## Reading the Comics, April 1, 2017: Connotations Edition

Last week ended with another little string of mathematically-themed comic strips. Most of them invited, to me, talk about the cultural significance of mathematics and what connotations they have. So, this title for an artless essay.

Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County 2017 for the 28th of March uses “two plus two equals” as the definitive, inarguable truth. It always seems to be “two plus two”, doesn’t it? Never “two plus three”, never “three plus three”. I suppose I’ve sometimes seen “one plus one” or “two times two”. It’s easy to see why it should be a simple arithmetic problem, nothing with complicated subtraction or division or numbers as big as six. Maybe the percussive alliteration of those repeated two’s drives the phrase’s success. But then why doesn’t “two times two” show up nearly as often? Maybe the phrase isn’t iambic enough. “Two plus two” allows (to my ear) the “plus” sink in emphasis, while “times” stays a little too prominent. We need a wordsmith in to explore it. (I’m open to other hypotheses, including that “two times two” gets used more than my impression says.)

Christiann MacAuley’s Sticky Comics for the 28th uses mathematics as the generic “more interesting than people” thing that nerds think about. The thing being thought of there is the Mandelbrot Set. It’s built on complex-valued numbers. Pick a complex number, any you like; that’s called ‘C’. Square the number and add ‘C’ back to itself. This will be some new complex-valued number. Square that new number and add the original ‘C’ back to it again. Square that new number and add the original ‘C’ back once more. And keep at this. There are two things that might happen. These squared numbers might keep growing infinitely large. They might be negative, or imaginary, or (most likely) complex-valued, but their size keeps growing. Or these squared numbers might not grow arbitrarily large. The Mandelbrot Set is the collection of ‘C’ values for which the numbers don’t just keep growing in size. That’s the sort of lumpy kidney bean shape with circles and lightning bolts growing off it that you saw on every pop mathematics book during the Great Fractal Boom of the 80s and 90s. There’s almost no point working it out in your head; the great stuff about fractals almost requires a computer. They take a lot of computation. But if you’re just avoiding conversation, well, anything will do.

Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 29th riffs on the universe-as-simulation hypothesis. It’s one of those ideas that catches the mind and is hard to refute as long as we don’t talk to the people in the philosophy department, which we’re secretly scared of. Anyway the comic shows one of the classic uses of statistical modeling: try out a number of variations of a model in the hopes of understanding real-world behavior. This is an often-useful way to balance how the real world has stuff going on that’s important and that we don’t know about, or don’t know how to handle exactly.

Mason Mastroianni’s The Wizard of Id for the 31st uses a sprawl of arithmetic as symbol of … well, of status, really. The sort of thing that marks someone a white-collar criminal. I suppose it also fits with the suggestion of magic that accompanies huge sprawls of mathematical reasoning. Bundle enough symbols together and it looks like something only the intellectual aristocracy, or at least secret cabal, could hope to read.

Bob Shannon’s Tough Town for the 1st name-drops arithmetic. And shows off the attitude that anyone we find repulsive must also be stupid, as proven by their being bad at arithmetic. I admit to having no discernable feelings about the Kardashians; but I wouldn’t be so foolish as to conflate intelligence and skill-at-arithmetic.

• #### elkement (Elke Stangl) 3:24 pm on Thursday, 20 April, 2017 Permalink | Reply

I am replying to the previous post (March statistics) – as nothing happened when I clicked on the reply button at that post. But maybe this is related to what I actually wanted to comment about:

Your table is displayed at the bottom of the page – below ‘Related’, the comment box, and the previous/next posting links! How did you do this? You totally hacked WordPress ;-)

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• #### elkement (Elke Stangl) 3:25 pm on Thursday, 20 April, 2017 Permalink | Reply

OK – so that reply could be posted. As I said, with your table you confused WordPress a lot :-)

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• #### Joseph Nebus 2:44 am on Tuesday, 25 April, 2017 Permalink | Reply

I’m just surprised it’s so easy to confuse it!

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• #### Joseph Nebus 2:43 am on Tuesday, 25 April, 2017 Permalink | Reply

Huh, and that’s curious. I didn’t realize it and must not have looked close enough at the preview.

It looks like the fault is that I failed to close the table tag, so WordPress tried to fit the rest of the page in-between the tbody and the end of the table and goodness knows how it worked out that presentation.

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

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

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

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

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

George McManus’s _Bringing Up Father_, originally run the 12th of April, 1949.

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

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

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

• #### ivasallay 8:15 pm on Monday, 18 August, 2014 Permalink | Reply

I LOVED the binary joke!

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• #### Thomas Anderson 6:34 pm on Tuesday, 19 August, 2014 Permalink | Reply

SMBC is one of those webcomics that I read most every day, and some days I get caught up in reading the backlog that I don’t get anything else done. I love it so much.

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• #### Joseph Nebus 3:28 pm on Wednesday, 20 August, 2014 Permalink | Reply

I’m glad you enjoy it so. I haven’t been reading it, but that’s just a reflection of my having some strikingly old-fashioned habits about comic strips.

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• #### Joseph Nebus 3:27 pm on Wednesday, 20 August, 2014 Permalink | Reply

Aw, I’m glad to have shared it with you, then.

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• #### elkement 9:09 am on Sunday, 24 August, 2014 Permalink | Reply

A lot of jokes like the ‘Physicists would be lousy firemen’ could be / are created along the same lines I guess – physicists explaining everyday things too complicated or not in an appropriate way :-)
But I like this joke a lot – the essence of the statistical character of physical properties dealt with in thermodynamics covered by a simple cartoon.

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• #### Joseph Nebus 8:37 pm on Tuesday, 26 August, 2014 Permalink | Reply

Oh, certainly. I suppose there’s always going to be some humor in having things explained in such precise technical terms that the everyday becomes confusing. And professions are going to blend together at some point too; I could imagine a lawyer choosing to describe a fire in almost the same way.

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## Reading the Comics, July 24, 2014: Math Is Just Hard Stuff, Right? Edition

Maybe there is no pattern to how Comic Strip Master Command directs the making of mathematics-themed comic strips. It hasn’t quite been a week since I had enough to gather up again. But it’s clearly the summertime anyway; the most common theme this time seems to be just that mathematics is some hard stuff, without digging much into particular subjects. I can work with that.

Pab Sungenis’s The New Adventures of Queen Victoria (July 19) brings in Erwin Schrödinger and his in-strip cat Barfly for a knock-knock joke about proof, with Andrew Wiles’s name dropped probably because he’s the only person who’s gotten to be famous for a mathematical proof. Wiles certainly deserves fame for proving Fermat’s Last Theorem and opening up what I understand to be a useful new field for mathematical research (Fermat’s Last Theorem by itself is nice but unimportant; the tools developed to prove it, though, that’s worthwhile), but remembering only Wiles does slight Richard Taylor, whose help Wiles needed to close a flaw in his proof.

Incidentally I don’t know why the cat is named Barfly. It has the feel to me of a name that was a punchline for one strip and then Sungenis felt stuck with it. As Thomas Dye of the web comic Newshounds said, “Joke names’ll kill you”. (I’m inclined to think that funny names can work, as the Marx Brotehrs, Fred Allen, and Vic and Sade did well with them, but they have to be a less demanding kind of funny.)

John Deering’s Strange Brew (July 19) uses a panel full of mathematical symbols scrawled out as the representation of “this is something really hard being worked out”. I suppose this one could also be filed under “rocket science themed comics”, but it comes from almost the first problem of mathematical physics: if you shoot something straight up, how long will it take to fall back down? The faster the thing starts up, the longer it takes to fall back, until at some speed — the escape velocity — it never comes back. This is because the size of the gravitational attraction between two things decreases as they get farther apart. At or above the escape velocity, the thing has enough speed that all the pulling of gravity, from the planet or moon or whatever you’re escaping from, will not suffice to slow the thing down to a stop and make it fall back down.

The escape velocity depends on the size of the planet or moon or sun or galaxy or whatever you’re escaping from, of course, and how close to the surface (or center) you start from. It also assumes you’re talking about the speed when the thing starts flying away, that is, that the thing doesn’t fire rockets or get a speed boost by flying past another planet or anything like that. And things don’t have to reach the escape velocity to be useful. Nothing that’s in earth orbit has reached the earth’s escape velocity, for example. I suppose that last case is akin to how you can still get some stuff done without getting out of the recliner.

Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures (July 21) uses mathematics as the standard for proving intelligence exists. I’ve got a vested interest in supporting that proposition, but I can’t bring myself to say more than that it shows a particular kind of intelligence exists. I appreciate the equation of the final panel, though, as it can be pretty well generalized.

Bill Holbrook’s _Safe Havens_ for the 22nd of July, 2014.

Bill Holbrook’s Safe Havens (July 22) plays on mathematics’ reputation of being not very much a crowd-pleasing activity. That’s all right, although I think Holbrook makes a mistake by having the arena claim to offer a “lecture on the actual odds of beating the casino”, since the mathematics of gambling is just the sort of mathematics I think would draw a crowd. Probability enjoys a particular sweet spot for popular treatment: many problems don’t require great amounts of background to understand, and have results that are surprising, but which have reasons that are easy to follow and don’t require sophisticated arguments, and are about problems that are easy to imagine or easy to find interesting: cards being drawn, dice being rolled, coincidences being found, or secrets being revealed. I understand Holbrook’s editorial cartoon-type point behind the lecture notice he put up, but the venue would have better scared off audiences if it offered a lecture on, say, “Chromatic polynomials for rigidly achiral graphs: new work on Yamada’s invariant”. I’m not sure I could even explain that title in 1200 words.

Missy Meyer’s Holiday Doodles (July 22) revelas to me that apparently the 22nd of July was “Casual Pi Day”. Yeah, I suppose that passes. I didn’t see much about it in my Twitter feed, but maybe I need some more acquaintances who don’t write dates American-fashion.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains (July 24) again uses mathematics — particularly, Calculus — as not just the marker for intelligence but also as The Thing which will decide whether a kid goes on to success in life. I think the dolphin (I guess it’s a dolphin?) parent is being particularly horrible here, as it’s not as if a “B+” is in any way a grade to be ashamed of, and telling kids it is either drives them to give up on caring about grades, or makes them send whiny e-mails to their instructors about how they need this grade and don’t understand why they can’t just do some make-up work for it. Anyway, it makes the kid miserable, it makes the kid’s teachers or professors miserable, and for crying out loud, it’s a B+.

(I’m also not sure whether a dolphin would consider a career at Sea World success in life, but that’s a separate and very sad issue.)

• #### BunnyHugger 7:40 pm on Thursday, 24 July, 2014 Permalink | Reply

I take Holbrook’s point not as “math is unpopular” but as “math is an anathema to gamblers” — because it demonstrates that their behavior is irrational, while they prefer to hold on to superstition and vain hope.

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• #### Joseph Nebus 8:13 pm on Saturday, 26 July, 2014 Permalink | Reply

I think that you’re right about Holbrook’s point.

But I suspect the claimed lecture title would still attract gamblers, out of a belief that if they knew a little more about how the industry works then they’d be able to beat the house. The belief may be irrational but it’s hard to fight, and sometimes (as with various Blackjack card-counting schemes) it even pays out.

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• #### Donna 1:47 am on Sunday, 27 July, 2014 Permalink | Reply

My friend Vanessa put casual pi day in her Facebook feed. Does that help? I didn’t know about this before this year. I can get you guys to friend each other if need be. She’s also a math prof.

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• #### Joseph Nebus 8:17 pm on Sunday, 27 July, 2014 Permalink | Reply

Helps some, sure. I don’t have any particular reason to disapprove of Casual Pi day, ahouth I suppose it’s worse-timed for fitting into classes than the fourteenth of March will be.

And, thank you, although I haven’t gotten on Facebook yet. I’m still getting Twitter to make sense, I’m afraid.

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• #### Donna 1:48 am on Sunday, 27 July, 2014 Permalink | Reply

Oh, and I’m so glad I guessed my wordpress password… hmmm maybe it’s not too secure after all…

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• #### Joseph Nebus 8:18 pm on Sunday, 27 July, 2014 Permalink | Reply

Well, if nobody else guessed it first, that’s as secure as it needs to be, isn’t it?

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• #### elkement 9:02 am on Sunday, 3 August, 2014 Permalink | Reply

“Barfly” looks like “Garfield” – isn’t that a copyright issue? (I did not research any background, such as if both cartoons are perhaps created by the same illustrator so it is maybe a stupid comment…)

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• #### Joseph Nebus 6:39 am on Monday, 4 August, 2014 Permalink | Reply

Yeah, “Barfly” is just Garfield, and there’s no connection I’m aware of between the Queen Victoria cartoonist and the Garfield owners. Possibly Pab Sugenis uses an image that was given out for free use for publicity purposes. Possibly the original use of the character was for satirical purposes (I could easily imagine making a joke about Garfield repeating the same pose for the characters over and over, since the comic strip does do that), which would make Barfly at least start out as a fair use. Possibly Sugenis just figures, if they were going to sue him, they’d have done it by now, so what’s he got to lose? Those big web-cartoonist paychecks?

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