## Reading the Comics, November 11, 2018: November 11, 2018 Edition

There were just enough mathematically-themed comic strips last week to make two editions for this coming week. All going well I’ll run the other half on either Wednesday or Thursday. There is a point that isn’t quite well, which is that one of the comics is in dubious taste. I’ll put that at the end, behind a more specific content warning. In the meanwhile, you can find this and hundreds of other Reading the Comics posts at this link.

Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 11th is wordplay, built on the conflation of “negative” as in numbers and “negative” as in bad. I’m not sure the two meanings are unrelated. The word ‘negative’ itself derives from the Latin word meaning to deny, which sounds bad. It’s easy to see why the term would attach to what we call negative numbers. A number plus its negation leaves us zero, a nothing. But it does make the negative numbers sound like bad things to have around, or to have to deal with. The convention that a negative number is less than zero implies that the default choice for a number is one greater than zero. And the default choice is usually seen as the good one, with everything else a falling-away. Still, -7 is as legitimate a number as 7 is; it’s we who think one is better than another.

J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts for the 11th has the Dadaist panel present prime numbers as a way to communicate. I suspect Duffy’s drawing from speculations about how to contact alien intelligences. One problem with communicating with the truly alien is how to recognize there is a message being sent. A message too regular will look like a natural process, one conveying no more intelligence than the brightness which comes to most places at dawn and darkness coming at sunset. A message too information-packed, peculiarly, looks like random noise. We need an intermediate level. A signal that it’s easy to receive, and that is too hard to produce by natural processes.

Prime numbers seem like a good compromise. An intelligence that understands arithmetic will surely notice prime numbers, or at least work out quickly what’s novel about this set of numbers once given them. And it’s hard to imagine an intelligence capable of sending or receiving interplanetary signals that doesn’t understand arithmetic. (Admitting that yes, we might be ruling out conversational partners by doing this.) We can imagine a natural process that sends out (say) three pulses and then rests, or five pulses and rests. Or even draws out longer cycles: two pulses and a rest, three pulses and a rest five pulses and a rest, and then a big rest before restarting the cycle. But the longer the string of prime numbers, the harder it is to figure a natural process that happens to hit them and not other numbers.

We think, anyway. Until we contact aliens we won’t really know what it’s likely alien contact would be like. Prime numbers seem good to us, but — even if we stick to numbers — there’s no reason triangular numbers, square numbers, or perfect numbers might not be as good. (Well, maybe not perfect numbers; there aren’t many of them, and they grow very large very fast.) But we have to look for something particular, and this seems like a plausible particularity.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Begins for the 11th is an early strip, from the days when Lucy would look to Charlie Brown for information. And it’s a joke built on conflating ‘zero’ with ‘nothing’. Lucy’s right that zero times zero has to be something. That’s how multiplication works. That the number zero is something? That’s a tricky concept. I think being mathematically adept can blind one to how weird that is. If you’re used to how zero is the amount of a thing you have to have nothing of that thing, then we start to see what’s weird about it.

But I’m not sure the strip quite sets that up well. I think if Charlie Brown had answered that zero times zero was “nothing” it would have been right (or right enough) and Lucy’s exasperation would have flowed more naturally. As it is? She must know that zero is “nothing”; but then why would she figure “nothing times nothing” has to be something? Maybe not; it would have left Charlie Brown less reason to feel exasperated or for the reader to feel on Charlie Brown’s side. Young Lucy’s leap to “three” needs to be at least a bit illogical to make any sense.

Now to the last strip and the one I wanted to warn about. It alludes to gun violence and school shootings. If you don’t want to deal with that, you’re right. There’s other comic strips to read out there. And this for a comic that ran on the centennial of Armistice Day, which has to just be an oversight in scheduling the (non-plot-dependent) comic.

## Reading the Comics, November 5, 2018: November 5, 2018 Edition

This past week included one of those odd days that’s so busy I get a column’s worth of topics from a single day’s reading. And there was another strip (the Cow and Boy rerun) which I might have roped in had the rest of the week been dead. The Motley rerun might have made the cut too, for a reference to $E = mc^2$.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs for the 5th is a joke about resisting the story problem. I’m surprised by the particulars of this question. Turning an arithmetic problem into counts of some number of particular things is common enough and has a respectable history. But slices of broccoli quiche? I’m distracted by the choice, and I like quiche. It’s a weird thing for a kid to have, and a weird amount for anybody to have.

JC Duffy’s Lug Nuts for the 5th uses mathematics as a shorthand for intelligence. And it particularly uses π as shorthand for mathematics. There’s a lot of compressed concepts put into this. I shouldn’t be surprised if it’s rerun come mid-March.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am for the 5th I’ve highlighted before. It’s the pie chart joke. It will never stop amusing me, but I suppose I should take Randolph Itch, 2 am out of my rotation of comics I read to include here.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 5th is a logic puzzle joke. And a set theory joke. Dad is trying to argue he can’t be surprised by his gift because it’ll belong to one of two sets of things. And he receives nothing. This ought to defy his expectations, if we think of “nothing” as being “the empty set”. The empty set is an indispensable part of set theory. It’s a set that has no elements, has nothing in it. Then suppose we talk about what it means for one set to be contained in another. Take what seems like an uncontroversial definition: set A is contained in set B if there’s nothing in A which is not also in B. Then the empty set is contained inside every set. So Dad, having supposed that he can’t be surprised, since he’d receive either something that is “socks” or something that is “not-socks”, does get surprised. He gets the one thing that is both “socks” and “not-socks” simultaneously.

I hate to pull this move a third time in one week (see here and here), but the logic of the joke doesn’t work for me. I’ll go along with “nothing” as being “the empty set” for these purposes. And I’ll accept that “nothing” is definitely “not-socks”. But to say that “nothing” is also “socks” is … weird, unless you are putting it in the language of set theory. I think the joke would be saved if it were more clearly established that Dad should be expecting some definite thing, so that no-thing would defy all expectations.

“Nothing” is a difficult subject to treat logically. I have been exposed a bit to the thinking of professional philosophers on the subject. Not enough that I feel I could say something non-stupid about the subject. But enough to say that yeah, they’re right, we have a really hard time describing “nothing”. The null set is better behaved. I suppose that’s because logicians have been able to tame it and give it some clearly defined properties.

Mike Shiell’s The Wandering Melon for the 5th felt like a rerun to me. It wasn’t. But Shiell did do a variation on this joke in August. Both are built on the same whimsy of probability. It’s unlikely one will win a lottery. It’s unlikely one will die in a particular and bizarre way. What are the odds someone would have both things happen to them?

This and every Reading the Comics post should be at this link. Essays that include Ginger Meggs are at this link. Essays in which I discuss Lug Nuts are at this link. Essays mentioning Randolph Itch, 2 am, should be at this link. The many essays with a mention of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal are at this link. And essays where I’m inspired by something in The Wandering Melon should be at this link. And, what the heck, when I really discuss Cow and Boy it’s at this link. Real discussions of Motley are at this link. And my Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z averages two new posts a week, now and through December. Thanks again for reading.

## Reading the Comics, February 11, 2018: February 11, 2018 Edition

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. ## Reading the Comics, January 23, 2018: Adult Content Edition I was all set to say how complaining about GoComics.com’s pages not loading had gotten them fixed. But they only worked for Monday alone; today they’re broken again. Right. I haven’t tried sending an error report again; we’ll see if that works. Meanwhile, I’m still not through last week’s comic strips and I had just enough for one day to nearly enough justify an installment for the one day. Should finish off the rest of the week next essay, probably in time for next week. Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy rerun for the 23rd circles around some of Zeno’s Paradoxes. At the heart of some of them is the question of whether a thing can be divided infinitely many times, or whether there must be some smallest amount of a thing. Zeno wonders about space and time, but you can do as well with substance, with matter. Mathematics majors like to say the problem is easy; Zeno just didn’t realize that a sum of infinitely many things could be a finite and nonzero number. This misses the good question of how the sum of infinitely many things, none of which are zero, can be anything but infinitely large? Or, put another way, what’s different in adding $\frac11 + \frac12 + \frac13 + \frac14 + \cdots$ and adding $\frac11 + \frac14 + \frac19 + \frac{1}{16} + \cdots$ that the one is infinitely large and the other not? Or how about this. Pick your favorite string of digits. 23. 314. 271828. Whatever. Add together the series $\frac11 + \frac12 + \frac13 + \frac14 + \cdots$except that you omit any terms that have your favorite string there. So, if you picked 23, don’t add $\frac{1}{23}$, or $\frac{1}{123}$, or $\frac{1}{802301}$ or such. That depleted series does converge. The heck is happening there? (Here’s why it’s true for a single digit being thrown out. Showing it’s true for longer strings of digits takes more work but not really different work.) J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts for the 23rd is, I think, the first time I have to give a content warning for one of these. It’s a porn-movie advertisement spoof. But it mentions Einstein and Pi and has the tagline “she didn’t go for eggheads … until he showed her a new equation!”. So, you know, it’s using mathematics skill as a signifier of intelligence and riffing on the idea that nerds like sex too. John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not for the 23rd has a trivia that made me initially think “not”. It notes Vince Parker, Senior and Junior, of Alabama were both born on Leap Day, the 29th of February. I’ll accept this without further proof because of the very slight harm that would befall me were I to accept this wrongly. But it also asserted this was a 1-in-2.1-million chance. That sounded wrong. Whether it is depends on what you think the chance is of. Because what’s the remarkable thing here? That a father and son have the same birthday? Surely the chance of that is 1 in 365. The father could be born any day of the year; the son, also any day. Trusting there’s no influence of the father’s birthday on the son’s, then, 1 in 365 it is. Or, well, 1 in about 365.25, since there are leap days. There’s approximately one leap day every four years, so, surely that, right? And not quite. In four years there’ll be 1,461 days. Four of them will be the 29th of January and four the 29th of September and four the 29th of August and so on. So if the father was born any day but leap day (a “non-bissextile day”, if you want to use a word that starts a good fight in a Scrabble match), the chance the son’s birth is the same is 4 chances in 1,461. 1 in 365.25. If the father was born on Leap Day, then the chance the son was born the same day is only 1 chance in 1,461. Still way short of 1-in-2.1-million. So, Graziano’s Ripley’s is wrong if that’s the chance we’re looking at. Ah, but what if we’re looking at a different chance? What if we’re looking for the chance that the father is born the 29th of February and the son is also born the 29th of February? There’s a 1-in-1,461 chance the father’s born on Leap Day. And a 1-in-1,461 chance the son’s born on Leap Day. And if those events are independent, the father’s birth date not influencing the son’s, then the chance of both those together is indeed 1 in 2,134,521. So Graziano’s Ripley’s is right if that’s the chance we’re looking at. Which is a good reminder: if you want to work out the probability of some event, work out precisely what the event is. Ordinary language is ambiguous. This is usually a good thing. But it’s fatal to discussing probability questions sensibly. Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 23rd presents his mathematician discovering a new set of numbers. This will happen. Mathematics has had great success, historically, finding new sets of things that look only a bit like numbers were understood. And showing that if they follow rules that are, as much as possible, like the old numbers, we get useful stuff out of them. The mathematician claims to be a formalist, in the punch line. This is a philosophy that considers mathematical results to be the things you get by starting with some symbols and some rules for manipulating them. What this stuff means, and whether it reflects anything of interest in the real world, isn’t of interest. We can know the results are good because they follow the rules. This sort of approach can be fruitful. It can force you to accept results that are true but intuition-defying. And it can give results impressive confidence. You can even, at least in principle, automate the creating and the checking of logical proofs. The disadvantages are that it takes forever to get anything done. And it’s hard to shake the idea that we ought to have some idea what any of this stuff means. ## Reading the Comics, June 3, 2017: Feast Week Conclusion Edition And now finally I can close out last week’s many mathematically-themed comic strips. I had hoped to post this Thursday, but the Why Stuff Can Orbit supplemental took up my writing energies and eventually timeslot. This also ends up being the first time I’ve had one of Joe Martin’s comic strips since the Houston Chronicle ended its comics pages and I admit I’m not sure how I’m going to work this. I’m also not perfectly sure what the comic strip means. So Joe Martin’s Mister Boffo for the 1st of June seems to be about a disastrous mathematics exam with a kid bad enough he hasn’t even got numbers exactly to express the score. Also I’m not sure there is a way to link to the strip I mean exactly; the archives for Martin’s strips are not … organized the way I would have done. Well, they’re his business. Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 1st reruns the strip from the 1st of June, 1989. It’s your standard resisting-the-word-problem joke. On first reading the strip I didn’t get what the problem was asking for, and supposed that the text had garbled the problem, if there were an original problem. That was my sloppiness is all; it’s a perfectly solvable question once you actually read it. J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts for the 1st — another day that threatened to be a Reading the Comics post all on its own — is a straggler Pi Day joke. It’s just some Dadaist clowning about. Doug Bratton’s Pop Culture Shock Therapy for the 1st is a wordplay joke that uses word problems as emblematic of mathematics. I’m okay with that; much of the mathematics that people actually want to do amounts to extracting from a situation the things that are relevant and forming an equation based on that. This is what a word problem is supposed to teach us to do. Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 1st — maybe I should have done a Reading the Comics for that day alone — riffs on the idle speculation that God would be a mathematician. It does this by showing a God uninterested in two logical problems. The first is the question of whether there’s an odd perfect number. Perfect numbers are these things that haunt number theory. (Everything haunts number theory.) It starts with idly noticing what happens if you pick a number, find the numbers that divide into it, and add those up. For example, 4 can be divided by 1 and 2; those add to 3. 5 can only be divided by 1; that adds to 1. 6 can be divided by 1, 2, and 3; those add to 6. For a perfect number the divisors add up to the original number. Perfect numbers look rare; for a thousand years or so only four of them (6, 28, 496, and 8128) were known to exist. All the perfect numbers we know of are even. More, they’re all numbers that can be written as the product $2^{p - 1} \cdot \left(2^p - 1\right)$ for certain prime numbers ‘p’. (They’re the ones for which $2^p - 1$ is itself a prime number.) What we don’t know, and haven’t got a hint about proving, is whether there are any odd prime numbers. We know some things about odd perfect numbers, if they exist, the most notable of them being that they’ve got to be incredibly huge numbers, much larger than a googol, the standard idea of an incredibly huge number. Presumably an omniscient God would be able to tell whether there were an odd perfect number, or at least would be able to care whether there were. (It’s also not known if there are infinitely many perfect numbers, by the way. This reminds us that number theory is pretty much nothing but a bunch of easy-to-state problems that we can’t solve.) Some miscellaneous other things we know about an odd perfect number, other than whether any exist: if there are odd perfect numbers, they’re not divisible by 105. They’re equal to one more than a whole multiple of 12. They’re also 117 more than a whole multiple of 468, and they’re 81 more than a whole multiple of 324. They’ve got to have at least 101 prime factors, and there have to be at least ten distinct prime factors. There have to be at least twelve distinct prime factors if 3 isn’t a factor of the odd perfect number. If this seems like a screwy list of things to know about a thing we don’t even know exists, then welcome to number theory. The beard question I believe is a reference to the logician’s paradox. This is the one postulating a village in which the village barber shaves all, but only, the people who do not shave themselves. Given that, who shaves the barber? It’s an old joke, but if you take it seriously you learn something about the limits of what a system of logic can tell you about itself. Bud Blake’s Tiger rerun for the 2nd has Tiger’s arithmetic homework spill out into real life. This happens sometimes. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat for the 10th of July, 1939 was rerun the 2nd of June. I’m not sure that it properly fits here, but the talk about Officer Pupp running at 60 miles per hour and Ignatz Mouse running forty and whether Pupp will catch Mouse sure reads like a word problem. Later strips in the sequence, including the ways that a tossed brick could hit someone who’d be running faster than it, did not change my mind about this. Plus I like Krazy Kat so I’ll take a flimsy excuse to feature it. ## Reading the Comics, April 18, 2017: Give Me Some Word Problems Edition I have my reasons for this installment’s title. They involve my deductions from a comic strip. Give me a few paragraphs. Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 16th asks for attention from whatever optician-written blog reads the comics for the eye jokes. And meets both the Venn Diagram and the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons content requirements for this week. Good job! Starts the week off strong. Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate: First Class for the 16th, rerunning the strip from 1993, is about impossibly low-probability events. We can read the comic as a joke about extrapolating a sequence from a couple examples. Properly speaking we can’t; any couple of terms can be extended in absolutely any way. But we often suppose a sequence follows some simple pattern, as many real-world things do. I’m going to pretend we can read Jenny’s estimates of the chance she’ll go out with him as at all meaningful. If Jenny’s estimate of the chance she’d go out with Nate rose from one in a trillion to one in a billion over the course of a week, this could be a good thing. If she’s a thousand times more likely each week to date him — if her interest is rising geometrically — this suggests good things for Nate’s ego in three weeks. If she’s only getting 999 trillionths more likely each week — if her interest is rising arithmetically — then Nate has a touch longer to wait before a date becomes likely. (I forget whether she has agreed to a date in the 24 years since this strip first appeared. He has had some dates with kids in his class, anyway, and some from the next grade too.) J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts for the 16th is a Pi Day joke that ran late. Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 17th starts a little thread about obsolete references in story problems. It’s continued on the 18th. I’m sympathetic in principle to both sides of the story problem debate. Is the point of the first problem, Farmer Joe’s apples, to see whether a student can do a not-quite-long division? Or is it to see whether the student can extract a price-per-quantity for something, and apply that to find the quantity to fit a given price? If it’s the latter then the numbers don’t make a difference. One would want to avoid marking down a student who knows what to do, and could divide 15 cents by three, but would freeze up if a more plausible price of, say,$2.25 per pound had to be divided by three.

But then the second problem, Mr Schad driving from Belmont to Cadillac, got me wondering. It is about 84 miles between the two Michigan cities (and there is a Reed City along the way). The time it takes to get from one city to another is a fair enough problem. But these numbers don’t make sense. At 55 miles per hour the trip takes an awful 1.5273 hours. Who asks elementary school kids to divide 84 by 55? On purpose? But at the state highway speed limit (for cars) of 70 miles per hour, the travel time is 1.2 hours. 84 divided by 70 is a quite reasonable thing to ask elementary school kids to do.

And then I thought of this: you could say Belmont and Cadillac are about 88 miles apart. Google Maps puts the distance as 86.8 miles, along US 131; but there’s surely some point in the one town that’s exactly 88 miles from some point in the other, just as there’s surely some point exactly 84 miles from some point in the other town. 88 divided by 55 would be another reasonable problem for an elementary school student; 1.6 hours is a reasonable answer. The (let’s call it) 1980s version of the question ought to see the car travel 88 miles at 55 miles per hour. The contemporary version ought to see the car travel 84 miles at 70 miles per hour. No reasonable version would make it 84 miles at 55 miles per hour.

So did Mallett take a story problem that could actually have been on an era-appropriate test and ancient it up?

Before anyone reports me to Comic Strip Master Command let me clarify what I’m wondering about. I don’t care if the details of the joke don’t make perfect sense. They’re jokes, not instruction. All the story problem needs to set up the joke is the obsolete speed limit; everything else is fluff. And I enjoyed working out variation of the problem that did make sense, so I’m happy Mallett gave me that to ponder.

Here’s what I do wonder about. I’m curious if story problems are getting an unfair reputation. I’m not an elementary school teacher, or parent of a kid in school. I would like to know what the story problems look like. Do you, the reader, have recent experience with the stuff farmers, drivers, and people weighing things are doing in these little stories? Are they measuring things that people would plausibly care about today, and using values that make sense for the present day? I’d like to know what the state of story problems is.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 18th uses mental arithmetic as the gauge of intelligence. Pretty harsly, too. I wouldn’t have known the square root of 8649 off the top of my head either, although it’s easy to tell that 92 can’t be right: the last digit of 92 squared has to be 4. It’s also easy to tell that 92 has to be about right, though, as 90 times 90 will be about 8100. Given this information, if you knew that 8,649 was a perfect square, you’d be hard-pressed to think of a better guess for its value than 93. But since most whole numbers are not perfect squares, “a little over 90” is the best I’d expect to do.