Reading the Comics, June 6, 2019: Not The Slowest Week Edition


Comic Strip Master Command started the summer vacation early this year. There have been even slower weeks for mathematically-themed comics, but not many, and not much slower. Well, it’s looking like a nice weekend anyway. We can go out and do something instead.

And I’m doing a little experiment to see what happens if I publish posts a bit earlier in the day. My suspicion is nothing that reaches statistical significance. But statistical significance isn’t everything. I can devote a month or two to a lark.

Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin for the 2nd is a rerun. The strip ended several years ago, and has not been one of those formerly syndicated comics gone to web-only publication. And it’s one that I’ve discussed before, in a 2014 repeat and briefly in 2015. I don’t know why it reran six months apart. Having a particular daily strip repeat so often is usually a sign I should retire the strip from this blog. Likely I won’t retire it from my reading. I like its style a bit too much.

Quentin: 'Sorry you aren't feeling happy today.' Ollie: 'Why do you think I'm not happy?' Quentin: 'Studies show 50% of people aren't happy, and I'm in a great mood.' Ollie: 'You idiot! It doesn't work like that!' Quentin: 'Yes it does, every second person isn't happy, I'm happy, so you can't be.' Ollie: 'I am happy you moron!' Quentin: 'No you're not.' Ollie: 'I AM!' Quentin: 'You don't sound it!' Ollie: 'AAAARGH!' (And he storms off, cursing.) Quentin: 'Sorry you aren't feeling happy today.'
Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin for the 2nd of June, 2019. I find that I’ve discussed this strip less often than I imagined. Essays including some mention of Ollie and Quentin appear at this link. There are some appearances of the strip which predate my using the comic as a tag, however.

The joke is built on Quentin hearing that only 50% of people are not happy. And as he is happy, and he and Ollie are two people, it follows Ollie can’t be. The joke builds on the logic of the gambler’s fallacy. This is the idea that the probability of some independent event depends on what has recently happened. Here “event” means what it does to statisticians, what it turns out something is. This can be the result of a coin toss. This can be finding out whether a person is happy or not. The gambler’s fallacy has a hard-to-resist logic to it. We know it is unlikely that a coin tossed fairly ten times will come up tails each time. We also know it is even more unlikely that a coin tossed fairly eleven times will turn up tails every time. So if the coin has already come up tails ten times? It’s easy in the abstract to sneer at people who make this mistake. But at some point or other we all think some unpredictable event is “due”.

There is a catch here, though. The gambler’s fallacy covers independent events. One coin’s toss does not affect whether the next toss should be heads or tails. But personal happiness? That is something affected by other people. Perhaps not dramatically. But one person’s mood can certainly alter another’s, just as the strip demonstrates. In past appearances of this strip I’ve written about it as though the mathematical comedy element were obvious. Now I realize I may have under-explored what is happening here.

Student at blackboard, working problems like 3+2 and 2+2, to the teacher: 'Do we need to learn this in case our smart devices are down?'
Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 for the 3rd of June, 2019. This strip I mention rarely, but that’s about as often as I expect. Essays inspired by something in 9 to 5 appear at this link.

Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 for the 3rd is a student-at-the-blackboard joke. And a joke about the uselessness of learning arithmetic if there are computing devices around. There have always been computing devices around, though. I’d prefer them for tedious problems, or for problems in which mistakes have serious consequences. But I think it’s worth knowing at least what to do. But I like mathematics. Of course I would.

Student at blackboard, having written out 7 x 6 = 50, to the teacher: 'I added a tip.'
Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 6th of June, 2019. This comic comes up sometimes. Cornered appears in essays at this link.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 6th is another student-at-the-blackboard joke. This one has the student excusing his wrong answer, a number too high, as a tip. In the student’s defense, I’ll say being able to come up with a decent approximate answer, even one you know is a little too high, is worth it. Often an important step in a problem is knowing about what a reasonable answer is. This can involve mental-mathematics tricks. For example, remembering that 7 times 7 is just under fifty, which would help with a problem like 7 times 6.


And that’s all the comic strips I found worth any mention last week. There weren’t even any that rated a “there’s a comic that said ‘math class’, so here you go” aside. This bodes well for an interesting week of content around here. My next Reading the Comics post should appear next Sunday at this link. All the past comic strip discussion should, too. If you should find a comics essay that doesn’t appear in those archives please let me know. I’ll fix it.

Reading the Comics, September 29, 2017: Anthropomorphic Mathematics Edition


The rest of last week had more mathematically-themed comic strips than Sunday alone did. As sometimes happens, I noticed an objectively unimportant detail in one of the comics and got to thinking about it. Whether I could solve the equation as posted, or whether at least part of it made sense as a mathematics problem. Well, you’ll see.

Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts for the 25th of September I include because it’s cute and I like when I can feature some comic in these roundups. Maybe there’s some discussion that could be had about what “equals” means in ordinary English versus what it means in mathematics. But I admit that’s a stretch.

Professor Earl's Math Class. (Earl is the dog.) 'One belly rub equals two pats on the head!'
Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts for the 25th of September, 2017. I should be interested in other people’s research on this. My love’s parents’ dogs are the ones I’ve had the most regular contact with the last few years, and the dogs have all been moderately to extremely alarmed by my doing suspicious things, such as existing or being near them or being away from them or reaching a hand to them or leaving a treat on the floor for them. I know this makes me sound worrisome, but my love’s parents are very good about taking care of dogs others would consider just too much trouble.

Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 25th uses, and describes, the mathematics of a famous probability problem. This is the surprising result of how few people you need to have a 50 percent chance that some pair of people have a birthday in common. It then goes over to some other probability problems. The examples are silly. But the reasoning is sound. And the approach is useful. To find the chance of something happens it’s often easiest to work out the chance it doesn’t. Which is as good as knowing the chance it does, since a thing can either happen or not happen. At least in probability problems, which define “thing” and “happen” so there’s not ambiguity about whether it happened or not.

Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin rerun for the 26th I’m pretty sure I’ve written about before, although back before I included pictures of the Comics Kingdom strips. (The strip moved from Comics Kingdom over to GoComics, which I haven’t caught removing old comics from their pages.) Anyway, it plays on a core piece of probability. It sets out the world as things, “events”, that can have one of multiple outcomes, and which must have one of those outcomes. Coin tossing is taken to mean, by default, an event that has exactly two possible outcomes, each equally likely. And that is near enough true for real-world coin tossing. But there is a little gap between “near enough” and “true”.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup To Nutz for the 27th is your standard sort of Dumb Royboy joke, in this case about him not knowing what percentages are. You could do the same joke about fractions, including with the same breakdown of what part of the mathematics geek population ruins it for the remainder.

Nate Fakes’s Break of Day for the 28th is not quite the anthropomorphic-numerals joke for the week. Anthropomorphic mathematics problems, anyway. The intriguing thing to me is that the difficult, calculus, problem looks almost legitimate to me. On the right-hand-side of the first two lines, for example, the calculation goes from

\int -8 e^{-\frac{ln 3}{14} t}

to
-8 -\frac{14}{ln 3} e^{-\frac{ln 3}{14} t}

This is a little sloppy. The first line ought to end in a ‘dt’, and the second ought to have a constant of integration. If you don’t know what these calculus things are let me explain: they’re calculus things. You need to include them to express the work correctly. But if you’re just doing a quick check of something, the mathematical equivalent of a very rough preliminary sketch, it’s common enough to leave that out.

It doesn’t quite parse or mean anything precisely as it is. But it looks like the sort of thing that some context would make meaningful. That there’s repeated appearances of - \frac{ln 3}{14} , or - \frac{14}{ln 3} , particularly makes me wonder if Frakes used a problem he (or a friend) was doing for some reason.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 29th is a welcome reassurance that something like normality still exists. Something something student blackboard story problem something.

Anthony Blades’s Bewley rerun for the 29th depicts a parent once again too eager to help with arithmetic homework.

Maria Scrivan’s Half Full for the 29th gives me a proper anthropomorphic numerals panel for the week, and none too soon.

Reading the Comics, June 24, 2017: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Edition


Somehow this is not the title of every Reading The Comics review! But it is for this post and we’ll explore why below.

Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin for the 18th is a Zeno’s Paradox-based joke. This uses the most familiar of Zeno’s Paradoxes, about the problem of covering any distance needing infinitely many steps to be done in a finite time. Zeno’s Paradoxes are often dismissed these days (probably were then, too), on the grounds that the Ancient Greeks Just Didn’t Understand about convergence. Hardly; they were as smart as we were. Zeno had a set of paradoxes, built on the questions of whether space and time are infinitely divisible or whether they’re not. Any answer to one paradox implies problems in others. There’s things we still don’t really understand about infinity and infinitesimals and continuity. Someday I should do a proper essay about them.

Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump for the 18th is not exactly an anthropomorphic-numerals joke. It is about making symbols manifest in the real world, at least. The greater-than and less-than signs as we know them were created by the English mathematician Thomas Harriot, and introduced to the world in his posthumous Artis Analyticae Praxis (1631). He also had an idea of putting a . between the numerals of an expression and the letters multiplied by them, for example, “4.x” to mean four times x. We mostly do without that now, taking multiplication as assumed if two meaningful quantities are put next to one another. But we will use, now, a vertically-centered dot to separate terms multiplied together when that helps our organization. The equals sign we trace to the 16th century mathematician Robert Recorde, whose 1557 Whetsone of Witte uses long but recognizable equals signs. The = sign went into hibernation after that, though, until the 17th century and it took some time to quite get well-used. So it often is with symbols.

Mr Tanner: 'Today we'll talk about where numbers come from. Take zero, for instance ... Quincy, do you know who invented the zero?' Quincy: 'I'm not sure, Mr Tanner, but from the grades I get it must have been one of my teachers.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 25th of April, 1978 and rerun the 19th of June, 2017. The question does make me wonder how far Mr Tanner was going to go with this. The origins of zero and one are great stuff for class discussion. Two, also. But what about three? Five? Ten? Twelve? Minus one? Irrational numbers, if the class has got up to them? How many students are going to be called on to talk about number origins? And how many truly different stories are there?

Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 25th of April, 1978 and rerun the 19th of June, starts from the history of zero. It’s worth noting there are a couple of threads woven together in the concept of zero. One is the idea of “nothing”, which we’ve had just forever. I mean, the idea that there isn’t something to work with. Another is the idea of the … well, the additive identity, there being some number that’s one less than one and two less than two. That you can add to anything without changing the thing. And then there’s symbols. There’s the placeholder for “there are no examples of this quantity here”. There’s the denotation of … well, the additive identity. All these things are zeroes, and if you listen closely, they are not quite the same thing. Which is not weird. Most words mean a collection of several concepts. We’re lucky the concepts we mean by “zero” are so compatible in meaning. Think of the poor person trying to understand the word “bear”, or “cleave”.

John Deering’s Strange Brew for the 19th is a “New Math” joke, fittingly done with cavemen. Well, numerals were new things once. Amusing to me is that — while I’m not an expert — in quite a few cultures the symbol for “one” was pretty much the same thing, a single slash mark. It’s hard not to suppose that numbers started out with simple tallies, and the first thing to tally might get dressed up a bit with serifs or such but is, at heart, the same thing you’d get jabbing a sharp thing into a soft rock.

Guy Gilchrist’s Today’s Dogg for the 19th I’m sure is a rerun and I think I’ve featured it here before. So be it. It’s silly symbol-play and dog arithmetic. It’s a comic strip about how dogs are cute; embrace it or skip it.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is properly speaking reruns when it appears on GoComics.com. For whatever reason Weinersmith ran a patch of mathematics strips there this past week. So let me bundle all that up. On the 19th he did a joke mathematicians get a lot, about how the only small talk anyone has about mathematics is how they hated mathematics. I’m not sure mathematicians have it any better than any other teachers, though. Have you ever known someone to say, “My high school gym class gave me a greater appreciation of the world”? Or talk about how grade school history opened their eyes to the wonders of the subject? It’s a sad thing. But there are a lot of things keeping teachers from making students feel joy in their subjects.

For the 21st Weinersmith makes a statisticians joke. I can wrangle some actual mathematics out of an otherwise correctly-formed joke. How do we ever know that something is true? Well, we gather evidence. But how do we know the evidence is relevant? Even if the evidence is relevant, how do we know we’ve interpreted it correctly? Even if we have interpreted it correctly, how do we know that it shows what we want to know? Statisticians become very familiar with hypothesis testing, which amounts to the question, “does this evidence indicate that some condition is implausibly unlikely”? And they can do great work with that. But “implausibly unlikely” is not the same thing as “false”. A person knowledgeable enough and honest turns out to have few things that can be said for certain.

The June 23rd strip I’ve seen go around Mathematics Twitter several times, as see above tweet, about the ways in which mathematical literacy would destroy modern society. It’s a cute and flattering portrait of mathematics’ power, probably why mathematicians like passing it back and forth. But … well, how would “logic” keep people from being fooled by scams? What makes a scam work is that the premise seems logical. And real-world problems — as opposed to logic-class problems — are rarely completely resolvable by deductive logic. There have to be the assumptions, the logical gaps, and the room for humbuggery that allow hoaxes and scams to slip through. And does anyone need a logic class to not “buy products that do nothing”? And what is “nothing”? I have more keychains than I have keys to chain, even if we allow for emergencies and reasonable unexpected extra needs. This doesn’t stop my buying keychains as souvenirs. Does a Penn Central-logo keychain “do nothing” merely because it sits on the windowsill rather than hold any sort of key? If so, was my love foolish to buy it as a present? Granted that buying a lottery ticket is a foolish use of money; is my life any worse for buying that than, say, a peanut butter cup that I won’t remember having eaten a week afterwards? As for credit cards — It’s not clear to me that people max out their credit cards because they don’t understand they will have to pay it back with interest. My experience has been people max out their credit cards because they have things they must pay for and no alternative but going further into debt. That people need more money is a problem of society, yes, but it’s not clear to me that a failure to understand differential equations is at the heart of it. (Also, really, differential equations are overkill to understand credit card debt. A calculator with a repeat-the-last-operation feature and ten minutes to play is enough.)