Reading the Comics, January 21, 2016: Andertoons Edition


It’s been a relatively sleepy week from Comic Strip Master Command. Fortunately, Mark Anderson is always there to save me.

In the Andertoons department for the 17th of January, Mark Anderson gives us a rounding joke. It amuses me and reminds me of the strip about rounding up the 196 cows to 200 (or whatever it was). But one of the commenters was right: 800 would be an even rounder number. If the teacher’s sharp he thought of that next.

Andertoons is back the 21st of January, with a clash-of-media-expectations style joke. Since there’s not much to say of that, I am drawn to wondering what the teacher was getting to with this diagram. The obvious-to-me thing to talk about two lines intersecting would be which sets of angles are equal to one another, and how to prove it. But to talk about that easily requires giving names to the diagram. Giving the intersection point the name Q is a good start, and P and R are good names for the lines. But without points on the lines identified, and named, it’s hard to talk about any of the four angles there. If the lesson isn’t about angles, if it’s just about the lines and their one point of intersection, then what’s being addressed? Of course other points, and labels, could be added later. But I’m curious if there’s an obvious and sensible lesson to be given just from this starting point. If you have one, write in and let me know, please.

'I'm losing my faith in the law of averages.' 'How come, man?' 'Because of how long it's been since a teacher asked me something I knew.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 19th of January (originally the 4th of November, 1976).

Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 19th of January (originally the 4th of November, 1976) sees a loss of faith in the Law of Averages. We all sympathize. There are several different ways to state the Law of Averages. These different forms get at the same idea: on average, things are average. More, if we go through a stretch when things are not average, then, we shouldn’t expect that to continue. Things should be closer to average next time.

For example. Let’s suppose in a typical week Quincy’s teacher calls on him ten times, and he’s got a 50-50 chance of knowing the answer for each question. So normally he’s right five times. If he had a lousy week in which he knew the right answer just once, yes, that’s dismal-feeling. We can be confident that next week, though, he’s likely to put in a better performance.

That doesn’t mean he’s due for a good stretch, though. He’s as likely next week to get three questions right as he is to get eight right. Eight feels fantastic. But three is only a bit less dismal-feeling than one. The Gambler’s Fallacy, which is one of those things everyone wishes to believe in when they feel they’re due, is that eight right answers should be more likely than three. After all, that’ll make his two-week average closer to normal. But if Quincy’s as likely to get any question right or wrong, regardless of what came before, then he can’t be more likely to get eight right than to get three right. All we can say is he’s more likely to get three or eight right than he is to get one (or nine) right the next week. He’d better study.

(I don’t talk about this much, because it isn’t an art blog. But I would like folks to notice the line art, the shading, and the grey halftone screening. Shearer puts in some nicely expressive and active artwork for a joke that doesn’t need any setting whatsoever. I like a strip that’s pleasant to look at.)

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am for the 19th of January (a rerun from the 18th of April, 2000) has got almost no mathematical content. But it’s funny, so, here. The tag also mentions Max Planck, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. He developed the idea that there was a smallest possible change in energy as a way to make the mathematics of black-body radiation work out. A black-body is just what it sounds like: get something that absorbs all light cast on it, and shine light on it. The thing will heat up. This is expressed by radiating light back out into the world. And if it doesn’t give you that chill of wonder to consider that a perfectly black thing will glow, then I don’t think you’ve pondered that quite enough.

Mark Pett’s Mister Lowe for the 21st of January (a rerun from the 18th of January, 2001) is a kid-resisting-the-word-problem joke. It’s meant to be a joke about Quentin overthinking the situation until he gets the wrong answer. Were this not a standardized test, though, I’d agree with Quentin. The given answers suppose that Tommy and Suzie are always going to have the same number of apples. But is inferring that a fair thing to expect from the test-takers? Why couldn’t Suzie get four more apples and Tommy none?

Probably the assumption that Tommy and Suzie get the same number of apples was left out because Pett had to get the whole question in within one panel. And I may be overthinking it no less than Quentin is. I can’t help doing that. I do like that the confounding answers make sense: I can understand exactly why someone making a mistake would make those. Coming up with plausible wrong answers for a multiple-choice test is no less difficult in mathematics than it is in other fields. It might be harder. It takes effort to remember the ways a student might plausibly misunderstand what to do. Test-writing is no less a craft than is test-taking.

Reading the Comics, June 30, 2015: Fumigating The Theater Edition


One of my favorite ever episodes of The Muppet Show when I was a kid had the premise the Muppet Theater was being fumigated and so they had to put on a show from the train station instead. (It was the Loretta Lynn episode, third season, number eight.) I loved seeing them try to carry on as normal when not a single thing was as it should be. Since then — probably before, too, but I don’t remember that — I’ve loved seeing stuff trying to carry on in adverse circumstances.

Why this is mentioned here is that Sunday night my computer had a nasty freeze and some video card mishaps. I discovered that my early-2011 MacBook Pro might be among those recalled earlier this year for a service glitch. My computer is in for what I hope is a simple, free, and quick repair. But obviously I’m not at my best right now. I might be even longer than usual answering people and goodness knows how the statistics survey of June will go.

Anyway. Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues (June 26) is a joke about motivating kids to do mathematics. And about how you can’t do mathematics over summer vacation.

Mom offers to buy three candy bars at 45 cents each if Hammie can say how much that'll be. 'It's summer, Mom! You can't mix candy and math!'
Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 26th of June, 2015.

Ruben Bolling’s Tom The Dancing Bug (June 26) features a return appearance of Chaos Butterfly. Chaos Butterfly does what Chaos Butterfly does best.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Begins (June 26; actually just the Peanuts of March 23, 1951) uses arithmetic as a test of smartness. And as an example of something impractical.

Alex Hallatt’s Arctic Circle (June 28) is a riff on the Good Will Hunting premise. That movie’s particular premise — the janitor solves an impossible problem left on the board — is, so far as I know, something that hasn’t happened. But it’s not impossible. Training will help one develop reasoning ability. Training will provide context and definitions and models to work from. But that’s not essential. All that’s essential is the ability to reason. Everyone has that ability; everyone can do mathematics. Someone coming from outside the academy could do first-rate work. However, I’d bet on the person with the advanced degree in mathematics. There is value in training.

The penguin-janitor offers a solution to the unsolved mathematics problem on the blackboard. It's a smiley face. It wasn't what they were looking for.
Alex Hallatt’s Arctic Circle for the 28th of June, 2015.

But as many note, the Good Will Hunting premise has got a kernel of truth in it. In 1939, George Dantzig, a grad student in mathematics at University of California/Berkeley, came in late to class. He didn’t know that two problems on the board were examples of unproven theorems, and assumed them to be homework. So he did them, though he apologized for taking so long to do them. Before you draw too much inspiration from this, though, remember that Dantzig was a graduate student almost ready to start work on a PhD thesis. And the problems were not thought unsolvable, just conjectures not yet proven. Snopes, as ever, provides some explanation of the legend and some of the variant ways the story is told.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic In A Minute (June 28) shows off a magic trick that you could recast as a permutations problem. If you’ve been studying group theory, and many of my Mathematics A To Z terms have readied you for group theory, you can prove why this trick works.

Guy Gilchrist’s Nancy (June 28) carries on Baby Blues‘s theme of mathematics during summer vacation being simply undoable.

As only fifty percent of the population is happy, and one person is in a great mood, what must the other one be in?
Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin for December 28, 2014, and repeated on June 28, 2015.

Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin (June 28) is a gambler’s fallacy-themed joke. It was run — on ComicsKingdom, back then — back in December, and I talked some more about it then.

Mike Twohy’s That’s Life (June 28) is about the perils of putting too much attention into mental arithmetic. It’s also about how perilously hypnotic decimals are: if the pitcher had realized “fourteen million over three years” must be “four and two-thirds million per year” he’d surely have been less distracted.