Reading the Comics, November 24, 2018: Origins Edition


I’m not sure there is a theme to the back half of last week’s mathematically-based comic strips. If there is, it’s about showing some origins of things. I’ll go with that title, then.

Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 21st is another in the curious thread of strips about Fi talking about mathematics. She’s presented as doing a good job inspiring kids to appreciate mathematics as a fun, exciting, interesting thing to think about. It’s good work. And I hope this does not sound like I am envious of a more successful, if fictional, mathematics popularizer. But I don’t see much in the strip of her doing this side job well. That is, of making the case that mathematics is worth the time spent on it. That’s a lot to ask given the confines of a syndicated daily newspaper comic strip, yes. What we can expect is some hint of what the actual good argument would look like. But this particular day’s strip rings false to me, for example. I don’t see how “here’s some pizza — but first, here’s a pop quiz” makes mathematics look as something other than a chore.

Dethany, to her boyfriend: 'Fi concludes her math talks with a demonstration of the tangible benefits of numbers. By having pizza delivered. Square pizza.' Fi, to the kids, as the pizza guy arrives: 'First, calculate how much more area you get than with a round one.'
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 21st of November, 2018. Essays mentioning topics raised by On The Fastrack are at this link.

Pizza area offers many ways into mathematical ideas. How the area depends on the size of the pizza, for example. How the area depends on the shape, even independently of the size. How to slice a pizza fairly, especially if it’s not to be between four or six or eight people. What is the strangest shape you could make that would give people equal areas? Just the way slices intersect at angles inspires neat little geometry problems. How you might arrange toppings opens up symmetries and tilings, which are surprisingly big areas of mathematics. Setting problems on a pizza gives them a tangibility that could help capture young minds, surely. But I can’t make myself believe that this is a conversation to have when the pizza is entering the room.

At the lottery ticket booth. Grimm: 'Hey, why do you always but lottery tickets? The odds of you winning are astronomical!' Goose: 'Yeah, but they're astronomically higher if I don't buy a ticket.'
Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 22nd of November, 2018. Other essays which mention Mother Goose and Grimm should be at this link. I had thought this was a new link, but it turns out there was a strip in early 2017 and another in mid-2015 that got my attention here.

Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 22nd is a lottery joke. So if we suppose this was written about the last time the Powerball jackpot reached a half-billion dollars we can work out how far ahead of publication Mike Peters is working. One solid argument against ever buying a lottery ticket is, as Grimm notes, that you have zero chance of winning. (I’m open to an argument based on expectation value. And even more, I don’t object to people spending a reasonable bit of disposable income “foolishly”.) Mother Goose argues that her chances are vastly worse if she doesn’t buy a ticket. This is true. Are her chances “astronomically” worse? … That depends. A one in three hundred million chance (to use, roughly, the Powerball odds) is so small that it won’t happen to you. Is that any different than a zero in three hundred million chance [*]? Or than a six in three hundred million chance? In any case it won’t happen to you.

[*] Do you actually have zero chance of winning if you don’t have a ticket? I say no, you don’t. Someone might give you a winning ticket. Maybe you find one as a bookmark in a library book. Maybe you find it on the street and figure, what the heck, I’ll check. Unlikely? Sure. But impossible? Hardly.

Peter: 'If you had three clams and gave one away, then I took two, what would you have?' Curls: 'A worthless reason for being in business.'
Johnny Hart’s Back to BC for the 22nd of November, 2018. It originally appeared the 27th of May, 1961. Essays which discuss topics brought up by B.C., both the current-run and the half-century-old reruns, are at this link.

Johnny Hart’s Back to BC for the 22nd has the form of the world’s oldest story problem. It could also be a joke about the discovery of the concept of zero and the struggle to understand it as a number. Given that clams are used as currency in the BC setting it also shows how finance has driven mathematical development. So the strip actually packs a fair bit of stuff into two panels. … And I’ll admit I’m not quite sure the joke parses, but if you read it quickly it looks like a good enough joke.

Fat Broad, to a dinosaur: 'How much is one and one?' The dinosaur stops a front foot twice. Then gets ready to stomp a third time. Fat Broad whaps the dinosaur senseless. Broad: 'Isn't it amazing how fast animals learn?'
Johnny Hart’s Back to BC for the 24th of November, 2018. It originally appeared the 30th of May, 1961. If this strip has inspired any essays oh wait, I already said where to find them, didn’t I? Well, you know what to look for, then.

Johnny Hart’s Back to BC for the 24th is a more obvious joke. And it’s built on the learning abilities of animals, and the number sense of animals. A large animal stomping a foot evokes, to me at least, Clever Hans. This is a horse presented in the early 20th century as being able to actually do arithmetic. The horse would be given a question and would stop his hoof enough times to get to the right answer. However good the horse’s number sense might be, he had quite good behavioral sense. It turned out — after brilliant and pioneering work in animal cognition — that Hans was observing his trainer’s body language. When Wilhelm von Osten was satisfied that there’d been the right number of stomps, the horse stopped. This is sometimes presented as Hans `merely’ taking subconscious cues from his trainer. But consider how carefully the horse must be observing an animal with a very different body, and how it must have understood cues of satisfaction. I can’t call that `mere’. And the work of tracking down a signal that von Osten himself did not know he was sending (and, apparently, never accepted that he did) is also amazing. It serves as a reminder how hard biologists and zoologists have to work.

Kid: 'How come in old paintings the perspective is really badly drawn?' Dad: 'Perspective didn't exist back then. Sometimes there'd be a whole castle right behind you . Other times you'd sit at a table and the tabletop would face away from you. That's also why portraits were badly drawn. Try holding a brush in a world without three consistent dimensions. Italian architects invented perspective to make it easier to draw buildings. What's why things suddenly look a lot nicer around the 16th century.' Kid: 'Are you sure?' Dad: 'How else do you explain that it took 10,000 years of civilization to invent Cartesian coordinates?' Kid: 'I figured people are just kinda stupid.' Dad: 'How facile.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 24th of November, 2018. The many essays mentioning topics raised by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal are at this link.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 24th gives a bit of Dad History about perspective. And, particularly, why artists didn’t seem to use it much before the 16th century. It gets more blatantly tied to mathematics by pointing out how it took ten thousand years of civilization to get Cartesian coordinates. We can argue about how many years civilization has been around. But it does seem strange that we went along for certainly the majority of that time without Cartesian coordinates. They seem so obvious it’s almost hard to not think of them. Many good ideas have such a legacy.

It’s easy to say why older pictures didn’t use perspective, though. For the most part, artists didn’t think perspective gave them something they wanted to show. Ancient peoples knew of perspective. It’s not as if ancient peoples were any dumber than we are, or any less able to look at square tiles held at different angles and at different distances. But we can convey information about the importance of things, or the flow of action of things, using position and relative size. That can be more important than showing that yes, an artist is aware that a square building far away looks small.

I’m less sure what I know about the history of coordinate systems, though, and particularly why it took until René Descartes to describe them. We have a legend of Descartes laying in bed, watching a fly on the tiled ceiling, and realizing he could describe where the fly was by what row and column of tile it was on. (In the past I have written this as though it happened. In writing this essay I went looking for a primary source and found nobody seems to have one. I shall try not to pass it on again without being very clear that it is just a legend.) But there have been tiled floors and walls and ceilings for a very long time. There have been flies even longer. Why didn’t anyone notice this?

One answer may be that they did. We just haven’t heard about it, because it was found by someone who didn’t catch the interest of a mathematical community. There’s likely a lot of such lost mathematics out there. But still, why not? Wouldn’t anyone with a mathematical inclination see that this is plainly a great discovery? And maybe not. What made Cartesian coordinates great was the realization that arithmetic and geometry, previously seen as separate liberal arts, were duals. A problem in one had an expression as a problem in the other. If you don’t make that connection, then Cartesian coordinates don’t solve any problems you have. They’re just a new way to index things you didn’t need indexed. So that would slow down using them any.


All of my regular Reading the Comics posts should all be at this link. Tomorrow should see the posting of my next my Fall 2018 Mathematics A To Z essay. And there’s still time to put in requests for the last half-dozen letters of the alphabet.

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Reading the Comics, January 16, 2017: Numerals Edition


Comic Strip Master Command decreed that last week should be busy again. So I’m splitting its strips into two essays. It’s a week that feels like it had more anthropomorphic numerals jokes than usual, but see if I actually count these things.

2 asks 4: 'Six, six, six, can't you think of anything but six?'
Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 15th of January, 2017. I understand that sometimes you just have to use the idea you have instead of waiting for something that can best use the space available, but really, a whole Sunday strip for a single panel? And a panel that’s almost a barren stage?

Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm for the 15th I figured would be the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. Shows what I know. It is an easy joke, but I do appreciate the touch of craft involved in picking the numerals. The joke is just faintly dirty if the numbers don’t add to six. If they were a pair of 3’s, there’d be the unwanted connotations of a pair of twins talking about all this. A 6 and a 0 would make at least one character weirdly obsessed. So it has to be a 4 and a 2, or a 5 and a 1. I imagine Peters knew this instinctively, at this point in his career. It’s one of the things you learn in becoming an expert.

Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. for the 15th is mostly physical comedy, with a touch of — I’m not sure what to call this kind of joke. The one where a little arithmetic error results in bodily harm. In this sort of joke it’s almost always something not being carried that’s the error. I suppose that’s a matter of word economy. “Forgot to carry the (number)” is short, and everybody’s done it. And even if they don’t remember making this error, the phrasing clarifies to people that it’s a little arithmetic mistake. I think in practice mistaking a plus for a minus (or vice-versa) is the more common arithmetic error. But it’s harder to describe that clearly and concisely.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 15th puzzled me. I hadn’t heard this thing the kid says about how if you can “spew ten random lines from a classic movie” to convince people you’ve seen it. (I don’t know the kid’s name; it happens.) I suppose that it would be convincing, though. I certainly know a couple lines from movies I haven’t seen, what with living in pop culture and all that. But ten would be taxing for all but the most over-saturated movies, like any of the Indiana Jones films. (There I’m helped by having played the 90s pinball machine a lot.) Anyway, knowing ten random mathematics things isn’t convincing, especially since you can generate new mathematical things at will just by changing a number. But I would probably be convinced that someone who could describe what’s interesting about ten fields of mathematics had a decent understanding of the subject. That requires remembering more stuff, but then, mathematics is a bigger subject than even a long movie is.

In Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 16th Fi speaks of tallying the pluses and minuses of her life. Trying to make life into something that can be counted is an old decision-making technique. I think Benjamin Franklin explained how he found it so useful. It’s not a bad approach if a choice is hard. The challenging part is how to weight each consideration. Getting into fractions seems rather fussy to me, but some things are just like that. There is the connotation here that a fraction is a positive number smaller than 1. But the mathematically-trained (such as Fi) would be comfortable with fractions larger than 1. Or also smaller than zero. “Fraction” is no more bounded than “real number”. So, there’s the room for more sweetness here than might appear to the casual reader.

'In a couple of weeks I'm getting married, so I'm taking stock of my life, adding up the pluses and minuses that factor into my goals.' 'Am I a positive or a negative integer?' 'You're a fraction.' 'How presumptuous of me.'
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 16th of January, 2017. Were I in Dethany’s position I would have asked about being a positive or negative number, but then that would leave Holbrook without a third panel. Dethany knows what her author needs most.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 16th is the next anthropomorphic numerals joke for this week. I’m glad Hilburn want to be in my pages more. 5’s concern about figuring out x might be misplaced. We use variables for several purposes. One of them is as a name to give a number whose value we don’t know but wish to work out, and that’s how we first see them in high school algebra. But a variable might also be a number whose value we don’t particularly care about and will never try to work out. This could be because the variable is a parameter, with a value that’s fixed for a problem but not what we’re interested in. We don’t typically use ‘x’ for that, though; usually parameter are something earlier in the alphabet. That’s merely convention, but it is convention that dates back to René Descartes. Alternatively, we might use ‘x’ as a dummy variable. A dummy variable serves the same role that falsework on a building or a reference for an artistic sketch does. We use dummy variables to organize and carry out work, but we don’t care what its values are and we don’t even see the dummy variable in the final result. A dummy variable can be any name, but ‘x’ and ‘t’ are popular choices.

Terry LaBan and Patty LaBan’s Edge City rerun for the 16th plays on the idea that mathematics people talk in algebra. Funny enough, although, “the opposing defense is a variable of 6”? That’s an idiosyncratic use of “variable”. I’m going to suppose that Charles is just messing with Len’s head because, really, it’s fun doing a bit of that.

Reading the Comics, June 13, 2012


Because there weren’t many math-themed comic strips, that’s why I went so long without an update in my roster of comic strips that mention math subjects. After Mike Peters’s Mother Goose and Grimm put in the start of a binomial expression the comics pages — through King Features Syndicate and gocomics.com — decided to drop the whole subject pretty completely for the rest of May. It picked up a little in June.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, June 13, 2012”