Reading the Comics, July 13, 2019: Marginal Supplemental Edition


So last week there were only a handful of comic strips which mentioned mathematics in any detail. That is, that brought up some point that I could go on about for a paragraph or so. There were more that had some marginal mathematics content. I gather them here for the interested.

Gordon Bess’s Redeye rerun for the 7th mentions mathematics as the homework that the chief is helping his son with. It could be any subject, but arithmetic is easy to fit into one panel of comic strip. And it’s also easy to establish that the work is on a low level. The comic originally ran the 18th of February, 1973.

Bob Shannon’s Tough Town for the 7th has an appearance by a Rubik’s Cube. I’m always going on about that as a group theory artifact.
Tough Town on the 9th also mentioned algebra as a tough subject for students.

John Allen’s Nest Heads for the 10th mentions sudoku. Also the trouble with accounting.

John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 11th mentions percentages. The joke’s built on doing a meaningless calculation. And a bit of convention, in which the label has been reduced to the point people could mis-read it. You just know this guy would tell the “scanner didn’t pick it up, it must be free” joke if he thought of it that fast.

Paige Braddock’s Jane’s World for the 11th is part of a sequence from 2002 in which Jane concludes the problems in her life came from the introduction of algebra. Her niece is having fun with algebra, a thing I understand. Algebra can be a more playful, explorative kind of mathematics than you get with, like, long division. For some people it’s liberating. This one’s a new tag, so I’m sure to be surprised that I have ever mentioned Jane’s World sometime in the future.

Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur for the 11th presents a Sphere of Serenity. Or, as Danae’s horse points out, a Cube of Serenity. There are ways that the difference between a sphere and a cube becomes nothing. If the cube and the sphere have infinitely great extent, for example, then there’s no observable difference between the shapes. Or if we use certain definitions of distance then the sphere — as in, the points all an equal distance from a center — can be indistinguishable from a cube. That’s not what the comic is going for.


There were no comic strips with any mathematical content last Saturday, it turns out. There have already been a couple comic strips I think I can discuss. One comic strip, anyway. I should have my essay about it for eager readers on Sunday. Thanks for your patience.

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Reading the Comics, June 13, 2018: Wild Squirrel Edition


I have another Reading the Comics post with a title that’s got nothing to do with the post. It has got something to do with how I spent my weekend. Not sure if I’ll ever get around to explaining that since there’s not much mathematical content to that weekend. I’m not sure whether the nonsense titles are any better than trying to find a theme in what Comic Strip Master Command has sent the past week. It takes time to pick something when anything would do, after all.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 10th is the anthropomorphic numerals strip for the week. Also arithmetic symbols. The ÷ sign is known as “the division symbol”, although now and then people try to promote it as the “obelus”. They’re not wrong to call it that, although they are being the kind of person who tries to call the # sign the “octothorp”. Sometimes social media pass around the false discovery that the ÷ sign is a representation of a fraction, \frac{a}{b} , with the numbers replaced by dots. It’s a good mnemonic for linking fractions and division. But it’s wrong to say that’s what the symbol means. ÷ started being used for division in Western Europe in the mid-17th century, in competition with many symbols, including / (still in common use), : (used in talking about ratios or odds), – (not used in this context anymore, and just confusing if you do try to use it so). And ÷ was used in northern Europe to mean “subtraction” for several centuries after this.

Numeral 8, speaking to a numeral 4 on a motorcycle by a ramp at the edge of a canyon that has a giant division symbol island within it: 'I'd think twice. Even if you make it to the other side, you'll always be half the man I am.' Caption: 'Crossing the Great Divide.'
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 10th of June, 2018. I’m kind of curious how far in the comments one has to go before getting to a ‘jumping the shark’ comment but not so curious as to read the comments.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2am for the 11th is a repeat; the too-short-lived strip has run through several cycles since I started doing these summaries. But it is also one of the great pie chart jokes ever and I have no intention of not telling people to enjoy it.

Randolph dreaming about his presentation; it shows a Pie Chart: Landed On Stage, 28%. Back wall, 13%. Glancing blow off torso, 22%. Hit podium, 12%. Direct hit in face, 25%. Several pies have been thrown, hitting the stage, back wall, his torso, the podium, his face. Corner illustration: 'I turn now to the bar graph.'
Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2am for the 11th of June, 2018. I’m not sure when it did first run, past that it was in 2000, but I’ve featured it at least two times before, both of those in 2015, peculiarly. So in short I have no idea how GoComics picks its reruns for this strip.

Pie charts, and the also-mentioned bar charts, come to us originally from the economist William Playfair, who in the late 1700s and early 1800s devised nearly all the good ways to visualize data. But we know them thanks to Florence Nightingale. Among her other works, she recognized in these charts good ways to represent her studies about Crimean War medicine and about sanitation in India. Nightingale was in 1859 named the first woman in the Royal Statistical Society, and was named an honorary member of the American Statistical Association in 1874.

Esther: 'The first step of the assignment is to find a partner.' Nancy: 'What's the second step?' [ Worksheet: 'Find a partner. Solve: x^2 + y^2 = 3, 16 x^2 - 4y^2 = 0, for x and y ] Nancy, sitting beside Esther, talking to the teacher: 'Neither of us could find a partner.'
Olivia Jaimes’s Nancy for the 12th of June, 2018. Well, if you still need a partner you can probably find me hiding under the desk hoping I don’t have to talk to anybody, ever. For what that’s worth.

Olivia Jaimes’s Nancy for the 12th uses arithmetic as iconic for classwork nobody wants to do. Algebra, too; I understand the reluctance to start. Simultaneous solutions; the challenge is to find sets of values ‘x’ and ‘y’ that make both equations true together. That second equation is a good break, though. 16 x^2 - 4y^2 = 0 makes it easy to write what ‘y’ has to be in terms of ‘x’. Then you can replace the ‘y’ in the first equation with its expression in terms of ‘x’. In a slightly tedious moment, it’s going to turn out there’s multiple sets of answers. Four sets, if I haven’t missed something. But they’ll be clearly related to each other. Even attractively arranged.

x^2 + y^2 = 3 is an equation that’s true if the numbers ‘x’ and ‘y’ are coordinates of the points on a circle. This is if the coordinates are using the Cartesian coordinate system for the plane, which is such a common thing to do that mathematicians can forget they’re doing that. The circle has radius \sqrt{3} . So you can look at the first equation and draw a circle and write down a note that its radius is \sqrt{3} and you’ve got it. 16x^2 - 4y^2 = 0 looks like an equation that’s true if the numbers ‘x’ and ‘y’ are coordinates of the points on a hyperbola. Again in the Cartesian coordinate system. But I have to feel a little uncomfortable saying this. If the equation were (say) 16x^2 - 4y^2 = 1 then it’d certainly be a hyperbola, which mostly looks like a mirror-symmetric pair of arcs. But equalling zero? That’s called a “degenerate hyperbola”, which makes it sound like the hyperbola is doing something wrong. Unfortunate word, but one we’re stuck with.

The description just reflects that the hyperbola is boring in some way. In this case, it’s boring because the ‘x’ and ‘y’ that make the equation true are just the points on a pair of straight lines that go through the origin, the point with coordinates (0, 0). And they’re going to be mirror-images of each other around the x- and the y-axis. So it seems like a waste to use the form of a hyperbola when we could do just as well using the forms of straight lines to describe the same points. This hyperbola will look like an X, although it might be a pretty squat ‘x’ or a pretty narrow one or something. Depends on the exact equation.

So. The solutions for ‘x’ and ‘y’ are going to be on the points that are on both a circle centered around the origin and on an X centered around the origin. This is a way to see why I would expect four solutions. Also they they would look about the same. There’d be an answer with positive ‘x’ and positive ‘y’, and then three more answers. One answer has ‘x’ with the same size but a minus sign. One answer has ‘y’ with the same size but a minus sign. One has both ‘x’ and ‘y’ with the same values but minus signs.

[ A woman turns a row on a Rubik's cube. She speaks into her phone. ] ' If I move Jen's ortho to Friday, it conflicts with Sam's clarinet. But I can't move that to Monday because Tina has soccer! Ugh, how do I line this thing up?'
Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump for the 12th of June, 2018. This is one of those gimmicks I could see having a niche. Not so much as something someone could use, but as a mildly amusing joke present to give someone you like but don’t really know anything about when for some reason you can’t just give a book instead.

Sorry I wasn’t there to partner with.

Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump for the 12th is a Rubik’s Cube joke. Here it merges the idea with the struggles of scheduling anything anymore. I’m not sure that the group-theory operations of lining up a Rubik’s cube can be reinterpreted as the optimization problems of scheduling stuff. But there are all sorts of astounding and surprising links between mathematical problems. So I wouldn’t rule it out.

Kid: 'Gramma says lotteries are a tax for people who are bad at math.' Dad: 'In a manner of speaking.' Kid: 'What's the tax for people who are bad at reading?' Dad: 'Handicapped-parking fines.'
John Allen’s Nest Heads for the 13th of June, 2018. Not to get too cranky but I can’t figure out what the kid’s name is. I understand some cartoonists want dialogue that’s a bit more natural than someone saying each character’s name at least once per daily strip, but could a cast list please be put on the strip’s ‘About’ page at leaset?

John Allen’s Nest Heads for the 13th is a lotteries joke. I’m less dogmatic than are many mathematicians about the logic of participating in a lottery. At least in the ones as run by states and regional authorities the chance of a major payout are, yes, millions to one against. There can be jackpots large enough that the expectation value of playing becomes positive. In this case the reward for that unlikely outcome is so vast that it covers the hundreds of millions of times you play and lose. But even then, you have the question of whether doing something that just won’t pay out is worth it. My taste is to say that I shall do much more foolish things with my disposable income than buying a couple tickets each year. And while I would like to win the half-billion-dollar jackpot that would resolve all my financial woes and allow me to crush those who had me imprisoned in the Château d’If, I’d also be coming out ahead if I won, like, one of the petty $10,000 prizes.

Reading the Comics, February 3, 2017: Counting Edition


And now I can close out last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. Two of them are even about counting, which is enough for me to make that the name of this set.

John Allen’s Nest Heads for the 2nd mentions a probability and statistics class and something it’s supposed to be good for. I would agree that probability and statistics are probably (I can’t find a better way to write this) the most practically useful mathematics one can learn. At least once you’re past arithmetic. They’re practical by birth; humans began studying them because they offer guidance in uncertain situations. And one can use many of their tools without needing more than arithmetic.

I’m not so staunchly anti-lottery as many mathematics people are. I’ll admit I play it myself, when the jackpot is large enough. When the expectation value of the prize gets to be positive, it’s harder to rationalize not playing. This happens only once or twice a year, but it’s fun to watch and see when it happens. I grant it’s a foolish way to use two dollars (two tickets are my limit), but you know? My budget is not so tight I can’t spend four dollars foolishly a year. Besides, I don’t insist on winning one of those half-billion-dollar prizes. I imagine I’d be satisfied if I brought in a mere $10,000.

'Hey, Ruthie's Granny, how old are you?' 'You can't count that high, James.' 'I can too!' 'Fine! Start at one and I'll tell you when you get to my age.' '1, 2, 3, 4, 11, 22, 88, 99, 200, a gazillion!' 'Very good! It's somewhere between 22 and a gazillion!' 'Gazowie!'
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 3rd of February, 2017. A ‘gazillion’ is actually a surprisingly low number, hovering as it does somewhere around 212. Fun fact!

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 3rd continues my previous essay’s bit of incompetence at basic mathematics, here, counting. But working out that her age is between 22 an a gazillion may be worth doing. It’s a common mathematical challenge to find a correct number starting from little information about it. Usually we find it by locating bounds: the number must be larger than this and smaller than that. And then get the bounds closer together. Stop when they’re close enough for our needs, if we’re numerical mathematicians. Stop when the bounds are equal to each other, if we’re analytic mathematicians. That can take a lot of work. Many problems in number theory amount to “improve our estimate of the lowest (or highest) number for which this is true”. We have to start somewhere.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 3rd is a counting-sheep joke and I was amused that the counting went so awry here. On looking over the strip again for this essay, though, I realize I read it wrong. It’s the fences that are getting counted, not the sheep. Well, it’s a cute little sheep having the same problems counting that Horace has. We don’t tend to do well counting more than around seven things at a glance. We can get a bit farther if we can group things together and spot that, say, we have four groups of four fences each. That works and it’s legitimate; we’re counting and we get the right count out of it. But it does feel like we’re doing something different from how we count, say, three things at a glance.

Mick Mastroianni and Mason MastroianniDogs of C Kennel for the 3rd is about the world’s favorite piece of statistical mechanics, entropy. There’s room for quibbling about what exactly we mean by thermodynamics saying all matter is slowly breaking down. But the gist is fair enough. It’s still mysterious, though. To say that the disorder of things is always increasing forces us to think about what we mean by disorder. It’s easy to think we have an idea what we mean by it. It’s hard to make that a completely satisfying definition. In this way it’s much like randomness, which is another idea often treated as the same as disorder.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 3rd reprinted the comic from the 10th of February, 2006. Mathematics teachers always want to see how you get your answers. Why? … Well, there are different categories of mistakes someone can make. One can set out trying to solve the wrong problem. One can set out trying to solve the right problem in a wrong way. One can set out solving the right problem in the right way and get lost somewhere in the process. Or one can be doing just fine and somewhere along the line change an addition to a subtraction and get what looks like the wrong answer. Each of these is a different kind of mistake. Knowing what kinds of mistakes people make is key to helping them not make these mistakes. They can get on to making more exciting mistakes.