Reading the Comics, December 28, 2018: More Christmas Break Edition


I apologize for running quite so late. Comic Strip Master Command tried to make it easy for me, by issuing few comic strips that had any mathematical content to speak of. I was just busier than all that, and even now, I can’t say quite how. Well, living, I suppose. But I’ve done plenty of things now and can settle back to the usual, if anyone knows just what that was.

Also I am drawing down on the number of cancelled, in-eternal-reruns comic strips on my daily feed. So that should reduce the number of times I feature a comic strip and realize I’ve described it four times already and haven’t got anything new to say. It’s hard for me, since most of these comics have some charms, or at least pleasant weirdness. But clearly just making a note to myself that I’ve said everything there is to say about Randolph Itch, 2 am, isn’t enough. I’m sorry, Randolph.

Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 28th is an example of the cartoonist’s habit of drawing metaphors literally. Dethany does ask the auditor Fi about “accepting his numbers”. In this context the numbers aren’t intersting as numbers. They’re interesting as representations for a narrative. If the numbers are consistent with a believable story? If it’s more believable that they represent a truth than that they’re a hoax? We call that “accepting the numbers”, but what we’re accepting is the story they’re given as evidence for.

Man giving a presentation; it's a string of digits on the whiteboard. A giant thumb swipes across it, and the numbers all fall off, leaving the man disheartened. Last panel, the man walks out, dejected. Dethany: 'Did you accept his numbers?' Fi: 'I swiped left.'
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 28th of December, 2018. Essays discussing topics raised by On The Fastrack should all appear at this link.

Auditing, and any critical thinking about numbers, involves some subtle uses of Bayesian probability. We’re working out the probability that this story is something we should believe. Each piece of evidence makes us think this probability is greater or lesser. With experience and skill one learns of patterns which suggest the story is false. Benford’s Law, for example, is often useful. Honestly-taken samples show tendencies, for example, in what leading digits appear. A discrepancy between what’s expected and what appears, if it can’t be explained, can be a sign of forgery.

B.C.: 'How many grains of sand are on this beach?' Peter: 'Five hundred and sixty gillion.' B.C.: 'You're a genius, Peter.'
Johnny Hart’s Back To BC rerun for the 27th of December, 2018. From the dating it apparently originally ran the 1st of July, 1961. Essays mentioning B.C., both 1961 vintage and 2019 current, should be at this link.

Johnny Hart’s Back To BC rerun for the 27th is built on estimating the grains of sand on a beach. This is, as fits the setting, a very old query. Archimedes wrote The Sand Reckoner which estimated how many grains of sand could fit in the universe. Estimating the number of grains of sand on a beach, or in a universe, is a fun mathematical problem. Perhaps not a practical one, not directly. The answer is after all “lots”, and there is no way to verify the number.

But it can still be indirectly practical. To work with enormous but finite numbers of things is hard. We do well working with small numbers like ‘six’ and ‘fourteen’ and some of us are even good at around ‘thirty’. We don’t have a good intuition for how a number like 480,000,000,000,000,000 should work. And that’s important; if we try adding six and fourteen and get thirty, we realize there’s something not quite right before we’ve done too much more work. With enormous numbers we can go on not noticing the mistake’s there. We need to find ways to understand these inconvenient numbers using the skills and intuitions we already have. Aristotle had to develop new terminology for numbers to get the Ancient Greek numerals system to handle the problem coherently. Peter’s invention of a gillion is — I’ll go ahead and say — a sly reenactment of that.

Neil: 'Hey, a Rubik's Cube! I used to be really good at those! But you can only solve them five times. Then you have to buy another one.' Leticia: 'Five times? Er ... why's that, Neil?' Neil: 'After that, the little square stickers aren't sticky anymore.'
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 27th of December, 2018. So I am dropping the strip from my routine reading. But the various appearances of Lucky Cow should remain at this link.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 27th I do intend to make this enjoyable but cancelled strip’s last appearance here. It’s a Rubik’s Cube joke. It’s one about using a solution outside the rules of the problem. And as marginal as this one, I couldn’t quite bring myself to write a paragraph about the Todd the Dinosaur strip of the 29th, which also features the Rubik’s Cube.

An anthropomorphic numeral 8 talks to the doctor about its weight and its eating. The doctor performs surgery, cutting off a loop and turning the figure into a 9. It smiles and waves, and the new 9 goes off to join its friends 2, 0, and 1.
Ryan Pagelow’s Buni for the 28th of December, 2018. Essays which mention Buni should be gathered at this link.

Ryan Pagelow’s Buni for the 28th I’ll list as the anthropomorphic-numerals joke for the week, since it did turn out to be that slow a week here. I’m a bit curious what the now-9 is figuring to do next year. I suppose that one’s easy; it’s going to be going from 3 to 4 in a couple years that’s a real problem.


The various Reading the Comics posts should all be at this link. I like to think I’ll be back to having a post this coming Sunday, and maybe a second one next week if there are enough comic strips near enough to on-topic. Thanks for reading.

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Reading the Comics, December 22, 2018: Christmas Break Edition


There were just enough mathematically-themed comic strips last week for me to make two posts out of it. This current week? Is looking much slower, at least as of Wednesday night. But that’s a problem for me to worry about on Sunday.

Eric the Circle for the 20th, this one by Griffinetsabine, mentions a couple of shapes. That’s enough for me, at least on a slow comics week. There is a fictional tradition of X marking the spot. It can be particularly credited to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Any symbol could be used to note a special place on maps, certainly. Many maps are loaded with a host of different symbols to convey different information. Circles and crosses have the advantage of being easy to draw and difficult to confuse for one another. Squares, triangles, and stars are good too.

Eric on a treasure hunt: Eric asking, 'Wait ... triangle marks the spot? No ... rhombus marks the spot? Dodecahedron marks the spot?' A square sighs; an X coughs, 'ahem!'
Eric the Circle for the 20th of December, 2018, this one by Griffinetsabine. This and other essays featuring Eric the Circle are at this link.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range for the 22nd spoofs Wheel of Fortune with “theoretical mathematics”. Making a game out of filling in parts of a mathematical expression isn’t ridiculous, although it is rather niche. I don’t see how the revealed string of mathematical expressions build to a coherent piece, but perhaps a few further pieces would help.

Wheel Of Theoretical Mathematics. Contestant: 'I'd like to buy a sqrt(x).' On the board are several mathematical expressions, including 'dx = sqrt{pi}', 'a^2 + b^2 = (a + b)', and 'dy/dx x^4 - (1 - x^2)^4$.
Bill Whitehead’s Free Range for the 22nd of December, 2018. Appearances by Free Range should be at this link.

The parts shown are all legitimate enough expressions. Well, like a^2 + b^2 = (a + b) is only true for some specific numbers ‘a’ and ‘b’, but you can find solutions. -b \pm \sqrt{b^2 - x^2y^2} is just an expression, not picking out any particular values of ‘b’ or ‘x’ or ‘y’ as interesting. But in conjunction with a^2 + b^2 = (a + b) or other expressions there might be something useful. On the second row is a graph, highlighting a region underneath a curve (and above the x-axis) between two vertical lines. This is often the sort of thing looked at in calculus. It also turns up in probability, as the area under a curve like this can show the chance that an experiment will turn up something in a range of values. And \frac{dy}{dx} = x^4 - \left(1 - x^2\right)^4 is a straightforward differential equation. Its solution is a family of similar-looking polynomials.

Scientist guy runs in to the Lucky Cow restaurant. The scientist begs of cashier Neil, the left half of Schrodinger's equation equals ?!? Neil thinks about it some and then provides the answer, earning the scientist's gratitude and the admiration of his coworkers. Later, out in back, Neil pays off the scientist.
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow for the 22nd of December, 2018. This and other discussions inspired by Lucky Cow should be at this link.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow for the 22nd has run before. I’ve even made it the title strip for a Reading the Comics post back in 2014. So it’s probably time to drop this from my regular Reading the Comics reporting. The physicists comes running in with the left half of the time-dependent Schrödinger Equation. This is all over quantum mechanics. In this form, quantum mechanics contains information about how a system behaves by putting it into a function named \psi . Its value depends on space (‘x’). It can also depend on time (‘t’). The physicists pretends to not be able to complete this. Neil arranges to give the answer.

Schrödinger’s Equation looks very much like a diffusion problem. Normal diffusion problems don’t have that \imath which appears in the part of Neil’s answer. But this form of equation turns up a lot. If you have something that acts like a fluid — and heat counts — then a diffusion problem is likely important in understanding it.

And, yes, the setup reminds me of a mathematical joke that I only encounter in lists of mathematics jokes. That one I told the last time this strip came up in the rotation. You might chuckle, or at least be convinced that it is a correctly formed joke.


Each of the Reading the Comics posts should all be at this link. And I have finished the alphabet in my Fall 2018 Mathematics A To Z glossary. There should be a few postscript thoughts to come this week, though.

Reading the Comics, June 16, 2018: No Panels Edition


My week got busier than I imagined, but it was in ways worthwhile. I apologize for running late, and for not having an essay I meant to put up here this week. But I should be back to something more normal next week. I keep saying that. Also, for what seems like a rarity, all the strips for this essay are comic strips. No panels. That won’t last, I know.

Johnny Hart’s Back to B.C. for the 14th features arithmetic as a demonstration of The Smartest Man in the World’s credentials. I understand using a bit of arithmetic as a quick check that someone has any intelligence at all. It seems to me that checking “two plus two” is more common than “one plus one”, and either is more common than, say, “one plus two” or “three plus five” or anything. I’m curious why that is, though. Might one plus one just seem too simple? Or is it the bias against odd numbers and feeling that two plus two is somehow more balanced? If only there were some smart person I could ask.

Peter(?) is by a sign reading 'The Smartest Man in the World'. Other Caveman (BC?): 'How much is 2 + 2?' Peter(?): 'Four.' BC: 'What makes day?' Peter: 'The sun.' BC: 'What made people?' (Peter looks frazzled.) BC: 'Here we go again.'
Johnny Hart’s Back to B.C. for the 14th of June, 2018. The strip originally ran the 17th of December, 1960. Thing to remember about Peter(?)’s claim is that at this time there’s like eight people in the world so, you know, yeah.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 14th has a blackboard full of arithmetic as the icon of “doing a lot of school work”. Can’t say it’s age-inappropriate or anything. It’s just an efficient way to show a lot of work that’s kind of tiring to do has been done. … Also somehow one of the commenters didn’t understand the use of ‘flag’ as meaning to lose energy or enthusiasm. Huh.

[ In front of board full of multiplication problems. ] Mrs Olsen: 'Very good. Would you like to do a few more before the bell rings?' Student: 'No, thank you. It's flag day.' [ Later ] Frazz: 'What did that have to do with it?' Student: 'I was beginning to flag.'
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 14th of June, 2018. I apologize that I can’t remember this student’s name and I couldn’t find it on a reasonable search. Comic strip About pages need character names.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 15th is a percentages joke, built on confusion between how to go from percentages to fractions and back again. Must say that I had thought 50 percent was tied well enough to one-half in ordinary language (or in phrases like splitting something fifty-fifty) that someone wouldn’t be confused by that. But everyone does miss some obvious things.

Student, to Mrs Olsen: 'If we're just going to forget 60% of this stuff over the summer, why not study only the half of it we'll remember?' [ Later ] Student: 'Annnnnd she doubled our homework.' Frazz: 'What percent of it is math now?'
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 15th of June, 2018. I have a similar apology for this student’s name, too. Shall happily accept information on this point.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow for the 16th is a probability strip. It is based on what seems obvious, that the fact of any person’s existing is an incredibly unlikely event. We can imagine restarting the universe, and letting it all develop again. And we’re forced to conclude there are so many other ways that galaxies might form and stars might come into being and planets might form and life might develop and evolution might proceed and people might meet and children might be born, and only one way that gets us here. So the chance of any of us existing is impossibly tiny. This is all consistent with the “frequentist” idea of what probability means. In that, we say the probability of a thing happening is all the ways that it could happen divided by all the ways that something could happen. (There are a bunch of technical points to go along with this.)

Clare: 'I need to win the lottery. That would solve all my problems!' Leticia: 'You know, Clare, if you think about it, we've all already *won* the lottery! Each one of us is here because of a long line of happy accidents! Eons ago, our ancestors happened to meet and have children and so on down to our parents! Really, the odds against you or me even being here are *astronomical*!' ... Clare: 'Now I see what they mean when they say winning the lottery can be a curse.'
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow for the 16th of June, 2018. It originally ran the 20th of August, 2006.

But there are a lot of buried assumptions in there. Many of them seem reasonable. For example: could the universe unfold any differently? It seems obvious that, for example, the radius of the Earth’s orbit around the sun is arbitrary and might be anything in a band that could support life. And, surely, if the year had more or fewer days to it all human history would be different. But then this seems obvious: drop a bunch of short needles across a set of parallel straight lines. The number of needles that cross any of those lines should be arbitrary and unpredictable. Except that it is predictable; there’s a well-known formula that says how many of those needles have to cross those lines. The prediction can be lousy for a handful of needles. For millions of needles, though, it’ll be dead on. The universe won’t make sense any other way.

I can’t go so far as to say that it’s impossible for a universe to exist without me existing and just as I am. That seems egotistical. Even the needle-drop talk has room for variations on the universe. In ten million needle drops, one needle crossing more or less would not be an implausible difference. Ten or a thousand needles falling differently wouldn’t stand out. But, then, after enough needle drops? … If infinitely many needles dropped, I could say exactly what percentage of them crossed lines. (I am speaking so very casually about very difficult technical points. Please pretend I have clear answers for them.) There are deep philosophical questions about the idea of “other universes” that we have to ask if we want to take the subject seriously. But there are deep mathematical questions too.

X figure in a circle: 'DNA tests show I'm related to a Roman beauty by the name of Boderikus Maximus.' Woman: 'Good looking, was she?' X: 'Caesar himself called her a perfect 10.'
Bob Shannon’s Tough Town for the 16th of June, 2018. And the woman here is in nearly every strip and she’s not named either. The About page just talks about Rudolph, “a divorced reindeer working unhappily as a 4th grade teacher” and I think I remember him appearing in the strip back when it started. Oh, I guess that’s him in the title panel on the page, but not in the strip worth mentioning anymore.

Bob Shannon’s Tough Town for the 16th is more or less the anthropomorphized Roman Numerals joke for the week. I don’t know that there’s a strong consensus about why X was used to represent “ten”. Likely it’s impossible to prove any explanation is right. But X has settled into meaning ten, and to serve a host of other uses in typography and in symbols. Some of them are likely connected. Some are probably just coincidence.


If you’d like more of these Reading the Comics posts, you can find them in reverse chronological order at this link. If you’re interested in the comics mentioned particularly here, this page has the B.C. comics (both new and vintage). Frazz is on this page. The Lucky Cow strips are on this page. And Tough Town strips are here.

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, March 21, 2018: Old Mathematics Jokes Edition


For this, the second of my Reading the Comics postings with all the comics images included, I’ve found reason to share some old and traditional mathematicians’ jokes. I’m not sure how this happened, but sometimes it just does.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th brings to mind a traditional mathematics joke. A dairy hires a mathematician to improve operations. She tours the place, inspecting the cows and their feeding and the milking machines. She speaks with the workers. She interviews veterinarians. She talks with the truckers who haul out milk. She interviews the clients. Finally she starts to work on a model of better milk production. The first line: “Assume a spherical cow.”

[Pro Tip: this is the answer to any thermodynamics question that requires you to determine an object's temperature: ] T = 2.73 K (assume well-mixed Cosmos)
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th of March, 2018. Temperature’s a great subject though, and I’ve been thinking for ages about doing a series on it just because I want to explain negative temperatures Kelvin.

One big field of mathematics is model-building. When doing that you have to think about the thing you model. It’s hard. You have to throw away all the complicating stuff that makes your questions too hard to answer. But you can’t throw away all the complicating stuff or you have a boring question to answer. Depending on what kinds of things you want to know, you’ll need different models. For example, for some atmosphere problems you’ll do fine if you assume the air has no viscosity. For others that’s a stupid assumption. For some you can ignore that the planet rotates and is heated on one side by the sun. For some you don’t dare do that. And so on. The simplifications you can make aren’t always obvious. Sometimes you can ignore big stuff; a satellite’s orbit, for example, can be treated well by pretending that the whole universe except for the Earth doesn’t exist. Depends what you’re looking for. If the universe were homogenous enough, it would all be at the same temperature. Is that useful to your question? That’s the trick.

On the board: 1/2 - 1/8 = ?. Student: 'Apropos of nothing, I have two cats.'
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 20th of March, 2018. Okay, but why the poster with the octopus on it?

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 20th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this essay. It’s just a student trying to distract the issue from fractions. I suppose mathematics was chosen for the blackboard problem because if it were, say, a history or an English or a science question someone would think that was part of the joke and be misled. Fractions, though, those have the signifier of “the thing we’d rather not talk about”.

Woman: 'And if you haven't figured it out yet, this is the math department lavatory'. The door reads 1 +/- 2
Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 21st of March, 2018. Not to nitpick but shouldn’t it be 1½ ± ½?

Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 21st is a mathematicians-mindset sort of joke. Let me offer another. I went to my love’s college reunion. On the mathematics floor of the new sciences building the dry riser was labelled as “N Bourbaki”. Let me explain why is a correctly-formed and therefore very funny mathematics joke. “Nicolas Bourbaki” was the pseudonym used by the mathematical equivalent of an artist’s commune, in France, through several decades of the mid-20th century. Their goal was setting mathematics on a rigorous and intuition-free basis, the way mathematicians sometimes like to pretend it is. Bourbaki’s influential nonexistence lead to various amusing-for-academia problems and you can see why a fake office is appropriately named so, then. (This is the first time I’ve tagged this strip, looks like.)

Employee: 'Cool 'power tie' boss'. The tie reads E = mc^2.
Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 for the 21st of March, 2018. I understand the tie has to face the audience to make the joke work, but isn’t it more fun to imagine that it’s actually a pyramidal tie, like, a solid triangular projection of tie material, and we see one side of it and maybe there’s another equation written on the other side? Please vote in the comments.

Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 for the 21st is a name-drop of Einstein’s famous equation as a power tie. I must agree this meets the literal specification of a power tie since, you know, c2 is in it. Probably something more explicitly about powers wouldn’t communicate as well. Possibly Fermat’s Last Theorem, although I’m not sure that would fit and be legible on the tie as drawn.

Clare: 'How many cylinders with length 3 and diameter 1.5 equal the volume of a sphere with diameter 3?' Neil: 'Um ... 2.6. no, 2.7!' Clare: 'Neil, how on earth did you know that?' Neil: 'It's simple, Clare! I converted the cylinder to 'Ho Hos' and the sphere to Hostess 'Sno Balls', then I imagined eating them!' Clare: 'Um ... wow.' Neil: 'My brain's only average, but my tummy's a genius!'
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow for the 21st of March, 2018. I preferred Ding Dongs eater myself. But my heart was with the Suzy Q’s, if we’re not letting Tastykake into the discussion.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 21st has the generally inept Neil work out a geometry problem in his head. The challenge is having a good intuitive model for what the relationship between the shapes should be. I’m relieved to say that Neil is correct, to the number of decimal places given. I’m relieved because I’ve spent embarrassingly long at this. My trouble was missing, twice over, that the question gave diameters instead of radiuses. Pfaugh. Saving me was just getting answers that were clearly crazy, including at one point 21 1/3.

Professor in girl's daydream: 'But don't take my word for it. It's Euler's theorem.' (Points to e^{i pi} + 1 = 0 on the board.) Girl: 'Greg! Greg! I've changed my mind! Let's be colleagues again! ... Greg?' (Sees a closet jammed shut by a door.) Person inside: 'Help! I'm stuck!' (She unjams the door.) Person inside: 'Did she leave? Where's ray? Someone has to stop her!' Girl: 'That's like trying to stop a yeti!' Person inside: 'By my calculations it's far worse.' (Looks over sheet labelled 'Monster Unit Conversions', with Wray worked out to be 8 orcs or 3 trolls or 6 werewolves or werebears or 2.788 Yetis.)
Zach Weinersmith, Chris Jones and James Ashby’s Snowflakes for the 21st of March, 2018. I would like to give you more context for this but I confess I haven’t been able to follow the storyline. I don’t know why but this is one of the strips I don’t get the flow of.

Zach Weinersmith, Chris Jones and James Ashby’s Snowflakes for the 21st mentions Euler’s Theorem in the first panel. Trouble with saying “Euler’s Theorem” is that Euler had something like 82 trillion theorems. If you ever have to bluff your way through a conversation with a mathematician mention “Euler’s Theorem”. You’ll probably have said something on point, if closer to the basics of the problem than people figured. But the given equation — e^{\imath \pi} + 1 = 0 — is a good bet for “the” Euler’s Theorem. It’s a true equation, and it ties together a lot of interesting stuff about complex-valued numbers. It’s the way mathematicians tie together exponentials and simple harmonic motion. It makes so much stuff easier to work with. It would not be one of the things presented in a Distinctly Useless Mathematics text. But it would be mentioned along the way to something fascinating and useless. It turns up everywhere. (This is another strip I’m tagging for the first time.)

[ Cybil used to teach at MIT ] Cybil, teaching: 'If you've got pi/2 x 4 apples, and you eat Sigma x square root of cos(68) apples, how many apples do you have?' The class looks baffled.
Wulff and Morgenthaler’s WuMo for the 21st of March, 2018. Fun fact: since 68 is a rational number, the cosine of 68 has to be transcendental. All right, but it’s fun to me and whose blog is this? Thank you. But the cosine of any rational number other than zero is transcendental. Ditto the sine and the tangent.

Wulff and Morgenthaler’s WuMo for the 21st uses excessively complicated mathematics stuff as a way to signify intelligence. Also to name-drop Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a signifier of intelligence. (My grad school was Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which would totally be MIT’s rival school if we had enough self-esteem to stand up to MIT. Well, on a good day we can say snarky stuff about the Rochester Institute of Technology if we don’t think they’re listening.) Putting the “Sigma” in makes the problem literally nonsense, since “Sigma” doesn’t signify any particular number. The rest are particular numbers, though. π/2 times 4 is just 2π, a bit more than 6.28. That’s a weird number of apples to have but it’s perfectly legitimate a number. The square root of the cosine of 68 … ugh. Well, assuming this is 68 as in radians I don’t have any real idea what that would be either. If this is 68 degrees, then I do know, actually; the cosine of 68 degrees is a little smaller than ½. But mathematicians are trained to suspect degrees in trig functions, going instead for radians.

Well, hm. 68 would be between 11 times 2π and 12 times 2π. I think that’s just a little more than 11 times 2π. Oh, maybe it is something like ½. Let me check with an actual calculator. Huh. It is a little more than 0.440. Well, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot. Anyway the square root of that is a little more than 0.663. So you’d be left with about five and a half apples. Never mind this Sigma stuff. (A little over 5.619, to be exact.)

Reading the Comics, March 5, 2018: If It’s Even Mathematics Edition


Many of the strips from the first half of last week are ones that just barely touch on mathematical content. I’m not sure how relevant they all are. I hope you like encountering them anyway.

Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 4th of March offers “an infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar” as a joke’s setup. Mathematics popularizers have a small set of jokes about infinite numbers of mathematicians, often arriving at hotels. They’re used to talk about how we now understand infinitely large sets. There’s often counter-intuitive or just plain weird results that follow. And presenting it as a joke works surprisingly well in introducing the ideas. There’s a kind of joke that is essentially a tall tale, spinning out an initial premise to as far and as absurd a consequence as you can get. In structure, that’s not much different to a proof, a discussion of the consequences of an idea. It’s a shame that it’s hard to make jokes or anecdotes about more fields of mathematics. Somehow infinitely large groups of people are funnier than, say, upper-bounded nondecreasing sequences.

['A Pinhead Walks Into A Bar' Jokes That Are Only Funny To Other Pinheads.'] An Atheist, a Vegan, and a Crossfitter walk into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' A gorilla in a tuxedo walks into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' An amnesiac walks into a bar. Zippy: '( Empty word balloon )'.
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 4th of March, 2018. You know, it’s kind of a peculiar thing that Zippy the Pinhead is a syndicated daily newspaper comic strip, isn’t it? I’m glad we live in a world strange enough for this to be the case.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 4th has a bit of fraction-based wordplay. I’m not sure how mathematical this is, but I grinned.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 4th has Jason try to make a “universal” loot box that consists of zeroes and ones. As he says, accumulate enough and put them in the right order and you have any digital prize imaginable. Implementation is, as joked, the problem. Assembling ones and zeroes at random isn’t likely to turn up anything you might care about in a reasonable time. (It’s the monkeys-at-typewriters problem.) If you know how to assemble ones and zeroes to get what you want, well, what do you need Jason’s boxes for? As with most clever ideas by computer-oriented boys it shouldn’t really be listened to.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 4th has Neil make an order-of-magnitude error estimating what animal power can do. We’ve all made them. They’re particularly easy to make when switching the unit measure. Trying to go from meters to kilometers and multiplying the distance by a thousand, say. Which is annoying since often it’s easiest to estimate the order of magnitude of something first. I can’t find easily an estimate of how many calories a hamster eats over the course of the day. That seems like it would give an idea of how much energy a hamster could possibly be expected to provide, and so work out whether the estimate of four million hamsters to power a car is itself plausible. If someone has information, I’d take it.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 4th is a Rubik’s Cube joke. Also a random processes joke. If a blender could turn the faces of a cube, and could turn them randomly, and could run the right period of time … well, yeah, it could unscramble a cube. But see the previous talk about Jason Fox and the delivery of ones and zeroes.

Mark Tatulli’s Lio for the 5th is a solid geometry joke. I’ve put more thought into whether and where to put hyphens in the last three words of that sentence than is worth it.

Steve Sicula’s Home and Away rerun for the 6th has the father and son happily doing some mathematics. It’s in the service of better gambling on sports. But at least they know why they would like to do these calculations.

Reading the Comics, October 4, 2017: Time-Honored Traditions Edition


It was another busy week in mathematically-themed comic strips last week. Busy enough I’m comfortable rating some as too minor to include. So it’s another week where I post two of these Reading the Comics roundups, which is fine, as I’m still recuperating from the Summer 2017 A To Z project. This first half of the week includes a lot of rerun comics, and you’ll see why my choice of title makes sense.

Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate: First Class for the 1st of October reprints the strip from the 2nd of October, 1993. It’s got a well-formed story problem that, in the time-honored tradition of this setup, is subverted. I admit I kind of miss the days when exams would have problems typed out in monospace like this.

Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots for the 1st is a rerun from sometime in 1975. And it’s an example of the time-honored tradition of specifying how many statistics are made up. Here it comes in at 43 percent of statistics being “totally worthless” and I’m curious how the number attached to this form of joke changes over time.

The Joey Alison Sayers Comic for the 2nd uses a blackboard with mathematics — a bit of algebra and a drawing of a sphere — as the designation for genius. That’s all I have to say about this. I remember being set straight about the difference between ponies and horses and it wasn’t by my sister, who’s got a professional interest in the subject.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 2nd is a joke about cashiers trying to work out change. As one of the GoComics.com commenters mentions, the probably best way to do this is to count up from the purchase to the amount you have to give change for. That is, work out $12.43 to $12.50 is seven cents, then from $12.50 to $13.00 is fifty more cents (57 cents total), then from $13.00 to $20.00 is seven dollars ($7.57 total) and then from $20 to $50 is thirty dollars ($37.57 total).

It does make me wonder, though: what did Neil enter as the amount tendered, if it wasn’t $50? Maybe he hit “exact change” or whatever the equivalent was. It’s been a long, long time since I worked a cash register job and while I would occasionally type in the wrong amount of money, the kinds of errors I would make would be easy to correct for. (Entering $30 instead of $20 for the tendered amount, that sort of thing.) But the cash register works however Mark Pett decides it works, so who am I to argue?

Keith Robinson’s Making It rerun for the 2nd includes a fair bit of talk about ratios and percentages, and how to inflate percentages. Also about the underpaying of employees by employers.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 3rd continues the streak of being Mark Anderson Andertoons for this sort of thing. It has the traditional form of the student explaining why the teacher’s wrong to say the answer was wrong.

Brian Fies’s The Last Mechanical Monster for the 4th includes a bit of legitimate physics in the mad scientist’s captioning. Ballistic arcs are about a thing given an initial speed in a particular direction, moving under constant gravity, without any of the complicating problems of the world involved. No air resistance, no curvature of the Earth, level surfaces to land on, and so on. So, if you start from a given height (‘y0‘) and a given speed (‘v’) at a given angle (‘θ’) when the gravity is a given strength (‘g’), how far will you travel? That’s ‘d’. How long will you travel? That’s ‘t’, as worked out here.

(I should maybe explain the story. The mad scientist here is the one from the first, Fleischer Studios, Superman cartoon. In it the mad scientist sends mechanical monsters out to loot the city’s treasures and whatnot. As the cartoon has passed into the public domain, Brian Fies is telling a story of that mad scientist, finally out of jail, salvaging the one remaining usable robot. Here, training the robot to push aside bank tellers has gone awry. Also, the ground in his lair is not level.)

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am rerun for the 4th uses the time-honored tradition of Albert Einstein needing a bit of help for his work.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 4th uses the time-honored tradition of little bits of physics equations as designation of many deep thoughts. And then it gets into a bit more pure mathematics along the way. It also reflects the time-honored tradition of people who like mathematics and physics supposing that those are the deepest and most important kinds of thoughts to have. But I suppose we all figure the things we do best are the things it’s important to do best. It’s traditional.

And by the way, if you’d like more of these Reading the Comics posts, I put them all in the category ‘Comic Strips’ and I just now learned the theme I use doesn’t show categories for some reason? This is unsettling and unpleasant. Hm.

Reading the Comics, July 8, 2017: Mostly Just Pointing Edition


Won’t lie: I was hoping for a busy week. While Comic Strip Master Command did send a healthy number of mathematically-themed comic strips, I can’t say they were a particularly deep set. Most of what I have to say is that here’s a comic strip that mentions mathematics. Well, you’re reading me for that, aren’t you? Maybe. Tell me if you’re not. I’m curious.

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac rerun for the 2nd of July is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. And a great one, as I’d expect of Thompson, since it also turns into a little bit about how to create characters.

Ralph Dunagin and Dana Summers’s Middletons for the 2nd uses mathematics as the example of the course a kid might do lousy in. You never see this for Social Studies classes, do you?

Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 3rd made the most overtly mathematical joke for most of the week at Math Camp. The strip hasn’t got to anything really annoying yet; it’s mostly been average summer-camp jokes. I admit I’ve been distracted trying to figure out if the minor characters are Tatulli redrawing Peanuts characters in his style. I mean, doesn’t Dana (the freckled girl in the third panel, here) look at least a bit like Peppermint Patty? I’ve also seen a Possible Marcie and a Possible Shermy, who’s the Peanuts character people draw when they want an obscure Peanuts character who isn’t 5. (5 is the Boba Fett of the Peanuts character set: an extremely minor one-joke character used for a week in 1963 but who appeared very occasionally in the background until 1983. You can identify him by the ‘5’ on his shirt. He and his sisters 3 and 4 are the ones doing the weird head-sideways dance in A Charlie Brown Christmas.)

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 4th is another use of mathematics, here algebra, as a default sort of homework assignment.

Brant Parker and Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id Classics for the 4th reruns the Wizard of Id for the 7th of July, 1967. It’s your typical calculation-error problem, this about the forecasting of eclipses. I admit the forecasting of eclipses is one of those bits of mathematics I’ve never understood, but I’ve never tried to understand either. I’ve just taken for granted that the Moon’s movements are too much tedious work to really enlighten me and maybe I should reevaluate that. Understanding when the Moon or the Sun could be expected to disappear was a major concern for people doing mathematics for centuries.

Keith Tutt and Daniel Saunders’s Lard’s World Peace Tips for the 5th is a Special Relativity joke, which is plenty of mathematical content for me. I warned you it was a week of not particularly deep discussions.

Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots rerun for the 5th is a cute little metric system joke. And I’m going to go ahead and pretend that’s enough mathematical content. I’ve come to quite like Brilliant’s cheerfully despairing tone.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs for the 7th mentions fractions, so you can see how loose the standards get around here when the week is slow enough.

Snuffy Smith: 'I punched Barlow 'cuz I knew in all probability he wuz about to punch me, yore honor!!' Judge: 'Th' law don't deal in probabilities, Smif, we deal in CERTAINTIES!!' Snuffy, to his wife: '... An' th'minute he said THAT, I was purty CERTAIN whar I wuz headed !!'
John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 8th of July, 2017. So I know it’s a traditional bit of comic strip graphic design to avoid using a . at the end of sentences, as it could be too easily lost — or duplicated — in a printing error. Thus the long history of comic strip sentences that end with a ! mark, unambiguous even if the dot goes missing or gets misaligned. But double exclamation points for everything? What goes on here?

John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 8th finally gives me a graphic to include this week. It’s about the joke you would expect from the topic of probability being mentioned. And, as might be expected, the comic strip doesn’t precisely accurately describe the state of the law. Any human endeavour has to deal with probabilities. They give us the ability to have reasonable certainty about the confusing and ambiguous information the world presents.

Einstein At Eight: equations scribbled all over the wall. Einstein Mom: 'Just look at what a mess you made here!' Einstein Dad: 'You've got some explaining to do, young man.'
Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 8th of July, 2017. I gotta say, I look at that equation in the middle with m raised to the 7th power and feel a visceral horror. And yet I dealt with exactly this horrible thing once and it came out all right.

Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 8th is another Albert Einstein mention. The bundle of symbols don’t mean much of anything, at least not as they’re presented, but of course superstar equation E = mc2 turns up. It could hardly not.