Reading the Comics, July 12, 2019: Ricci Tensor Edition


So a couple days ago I was chatting with a mathematician friend. He mentioned how he was struggling with the Ricci Tensor. Not the definition, not exactly, but its point. What the Ricci Tensor was for, and why it was a useful thing. He wished he knew of a pop mathematics essay about the thing. And this brought, slowly at first, to my mind that I knew of one. I wrote such a pop-mathematics essay about the Ricci Tensor, as part of my 2017 A To Z sequence. In it, I spend several paragraphs admitting that I’m not sure I understand what the Ricci tensor is for, and why it’s a useful thing.

Caption: 'Physics Hypotheses That Are Still on The Table'. The No-Boundary Proposal (illustrated with a wireframe of what looks like an open wine glass). The Weyl Conjecture (illustrated with a wireframe of what looks like a football). The Victoria Principal (illustrated with a tableful of cosmetics).
Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 11th of July, 2019. Essays inspired by something mentioned in Long Story Short should be at this link.

Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 11th mentions some physics hypotheses. These are ideas about how the universe might be constructed. Like many such cosmological thoughts they blend into geometry. The no-boundary proposal, also known as the Hartle-Hawking state (for James Hartle and Stephen Hawking), is a hypothesis about the … I want to write “the start of time”. But I am not confident that this doesn’t beg the question. Well, we think we know what we mean by “the start of the universe”. A natural question in mathematical physics is, what was the starting condition? At the first moment that there was anything, what did it look like? And this becomes difficult to answer, difficult to even discuss, because part of the creation of the universe was the creation of spacetime. In this no-boundary proposal, the shape of spacetime at the creation of the universe is such that there just isn’t a “time” dimension at the “moment” of the Big Bang. The metaphor I see reprinted often about this is how there’s not a direction south of the south pole, even though south is otherwise a quite understandable concept on the rest of the Earth. (I agree with this proposal, but I feel like analogy isn’t quite tight enough.)

Still, there are mathematical concepts which seem akin to this. What is the start of the positive numbers, for example? Any positive number you might name has some smaller number we could have picked instead, until we fall out of the positive numbers altogether and into zero. For a mathematical physics concept there’s absolute zero, the coldest temperature there is. But there is no achieving absolute zero. The thermodynamical reasons behind this are hard to argue. (I’m not sure I could put them in a two-thousand-word essay, not the way I write.) It might be that the “moment of the Big Bang” is similarly inaccessible but, at least for the correct observer, incredibly close by.

The Weyl Curvature is a creation of differential geometry. So it is important in relativity, in describing the curve of spacetime. It describes several things that we can think we understand. One is the tidal forces on something moving along a geodesic. Moving along a geodesic is the general-relativity equivalent of moving in a straight line at a constant speed. Tidal forces are those things we remember reading about. They come from the Moon, sometimes the Sun, sometimes from a black hole a theoretical starship is falling into. Another way we are supposed to understand it is that it describes how gravitational waves move through empty space, space which has no other mass in it. I am not sure that this is that understandable, but it feels accessible.

The Weyl tensor describes how the shapes of things change under tidal forces, but it tracks no information about how the volume changes. The Ricci tensor, in contrast, tracks how the volume of a shape changes, but not the shape. Between the Ricci and the Weyl tensors we have all the information about how the shape of spacetime affects the things within it.

Ted Baum, writing to John Baez, offers a great piece of advice in understanding what the Weyl Tensor offers. Baum compares the subject to electricity and magnetism. If one knew all the electric charges and current distributions in space, one would … not quite know what the electromagnetic fields were. This is because there are electromagnetic waves, which exist independently of electric charges and currents. We need to account for those to have a full understanding of electromagnetic fields. So, similarly, the Weyl curvature gives us this for gravity. How is a gravitational field affected by waves, which exist and move independently of some source?

I am not sure that the Weyl Curvature is truly, as the comic strip proposes, a physics hypothesis “still on the table”. It’s certainly something still researched, but that’s because it offers answers to interesting questions. But that’s also surely close enough for the comic strip’s needs.

Elderly man: 'Remember coefficients?' Elderly woman: 'No.' Elderly man: 'Me neither.' Caption: 'Nostalgebra.'
Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump for the 11th of July, 2019. Essays which discuss something that appeared in Speed Bump should be at this link.

Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump for the 11th is a wordplay joke, and I have to admit its marginality. I can’t say it’s false for people who (presumably) don’t work much with coefficients to remember them after a long while. I don’t do much with French verb tenses, so I don’t remember anything about the pluperfect except that it existed. (I have a hazy impression that I liked it, but not an idea why. I think it was something in the auxiliary verb.) Still, this mention of coefficients nearly forms a comic strip synchronicity with Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 11th, in which a Math Joke allegedly has a mistaken coefficient as its punch line.

Gabby: 'It's craft time here at summer camp.' Michael: 'Finally! An activity that won't hurt my brain. Are we weaving? Painting? Making placemats?' Gabby: 'No. We're making probability flash cards.' Michael: 'The probability of us enjoying that activity? Zero.' Gabby: 'Finally! An answer at math camp that we can get right.'
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 12th of July, 2019. The fair number of essays in which I complain about Grand Avenue I gather at this link.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 12th is the one I’m taking as representative for the week, though. The premise has been that Gabby and Michael were sent to Math Camp. They do not want to go to Math Camp. They find mathematics to be a bewildering set of arbitrary and petty rules to accomplish things of no interest to them. From their experience, it’s hard to argue. The comic has, since I started paying attention to it, consistently had mathematics be a chore dropped on them. And not merely from teachers who want them to solve boring story problems. Their grandmother dumps workbooks on them, even in the middle of summer vacation, presenting it as a chore they must do. Most comic strips present mathematics as a thing students would rather not do, and that’s both true enough and a good starting point for jokes. But I don’t remember any that make mathematics look so tedious. Anyway, I highlight this one because of the Math Camp jokes it, and the coefficients mention above, are the most direct mention of some mathematical thing. The rest are along the lines of the strip from the 9th, asserting that the “Math Camp Activity Board” spelled the last word wrong. The joke’s correct but it’s not mathematical.


So I had to put this essay to bed before I could read Saturday’s comics. Were any of them mathematically themed? I may know soon! And were there comic strips with some mention of mathematics, but too slight for me to make a paragraph about? What could be even slighter than the mathematical content of the Speed Bump and the Grand Avenue I did choose to highlight? Please check the Reading the Comics essay I intend to publish Tuesday. I’m curious myself.

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Reading the Comics, July 2, 2019: Back On Schedule Edition


I hoped I’d get a Reading the Comics post in for Tuesday, and even managed it. With this I’m all caught up to the syndicated comic strips which, last week, brought up some mathematics topic. I’m open for nominations about what to publish here Thursday. Write in quick.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange for the 30th is a struggling-student joke. And set in summer school, so the comic can be run the last day of June without standing out to its United States audience. It expresses a common anxiety, about that point when mathematics starts using letters. It superficially seems strange that this change worries students. Students surely had encountered problems where some term in an equation was replaced with a blank space and they were expected to find the missing term. This is the same work as using a letter. Still, there are important differences. First is that a blank line (box, circle, whatever) has connotations of “a thing to be filled in”. A letter seems to carry meaning in to the problem, even if it’s just “x marks the spot”. And a letter, as we use it in English, always stands for the same thing (or at least the same set of things). That ‘x’ may be 7 in one problem and 12 in another seems weird. I mean weird even by the standards of English orthography.

Summer School. Student, as the instructor writes a^2 + b^2 != c^2 on the board: 'Math isn't fair. It's numbers, numbers, numbers, then bam! It's letters.'
Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange for the 30th of June, 2019. Essays with some mention of Rhymes With Orange should be at this link.

A letter might represent a number whose value we wish to know; it might represent a number whose value we don’t care about. These are different ideas. We usually fall into a convention where numbers we wish to know are more likely x, y, and z, while those we don’t care about are more likely a, b, and c. But even that’s no reliable rule. And there may be several letters in a single equation. It’s one thing to have a single unknown number to deal with. To have two? Three? I don’t blame people fearing they can’t handle that.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy for the 30th has Billy and Cow pondering the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This is one of the first examples someone encounters in game theory. Game theory sounds like the most fun part of mathematics. It’s the study of situations in which there’s multiple parties following formal rules which allow for gains or losses. This is an abstract description. It means many things fit a mathematician’s idea of a game.

Billy: 'If we're ever arrested for the same crime we should never rat each other out. If we don't rat, then maybe we both go free. If we both rat, we both go to jail. If one rats, then the other goes to jail. But since we can't trust the interro --- ' Cow: 'BUT BOOGER GNOME STOLE THAT STEREO EQUIPMENT FOR HIS PIZZA BOX HOUSE!' Billy: 'YOU THINK THE COPS ARE GONNA BUY THAT?' Booger Gnome, with the stolen equipment: 'THERE'S NO @$#&* OUTLETS?!'
Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy rerun for the 30th of June, 2019. The comic strip is long since ended, but hasn’t quite rerun enough times for me to get tired of it. So essays featuring Cow and Boy appear this link. The gnome is a lawn gnome who came to life and … you know, this was a pretty weird comic and I understand why it didn’t make it in the newspapers. Just roll with it.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is described well enough by Billy. It’s built on two parties, each — separately and without the ability to coordinate — having to make a choice. Both would be better off, under interrogation, to keep quiet and trust that the cops can’t get anything significant on them. But both have the temptation that if they rat out the other, they’ll get off free while their former partner gets screwed. And knowing that their partner has the same temptation. So what would be best for the two of them requires them both doing the thing that maximizes their individual risk. The implication is unsettling: everyone acting in their own best interest is supposed to produce the best possible result for society. And here, for the society of these two accused, it breaks down entirely.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby for the 1st is a rerun. I discussed it last time it appeared, in November 2016, which was before I would routinely include the strips under discussion. The strip’s built on wordplay, using the word ‘power’ in its connotations for might and for exponents.

Robbie: 'My opinion letter is really going to make a difference!' Bobby: 'More power to you, Robbie!' Robbie: 'You've been saying that a lot lately ... know what? I *do* feel more powerful! ... Ooh, an exponent!' (A '10' appears over Robbie's typewriter. Bobby grabs it.) Robbie: 'Hey! I earned that!' Bobby: 'You have no clue what I'll do with this power!' Next panel: Bobby's sleeping, with his sleep sound being 'zzzz^{10}'.
Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby rerun for the 1st of July, 2019. I think but am not sure that this comic strip has lapsed into eternal reruns. In any case the essays that mention some topic raised by Robbie and Bobby are at this link.

Exponents have been written as numbers in superscript following a base for a long while now. The notation developed over the 17th century. I don’t know why mathematicians settled on superscripts, as opposed to the many other ways a base and an exponent might fit together. It’s a good mnemonic to remember, say, “z raised to the 10th” is z with a raised 10. But I don’t know the etymology of “raised” in a mathematical context well enough. It’s plausible that we say “raised” because that’s what the notation suggests.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 2nd argues for the beauty of mathematics as a use for it. It’s presented in a brutal manner, but saying brutal things to kids is a comic motif with history to it. Well, in an existentialist manner, but that gets pretty brutal quickly.

Kids: 'Will we ever use math?' Teacher: 'Of course! Life is an express train headed for oblivion city, and this proof of Pythagoras' theorem is one more pretty thing to contemplate before you pull into the station.' (The diagram is of a large square, with each leg divided into segments of length a and b; inside is a smaller square, connecting the segments within each of the outer square's edges, with the sides of this inner square length c.) Kid: 'I mean, like, will it get me a job?' Teacher: 'It got me this job conducting your express train!'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 2nd of July, 2019. This one doesn’t appear in every Reading the Comics essay, so you can find my discussions inspired by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal at this link.

The proof of the Pythagorean Theorem is one of the very many known to humanity. This one is among the family of proofs that are wordless. At least nearly wordless. You can get from here to a^2 + b^2 = c^2 with very little prompting. If you do need prompting, it’s this: there are two expressions for how much area of the square with sides a-plus-b. One of these expressions uses only terms of a and b. The other expression uses terms of a, b, and c. If this doesn’t get a bit of a grin out of you, don’t worry. There’s, like, 2,037 other proofs we already know about. We might ask whether we need quite so many proofs of the Pythagorean theorem. It doesn’t seem to be under serious question most of the time.


And then a couple comic strips last week just mentioned mathematics. Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals for the 1st of July has the kids trying to understand their mathematics homework. Could have been anything. Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 5th started a sequence with the kids at Math Camp. The comic is trying quite hard to get me riled up. So far it’s been the kids agreeing that mathematics is the worst, and has left things at that. Hrmph.


Whether or not I have something for Thursday, by Sunday I should have anotherReading the Comics post. It, as well as my back catalogue of these essays, should be at this link. Thanks for worrying about me.

Reading the Comics, April 10, 2019: Grand Avenue and Luann Want My Attention Edition


So this past week has been a curious blend for the mathematically-themed comics. There were many comics mentioning some mathematical topic. But that’s because Grand Advenue and Luann Againn — reprints of early 90s Luann comics — have been doing a lot of schoolwork. There’s a certain repetitiveness to saying, “and here we get a silly answer to a story problem” four times over. But we’ll see what I do with the work.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 7th is Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Very comforting to see. It’s a geometry-vocabulary joke, with Wavehead noticing the similar ends of some terms. I’m disappointed that I can’t offer much etymological insight. “Vertex”, for example, derives from the Latin for “highest point”, and traces back to the Proto-Indo-European root “wer-”, meaning “to turn, to bend”. “Apex” derives from the Latin for “summit” or “extreme”. And that traces back to the Proto-Indo-European “ap”, meaning “to take, to reach”. Which is all fine, but doesn’t offer much about how both words ended up ending in “ex”. This is where my failure to master Latin by reading a teach-yourself book on the bus during my morning commute for three months back in 2002 comes back to haunt me. There’s probably something that might have helped me in there.

On the blackboard is a square-based pyramid with 'apex' labelled; also a circular cone with 'vertex' labelled. Wavehead: 'And if you put them together they're a duplex.'
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 7th of March, 2019. I write about this strip a lot. Essays mentioning Andertoons are at this link.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 7th is an activity puzzle this time. It’s also a legitimate problem of graph theory. Not a complicated one, but still, one. Graph theory is about sets of points, called vertices, and connections between points, called edges. It gives interesting results for anything that’s networked. That shows up in computers, in roadways, in blood vessels, in the spreads of disease, in maps, in shapes.

Here's a tough little puzzle to get your brain firing on all four cylinders. See if you can connect the matching numbered boxes with three lines. The catch is that the liens cannot cross over each other. From left to right are disjoint boxes labelled 1, 2, 1, and 2. Above and below the center of the row are two boxes labelled 3.
Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 7th of March, 2019. I should have the essays mentioning Magic In A Minute at this link.

One common problem, found early in studying graph theory, is about whether a graph is planar. That is, can you draw the whole graph, all its vertices and edges, without any lines cross each other? This graph, with six vertices and three edges, is planar. There are graphs that are not. If the challenge were to connect each number to a 1, a 2, and a 3, then it would be nonplanar. That’s a famous non-planar graph, given the obvious name K3, 3. A fun part of learning graph theory — at least fun for me — is looking through pictures of graphs. The goal is finding K3, 3 or another one called K5, inside a big messy graph.

Exam Question: Jack bought seven marbles and lost six. How many additional marbles must Jack buy to equal seven? Kid's answer: 'Jack wouldn't know. He's lost his marbles.'
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 8th of March, 2019. I’m not always cranky about this comic strips. Examples of when I’m not are at this link, as are the times I’m annoyed with Grand Avenue.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 8th has had a week of story problems featuring both of the kid characters. Here’s the start of them. Making an addition or subtraction problem about counting things is probably a good way of making the problem less abstract. I don’t have children, so I don’t know whether they play marbles or care about them. The most recent time I saw any of my niblings I told them about the subtleties of industrial design in the old-fashioned Western Electric Model 2500 touch-tone telephone. They love me. Also I’m not sure that this question actually tests subtraction more than it tests reading comprehension. But there are teachers who like to throw in the occasional surprisingly easy one. Keeps students on their toes.

Gunther: 'You put a question mark next to the part about using the slope-intercept form of a linear equation. What don't you understand?' Luann: 'Lemme see. Oh ... yeah. I don't understand why on earth I need to know this.'
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 10th of March, 2019. This strip originally ran the 10th of March, 1991. Essays which include some mention of Luann, either current or 1990s reprints, are at this link.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 10th is part of a sequence showing Gunther helping Luann with her mathematics homework. The story started the day before, but this was the first time a specific mathematical topic was named. The point-slope form is a conventional way of writing an equation which corresponds to a particular line. There are many ways to write equations for lines. This is one that’s convenient to use if you know coordinates for one point on the line and the slope of the line. Any coordinates which make the equation true are then the coordinates for some point on the line.

How To Survive a Shark Attack (illustrated with a chicken surviving a shark.0 Keep your eye on the shark and move slowly toward safety. Don't make any sudden movements such as splashing or jazz hands. If the shark comes at you, punch it in the gills, snout, or eyes. You won't hurt the shark, but it will be surprised by your audacity. If all else fails, try to confuse it with logical paradoxes. Chicken: 'This statement is false.' Shark, wide-eyed and confused: '?'
Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens for the 10th of March, 2019. And when I think of something to write about Savage Chickens the results are at this link.

Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens for the 10th tosses in a line about logical paradoxes. In this case, using a classic problem, the self-referential statement. Working out whether a statement is true or false — its “truth value” — is one of those things we expect logic to be able to do. Some self-referential statements, logical claims about themselves, are troublesome. “This statement is false” was a good one for baffling kids and would-be world-dominating computers in science fiction television up to about 1978. Some self-referential statements seem harmless, though. Nobody expects even the most timid world-dominating computer to be bothered by “this statement is true”. It takes more than just a statement being about itself to create a paradox.


And a last note. The blog hardly needs my push to help it out, but, sometimes people will miss a good thing. Ben Orlin’s Math With Bad Drawings just ran an essay about some of the many mathematics-themed comics that Hilary Price and Rina Piccolo’s Rhymes With Orange has run. The comic is one of my favorites too. Orlin looks through some of the comic’s twenty-plus year history and discusses the different types of mathematical jokes Price (with, in recent years, Piccolo) makes.

Myself, I keep all my Reading the Comics essays at this link, and those mentioning some aspect of Rhymes With Orange at this link.

Reading the Comics, September 24, 2018: Carnival Delay Edition


It’s unusual for me to have a Reading the Comics post on Monday, but that’s what fits my schedule. The Playful Mathematics Education Blog Carnival took my Sunday spot, and Tuesday and Friday I hope to continue the A to Z posts. It’s going to be a rather full week. I’m looking forward to, I hope, surviving. Meanwhile, here’s some comics.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 23rd resumes its efforts to become my archenemy with a strip about why learn arithmetic. Michael is right that we don’t need people to do multiplication. So why should we learn it? Grandmom Kate offers only the answer that he’ll be punished if he doesn’t learn them. This could motivate Michael to practice multiplication tables. But it’ll never convince him that learning multiplication tables is something of value.

Michael: 'You once told me: what you don't know won't hurt you. So I figure that means I don't need to know my multiplication tables!' Grandmom: 'You're right. Not knowing your multiplication tables won't hurt you. It will hurt both you and your allowance.' Michael: 'Wait! You're saying there's a possibility I might not get my allowance?' Grandmom: 'What you don't know won't hurt you.'
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 23rd of September, 2018. So, not to nitpick the writing of these strips. Comic strip dialogue is subject to a great number of constraints that aren’t obvious, and that constrain how naturalistic it can be. But the dialogue flow is a slight wreck. Third panel to fourth, Grandmom goes from saying not knowing the multiplication tables won’t hurt you to saying it will hurt you and your allowance. Then, fourth panel to fifth, Michael goes from hearing he and his allowance will be hurt to wondering if there’s a possibility he might not get his allowance. It’s like they’re having different drafts of the conversation.

That said, what would convince him? It’s ridiculous to suppose Michael would be in a spot where he’d need to know eight times seven right away and without a computer to tell him. I find a certain amount of arithmetic-doing fun. But I already like doing it. (I admit a bootstrapping problem. Do I find it fun because I do it well, or do I do arithmetic well because I find it fun? I don’t know.) And that I find something fun is a lousy argument that everyone should learn to do it. I can argue that practicing multiplication tables is practice for finding neat patterns in other things, in higher mathematics. But is that reason to care? If Michael isn’t interested in eight times seven, is he going to be interested in the outer products of the set of symmetries on the octagon and the permutations of the heptagon?

I don’t have an actual answer here. I think it’s worth learning to do arithmetic. But not because we need people to do arithmetic. At least not except when we’re too lazy to take out our phones. But “or else you’ll lose money” is a terrible reason.

Things You Should Never, Ever Say To A Cartoonist. (It's nine panels of things they likely hear often, including 'Do you ever do any *real* art?' and 'You should try making your comics funnier' and 'You should do comics about my family, let me tell you about them!' Only one sends him running.) Questioner: 'What's the square root of 64 ? Why are you running away? Why are you screaming?' Corner Squirrel: 'Wait! Where do you get your ideaaaaas?!'
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 23rd of September, 2018. That fourth panel happens to me, by the way, anytime I recount some odd, slightly awkward interaction that I have. And my family heritage is such that I’m a carrier of awkward interactions. Not to brag, but include a Nebus in your social circle and you’re more than ten times more likely than you ever imagined you could be to have responsibility for a styrofoam-peanut whirlwind, for example.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 23rd is a smorgasbord strip of things cartoonists get told too often. It comes in here because I like the strip, and because the punch line is built in the fear of arithmetic. It’s traditional to think that cartoonists, as artists, haven’t got an interest in mathematics or science. I can’t deny that the time it takes to learn how to draw, and the focus it takes to make a syndication-worthy comic strip, hurt someone’s ability to study much mathematics. And vice-versa. But people are a varied bunch. Bill Amend, of FoxTrot, and Bud Grace, of the discontinued The Piranha Club, were both physics majors. Darrin Bell, of Candorville and Rudy Park, writes well about mathematical (and scientific) topics. Crockett Johnson, of the renowned 1940s comic strip Barnaby and the Harold and the Purple Crayon books, was literate enough in mathematics to do over a hundred paintings based on geometry theorems. Part of why I note when the mathematics put into the background of a strip is that I do like pointing out there’s no reason artists and mathematicians or scientists need to be separate people.

Teacher: 'Question number three: you have twelve apples, but your friend Timmy only has two. How do you convince Timmy that this is a fair arrangement?'
Tony Carrillo’s F Minus for the 24th of September, 2018. Question four is about how many people named Timmy are in class.

Tony Carrillo’s F Minus for the 24th uses the form of the story problem. This one of the classic form of apples distributed amongst people. The problem presented makes its politics bare. But any narrative, however thin, carries along with it cultural values. That mathematicians may work out things whose truth is (we believe) independent of the posed problem doesn’t mean the posed problem is universal.

Tortoise: 'Y'know, I'm embarrassed to tell you how old I am.' Dog: 'Can you whisper it?' Tortoise: 'I'll write my age in the sand real temporary-like.' Dog: 'Don't spell it out, I can't read words!' Tortoise: 'Those are Roman numerals!'
Steve Boreman’s Little Dog Lost rerun for the 24th of September, 2018. This is a rerun from the 8th of September, 2009. Little Dog Lost has ended its run, and of gentle comic strips it’s one that I particularly miss.

Steve Boreman’s Little Dog Lost rerun for the 24th is the Roman Numerals joke for the week. There is a connotation of great age to anything written in Roman Numerals. Likely because we are centuries past the time they were used for anything but ornament. And even in ornament they seem to be declining in age. I do wonder if the puniness of, say, ‘MMI’ or ‘MMXX’ as a sequence of numerals, compared to (say) ‘MCMXLVII’ makes it look better to just write ‘2001’ or ‘2020’ instead.


The full set of Reading the Comics posts should be at this link. Essays that discuss Grand Avenue should be at this link. This and other appearances by Reality Check should be at this link. Appearances by F Minus are at this link. And other essays with Little Dog Lost should be at this link. Thanks for reading along.

Reading the Comics, June 29, 2018: Chuckle and Breakfast Cereal Edition


The last half of last week was not entirely the work of Chuckle Brothers and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. It seemed like it, though. Let’s review.

Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 28th is a common sort of fear-of-mathematics joke. In this case the fear of doing arithmetic even when it is about something one would really like to know. I think the question got away from Todd, though. If they just wanted to know whether they had enough money, well, they need twelve dollars and have seven. Subtracting seven from twelve is only needed if they want to know how much more they need. Which they should want to know, but wasn’t part of the setup.

Kid: 'Do we have enough money to go to the movie?' Todd: 'Let's see! You ahve four dollars and I have three dollars. That's seven. The movie is twelve dollars for both of us. So twelve take away seven is ... *GASP* Oh no! I accidentally did math!' Kid: 'So?' Todd: 'This is SUMMER!' Kid: 'I don't even know you!'
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 28th of June, 2018. I’m sorry, I don’t know the kid’s name.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers for the 28th uses mathematics as the sine qua non of rocket science. As in, well, the stuff that’s hard and takes some real genius to understand. It’s not clear to me that the equations are actually rocket science. There seem to be a shortage of things in exponentials to look quite right to me. But I can’t zoom in on the art, so, who knows just what might be in there.

Professor-type in front of a class labelled Rocket Science 101: 'Doesn't ANYBODY understand this stuff?'
Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers rerun for the 28th of June, 2018. It originally ran the 16th of July, 2009. Relatable.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 28th is a set theory joke. Or a logic joke, anyway. It refers to some of the mathematics/logic work of Bertrand Russell. Among his work was treating seriously the problems of how to describe things defined in reference to themselves. These have long been a source of paradoxes, sometimes for fun, sometimes for fairy-tale logic, and sometimes to challenge our idea of what we mean by definitions of things. Russell made a strong attempt at describing what we mean when we describe a thing by reference to itself. The iconic example here was the “set of all sets not members of themselves”.

Caption: 'Nobody liked Bertrand Russell's scavenger hunts.' Items to find: 'The list of all lists that do not list themselves. (List here).'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 28th of June, 2018. Well, among other things, wouldn’t there be infinitely many such lists? Unless this description were enough to describe them all, by being a description of what to do to get you all of them?

Russell started out by trying to find some way to prove Georg Cantor’s theorems about different-sized infinities wrong. He worked out a theory of types, and what kinds of rules you can set about types of things. Most mathematicians these days prefer to solve the paradox with a particular organization of set theory. But Russell’s type theory still has value, particularly as part of the logic behind lambda calculus. This is an approach to organizing relationships between things that can do wonderful things, including in computer programming. It lets one write code that works extremely efficiently and can never be explained to another person, modified, or debugged ever. I may lack the proper training for the uses I’ve made of it.

News anchor: 'In a cruel, bizarre twist of fate, this week's $1 million winning lotto number 579281703 was shared by exactly one million people. In other news ... ' (The person watching the news has a lottery ticket number 579281703.)
Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers rerun for the 29th of June, 2018. It originally ran the 17th of July, 2009. You can tell it’s from so long ago because the TV set is pre-HD.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers for the 29th is a lottery joke. It does happen that more than one person wins a drawing; sometimes three or even four people do, for the larger prizes. The chance that there’s a million winners? Frightfully unlikely unless something significant went wrong with the lottery mechanism.

So what are the chances of a million lottery winners? If I’m not mistaken the only way to do this is to work out a binomial distribution. The binomial distribution is good for cases where you have many attempts at doing a thing, where each thing can either succeed or fail, and the likelihood of success or failure is independent of all the other attempts. In this case each lottery ticket is an attempt; it winning is success and it losing is failure. Each ticket has the same chance of winning or losing, and that chance doesn’t depend on how many wins or losses there are. What is that chance? … Well, if each ticket has one chance in a million of winning, and there are a million tickets out there, the chance of every one of them winning is about one-millionth raised to the millionth power. Which is so close to zero it might as well be nothing. … And yet, for all that it’s impossible, there’s not any particular reason it couldn’t happen. It just won’t.

What I Learned This Year. Kid: 'Um ... you can divide a number by 3 if the sum of its digits can be divided by 3.' [ Later ] Frazz: 'So, what'd you learn this year?' Kid: 'Don't go last on what-I-learned-this-year day.'
Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 29th of June, 2018. Sorry, again, not sure of this kid’s name. The comic is often so good about casually dropping in character names.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 29th is a less dire take on what-you-learned-this-year. In this case it’s trivia, but it’s a neat sort of trivia. Once you understand how it works you can understand how to make all sorts of silly little divisibility rules. The threes rule — and the nines rule — work by the same principle. Suppose you have a three-digit number. Let me call ‘a’ the digit in the hundreds column, ‘b’ the digit in the tens column, and ‘c’ the digit in the ones column. Then the number is equal to 100\cdot a + 10\cdot b + 1\cdot c . And, well, that’s equal to 99\cdot a + 1\cdot a + 9 \cdot b + 1 \cdot b + 1 \cdot c . Which is 99\cdot a + 9 \cdot b + a + b + c . 99 times any whole number is a multiple of 9, and also of 3. 9 times any whole number is a multiple of 9, and also of 3. So whether the original number is divisible by 9, or by 3, depends on whether a + b + c is. And that’s why adding the digits up tells you whether a number is a whole multiple of three.

This has only proven anything for three-digit numbers. But with that proof in mind, you probably can imagine what the proof looks like for two- or four-digit numbers, and would believe there’s one for five- and for 500-digit numbers. Or, for that matter, the proof for an arbitrarily long number. So I’ll skip actually doing that. You can fiddle with it if you want a bit of fun yourself.

Also maybe it’s me, or the kind of person who gets into mathematics. But I find silly little rules like this endearing. It’s a process easy to understand that anyone can do and it tells you something not obvious from when you start. It feels like getting let in on a magic trick. That seems like the sort of thing that endears people to mathematics.

Michael: 'Grandma broke out the math workbooks!' Gabby: 'She does this every summer!' (They hide behind a tree.) Gabby: 'Says she doesn't want us to forget what we learned during the school year.' Michael: 'She has a point. We do need to keep our homework-avoidance skills sharp.'
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 29th of June, 2018. At the risk of taking the art too literally: isn’t that tree kind of short to be that fat? Shouldn’t the leaves start higher up?

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 29th is trying to pick its fight with me again. I can appreciate someone wanting to avoid kids losing their mathematical skills over summer. It’s just striking how Thompson has consistently portrayed their grandmother as doing this in a horrible, joy-crushing manner.

Greek: 'Why are you the wisest man, Socrates?' Socrates: 'Because I know one thing: that I know nothing.' Greek: 'That's all you know?' Socrates: 'I mean strictly speaking ... ' Greek: 'What about the infinite universe of analytic statements, like if A = A then A = A?' Socrates: 'Okay yeah That stuff. Just that.' Greek: 'Just ALL of math.' (Pause.) Greek: 'Sorry, did I make you sad?' Socrates: 'I can't be certain, but probably.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 29th of June, 2018. I am curious if anyone in the philosophy department would offer an idea which Ancient Greek might be chatting with Socrates here. If Weinersmith had anyone in mind I would guess whichever one has Socrates getting a slave to do a geometry proof. But there’s also … I want to say Parmenides, where the elder scholar whips the young Socrates in straight syllogisms. Again, if anyone specific was in mind and it wasn’t just “another Ancient Greek type”.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 29th gets into a philosophy-of-mathematics problem. Also a pure philosophy problem. It’s a problem of what things you can know independently of experience. There are things it seems as though are true, and that seem independent of the person who is aware of them, and what culture that person comes from. All right. Then how can these things be relevant to the specifics of the universe that we happen to be in just now? If ‘2’ is an abstraction that means something independent of our universe, how can there be two books on the table? There’s something we don’t quite understand yet, and it’s taking our philosophers and mathematicians a long while to work out what that is.


And as ever, if you’d like to see more Reading the Comics posts, please look to this page. For essays with Todd the Dinosaur in them, look here. For essays with the Chuckle Brothers, here you go. For some of the many, many essays with Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, follow this link. For more talk about Frazz, look here. And for the Grand Avenue comics, try this link please.

Reading the Comics, May 23, 2018: Nice Warm Gymnasium Edition


I haven’t got any good ideas for the title for this collection of mathematically-themed comic strips. But I was reading the Complete Peanuts for 1999-2000 and just ran across one where Rerun talked about consoling his basketball by bringing it to a nice warm gymnasium somewhere. So that’s where that pile of words came from.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 21st is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this installment. It has Wavehead suggest a name for the subtraction of fractions. It’s not by itself an absurd idea. Many mathematical operations get specialized names, even though we see them as specific cases of some more general operation. This may reflect the accidents of history. We have different names for addition and subtraction, though we eventually come to see them as the same operation.

On the board, 3/5 - 1/4. Wavehead, to teacher: 'You should call it sub-*fraction*. You can use that --- that's a freebie.'
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 21st of May, 2018. I’m not sure the girl in class needs to be quite so horrified by this suggestion. On the other hand, she sees a lot of this kind of stuff in class.

In calculus we get introduced to Maclaurin Series. These are polynomials that approximate more complicated functions. They’re the best possible approximations for a region around 0 in the domain. They’re special cases of the Taylor Series. Those are polynomials that approximate more complicated functions. But you get to pick where in the domain they should be the best approximation. Maclaurin series are nothing but a Taylor series; we keep the names separate anyway, for the reasons. And slightly baffling ones; James Gregory and Brook Taylor studied Taylor series before Colin Maclaurin did Maclaurin series. But at least Taylor worked on Taylor series, and Maclaurin on Macularin series. So for a wonder mathematicians named these things for appropriate people. (Ignoring that Indian mathematicians were poking around this territory centuries before the Europeans were. I don’t know whether English mathematicians of the 18th century could be expected to know of Indian work in the field, in fairness.)

In numerical calculus, we have a scheme for approximating integrals known as the trapezoid rule. It approximates the areas under curves by approximating a curve as a trapezoid. (Any questions?) But this is one of the Runge-Kutta methods. Nobody calls it that except to show they know neat stuff about Runge-Kutta methods. The special names serve to pick out particularly interesting or useful cases of a more generally used thing. Wavehead’s coinage probably won’t go anywhere, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Skippy: 'Look at 'im. The meanest kid on the block. He's got a grudge on the school teacher 'cause she made him stop copyin' answers out of his arithmetic. So he tore out the front of the book an' says 'What good is it without the last part?'
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 22nd of May, 2018. It was originally run, looks like, the 12th of February, 1931.

Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 22nd I admit I don’t quite understand. It mentions arithmetic anyway. I think it’s a joke about a textbook like this being good only if it’s got the questions and the answers. But it’s the rare Skippy that’s as baffling to me as most circa-1930 humor comics are.

Lecturer presenting a blackboard full of equations, titled, 'Mathematical Proof that God does not exist'. In the audience is God.
Ham’s Life on Earth for the 23rd of May, 2018. How did the lecturer get stuff on the top of the board there?

Ham’s Life on Earth for the 23rd presents the blackboard full of symbols as an attempt to prove something challenging. In this case, to say something about the existence of God. It’s tempting to suppose that we could say something about the existence or nonexistence of God using nothing but logic. And there are mathematics fields that are very close to pure logic. But our scary friends in the philosophy department have been working on the ontological argument for a long while. They’ve found a lot of arguments that seem good, and that fall short for reasons that seem good. I’ll defer to their experience, and suppose that any mathematics-based proof to have the same problems.

Paige: 'I keep forgetting ... what's the cosine of 60 degrees?' Jason: 'Well, let's see. If I recall correctly ... 1 - (pi/3)^2/2! + (pi/3)^4/4! - (pi/3)^6/6! + (pi/3)^8/8! - (pi/3)^10/10! + (pi/3)^12/12! - (and this goes on a while, up to (pi/3)^32/32! - ... )' Paige: 'In case you've forgotten, I'm not paying you by the hour.' Jason: '1/2'.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 23rd of May, 2018. It originally ran the 29th of May, 1996.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 23rd deploys a Maclaurin series. If you want to calculate the cosine of an angle, and you know the angle in radians, you can find the value by adding up the terms in an infinitely long series. So if θ is the angle, measured in radians, then its cosine will be:

\cos\left(\theta\right) = \sum_{k = 0}^{\infty} \left(-1\right)^k \frac{\theta^k}{k!}

60 degrees is \frac{\pi}{3} in radians and you see from the comic how to turn this series into a thing to calculate. The series does, yes, go on forever. But since the terms alternate in sign — positive then negative then positive then negative — you have a break. Suppose all you want is the answer to within an error margin. Then you can stop adding up terms once you’ve gotten to a term that’s smaller than your error margin. So if you want the answer to within, say, 0.001, you can stop as soon as you find a term with absolute value less than 0.001.

For high school trig, though, this is all overkill. There’s five really interesting angles you’d be expected to know anything about. They’re 0, 30, 45, 60, and 90 degrees. And you need to know about reflections of those across the horizontal and vertical axes. Those give you, like, -30 degrees or 135 degrees. Those reflections don’t change the magnitude of the cosines or sines. They might change the plus-or-minus sign is all. And there’s only three pairs of numbers that turn up for these five interesting angles. There’s 0 and 1. There’s \frac{1}{2} and \frac{\sqrt{3}}{2} . There’s \frac{1}{\sqrt{2}} and \frac{1}{\sqrt{2}} . Three things to memorize, plus a bit of orienteering, to know whether the cosine or the sine should be the larger size and whether they should positive or negative. And then you’ve got them all.

You might get asked for, like, the sine of 15 degrees. But that’s someone testing whether you know the angle-addition or angle-subtraction formulas. Or the half-angle and double-angle formulas. Nobody would expect you to know the cosine of 15 degrees. The cosine of 30 degrees, though? Sure. It’s \frac{\sqrt{3}}{2} .

Michael: 'It's near the end of the school year. You should ease up on the homework. I've learned more than enough this year.' Teacher: 'Oh, sure. How does a 50-percent cut sound?' Michael: 'Why cut it by just one-third?' Teacher: 'You're not helping your case.'
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 23rd of May, 2018. I don’t know why the kid and the teacher are dressed the same. I’m honestly not sure if they’re related.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 23rd is your basic confused-student joke. People often have trouble going from percentages to decimals to fractions and back again. Me, I have trouble in going from percentage chances to odds, as in, “two to one odds” or something like that. (Well, “one to one odds” I feel confident in, and “two to one” also. But, say, “seven to five odds” I can’t feel sure I understand, other than that the second choice is a perceived to be a bit more likely than the first.)

… You know, this would have parsed as the Maclaurin Series Edition, wouldn’t it? Well, if only I were able to throw away words I’ve already written and replace them with better words before publishing, huh?

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.

Timmy: 'Can you help me on my summer math practice book, Grandpa? It says 2x - 5 = 3. So what is x?' Grandpa: 'Must be a misprint, cause last time I checked, x is NOT a number!' Dad: 'I'd show your teacher that typo so she can complain to the publisher.'
Julie Larson’s Dinette Set rerun for the 12th of April, 2018. Don’t be thrown by the side bits like the show on the TV or the rather oversized Nutty Professor DVD box. They’re just side jokes, not part of the main gag.

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.

God-Man, the Super-Hero with Omnipotent Powers. This week: Danger int he Dorm! [ God-Man settles in to watch 'Two Weeks Notice' on TBS when ... ' God-Man: 'Sandra Bullock is just adorable!' Voice: 'Help!' God-Man: 'Aw, nuts ... that cry for help came from Mid-Central University! Fear not! I'm he --- YOU?'' FPMM: 'Ah, I knew you'd take the bait!' God-Man: 'You again ... ' FPMM: 'YES! Your arch-enemy --- Freshman Philosophy-Major Man!' God-Man: 'Arch-enemy. Right.' FPMM: 'And I can PROVE that you're NOT OMNIPOTENT! You can't make one plus one equal THREE! Ha! The logic and structure of the universe couldn't exist if 1 + 1 = 3!!' God-Man: 'Of course it can, you ninny.' FPMM, disappearing in a windy vortex: 'Whaaaaa?' God-Man: 'It's just a little different. ... What a pain! Well, if I hurry back, I can catch the end of Three Weeks Notice'. [ God-Man flies out past a streaming vortex of stuff. ]
Ruben Bolling’s Tom the Dancing Bug rerun for the 12th of April, 2018. Yes, basically every God-Man installment is the same strip, but it works for me every time. (It helps that there’s only a couple each year.)

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.

Teacher: 'If Sally had ten apples and ... ' Gabby: 'Oh, come on! Who goes around with ten apples?' Teacher: 'It's a math problem.' Gabby: 'No, it's a psychological problem. There's a problem with someone who feels the need to carry around so many apples.' Teacher: 'You see to have great insight into other people's problems.' Gabby: 'They don't call me a problem child for nothing!'
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 13th of April, 2018. And I realize this is like the complaint I raised about the Grand Avenue earlier this week. But Gabby is assuming that Sally is carrying around ten apples, when the problem hasn’t said anything of the sort. Ten isn’t a ridiculous number of apples to carry to start with, but to simply have them in one’s possession? That’s just not peculiar.

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.

Heart: 'Ugh, could you believe all those crazy word problems Mr Basner dumped on us today? I got a headache fro all the figuring!' Dean: 'Yeah, multiplication, division, adding, and subtracting. My brain is flip-flopping from all the numbers and decimal points. Well, we've got a Friday night and two whole days to undo the damage.' Heart: 'Oh, magical glowing box full of endless, empty entertainment, take us away!'
Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 13th of April, 2018. One of the things I do appreciate about Heart of the City is that while Dean is a nerd and mostly likes school, he’s not one-note about it and gets as tired of it as anyone else does. Nerd kids in comic strips have a tendency to take their pro-school agenda a bit far.

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.

Nick(?), looking at a Venn diagram: 'Nice. I've neer seen spite and integrity overlap.'
Nick Galifianakis’s Nick and Zuzu for the 13th of April, 2018. First, this is some of the nicest grey-washing I’ve seen in these Reading the Comics posts in a while. Second, my experience is that spite with integrity is some of the most fun and delightful that spite ever gets to be. The integrity lets you add a layer of smugness to the spite. And if anyone protests, you get to feel smugly superior to them, too.

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.

On the blackboard: 'Ordinal numbers: 1st, 2nd, 3rd'. Kid: 'You forgot Participant.'
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 14th of April, 2018. The kid appears often enough I feel like I should know his name. Or assign one in case the strip doesn’t have a canonical name for him. I’ll take nominations if anyone wants to offer them.

Reading the Comics, April 11, 2018: Obscure Mathematical Terms Edition


I’d like to open today’s installment with a trifle from Thomas K Dye. He’s a friend, and the cartoonist behind the long-running web comic Newshounds, its new spinoff Infinity Refugees, and some other projects.

Dye also has a Patreon, most recently featuring a subscribers-only web comic. And he’s good enough to do the occasional bit of spot art to spruce up my work here.

Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie rerun for the 9th of April, 2018 is, for me, relatable. I think I’ve read off this anecdote before. The first time I took Real Analysis I was completely lost. Getting me slightly less lost was borrowing a library book on Real Analysis from the mathematics library. The book was in French, a language I can only dimly read. But the different presentation and, probably, the time I had to spend parsing each sentence helped me get a basic understanding of the topic. So maybe trying algebra upside-down isn’t a ridiculous idea.

Archie: 'I can't make any sense out of this algebra!' Jughead: 'Er, Arch! Your book is upside-down!' Archie: 'Yeah, I know! I already tried it the other way, and it didn't make sense then either!'
Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie rerun for the 9th of April, 2018. Finally, an artistic explanation for putting the name of the book being read on house left!

Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate rerun for the 9th presents an arithmetic sequence, which is always exciting to work with, if you’re into sequences. I had thought Nate was talking about mathematics quizzes but I see that’s not specified. Could be anything. … And yes, there is something cool in finding a pattern. Much of mathematics is driven by noticing, or looking for, patterns in things and then describing the rules by which new patterns can be made. There’s many easy side questions to be built from this. When would quizzes reach a particular value? When would the total number of points gathered reach some threshold? When would the average quiz score reach some number? What kinds of patterns would match the 70-68-66-64 progression but then do something besides reach 62 next? Or 60 after that? There’s some fun to be had. I promise.

Nate: 'Four quizzes ago, I got a 70. Three quizzes ago, I got a 68. Two quizzes ago, I got a 66, and last quiz I got a 64! See the pattern?' Francis: 'The pattern of academic incompetence?' Nate: 'No, the way it keeps decreasing by twos! Isn't that COOL?'
Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate rerun for the 9th of April, 2018. Trick question: there’s infinitely many sequences that would start 70, 68, 66, 64. But when we extrapolate this sort of thing we tend to assume that it’ll be some simple sequence. These are often arithmetic — each term increasing or decreasing by the same amount — or geometric — each term the same multiple of the one before. They don’t have to be. These are just easy ones to look for and often turn out well, or at least useful.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 10th is one of the resisting-the-teacher’s-problem style. The problem’s arithmetic, surely for reasons of space. The joke doesn’t depend on the problem at all.

Teacher: 'Gabby, can you solve the problem?' [ '33 x 22' on the blackboard. ] Gabby: 'No, thank you. You're the adult, so I'll let you solve the problem. Why do you need a kid? Adults are able to solve problems on their own.' [ Gabby sits outside the Principal's office, thinking ] 'Looks like he solved his problem after all.'
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 10th of April, 2018. My grudge against Grand Avenue is well-established and I fear it will make people think I am being needlessly picky at this. But Gabby’s protest would start from a logical stance if the teacher asked “Would you solve the problem?” Then she’d have reason to argue that adults should be able to solve the problem. “Can” you doesn’t reflect on who ought to solve arithmetic problems.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 10th similarly doesn’t depend on what the question is. It happens to be arithmetic, but it could as easily be identifying George Washington or picking out the noun in a sentence.

Dog reading an exam: 'Do you know the square root of 81? Do you? Do you? Yes, you do!'
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 10th of April, 2018. I keep wanting to think the exam is playing on the pun between K-9 and canine but it’s not quite there.

Leigh Rubin’s Rubes for the 10th riffs on randomness. In this case it’s riffing on the unpredictability and arbitrariness of random things. Random variables are very interesting in certain fields of mathematics. What makes them interesting is that any specific value — the next number you generate — is unpredictable. But aggregate information about the values is predictable, often with great precision. For example, consider normal distributions. (A lot of stuff turns out to be normal.) In that case we can be confident that the values that come up most often are going to be close to the arithmetic mean of a bunch of values. And that there’ll be about as many values greater than the mean as there are less than the mean. And this will be only loosely true if you’ve looked at a handful of values, at ten or twenty or even two hundred of them. But if you looked at, oh, a hundred thousand values, these truths would be dead-on. It’s wonderful and it seems to defy intuition. It just works.

Door to the Randomness Research Institute. Sign hanging on the doorknob: 'Be Back In: (Your Guess Is As Good As Ours.)'
Leigh Rubin’s Rubes for the 10th of April, 2018. My guess, in the absence of other information, would be “back in about as long as the last time we were out”. In surprisingly many cases your best plausible guess about what the next result should be is whatever the last result was.

John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for the 10th is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. It’s easy to think of division as just making numbers smaller: 4 divided by 6 is less than either 4 or 6. 1 divided by 4 is less than either 1 or 4. But this is a bad intuition, drawn from looking at the counting numbers that don’t look boring. But 4 divided by 1 isn’t less than either 1 or 4. Same with 6 divided by 1. And then when we look past counting numbers we realize that’s not always so. 6 divided by ½ gives 12, greater than either of those numbers, and I don’t envy the teachers trying to explain this to an understandably confused student. And whether 6 divided by -1 gives you something smaller than 6 or smaller than -1 is probably good for an argument in an arithmetic class.

'The Great Divide'. Numeral 6, looking at an obelus, and speaking to a 4 and a 1; 'It's the guy from division. Looks like we're downsizing'.
John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for the 10th of April, 2018. Oh yeah, remember a couple months ago when the Internet went wild about how ÷ was a clever way of representing fractions, with the dots representing the numerator and denominator? … Yeah, that wasn’t true, but it’s a great mnemonic.

Zach Weinersmith, Chris Jones and James Ashby’s Snowflakes for the 11th has an argument about predicting humans mathematically. It’s so very tempting to think people can be. Some aspects of people can. In the founding lore of statistics is the astonishment at how one could predict how many people would die, and from what causes, over a time. No person’s death could be forecast, but their aggregations could be. This unsettles people. It should: it seems to defy reason. It seems to me even people who embrace a deterministic universe suppose that while, yes, a sufficiently knowledgeable creature might forecast their actions accurately, mere humans shouldn’t be sufficiently knowledgeable.

Priti: 'Did you know that all human culture can be represented with GRAPHS?!' Sloan: 'Doubtful. Here. Read Machiavelli, Durkheim, and Montesquieu.' Priti: 'I see a lot of French and a lack of graphs.' Sloan: 'Not everything can be represented graphical [sic]. Plus it's full of CITATIONS! Wonderful, wonderful citations!' Priti: 'So, you don't think your behavior can be predicted mathematically?' Sloan: 'Correct.' Priti: 'Predictable'.
Zach Weinersmith, Chris Jones and James Ashby’s Snowflakes for the 11th of April, 2018. So when James Webb, later of NASA fame, was named Under-Secretary of State in 1949 one of his projects was to bring more statistical measure to foreign affairs. He had done much to quantify economic measures, as head of the Bureau of the Budget. But he wasn’t able to overcome institutional skepticism (joking about obvious nonsense like “Bulgaria is down a point!”), and spent his political capital instead on a rather necessary reorganization of the department. That said, I would not trust the wildly enthusiastic promises of any pop mathematics book proclaiming human cultures can be represented by any simple numerical structure.

No strips are tagged for the first time this essay. Just noticing.

Reading the Comics, March 31, 2018: A Normal Week Edition


I have a couple loose rules about these Reading the Comics posts. At least one a week, whether there’s much to talk about or not. Not too many comics in one post, because that’s tiring to read and tiring to write. Trying to write up each day’s comics on the day mitigates that some, but not completely. So I tend to break up a week’s material if I can do, say, two posts of about seven strips each. This year, that’s been necessary; I’ve had a flood of comics on-topic or close enough for me to write about. This past week was a bizarre case. There really weren’t enough strips to break up the workload. It was, in short, a normal week, as strange as that is to see. I don’t know what I’m going to do Thursday. I might have to work.

Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks for the 25th of March is formally just a cameo mention of mathematics. There is some serious content to it. Whether someone likes to do a thing depends, to an extent, on whether they expect to like doing a thing. It seems likely to me that if a community encourages people to do mathematics, then it’ll have more people who do mathematics well. Mathematics does at least have the advantage that a lot of its fields can be turned into games. Or into things like games. Is one knot the same as another knot? You can test the laborious but inevitably correct way, trying to turn one into the other. Or you can find a polynomial that describes both knots and see if those two are the same polynomials. There’s fun to be had in this. I swear. And, of course, making arguments and finding flaws in other people’s arguments is a lot of mathematics. And good fun for anybody who likes that sort of thing. (This is a new tag for me.)

Huey: 'Ugh ... this video is terrible. Turn it.' Riley: 'You say everything is terrible. You're a hater.' Huey: 'Y'know ... the brutally honest critiques that you call 'hating' are why black people have always been at the forefront of music and culture. Artists knew that if they didn't excel, black people would yell and boo and heckle them off the stage Tough audiences have always made our artists better ... ' Riley: 'Uh-huh ... ' Huey: 'Now if we could only get black people to start booing each other in math class ... ' Riley: 'Whatever, hater.'
Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks for the 25th of March of March, 2018. Yeah, all right, but I would not want to be the teacher keeping a class of people heckling the student working a story problem on the board from turning abusive.

Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 30th of January, 1979 and rerun the 26th names arithmetic as the homework Quincy’s most worried about. Or would like to put off the most. Harmless enough.

Quincy: 'I just heard one whole neighborhood is without electric power! I hope it's where my teacher lives.' Grandmother: 'Why?' Quincy: 'She won't be able to mark arithmetic papers.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 30th of January, 1979 and rerun the 26th of March, 2018. Because if there’s one thing that improves a teacher’s mood while grading, it’s having to do it while hurried after a night of rotten sleep in an apartment that possibly hasn’t got any heat!

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 26th is a student-resisting-the-problem joke. A variable like ‘x’ serves a couple of roles. One of them is the name for a number whose value we don’t explicitly know, but which we hope to work out. And that’s the ‘x’ seen here. The other role of ‘x’ is the name for a number whose value we don’t know and don’t particularly care about. Since those are different reasons to use ‘x’ maybe we ought to have different names for the concepts. But we don’t and there’s probably no separating them now.

On the board: '17 + x = 21; solve for x'. Michael: 'x is unknown, so I'd hate to disrespect x's desire for privacy by disclosing its identity!'
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 26th of March, 2018. And it took me more work than I wanted to figure out the kid’s name, so here: it’s Michael. Source: the Andrews-McMeel Syndication page about the comic. Cast page, since they use Javascript that keeps me from linking to that.

Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 27th grumbles that mathematics and clairvoyance are poorly taught. Well, everyone who loves mathematics grumbles that the subject is poorly taught. I don’t know what the clairvoyants think but I’ll bet the same.

Agnes, thinking: 'In my mind, I'm seeing snow. Piles of it ... crippling traffic. Paralyzing the city. Scaring the fearless. Closing school.' Grandmom, clapping: 'Sun's out! School starts in an hour! Let's go! Hup! Hup! Hup' Agnes, thinking: 'Seems public schools excel at teaching clairvoyance as much as they do math.'
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 27th of March, 2018. In fairness, once students have got a little clairvoyant it becomes crazy hard to do assessment testing.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 28th is about sudoku. As with any puzzle the challenge is having rules that are restrictive enough to be interesting. This is also true of any mathematical field, though. You want ideas that imply a lot of things are true, but that also imply enough interesting plausible things are not true.

Leticia: 'You're doing a sudoku puzzle, Neil?' Neil: 'Yep! And I'm timing myself!' Leticia: 'How are you doing?' Neil: 'Really well, Leticia! See? I can complete it faster than the average!' Leticia: 'Wow! It's a challenge to fit the numbers in while following all the rules.' Neil, thinking: 'There are rules?'
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 28th of March, 2018. It’s not that I’m not amused by the strip. But the mechanism of setting up the premise, developing it, and delivering the punch line really stands out sorely here. It’s hard to believe in someone saying Leticia’s line the third panel.

Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy rerun for the 30th has Ruthie working on a story problem. One with loose change, which seems to turn up a lot in story problems. I never think of antes for some reason.

Dad: 'If Karen puts three quarters on the table ... and Kyle adds two nickels and one penny ... what would you have?' Ruthie: 'A very lopsided ante!'
Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy rerun for the 30th of March, 2018. Grandpa plays a lot of card games with Ruthie maybe people should know.

Stephen Beals’s Adult Children for the 31st depicts mathematics as the stuff of nightmares. (Although it’s not clear to me this is meant to recount a nightmare. Reads like it, anyway.) Calculus, too, which is an interesting choice. Calculus seems to be a breaking point for many people. A lot of people even who were good at algebra or trigonometry find all this talk about differentials and integrals and limits won’t cohere into understanding. Isaac Asimov wrote about this several times, and the sad realization that for as much as he loved mathematics there were big important parts of it that he could not comprehend.

Berle: 'It was just a happy stroll through the gloomy graveyard when suddenly ... ' Spivak's Calculus, 3rd Edition appears. Berle: 'Math jumped out of nowhere!' Harvey: 'Drink it off.'
Stephen Beals’s Adult Children for the 31st of March, 2018. Spivak’s Calculus is one of the standard textbooks for intro students, by the way, although my own education was on James (not that James) Stewart. Spivak’s also noted for a well-regarded guide to TeX, which incidentally used a set of gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns (e[y]/em/eir) that some online communities embraced.

I’m curious why calculus should be such a discontinuity, but the reasons are probably straightforward. It’s a field where you’re less interested in doing things to numbers and more interested in doing things to functions. Or to curves that a function might represent. It’s a field where information about a whole region is important, rather than information about a single point. It’s a field where you can test your intuitive feeling for, say, a limit by calculating a couple of values, but for which those calculations don’t give the right answer. Or at least can’t be guaranteed to be right. I don’t know if the choice of what to represent mathematics was arbitrary. But it was a good choice certainly. (This is another newly-tagged strip.)

Reading the Comics, January 20, 2018: Increased Workload Edition


It wasn’t much of an increased workload, really. I mean, none of the comics required that much explanation. But Comic Strip Master Command donated enough topics to me last week that I have a second essay for the week. And here it is; sorry there’s no pictures.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 17th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons we’ve been waiting for. It returns to fractions and their frustrations for its comic point.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 17th talks about story problems, although not to the extent of actually giving one as an example. It’s more about motivating word-problem work.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 17th is an algebra joke. I’d call it a cousin to the joke about mathematics’s ‘x’ not coming back and we can’t say ‘y’. On the 18th was one mentioning mathematics, although in a joke structure that could have been any subject.

Lorrie Ransom’s The Daily Drawing for the 18th is another name-drop of mathematics. I guess it’s easier to use mathematics as the frame for saying something’s just a “problem”. I don’t think of, say, identifying the themes of a story as a problem in the way that finding the roots of a quadratic is.

Jeffrey Caulfield and Alexandre Rouillard’s Mustard and Boloney for the 18th is an anthropomorphic-geometric-figures joke that I’m all but sure is a rerun I’ve shared here before. I’ll try to remember to check before posting this.

Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler’s WuMo for the 20th gives us a return of the pie chart joke that seems like it’s been absent a while. Worth including? Eh, why not.

Reading the Comics, November 8, 2017: Uses Of Mathematics Edition


Was there an uptick in mathematics-themed comic strips in the syndicated comics this past week? It depends how tight a definition of “theme” you use. I have enough to write about that I’m splitting the week’s load. And I’ve got a follow-up to that Wronski post the other day, so I’m feeling nice and full of content right now. So here goes.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal posted the 5th gets my week off to an annoying start. Science and mathematics and engineering people have a tendency to be smug about their subjects. And to see aptitude or interest in their subjects as virtue, or at least intelligence. (If they see a distinction between virtue and intelligence.) To presume that an interest in the field I like is a demonstration of intelligence is a pretty nasty and arrogant move.

And yes, I also dislike the attitude that school should be about training people. Teaching should be about letting people be literate with the great thoughts people have had. Mathematics has a privileged spot here. The field, as we’ve developed it, seems to build on human aptitudes for number and space. It’s easy to find useful sides to it. Doesn’t mean it’s vocational training.

Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate on the 6th discovered mathematics puzzles. And this gave him the desire to create a new mathematical puzzle that he would use to get rich. Good luck with that. Coming up with interesting enough recreational mathematics puzzles is hard. Presenting it in a way that people will buy is another, possibly greater, challenge. It takes luck and timing and presentation, just as getting a hit song does. Sudoku, for example, spent five years in the Dell Magazine puzzle books before getting a foothold in Japanese newspapers. And then twenty years there before being noticed in the English-speaking puzzle world. Big Nate’s teacher tries to encourage him, although that doesn’t go as Mr Staples might have hoped. (The storyline continues to the 11th. Spoiler: Nate does not invent the next great recreational mathematics puzzle.)

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 7th start out in a mathematics class, at least. I suppose the mathematical content doesn’t matter, though. Mallett’s making a point about questions that, I confess, I’m not sure I get. I’ll leave it for wiser heads to understand.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 8th is a subverted word-problem joke. And I suppose a reminder about the need for word problems to parse as things people would do, or might be interested in. I can’t go along with characterizing buying twelve candy bars “gluttonous” though. Not if they’re in a pack of twelve or something like that. I may be unfair to Grand Avenue. Mind, until a few years ago I was large enough my main method of getting around was “being rolled by Oompa-Loompas”, so I could be a poor judge.

Keith Tutt and Daniel Saunders’s Lard’s World Peace Tips for the 8th does a rounding joke. It’s not much, but I’ve included appearances of this joke before and it seems unfair to skip it this time.

Reading the Comics, September 19, 2017: Visualization Edition


Comic Strip Master Command apparently doesn’t want me talking about the chances of Friday’s Showcase Showdown. They sent me enough of a flood of mathematically-themed strips that I don’t know when I’ll have the time to talk about the probability of that episode. (The three contestants spinning the wheel all tied, each spinning $1.00. And then in the spin-off, two of the three contestants also spun $1.00. And this after what was already a perfect show, in which the contestants won all six of the pricing games.) Well, I’ll do what comic strips I can this time, and carry on the last week of the Summer 2017 A To Z project, and we’ll see if I can say anything timely for Thursday or Saturday or so.

Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 17th is a joke about the student embarrassing the teacher. It uses mathematics vocabulary for the specifics. And it does depict one of those moments that never stops, as you learn mathematics. There’s always more vocabulary. There’s good reasons to have so much vocabulary. Having names for things seems to make them easier to work with. We can bundle together ideas about what a thing is like, and what it may do, under a name. I suppose the trouble is that we’ve accepted a convention that we should define terms before we use them. It’s nice, like having the dramatis personae listed at the start of the play. But having that list isn’t the same as saying why anyone should care. I don’t know how to balance the need to make clear up front what one means and the need to not bury someone under a heap of similar-sounding names.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 17th is another puzzle drawn from arithmetic. Look at it now if you want to have the fun of working it out, as I can’t think of anything to say about it that doesn’t spoil how the trick is done. The top commenter does have a suggestion about how to do the problem by breaking one of the unstated assumptions in the problem. This is the kind of puzzle created for people who want to motivate talking about parity or equivalence classes. It’s neat when you can say something of substance about a problem using simple information, though.

'How are you and David doing?' 'Better, with counseling.' (As Ben takes his drink bottle.) 'But sometimes he still clings to hope that Ben's autism is 'curable'. Admittedly, I've wondered that myself. Then Ben strips naked and solves a trigonometry problem.' 'Whoa.' (Ben throws his drink bottle in the air and says) 'A = (1/2)(4)(2) sin 45 deg.'
Terri Libenson’s Pajama Diaries for the 18th of September, 2017. When I first read this I assumed that of course the base of the triangle had length 4 and the second leg, at a 45-degree angle to that, had length 2, and I wondered if those numbers could be consistent for a triangle to exist. Of course they could, though. There is a bit of fun to be had working out whether a particular triangle could exist from knowing its side lengths, though.

Terri Libenson’s Pajama Diaries for the 18th uses trigonometry as the marker for deep thinking. It comes complete with a coherent equation, too. It gives the area of a triangle with two legs that meet at a 45 degree angle. I admit I am uncomfortable with promoting the idea that people who are autistic have some super-reasoning powers. (Also with the pop-culture idea that someone who spots things others don’t is probably at least a bit autistic.) I understand wanting to think someone’s troubles have some compensation. But people are who they are; it’s not like they need to observe some “balance”.

Lee Falk and Wilson McCoy’s The Phantom for the 10th of August, 1950 was rerun Monday. It’s a side bit of joking about between stories. And it uses knowledge of mathematics — and an interest in relativity — as signifier of civilization. I can only hope King Hano does better learning tensors on his own than I do.

Guest Woman: 'Did you know the King was having trouble controlling the young hotheads in his own tribe?' Phantom: 'Yes. He's an old friend of mine. He probably looks like an ignorant savage to you. Actually, he speaks seven languages, is an expert mathematician, and plays a fine hand of poker.' Guest Woman: 'What?' Cut to the King, in his hut, reading The Theory Of Relativity. 'Thank goodness that's over ... Now where was I?'
Lee Falk and Wilson McCoy’s The Phantom for the 10th of August, 1950 and rerun the 18th of September, 2017. For my money, just reading a mathematics book doesn’t take. I need to take notes, as if it were in class. I don’t quite copy the book, but it comes close.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 18th goes back to classrooms and stuff for clever answers that subvert the teacher. And I notice, per the title given this edition, that the teacher’s trying to make the abstractness of three minus two tangible, by giving it an example. Which pairs it with …

Will Henry’s Wallace the Brace for the 18th, wherein Wallace asserts that arithmetic is easier if you visualize real things. I agree it seems to help with stuff like basic arithmetic. I wouldn’t want to try taking the cosine of an apple, though. Separating the quantity of a thing from the kind of thing measured is one of those subtle breakthroughs. It’s one of the ways that, for example, modern calculations differ from those of the Ancient Greeks. But it does mean thinking of numbers in, we’d say, a more abstract way than they did, and in a way that seems to tax us more.

Wallace the Brave recently had a book collection published, by the way. I mention because this is one of a handful of comics with a character who likes pinball, and more, who really really loves the Williams game FunHouse. This is an utterly correct choice for favorite pinball game. It’s one of the games that made me a pinball enthusiast.

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics rerun for the 19th I mention on loose grounds. In it T-Rex suggests trying out an alternate model for how gravity works. The idea, of what seems to be gravity “really” being the shade cast by massive objects in a particle storm, was explored in the late 17th and early 18th century. It avoids the problem of not being able to quite say what propagates gravitational attraction. But it also doesn’t work, analytically. We would see the planets orbit differently if this were how gravity worked. And there’s the problem about mass and energy absorption, as pointed out in the comic. But it can often be interesting or productive to play with models that don’t work. You might learn something about models that do, or that could.

Reading the Comics, August 26, 2017: Dragon Edition


It’s another week where everything I have to talk about comes from GoComics.com. So, no pictures. The Comics Kingdom and the Creators.com strips are harder for non-subscribers to read so I feel better including those pictures. There’s not an overarching theme that I can fit to this week’s strips either, so I’m going to name it for the one that was most visually interesting to me.

Charlie Pondrebarac’s CowTown for the 22nd I just knew was a rerun. It turned up the 26th of August, 2015. Back then I described it as also “every graduate students’ thesis defense anxiety dream”. Now I wonder if I have the possessive apostrophe in the right place there. On reflection, if I have “every” there, then “graduate student” has to be singular. If I dropped the “every” then I could talk about “graduate students” in the plural and be sensible. I guess that’s all for a different blog to answer.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 22nd threatened to get me all cranky again, as Grandmom decided the kids needed to do arithmetic worksheets over the summer. The strip earned bad attention from me a few years ago when a week, maybe more, of the strip was focused on making sure the kids drudged their way through times tables. I grant it’s a true attitude that some people figure what kids need is to do a lot of arithmetic problems so they get better at arithmetic problems. But it’s hard enough to convince someone that arithmetic problems are worth doing, and to make them chores isn’t helping.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 22nd name-drops fractions as a worse challenge than dragon-slaying. I’m including it here for the cool partial picture of the fire-breathing dragon. Also I take a skeptical view of the value of slaying the dragons anyway. Have they given enough time for sanctions to work?

Maria’s Day pops back in the 24th. Needs more dragon-slaying.

Eric the Circle for the 24th, this one by Dennill, gets in here by throwing some casual talk about arcs around. That and π. The given formula looks like nonsense to me. \frac{pi}{180}\cdot 94 - sin 94\deg has parts that make sense. The first part will tell you what radian measure corresponds to 94 degrees, and that’s fine. Mathematicians will tend to look for radian measures rather than degrees for serious work. The sine of 94 degrees they might want to know. Subtracting the two? I don’t see the point. I dare to say this might be a bunch of silliness.

Cathy Law’s Claw for the 25th writes off another Powerball lottery loss as being bad at math and how it’s like algebra. Seeing algebra in lottery tickets is a kind of badness at mathematics, yes. It’s probability, after all. Merely playing can be defended mathematically, though, at least for the extremely large jackpots such as the Powerball had last week. If the payout is around 750 million dollars (as it was) and the chance of winning is about one in 250 million (close enough to true), then the expectation value of playing a ticket is about three dollars. If the ticket costs less than three dollars (and it does; I forget if it’s one or two dollars, but it’s certainly not three), then, on average you could expect to come out slightly ahead. Therefore it makes sense to play.

Except that, of course, it doesn’t make sense to play. On average you’ll lose the cost of the ticket. The on-average long-run you need to expect to come out ahead is millions of tickets deep. The chance of any ticket winning is about one in 250 million. You need to play a couple hundred million times to get a good enough chance of the jackpot for it to really be worth it. Therefore it makes no sense to play.

Mathematical logic therefore fails us: we can justify both playing and not playing. We must study lottery tickets as a different thing. They are (for the purposes of this) entertainment, something for a bit of disposable income. Are they worth the dollar or two per ticket? Did you have other plans for the money that would be more enjoyable? That’s not my ruling to make.

Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse for the 25th just hurts my feelings. Why the harsh word, Samson? Anyway, it’s playing on the typographic similarity between 0 and O, and how we bunch digits together.

Grouping together three decimal digits as a block is as old, in the Western tradition, as decimal digits are. Leonardo of Pisa, in Liber Abbaci, groups the thousands and millions and thousands of millions and such together. By 1228 he had the idea to note this grouping with an arc above the set of digits, like a tie between notes on a sheet of music. This got cut down, part of the struggle in notation to write as little as possible. Johannes de Sacrobosco in 1256 proposed just putting a dot every third digit. In 1636 Thomas Blundeville put a | mark after every third digit. (I take all this, as ever, from Florian Cajori’s A History Of Mathematical Notations, because it’s got like everything in it.) We eventually settled on separating these stanzas of digits with a , or . mark. But that it should be three digits goes as far back as it could.

Reading the Comics, January 7, 2016: Just Before GoComics Breaks Everything Edition


Most of the comics I review here are printed on GoComics.com. Well, most of the comics I read online are from there. But even so I think they have more comic strips that mention mathematical themes. Anyway, they’re unleashing a complete web site redesign on Monday. I don’t know just what the final version will look like. I know that the beta versions included the incredibly useful, that is to say dumb, feature where if a particular comic you do read doesn’t have an update for the day — and many of them don’t, as they’re weekly or three-times-a-week or so — then it’ll show some other comic in its place. I mean, the idea of encouraging people to find new comics is a good one. To some extent that’s what I do here. But the beta made no distinction between “comic you don’t read because you never heard of Microcosm” and “comic you don’t read because glancing at it makes your eyes bleed”. And on an idiosyncratic note, I read a lot of comics. I don’t need to see Dude and Dude reruns in fourteen spots on my daily comics page, even if I didn’t mind it to start.

Anyway. I am hoping, desperately hoping, that with the new site all my old links to comics are going to keep working. If they don’t then I suppose I’m just ruined. We’ll see. My suggestion is if you’re at all curious about the comics you read them today (Sunday) just to be safe.

Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots is a curious little strip I never knew of until GoComics picked it up a few years ago. Its format is compellingly simple: a little illustration alongside a wry, often despairing, caption. I love it, but I also understand why was the subject of endless queries to the Detroit Free Press (Or Whatever) about why was this thing taking up newspaper space. The strip rerun the 31st of December is a typical example of the strip and amuses me at least. And it uses arithmetic as the way to communicate reasoning, both good and bad. Brilliant’s joke does address something that logicians have to face, too. Whether an argument is logically valid depends entirely on its structure. If the form is correct the reasoning may be excellent. But to be sound an argument has to be correct and must also have its assumptions be true. We can separate whether an argument is right from whether it could ever possibly be right. If you don’t see the value in that, you have never participated in an online debate about where James T Kirk was born and whether Spock was the first Vulcan in Star Fleet.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains for the 2nd of January, 2017, is a loaded-dice joke. Is this truly mathematics? Statistics, at least? Close enough for the start of the year, I suppose. Working out whether a die is loaded is one of the things any gambler would like to know, and that mathematicians might be called upon to identify or exploit. (I had a grandmother unshakably convinced that I would have some natural ability to beat the Atlantic City casinos if she could only sneak the underaged me in. I doubt I could do anything of value there besides see the stage magic show.)

Jack Pullan’s Boomerangs rerun for the 2nd is built on the one bit of statistical mechanics that everybody knows, that something or other about entropy always increasing. It’s not a quantum mechanics rule, but it’s a natural confusion. Quantum mechanics has the reputation as the source of all the most solid, irrefutable laws of the universe’s working. Statistical mechanics and thermodynamics have this musty odor of 19th-century steam engines, no matter how much there is to learn from there. Anyway, the collapse of systems into disorder is not an irrevocable thing. It takes only energy or luck to overcome disorderliness. And in many cases we can substitute time for luck.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 3rd is the anthropomorphic-geometry-figure joke that’s I’ve been waiting for. I had thought Hilburn did this all the time, although a quick review of Reading the Comics posts suggests he’s been more about anthropomorphic numerals the past year. This is why I log even the boring strips: you never know when I’ll need to check the last time Scott Hilburn used “acute” to mean “cute” in reference to triangles.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue uses some arithmetic as the visual cue for “any old kind of schoolwork, really”. Steve Breen’s name seems to have gone entirely from the comic strip. On Usenet group rec.arts.comics.strips Brian Henke found that Breen’s name hasn’t actually been on the comic strip since May, and D D Degg found a July 2014 interview indicating Thompson had mostly taken the strip over from originator Breen.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 5th is another name-drop that doesn’t have any real mathematics content. But come on, we’re talking Andertoons here. If I skipped it the world might end or something untoward like that.

'Now for my math homework. I've got a comfortable chair, a good light, plenty of paper, a sharp pencil, a new eraser, and a terrific urge to go out and play some ball.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 14th of November, 1977, and reprinted the 7th of January, 2017. I kind of remember having a lamp like that. I don’t remember ever sitting down to do my mathematics homework with a paintbrush.

Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 14th of November, 1977, doesn’t have any mathematical content really. Just a mention. But I need some kind of visual appeal for this essay and Shearer is usually good for that.

Corey Pandolph, Phil Frank, and Joe Troise’s The Elderberries rerun for the 7th is also a very marginal mention. But, what the heck, it’s got some of your standard wordplay about angles and it’ll get this week’s essay that much closer to 800 words.