And then I noticed there were a bunch of comic strips with some kind of mathematical theme on the same day. Always fun when that happens.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack uses one of Holbrook’s common motifs. That’s the depicting as literal some common metaphor. in this case it’s “massaging the numbers”, which might seem not strictly mathematics. But while numbers are interesting, they’re also useful. To be useful they must connect to something we want to know. They need context. That context is always something of human judgement. If the context seems inappropriate to the listener, she thinks the presenter is massaging the numbers. If the context seems fine, we trust the numbers as showing something truth.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater is a seasonal pun that couldn’t wait for a day closer to Christmas. I’m a little curious why not. It would be the same joke with any subject, certainly. The strip did make me wonder if Ebeneezer Scrooge, in-universe, might have taken calculus. This lead me to see that it’s a bit vague what, precisely, Scrooge, or Scrooge-and-Marley, did. The movies are glad to position him as having a warehouse, and importing and exporting things, and making and collecting on loans and whatnot. These are all trades that mathematicians would like to think benefit from knowing advanced mathematics. The logic of making loans implies attention be paid to compounding interest, risks, and expectation values, as well as projecting cash-flow a fair bit into the future. But in the original text he doesn’t make any stated loans, and the only warehouse anyone enters is Fezziwig’s. Well, the Scrooge and Marley sign stands “above the warehouse door”, but we only ever go in to the counting-house. And yes, what Scrooge does besides gather money and misery is irrelevant to the setting of the story.
Teresa Burritt’s Dadaist strip Frog Applause uses knowledge of mathematics as an emblem of intelligence. “Multivariate analysis” is a term of art from statistics. It’s about measuring how one variable changes depending on two or more other variables. The goal is obvious: we know there are many things that influence anything of interest. Can we find what things have the strongest effects? The weakest effects? There are several ways we might mean “strongest” effect, too. It might mean that a small change in the independent variable produces a big change in the dependent one. Or it might mean that there’s very little noise, that a change in the independent variable produces a reliable change in the dependent one. Or we might have several variables that are difficult to measure precisely on their own, but with a combination that’s noticeable. The basic calculations for this look a lot like those for single-variable analysis. But there’s much more calculation. It’s more tedious, at least. My reading suggests that multivariate analysis didn’t develop much until there were computers cheap enough to do the calculations. Might be coincidence, though. Many machine-learning techniques can be described as multivariate analysis problems.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn is a Pi Day joke from before the time when Pi Day was a thing. Brad’s magazine flipping like that is an unusual bit of throwaway background humor for the comic strip.
There was something in common in two of the last five comic strips worth attention from last week. That’s good enough to give the essay its name.
Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 8th showcases Toby discovering the point of letters in algebra. It’s easy to laugh at him being ignorant. But the use of letters this way is something it’s easy to miss. You need first to realize that we don’t need to have a single way to represent a number. Which is implicit in learning, say, that you can write ‘7’ as the Roman numeral ‘VII’ or so, but I’m not sure that’s always clear. And realizing that you could use any symbol to write out ‘7’ if you agree that’s what the symbol means? That’s an abstraction tossed onto people who often aren’t really up for that kind of abstraction. And that we can have a symbol for “a number whose identity we don’t yet know”? Or even “a number whose identity we don’t care about”? Don’t blame someone for rearing back in confusion at this.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 8th talks about vectors and scalars. And about the little ways that instructors in one subject can sabotage one another. In grad school I was witness to the mathematics department feeling quite put-upon by the engineering departments, who thought we were giving their students inadequate calculus training. Meanwhile we couldn’t figure out what they were telling students about calculus except that it was screwing up their understanding.
To a physicist, a vector is a size and a direction together. (At least until they get seriously into mathematical physics when they need a more abstract idea.) A scalar is a number. Like, a real-valued number such as ‘4’. Maybe a complex-valued number such as ‘4 + 6i’. Vectors are great because a lot of physics problems become easier when thought of in terms of directions and amounts in that direction.
A mathematician would start out with vectors and scalars like that. But then she’d move into a more abstract idea. A vector, to a mathematician, is a thing you can add to another vector and get a vector out. A scalar is something that’s not a vector but that, multiplied by a vector, gets you a vector out. This sounds circular. But by defining ‘vector’ and ‘scalar’ in how they interact with each other we get a really sweet flexibility. We can use the same reasoning — and the same proofs — for lots of things. Directions, yes. But also matrices, and continuous functions, and probabilities of events, and more. That’s a bit much to give the engineering student who’s trying to work out some problem about … I don’t know. Whatever they do over in that department. Truss bridges or electrical circuits or something.
Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy for the 9th is really about misheard song lyrics, a subject that will never die now that we don’t have the space to print lyrics in the album lining anymore, or album linings. But it has a joke resonant with that of The Buckets, in supposing that algebra is just some bunch of letters mixed up with numbers. And Cow and Boy was always a strip I loved, as baffling as it might be to a casual reader. It had a staggering number of running jokes, although not in this installment.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 9th shows Brad happy to work out arithmetic when it’s for something he’d like to know. The figure Luan gives is ridiculously high, though. If he needs 500 hairs, and one new hair grows in each week, then that’s a little under ten years’ worth of growth. Nine years and a bit over seven months to be exact. If a moustache hair needs to be a half-inch long, and it grows at 1/8th of an inch per month, then it takes four months to be sufficiently long. So in the slowest possible state it’d be nine years, eleven months. I can chalk Luann’s answer up to being snidely pessimistic about his hair growth. But his calculator seems to agree and that suggests something went wrong along the way.
John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 9th is a story problem joke. It looks to me like a reasonable story problem, too: the distance travelled and the speed are reasonable, and give sensible numbers. The two stops add a bit of complication that doesn’t seem out of line. And the kid’s confusion is fair enough. It takes some experience to realize that the problem splits into an easy part, a hard part, and an easy part. The first easy part is how long the stops take all together. That’s 25 minutes. The hard part is realizing that if you want to know the total travel time it doesn’t matter when the stops are. You can find the total travel time by adding together the time spent stopped with the time spent driving. And the other easy part is working out how long it takes to go 80 miles if you travel at 55 miles per hour. That’s just a division. So find that and add to it the 25 minutes spent at the two stops.
I’d like to add something to my roundup up of last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. That thing is a reminder that I’m hosting this month’s Playful Mathematics Education Carnival. It’ll post the last week of September. If you’ve recently seen pages that teach, that play games, that show any kind of mathematics that makes you smile, please, let me know. It’s worth sharing with more people.
Tom Gammill’s The Doozies for the 6th is the Venn Diagrams joke for the week. It’s only a two-circle diagram, but the comic strip hasn’t got that large a cast. And, really, would be hard to stage in a way that made the joke communicable with three or four participants.
Is that superhuman? Well, obviously, literally not. But it’s beyond what most of us could imagine doing. I admit I can’t imagine keeping anything straight in my head for nine hours. But. The basic rules of addition aren’t that exotic. Even a process like finding square roots can be done as additions and divisions and multiplications. Much of what makes this look hard is memory. How do you keep track of a hundred or so partial results each of a hundred or so digits? Much of what else is hard is persistence. How do you keep going after the seventh hour of this? And both are traits that you can develop, and practice, and at least get a little better on.
Or bypass the hard work. If asked 235 plus 747 I’d at least answer “a bit under a thousand”, which isn’t bad for an instant answer. 235 is a little under 250; 747 a little under 750; and 250 plus 750 is easy. Rewrite 235 as 250 – 15, and 747 as 750 – 3, and you have this: 235 + 747 is 250 + 750 – 15 – 3. So that’s 1000 minus 18. 982, pretty attainable. This takes practice. It amounts to learning how to spot an easy problem that looks like the question you actually have.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 7th shows a date living up to its potential as a fiasco. But it’s not a surprise Gunther finds himself comfortable talking trigonometry. The subject is not one that most people find cozy. I’d guess most people on introduction see it as some weird hybrid that fuses the impenetrable diagrams of geometry with the baffling formulas of algebra.
But there’s comfort in it, especially to a particular personality type. There are a lot of obscure things making up trigonometry. But there’s this beauty, too. All the basic trigonometry functions are tied together in neat little pairs and triplets. Formulas connect the properties of an angle with those of its half and its double. There’s a great many identities, particular calculations that have the same value for every angle.
You can say that about anything, of course. Any topic humans study has endless fascination. What makes mathematical fields comfortable? For one, that they promise this certain knowability. Trigonometry has a jillion definitions and rules and identities and all that. But that means you have a great many things of absolute reliability. They offer this certainty that even “hard” sciences like physics don’t have. Far more security than you see with the difficult sciences, like biology or sociology. And true dependability, compared to the mystifying and obscure rules of interacting with other humans. If you don’t feel you know how to be with people, and don’t feel like you could ever learn, a cosecant is at least something you can master.
And it’s not always fair to say that the gods mock any plans made by humans, but Comic Strip Master Command has been doing its best to break me of reading and commenting on any comic strip with a mathematical theme. I grant that I could make things a little easier if I demanded more from a comic strip before including it here. But even if I think a theme is slight that doesn’t mean the reader does, and it’s easy to let the eye drop to the next paragraph if the reader does think it’s too slight. The anthology nature of these posts is part of what works for them. And then sometimes Comic Strip Master Command sends me a day like last Sunday when everybody was putting in some bit of mathematics. There’ll be another essay on the past week’s strips, never fear. But today’s is just for the single day.
Susan Camilleri Konar’s Six Chix for the 11th illustrates the Lemniscate Family. The lemniscate is a shape well known as the curve made by a bit of water inside a narrow tube by people who’ve confused it with a meniscus. An actual lemniscate is, as the chain of pointing fingers suggests, a figure-eight shape. You get — well, I got — introduced to them in prealgebra. They’re shapes really easy to describe in polar coordinates but a pain to describe in Cartesian coordinates. There are several different kinds of lemniscates, each satisfying slightly different conditions while looking roughly like a figure eight. If you’re open to the two lobes of the shape not being the same size there’s even a kind of famous-ish lemniscate called the analemma. This is the figure traced out by the sun if you look at its position from a set point on the surface of the Earth at the same clock time each day over the course of the year. That the sun moves north and south from the horizon is easy to spot. That it is sometimes east or west of some reference spot is a surprise. It shows the difference between the movement of the mean sun, the sun as we’d see it if the Earth had a perfectly circular orbit, and the messy actual thing. Dr Helmer Aslasken has a fine piece about this, and how it affects when the sun rises earliest and latest in the year.
There’s also a thing called the “polynomial lemniscate”. This is a level curve of a polynomial. That is, what are all the possible values of the independent variable which cause the polynomial to evaluate to some particular number? This is going to be a polynomial in a complex-valued variable, in order to get one or more closed and (often) wriggly loops. A polynomial of a real-valued variable would typically give you a boring shape. There’s a bunch of these polynomial lemniscates that approximate the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set, that fractal that you know from your mathematics friend’s wall in 1992.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons took care of being Mark Anderson’s Andertoons early in the week. It’s a bit of optimistic blackboard work.
Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate features the formula for calculating the wind chill factor. Francis reads out what is legitimately the formula for estimating the wind chill temperature. I’m not going to get into whether the wind chill formula makes sense as a concept because I’m not crazy. The thinking behind it is that a windless temperature feels about the same as a different temperature with a particular wind. How one evaluates those equivalences offers a lot of room for debate. The formula as the National Weather Service, and Francis, offer looks frightening, but isn’t really hard. It’s not a polynomial, in terms of temperature and wind speed, but it’s close to that in form. The strip is rerun from the 15th of February, 2009, as Lincoln Pierce has had some not-publicly-revealed problem taking him away from the comic for about a month and a half now.
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley included a couple of mathematics formulas, including the famous E = mc2 and the slightly less famous πr2, as part of Walt Wallet’s fantasy of advising scientists and inventors. (Scientists have already heard both.) There’s a curious stray bit in the corner, writing out 6.626 x 102 x 3 that I wonder about. 6.626 is the first couple digits of Planck’s Constant, as measured in Joule-seconds. (This is h, not h-bar, I say for the person about to complain.) It’d be reasonable for Scancarelli to have drawn that out of a physics book or reference page. But the exponent is all wrong, even if you suppose he mis-wrote 1023. It should be 6.626 x 10-34. So I don’t know whether Scancarelli got things very garbled, or if he just picked a nice sciencey-looking number and happened to hit on a significant one. (There’s enough significant science numbers that he’d have a fair chance of finding something.) The strip is a reprint from the 4th of February, 2007, as Jim Scancarelli has been absent for no publicly announced reason for four months now.
Greg Evans and Karen Evans’s Luann is not perfectly clear. But I think it’s presenting Gunther doing mathematics work to support his mother’s contention that he’s smart. There’s no working out what work he’s doing. But then we might ask how smart his mother is to have made that much food for just the two of them. Also that I think he’s eating a potato by hand? … Well, there are a lot of kinds of food that are hard to draw.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn reprints the strip from the 11th of February (again), 1990. It mentions as one of those fascinating things of arithmetic an easy test to see if a number’s a multiple of nine. There are several tricks like this, although the only ones anybody can remember are finding multiples of 3 and finding multiples of 9. Well, they know the rules for something being a multiple of 2, 5, or 10, but those hardly look like rules, and there’s no addition needed. Similarly with multiples of 4.
Modular arithmetic underlies all these rules. Once you know the trick you can use it to work out your own add-up-the-numbers rules to find what numbers are multiples of small numbers. Here’s an example. Think of a three-digit number. Suppose its first digit is ‘a’, its second digit ‘b’, and its third digit ‘c’. So we’d write the number as ‘abc’, or, 100a + 10b + 1c. What’s this number equal to, modulo 9? Well, 100a modulo 9 has to be equal to whatever a modulo 9 is: (100 a) modulo 9 is (100) modulo 9 — that is, 1 — times (a) modulo 9. 10b modulo 9 is (10) modulo 9 — again, 1 — times (b) modulo 9. 1c modulo 9 is … well, (c) modulo 9. Add that all together and you have a + b + c modulo 9. If a + b + c is some multiple of 9, so must be 100a + 10b + 1c.
The rules about whether something’s divisible by 2 or 5 or 10 are easy to work with since 10 is a multiple of 2, and of 5, and for that matter of 10, so that 100a + 10b + 1c modulo 10 is just c modulo 10. You might want to let this settle. Then, if you like, practice by working out what an add-the-digits rule for multiples of 11 would be. (This is made a lot easier if you remember that 10 is equal to 11 – 1.) And if you want to show off some serious arithmetic skills, try working out an add-the-digits rule for finding whether something’s a multiple of 7. Then you’ll know why nobody has ever used that for any real work.
J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts plays on the equivalence people draw between intelligence and arithmetic ability. Also on the idea that brain size should have something particularly strong link to intelligence. Really anyone having trouble figuring out 15% of $10 is psyching themselves out. They’re too much overwhelmed by the idea of percents being complicated to realize that it’s, well, ten times 15 cents.
So I was travelling last week, and this threw nearly all my plans out of whack. We stayed at one of those hotels that’s good enough that its free Internet is garbage and they charge you by day for decent Internet. So naturally Comic Strip Master Command sent a flood of posts. I’m trying to keep up and we’ll see if I wrap up this past week in under three essays. And I am not helped, by the way, by GoComics.com rejiggering something on their server so that My Comics Page won’t load, and breaking their “Contact Us” page so that that won’t submit error reports. If someone around there can break in and turn one of their servers off and on again, I’d appreciate the help.
Hy Eisman’s Katzenjammer Kids for the 21st of January is a curiously-timed Tax Day joke. (Well, the Katzenjammer Kids lapsed into reruns a dozen years ago and there’s probably not much effort being put into selecting seasonally appropriate ones.) But it is about one of the oldest and still most important uses of mathematics, and one that never gets respect.
Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 21st gets Oliver the reputation for being a little computer because he’s good at arithmetic. There is something that amazes in a person who’s able to calculate like this without writing anything down or using a device to help.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 22nd is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Well, for Monday, as I write this. It’s got your classic blackboard full of equations for the people in over their head. The equations look to me like gibberish. There’s a couple diagrams of aromatic organic compounds, which suggests some quantum-mechanics chemistry problem, if you want to suppose this could be narrowed down.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 22nd has Luann despair about ever understanding algebra without starting over from scratch and putting in excessively many hours of work. Sometimes it feels like that. My experience when lost in a subject has been that going back to the start often helps. It can be easier to see why a term or a concept or a process is introduced when you’ve seen it used some, and often getting one idea straight will cause others to fall into place. When that doesn’t work, trying a different book on the same topic — even one as well-worn as high school algebra — sometimes helps. Just a different writer, or a different perspective on what’s key, can be what’s needed. And sometimes it just does take time working at it all.
Richard Thompson’s Richard’s Poor Almanac rerun for the 22nd includes as part of a kit of William Shakespeare paper dolls the Typing Monkey. It’s that lovely, whimsical figure that might, in time, produce any written work you could imagine. I think I’d retired monkeys-at-typewriters as a thing to talk about, but I’m easily swayed by Thompson’s art and comic stylings so here it is.
Darrin Bell and Theron Heir’s Rudy Park for the 18th throws around a lot of percentages. It’s circling around the sabermetric-style idea that everything can be quantified, and measured, and that its changes can be tracked. In this case it’s comments on Star Trek: Discovery, but it could be anything. I’m inclined to believe that yeah, there’s an astounding variety of things that can be quantified and measured and tracked. But it’s also easy, especially when you haven’t got a good track record of knowing what is important to measure, to start tracking what amounts to random noise. (See any of my monthly statistics reviews, when I go looking into things like views-per-visitor-per-post-made or some other dubiously meaningful quantity.) So I’m inclined to side with Randy and his doubts that the Math Gods sanction this much data-mining.
I do not know what’s possessed John Rose, cartoonist for Barney Google and Snuffy Smith — possibly the oldest syndicated comic strip not in perpetual reruns — to decide he needs to mess with my head. So far as I’m aware we haven’t ever even had any interactions. While I’ll own up to snarking about the comic strip here and there, I mean, the guy draws Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. He won’t attract the snark community of, say, Marmaduke, but he knew the job was dangerous when he took it. There’s lots of people who’ve said worse things about the comic than I ever have. He can’t be messing with them all.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal gets my attention again for the 10th. There is this famous quotation from Leopold Kronecker, one of the many 19th century German mathematicians who challenged, and set, our ideas of what mathematics is. In debates about what should count as a proof Kronecker said something translated in English to, “God created the integers, all else is the work of man”. He favored proofs that only used finite numbers, and only finitely many operations, and was skeptical of existence proofs. Those are ones that show something with desired properties must exist, without necessarily showing how to find it. Most mathematicians accept existence proofs. If you can show how to find that thing, that’s a constructive proof. Usually mathematicians like those better.
Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes From A Multiverse for the 11th is a fun, simple joke with some complex stuff behind it. It’s riffing on the kind of atheist who wants moral values to come from something in the STEM fields. So here’s a mathematical basis for some moral principles. There are, yes, ethical theories that have, or at least imply having, mathematics behind them. Utilitarianism at least supposes that ethical behavior can be described as measurable and computable quantities. Nobody actually does that except maybe to make video games more exciting. But it’s left with the idea that one could, and hope that this would lead to guidance that doesn’t go horribly wrong.
Greg Evans and Karen Evans’s Luann for the 13th uses mathematics to try building up the villainy of one of the strip’s designated villains. Ann Eiffel, there, uses a heap of arithmetic to make her lingerie sale sound better. This isn’t simply a riff on people not wanting to do arithmetic, although I understand people not wanding to work out what five percent of a purchase of over $200 is. There’s a good deal of weird psychology in getting people to buy things. Merely naming a number, for example, gets people to “anchor” their expectations to it. To speak of a free gift worth $75 makes any purchase below $75 seem more economical. To speak of a chance to win $1,000 prepares people to think they’ve got a thousand dollars coming in, and that they can safely spend under that. It’s amazing stuff to learn about, and it isn’t all built on people being too lazy to figure out what five percent off of $220 would be.
T Lewis and Michael Fry’s Over the Hedge for the 13th uses &infty; along the way to making nonsense out of ice-skating judging. It’s a good way to make a hash of a rating system. Most anything done with infinitely large numbers or infinitely large sets challenges one’s intuition at least. This is part of what Leopold Kronecker was talking about.
So Mark Anderson’s Andertoons has been missing from the list of mathematically-themed the last couple weeks. Don’t think I haven’t been worried about that. But it’s finally given another on-topic-enough strip and I’m not going to include it here. I’ve had a terrible week and I’m going to use the comics we got in last week slowly.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 10th reprints the strip of the 10th of December, 1989. And as often happens, mathematics is put up as the stuff that’s too hard to really do. The expressions put up don’t quite parse; there’s nothing to solve. But that’s fair enough for a panicked brain. To not recognize what the problem even is makes it rather hard to solve.
Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 10th is an installation of Quantum Mechanic, playing on the most fun example of non-commutative processes I know. That’s the uncertainty principle, which expresses itself as pairs of quantities that can’t be precisely measured simultaneously. There are less esoteric kinds of non-commutative processes. Like, rotating something 90 degrees along a horizontal and then along a vertical axis will turn stuff different from 90 degrees vertical and then horizontal. But that’s too easy to understand to capture the imagination, at least until you’re as smart as an adult and as thoughtful as a child.
Jeff Stahler’s Moderately Confused for the 11th features the classic blackboard full of equations, this time to explain why Christmas lights wouldn’t work. There is proper mathematics in lights not working. It’s that electrical-engineering work about the flow of electricity. The problem is, typically, a broken or loose bulb. Maybe a burnt-out fuse, although I have never fixed a Christmas lights problem by replacing the fuse. It’s just something to do so you can feel like you’ve taken action before screaming in rage and throwing the lights out onto the front porch. More interesting to me is the mathematics of strands getting tangled. The idea — a foldable thread, marked at regular intervals by points that can hook together — seems trivially simple. But it can give insight into how long molecules, particularly proteins, will fold together. It may help someone frustrated to ponder that their light strands are knotted for the same reasons life can exist. But I’m not sure it ever does.