy while jailed for protesting the First World War. André Weil advanced his work in arithmetic geometry while in prison for resisting service in the Second World War. Évariste Galois spent six months in prison shortly before the end of his life, and used some of the time to work on the theory of equations for which we still remember him. I would not recommend prison as a way to advance one’s mathematical research. But it’s something which could happen.

Terry LaBan and Patty LaBan’s Edge City for the 30th showcases the motivation problem. Colin, like many people, is easily able to do complicated algorithms to do something he likes doing. Arithmetic drills, though, not so much. This is why we end up writing story problems with dubious amounts of story in them.

And I don’t want to devote too much space to this. But Brian Fies’s The Last Mechanical Monster for the 29th included the lead character, the Mad Scientist, working out the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence as a way to keep his mind going. The strip is a rerun and I discussed it when it first ran on GoComics.

There were quite a lot of mathematically-themed comic strips the week of the 24th of March. I’ll get to the actual strips of the past week soon, at this link. Also if anyone knows a way to get the old Comics Kingdom back please let me know.

## Reading the Comics, March 12, 2019: Back To Sequential Time Edition

Since I took the Pi Day comics ahead of their normal sequence on Sunday, it’s time I got back to the rest of the week. There weren’t any mathematically-themed comics worth mentioning from last Friday or Saturday, so I’m spending the latter part of this week covering stuff published before Pi Day. It’s got me slightly out of joint. It’ll all be better soon.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this week. That’s nice to have. It’s built on the concept of story problems. That there should be “stories” behind a problem makes sense. Most actual mathematics, even among mathematicians, is done because we want to know a thing. Acting on a want is a story. Wanting to know a thing justifies the work of doing this calculation. And real mathematics work involves looking at some thing, full of the messiness of the real world, and extracting from it mathematics. This would be the question to solve, the operations to do, the numbers (or shapes or connections or whatever) to use. We surely learn how to do that by doing simple examples. The kid — not Wavehead, for a change — points out a common problem here. There’s often not much of a story to a story problem. That is, where we don’t just want something, but someone else wants something too.

Parker and Hart’s The Wizard of Id for the 11th is a riff on the “when do you use algebra in real life” snark. Well, no one disputes that there are fields which depend on advanced mathematics. The snark comes in from supposing that a thing is worth learning only if it’s regularly “useful”.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 12th has Joe stalling class to speak to “the guy who invented zero”. I really like this strip since it’s one of those cute little wordplay jokes that also raises a legitimate point. Zero is this fantastic idea and it’s hard to imagine mathematics as we know it without the concept. Of course, we could say the same thing about trying to do mathematics without the concept of, say, “twelve”.

We don’t know who’s “the guy” who invented zero. It’s probably not all a single person, though, or even a single group of people. There are several threads of thought which merged together to zero. One is the notion of emptiness, the absense of a measurable thing. That probably occurred to whoever was the first person to notice a thing wasn’t where it was expected. Another part is the notion of zero as a number, something you could add to or subtract from a conventional number. That is, there’s this concept of “having nothing”, yes. But can you add “nothing” to a pile of things? And represent that using the addition we do with numbers? Sure, but that’s because we’re so comfortable with the idea of zero that we don’t ponder whether “2 + 1” and “2 + 0” are expressing similar ideas. You’ll occasionally see people asking web forums whether zero is really a number, often without getting much sympathy for their confusion. I admit I have to think hard to not let long reflex stop me wondering what I mean by a number and why zero should be one.

And then there’s zero, the symbol. As in having a representation, almost always a circle, to mean “there is a zero here”. We don’t know who wrote the first of that. The oldest instance of it that we know of dates to the year 683, and was written in what’s now Cambodia. It’s in a stone carving that seems to be some kind of bill of sale. I’m not aware whether there’s any indication from that who the zero was written for, or who wrote it, though. And there’s no reason to think that’s the first time zero was represented with a symbol. It’s the earliest we know about.

Darrin Bell’s Candorville for the 12th has some talk about numbers, and favorite numbers. Lemont claims to have had 8 as his favorite number because its shape, rotated, is that of the infinity symbol. C-Dog disputes Lemont’s recollection of his motives. Which is fair enough; it’s hard to remember what motivated you that long ago. What people mostly do is think of a reason that they, today, would have done that, in the past.

The ∞ symbol as we know it is credited to John Wallis, one of that bunch of 17th-century English mathematicians. He did a good bit of substantial work, in fields like conic sections and physics and whatnot. But he was also one of those people good at coming up with notation. He developed what’s now the standard notation for raising a number to a power, that $x^n$ stuff, and showed how to define raising a number to a rational-number power. Bunch of other things. He also seems to be the person who gave the name “continued fraction” to that concept.

Wallis never explained why he picked ∞ as a shape, of all the symbols one could draw, for this concept. There’s speculation he might have been varying the Roman numeral for 1,000, which we’ve simplified to M but which had been rendered as (|) or () and I can see that. (Well, really more of a C and a mirror-reflected C rather than parentheses, but I don’t have the typesetting skills to render that.) Conflating “a thousand” with “many” or “infinitely many” has a good heritage. We do the same thing when we talk about something having millions of parts or costing trillions of dollars or such. But, Wallis never explained (so far as we’re aware), so all this has to be considered speculation and maybe mnemonic helps to remembering the symbol.

Terry LaBan and Patty LaBan’s Edge City for the 12th is another story problem joke. Curiously the joke seems to be simply that the father gets confused following the convolutions of the story. The specific story problem circles around the “participation awards are the WORST” attitude that newspaper comics are surprisingly prone to. I think the LaBans just wanted the story problem to be long and seem tedious enough that our eyes glazed over. Anyway you could not pay me to read whatever the comments on this comic are. Sorry not sorry.

I figure to have one more Reading the Comics post this week. When that’s posted it should be available at this link. Thanks for being here.

## Reading the Comics, January 16, 2017: Numerals Edition

Comic Strip Master Command decreed that last week should be busy again. So I’m splitting its strips into two essays. It’s a week that feels like it had more anthropomorphic numerals jokes than usual, but see if I actually count these things.

Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 15th I figured would be the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. Shows what I know. It is an easy joke, but I do appreciate the touch of craft involved in picking the numerals. The joke is just faintly dirty if the numbers don’t add to six. If they were a pair of 3’s, there’d be the unwanted connotations of a pair of twins talking about all this. A 6 and a 0 would make at least one character weirdly obsessed. So it has to be a 4 and a 2, or a 5 and a 1. I imagine Peters knew this instinctively, at this point in his career. It’s one of the things you learn in becoming an expert.

Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. for the 15th is mostly physical comedy, with a touch of — I’m not sure what to call this kind of joke. The one where a little arithmetic error results in bodily harm. In this sort of joke it’s almost always something not being carried that’s the error. I suppose that’s a matter of word economy. “Forgot to carry the (number)” is short, and everybody’s done it. And even if they don’t remember making this error, the phrasing clarifies to people that it’s a little arithmetic mistake. I think in practice mistaking a plus for a minus (or vice-versa) is the more common arithmetic error. But it’s harder to describe that clearly and concisely.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 15th puzzled me. I hadn’t heard this thing the kid says about how if you can “spew ten random lines from a classic movie” to convince people you’ve seen it. (I don’t know the kid’s name; it happens.) I suppose that it would be convincing, though. I certainly know a couple lines from movies I haven’t seen, what with living in pop culture and all that. But ten would be taxing for all but the most over-saturated movies, like any of the Indiana Jones films. (There I’m helped by having played the 90s pinball machine a lot.) Anyway, knowing ten random mathematics things isn’t convincing, especially since you can generate new mathematical things at will just by changing a number. But I would probably be convinced that someone who could describe what’s interesting about ten fields of mathematics had a decent understanding of the subject. That requires remembering more stuff, but then, mathematics is a bigger subject than even a long movie is.

In Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 16th Fi speaks of tallying the pluses and minuses of her life. Trying to make life into something that can be counted is an old decision-making technique. I think Benjamin Franklin explained how he found it so useful. It’s not a bad approach if a choice is hard. The challenging part is how to weight each consideration. Getting into fractions seems rather fussy to me, but some things are just like that. There is the connotation here that a fraction is a positive number smaller than 1. But the mathematically-trained (such as Fi) would be comfortable with fractions larger than 1. Or also smaller than zero. “Fraction” is no more bounded than “real number”. So, there’s the room for more sweetness here than might appear to the casual reader.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 16th is the next anthropomorphic numerals joke for this week. I’m glad Hilburn want to be in my pages more. 5’s concern about figuring out x might be misplaced. We use variables for several purposes. One of them is as a name to give a number whose value we don’t know but wish to work out, and that’s how we first see them in high school algebra. But a variable might also be a number whose value we don’t particularly care about and will never try to work out. This could be because the variable is a parameter, with a value that’s fixed for a problem but not what we’re interested in. We don’t typically use ‘x’ for that, though; usually parameter are something earlier in the alphabet. That’s merely convention, but it is convention that dates back to René Descartes. Alternatively, we might use ‘x’ as a dummy variable. A dummy variable serves the same role that falsework on a building or a reference for an artistic sketch does. We use dummy variables to organize and carry out work, but we don’t care what its values are and we don’t even see the dummy variable in the final result. A dummy variable can be any name, but ‘x’ and ‘t’ are popular choices.

Terry LaBan and Patty LaBan’s Edge City rerun for the 16th plays on the idea that mathematics people talk in algebra. Funny enough, although, “the opposing defense is a variable of 6”? That’s an idiosyncratic use of “variable”. I’m going to suppose that Charles is just messing with Len’s head because, really, it’s fun doing a bit of that.