Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 18th is an anthropomorphic numerals joke. It’s part of Holbrook’s style to draw metaphors as literal happenings. It’s also a variation on a joke Holbrook used just last month, depicting then the phrase “accepting his numbers”. What I said about “accepting numbers” transfers over naturally to “trusting numbers”. It’s not that a number itself means anything. It’s that numbers are used to represent some narrative. If we can’t believe the narrative, we don’t believe the numbers. And the numbers used to represent something can give us reasons to trust, or reject, a narrative.
Eric the Circle for the 18th I can dub an anthropomorphic geometry joke for the week. At least it brings up one of the handful of geometry facts that people remember outside school. The relationship between the circumference and the diameter (or radius, if you rather) of a circle has been known just forever. It has the advantage of going through π, supporting and being supported by that celebrity number. … I’m not quite sure about the logic of this joke, though. My experience is that guys at least are fairly good about knowing their waist size (if you don’t know, it’s 38, although a 40 can feel so comfortable, and they’re sure they can wear a 36). Radius is a harder thing to keep in mind. But maybe it’s different for circles.
Russell Myers’s Broom Hilda for the 19th is a student-and-teacher problem. One thing is that Nerwin’s not wrong. It’s just that simply saying something true isn’t enough. We want to say things that are true and interesting.
But “you add two numbers and get a number” can be interesting. It depends on context. For example, in group theory, we will start by describing groups as a collection of things and an operation which works like addition. What does it mean to work like addition? Here, it means if you add two things from the collection, you get something from the collection. The collection of things is “closed” under your operation. And mathematical operations defined this abstractly — or defined this vaguely, if you don’t like the way it goes — can be great. We’re introduced to vectors, for example, as “ordered sets of numbers”. And that definition works all right. But when you start thinking of them instead as “things you can add to vectors and get other vectors out” you gain new power. You can use the mechanism developed for ordered sets of numbers to describe many things, including matrices and functions and shapes. But when we do that we’re saying things about how addition works, rather than what this particular addition is.
You know, on reflection, I’m not sure that Eric the Circle was more worthy of discussion than that Barney Google was. Hm.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And then I noticed there were a bunch of comic strips with some kind of mathematical theme on the same day. Always fun when that happens.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack uses one of Holbrook’s common motifs. That’s the depicting as literal some common metaphor. in this case it’s “massaging the numbers”, which might seem not strictly mathematics. But while numbers are interesting, they’re also useful. To be useful they must connect to something we want to know. They need context. That context is always something of human judgement. If the context seems inappropriate to the listener, she thinks the presenter is massaging the numbers. If the context seems fine, we trust the numbers as showing something truth.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater is a seasonal pun that couldn’t wait for a day closer to Christmas. I’m a little curious why not. It would be the same joke with any subject, certainly. The strip did make me wonder if Ebeneezer Scrooge, in-universe, might have taken calculus. This lead me to see that it’s a bit vague what, precisely, Scrooge, or Scrooge-and-Marley, did. The movies are glad to position him as having a warehouse, and importing and exporting things, and making and collecting on loans and whatnot. These are all trades that mathematicians would like to think benefit from knowing advanced mathematics. The logic of making loans implies attention be paid to compounding interest, risks, and expectation values, as well as projecting cash-flow a fair bit into the future. But in the original text he doesn’t make any stated loans, and the only warehouse anyone enters is Fezziwig’s. Well, the Scrooge and Marley sign stands “above the warehouse door”, but we only ever go in to the counting-house. And yes, what Scrooge does besides gather money and misery is irrelevant to the setting of the story.
Teresa Burritt’s Dadaist strip Frog Applause uses knowledge of mathematics as an emblem of intelligence. “Multivariate analysis” is a term of art from statistics. It’s about measuring how one variable changes depending on two or more other variables. The goal is obvious: we know there are many things that influence anything of interest. Can we find what things have the strongest effects? The weakest effects? There are several ways we might mean “strongest” effect, too. It might mean that a small change in the independent variable produces a big change in the dependent one. Or it might mean that there’s very little noise, that a change in the independent variable produces a reliable change in the dependent one. Or we might have several variables that are difficult to measure precisely on their own, but with a combination that’s noticeable. The basic calculations for this look a lot like those for single-variable analysis. But there’s much more calculation. It’s more tedious, at least. My reading suggests that multivariate analysis didn’t develop much until there were computers cheap enough to do the calculations. Might be coincidence, though. Many machine-learning techniques can be described as multivariate analysis problems.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn is a Pi Day joke from before the time when Pi Day was a thing. Brad’s magazine flipping like that is an unusual bit of throwaway background humor for the comic strip.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The first half of last week’s comics offered another bunch of chances to think about what mathematics is for. Before I do get into all that, though, may I mention the most recent update of Gregory Taylor’s serial:
Whether you're an American celebrating Thanksgiving, or simply enjoying the end of a week… there's still a chance to vote on the latest serial entry! https://t.co/ZEMWN4ticK
It does conclude with a vote about the next direction to take. So it’s a good chance for people who like to see authors twisting to their audience’s demands.
Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Hi and Lois for the 23rd of May, 1961 builds off a major use of arithmetic. Budgeting doesn’t get much attention from mathematicians. I suppose it seems to us like all the basic problems are solved: adding? Subtracting? Multiplication? All familiar things. Especially now with decimal currency. There are great unsolved problems in mathematics, but they get into specialized areas of financial mathematics and just don’t matter for ordinary household budgeting.
Hi comes across a bit harsh here. I’m going to suppose he was taken so by surprise by Lois’s problem that he spoke without thinking.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 19th is the anthropomorphic numerals strip for the week. With the title of “improper fractions” it’s wordplay on the common meaning for a mathematical term. Two times over, come to it. That negative refers to a class of numbers as well as disapproval of something is ordinary enough. I’ve mentioned it, I estimate, 840 times this month alone.
Jokes about the technical and common meanings of “improper” are rarer. In a proper fraction, the numerator is a smaller number than the denominator. In an improper fraction, we don’t count on that. I remember a modest bit of time in elementary and middle school working on converting improper fractions into mixed fractions — a whole number plus a proper fraction. And also don’t remember anyone caring about that after calculus. In most arithmetic work, there’s not much that’s easier about “1 + 1/2” than about “3/2”. The one major convenience “1 + 1/2” has is that it’s easy to tell at a glance how big the number is. It’s not mysterious how big a number 3/2 is, but that’s because of long familiarity. If I asked you whether 54/17 or 46/13 was the larger number, you’d be fairly stumped and maybe cranky. So there’s not much reason to worry about improper fractions while you’re doing work. For the final presentation of an answer, proper or mixed fractions may well be better.
Whoever colored that minus symbol before the 5 screwed up and confused the joke. Syndicated cartoonists give precise coloring instructions for Sunday strips. But many of them don’t, or aren’t able to, give coloring instructions for weekday strips like this. And mistakes like that are the unfortunate result.
Pascal Wyse and Joe Berger’s Berger and Wyse for the 19th features a sudoku appearance. It’s labelled a diversion, and so it is, as many mathematics and logic puzzles will be. The lone commenter at GoComics claims to have solved the puzzle, so I will suppose they’re being honest about this.
Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer for the 19th I have mentioned before, although not since I started including images for all mentioned comics. It’s set a moment when treatment for Mom’s cancer has been declared a great success.
The trouble is, as Feis lays out, volume is three-dimensional. We are pretty good at measuring the length, or at least the greatest width of something. You might call that the “characteristic length”. A linear dimension. But volume scales as the cube of this characteristic length. And the sad thing is that 0.8 times 0.8 times 0.8 is, roughly, 0.5. This means that the characteristic length dropping by 20% drops the volume by 50%. Or, as Feis is disappointed to see in this strip and its successor, the great news of a 50% reduction in the turmor’s mass is that it’s just 20% less big in every direction. It doesn’t look like enough.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 20th presents one of Fi’s seminars about why mathematics is a good thing. The offscreen student’s question about why one should learn mathematics goes unanswered. As often happens the question is presented as though it’s too absurd to deserve answering. The questioner is conflating “mathematics” with “calculating arithmetic”, yes. And a computer will be better at these calculations. A related question, sometimes asked (and rarely on-topic for my essays here), is why one needs to learn any specific facts when a computer is so much better at finding them.
Knowing facts is not understanding them, no. But it is hard to understand a thing without knowing facts. More, without loving the knowing of facts. If we don’t need to be good at calculating, we do still need to know what to have calculated. And why to calculate that instead of something else. In calculating we can learn things of great beauty. And some of us do go on to mathematics which cannot be calculated. There is software that will do very well at computing, say, the indefinite integral of functions. I don’t know of any that will even start on a problem like “find the kernel of this ring”. But these are problems we see, and think interesting, because our experience in arithmetic trains us to notice them. Perhaps there is new interesting mathematics that we would notice if we didn’t have preconceptions set by times tables and long division. But it is hard to believe that we can’t find it because we’re not ignorant enough. I wouldn’t risk it.
I figure to do something rare, and retire one of my comic strip tags after today. Which strip am I going to do my best to drop from Reading the Comics posts? Given how many of the ones I read are short-lived comics that have been rerun three or four times since I started tracking them? Read on and see!
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 29th of August continues the sequence of Fi talking with kids about mathematics. My understanding was that she tried to give talks about why mathematics could be fun. That there are different ways to express the same number seems like a pretty fine-grain detail to get into. But this might lead into some bigger point. That there are several ways to describe the same thing can be surprising and unsettling to discover. That you have, when calculating, the option to switch between these ways freely can be liberating. But you have to know the option is there, and where to look for it. And how to see it’ll make something simpler.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 30th of August gets onto a thread about statistics. The point of statistics is to describe something complicated with something simple. So detail must be lost. That said, there are something like 2,038 different things called “average”. Each of them has a fair claim to the term, too. In Fi’s example here, 73 degrees (Fahrenheit) could be called the average as in the arithmetic mean, or average as in the median. The distribution reflects how far and how often the temperature is from 73. This would also be reflected in a quantity called the variance, or the standard deviation. Variance and standard deviation are different things, but they’re tied together; if you know one you know the other. It’s just sometimes one quantity is more convenient than the other to work with.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 1st of September has Fi argue that apparent irrelevance makes mathematics boring. It’s a common diagnosis. I think I’ve advanced the claim myself. I remember a 1980s probability textbook asking the chance that two transistors out of five had broken simultaneously. Surely in the earlier edition of the textbook, it was two vacuum tubes out of five. Five would be a reasonable (indeed, common) number of vacuum tubes to have in a radio. And it would be plausible that two might be broken at the same time.
It seems obvious that wanting to know an answer makes it easier to do the work needed to find it. I’m curious whether that’s been demonstrated true. Like, it seems obvious that a reference to a thing someone doesn’t know anything about would make it harder to work on. But does it? Does it distract someone trying to work out the height of a ziggurat based on its distance and apparent angle, if all they know about a ziggurat is their surmise that it’s a thing whose height we might wish to know?
Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am rerun for the 30th of August is an old friend that’s been here a couple times. I suppose I do have to retire the strip from my Reading the Comics posts, at least, although I’m still amused enough by it to keep reading it daily. Simon Garfield’s On The Map, a book about the history of maps, notes that the X-marks-the-spot thing is an invention of the media. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island particularly. Stevenson’s treasure map, Garfield notes, had to be redrawn from the manuscript and the author’s notes. The original went missing in the mail to the publishers. I just mention because I think that adds a bit of wonder to the treasure map. And since, I guess, I won’t have the chance to mention this again.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 30th of August satisfies the need for a Venn Diagram joke this time around. It’s also the strange-geometry joke for the week. Klein bottles were originally described by Felix Klein. They exist in four (or more) dimensions, in much the way that M&oum;bius strips exist in three. And like the M&oum;bius strip the surface defies common sense. You can try to claim some spot on the surface is inside and some other spot outside. But you can get from your inside to your outside spot in a continuous path, one you might trace out on the surface without lifting your stylus.
If you were four-dimensional. Or more. If we were to see one in three dimensions we’d see a shape that intersects itself. As beings of only three spatial dimensions we have to pretend that doesn’t happen. It’s the same we we pretend a drawing of a cube shows six squares all of equal size and connected at right angles to one another, even though the drawing is nothing like that. The bottle-like shape Weinersmith draws is, I think, the most common representation of the Klein bottle. It looks like a fancy bottle, and you can buy one as a novelty gift for a mathematician. I don’t need one but do thank you for thinking of me. MathWorld shows another representation, a figure-eight-based one which looks to me like an advanced pasta noodle. But it doesn’t look anything like a bottle.
Eric the Circle for the 31st of August, this one by JohnG, is a spot of wordplay. The pun here is the sine of an angle in a (right) triangle. That would be the length of the leg opposite the angle divided by the length of the hypotenuse. This is still stuff relevant to circles, though. One common interpretation of the cosine and sine of an angle is to look at the unit circle. That is, a circle with radius 1 and centered on the origin. Draw a line segment opening up an angle θ from the positive x-axis. Draw it counterclockwise. That is, if your angle is a very small number, you’re drawing a line segment that’s a little bit above the positive x-axis. Draw the line segment long enough that it touches the unit circle. That point where the line segment and the circle intersect? Look at its Cartesian coordinates. The y-coordinate will be the sine of θ. The x-coordinate will be the cosine of θ. The triangle you’re looking at has vertices at the origin; at x-coordinate cosine θ, y-coordinate 0; and at x-coordinate cosine θ, y-coordinate sine θ.
Have you ever wondered how I gather comic strips for these Reading the Comics posts? Sure, why not go along with me. Well, I do it by this: I read a lot of comic strips. When I run across one that’s got some mathematical theme, I copy the URL for it over to a page of notes. Then I go back to those notes and write up a paragraph or so on each. That is, I do it exactly the way you might imagine if you weren’t very imaginative or trying hard. I explain all this to say that I made a note that I then didn’t notice. So I missed a comic strip. And opened myself up to wondering if there’s an etymological link between “note” and “notice”. Anyway, it’s here. I’m just explaining why it’s late.
Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon for the 19th of August is the belated inclusion. It’s a probability strip. It’s built partly on how badly people estimate probability, especially of rare events. And of how badly people estimate the consequences of rare events. For anything that isn’t common, our feelings about the likelihood of events are garbage. And even for common events we’re not that good.
But then it’s hard to quantify a low-probability event too. Take the claim that a human has one chance in 3.7 million of being attacked by a shark. We’ll pretend that’s the real number; I don’t know what is. (I’m suspicious of the ‘3-7’. People picking a random two-digit number are surprisingly likely to pick 37 because, I guess, it ‘feels’ random.) Is that over their lifetime? Over a summer? In a single swimming event? In any case it’s such a tiny chance it’s not worth serious worry. But even then, a person who lives in Wisconsin and only ever swims in Lake Michigan has a considerably smaller chance of shark attack than a person from New Jersey who swims at the Shore. At least some of these things are probabilities we can affect.
So the fellow may be irrational, denying himself something he’d enjoy based on a fantastically unlikely event. But he is acting to avoid something he’s decided he doesn’t want to risk. And, you know, we all act irrationally at times, or else I couldn’t justify buying a lottery ticket every eight months or so. Also is Fillmore (the turtle) the person who needs to hear this argument?
Gary McCoy and Glenn McCoy’s The Duplex for the 26th is an accounting joke. And a cry about poverty, with the idea that one could make the adding up of one’s assets and debts work only by making mathematics logically inconsistent. Or maybe inconsistent. Arithmetic modulo a particular number could be said to make zero equal to some other number, after all, and that’s all valid. Useful, too, especially in enciphering messages and in generating random numbers. It’s less useful for accounting, though. At least it would draw attention if used unilaterally.
Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker’s Dustin for the 28th is roughly a student-resisting-the-homework problem. From the first panel I thought Hayden might be complaining that ‘x’ was used, once again, as the variable to be solved for. It is the default choice, made because we all grew up learning of ‘x’ as the first choice for a number with a not-yet-known identity. ‘y’ and ‘z’ come in as second and third choices, most likely because they’re quite close to ‘x’. Sometimes another letter stands out, usually because the problem compels it. If the framing of the problem is about when events happen then ‘t’ becomes the default choice. If the problem suggests circular motion then ‘r’ or ‘θ’ — radius and angle — become compelling. But if we know no context, and have only the one variable, then ‘x’ it is. It seems weird to do otherwise.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 28th is part of a week of Fi talking about mathematics to kids. She occasionally delivers seminars meant to encourage enthusiasm about mathematics. I love the principle although I don’t know how long the effect lasts. (Although it is kind of what I’m doing here. Except I think maybe Fi gets paid.) Holbrook’s strips of this mode often include nice literal depictions of metaphors. This week didn’t offer much chance for that particular artistic play.
The first half of last week’s comics are mostly ones from Comics Kingdom and Creators.com. That’s unusual. GoComics usually far outranks the other sites. Partly for sheer numbers; they have an incredible number of strips, many of them web-only, that Comics Kingdom and Creators.com don’t match. I think the strips on GoComics are more likely to drift into mathematical topics too. But to demonstrate that would take so much effort. Possibly any effort at all. Hm.
Bill Holbrook’s On the Fastrack for the 8th of July is premised on topographic maps. These are some of the tools we’ve made to understand three-dimensional objects with a two-dimensional representation. When topographic maps come to the mathematics department we tend to call them “contour maps” or “contour plots”. These are collections of shapes. They might be straight lines. They might be curved. They often form a closed loop. Each of these curves is called a “contour curve” or a “contour line” (even if it’s not straight). Or it’s called an “equipotential curve”, if someone’s being all fancy, or pointing out the link between potential functions and these curves.
Their purpose is in thinking of three-dimensional surfaces. We can represent a three-dimensional surface by putting up some reasonable coordinate system. For the sake of simplicity let’s suppose the “reasonable coordinate system” is the Cartesian one. So every point in space has coordinates named ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’. Pick a value for ‘x’ and ‘y’. There’s at most one ‘z’ that’ll be on the surface. But there might be many sets of values of ‘x’ and ‘y’ together which have that height ‘z’. So what are all the values of ‘x’ and ‘y’ which match the same height ‘z’? Draw the curve, or curves, which match that particular value of ‘z’.
Topographical maps are a beloved example of this, to mathematicians, because we imagine everyone understands them. A particular spot on the ground at some given latitude and longitude is some particular height above sea level. OK. Imagine the slice of a hill representing all the spots that are exactly 10 feet above sea level, or whatever. That’s a curve. Possibly several curves, but we just say “a curve” for simplicity.
A topographical map will often include more than one curve. Often at regular intervals, say with one set of curves representing 10 feet elevation, another 20 feet, another 30 feet, and so on. Sometimes these curves will be very near one another, where a hill is particularly steep. Sometimes these curves will be far apart, where the ground is nearly level. With experience one can learn to read the lines and their spacing. One can see where extreme values are, and how far away they might be.
Topographical maps date back to 1789. These sorts of maps go back farther. In 1701 Edmond Halley, of comet fame, published maps showing magnetic compass variation. He had hopes that the difference between magnetic north and true north would offer a hint at how to find longitude. (The principle is good. But the lines of constant variation are too close to lines of latitude for the method to be practical. And variation changes over time, too.) And that shows how the topographical map idea can be useful to visualize things that aren’t heights. Weather maps include “isobars”, contour lines showing where the atmospheric pressure is a set vale. More advanced ones will include “isotherms”, each line showing a particular temperature. The isobar and isotherm lines can describe the weather and how it can be expected to change soon.
This idea, rendering three-dimensional information on a two-dimensional surface, is a powerful one. We can use it to try to visualize four-dimensional objects, by looking at the contour surfaces they would make in three dimensions. We can also do this for five and even more dimensions, by using the same stuff but putting a note that “D = 16” or the like in the corner of our image. And, yes, if Cartesian coordinates aren’t sensible for the problem you can use coordinates that are.
If you need a generic name for these contour lines that doesn’t suggest lines or topography or weather or such, try ‘isogonal curves’. Nobody will know what you mean, but you’ll be right.
Ted Key’s Hazel for the 9th is a joke about the difficulties in splitting the bill. It is archetypical of the sort of arithmetic people know they need to do in the real world. Despite that at least people in presented humor don’t get any better at it. I suppose real-world people don’t either, given some restaurants now list 15 and 20 percent tips on the bill. Well, at least everybody has a calculator on their phone so they can divide evenly. And I concede that, yeah, there isn’t really specifically a joke here. It’s just Hazel being competent, like the last time she showed up here.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. And it’s a bit of geometry wordplay, too. Also about how you can carry a joke over well enough even without understanding it, or the audience understanding it, if it’s delivered right.
Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy for the 11th is another strip about arithmetic done in the real world. I’m also amused by Joe’s attempts to distract from how no kid that age has ever not known precisely how much money they have, and how much of it is fairly won.
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 11th is another example of using understanding algebra as a show of intelligence. And it follows that up with undrestanding quantum physics as a show of even greater intelligence. One can ask what’s meant by “understanding” quantum physics. Someday someone might even answer. But it seems likely that the ability to do calculations based on a model has to be part of fully understanding it.
And now I can wrap up last week’s delivery from Comic Strip Master Command. It’s only five strips. One certainly stars an accountant. one stars a kid that I believe is being coded to read as an accountant. The rest, I don’t know. I pick Edition titles for flimsy reasons anyway. This’ll do.
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 6th is about things that could go wrong. And every molecule of air zipping away from you at once is something which might possibly happen but which is indeed astronomically unlikely. This has been the stuff of nightmares since the late 19th century made probability an important part of physics. The chance all the air near you would zip away at once is impossibly unlikely. But such unlikely events challenge our intuitions about probability. An event that has zero chance of happening might still happen, given enough time and enough opportunities. But we’re not using our time well to worry about that. If nothing else, even if all the air around you did rush away at once, it would almost certainly rush back right away.
Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker’s Dustin for the 7th of March talks about the SATs and the chance of picking right answers on a multiple-choice test. I haven’t heard about changes to the SAT but I’ll accept what the comic strip says about them for the purpose of discussion here. At least back when I took it the SAT awarded one point to the raw score for a correct answer, and subtracted one-quarter point for a wrong answer. (The raw scores were then converted into a 200-to-800 range.) I liked this. If you had no idea and guessed on answers you should expect to get one in five right and four in five wrong. On average then you would expect no net change to your raw score. If one or two wrong answers can be definitely ruled out then guessing from the remainder brings you a net positive. I suppose the change, if it is being done, is meant to be confident only right answers are rewarded. I’m not sure this is right; it seems to me there’s value in being able to identify certainly wrong answers even if the right one isn’t obvious. But it’s not my test and I don’t expect to need to take it again either. I can expression opinions without penalty.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 7th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for last week. It’s another kid-at-the-chalkboard panel. What gets me is that if the kid did keep one for himself then shouldn’t he have written 38?
Brian Basset’s Red and Rover for the 8th mentions fractions. It’s just there as the sort of thing a kid doesn’t find all that naturally compelling. That’s all right I like the bug-eyed squirrel in the first panel.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 9th concludes the wedding of accountant Fi. It uses the square root symbol so as to make the cake topper clearly mathematical as opposed to just an age.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 28th of February — reprinting the strip from the same day in 1989 — uses a bit of arithmetic as generic homework. It’s an interesting change of pace that the mathematics homework is what keeps one from sleep. I don’t blame Luann or Puddles for not being very interested in this, though. Those sorts of complicated-fraction-manipulation problems, at least when I was in middle school, were always slogs of shuffling stuff around. They rarely got to anything we’d like to know.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 1st of March is one of those little revelations that statistics can give one. Myself, I was always haunted by the line in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos about how, in the future, with the Sun ageing and (presumably) swelling in size and heat, the Earth would see one last perfect day. That there would most likely be quite fine days after that didn’t matter, and that different people might disagree on what made a day perfect didn’t matter. Setting out the idea of a “perfect day” and realizing there would someday be a last gave me chills. It still does.
Richard Thompson’s Poor Richard’s Almanac for the 1st and the 2nd of March have appeared here before. But I like the strip so I’ll reuse them too. They’re from the strip’s guide to types of Christmas trees. The Cubist Fur is described as “so asymmetrical it no longer inhabits Euclidean space”. Properly neither do we, but we can’t tell by eye the difference between our space and a Euclidean space. “Non-Euclidean” has picked up connotations of being so bizarre or even horrifying that we can’t hope to understand it. In practice, it means we have to go a little slower and think about, like, what would it look like if we drew a triangle on a ball instead of a sheet of paper. The Platonic Fir, in the 2nd of March strip, looks like a geometry diagram and I doubt that’s coincidental. It’s very hard to avoid thoughts of Platonic Ideals when one does any mathematics with a diagram. We know our drawings aren’t very good triangles or squares or circles especially. And three-dimensional shapes are worse, as see every ellipsoid ever done on a chalkboard. But we know what we mean by them. And then we can get into a good argument about what we mean by saying “this mathematical construct exists”.
Mark Litzler’s Joe Vanilla for the 3rd uses a chalkboard full of mathematics to represent the deep thinking behind a silly little thing. I can’t make any of the symbols out to mean anything specific, but I do like the way it looks. It’s quite well-done in looking like the shorthand that, especially, physicists would use while roughing out a problem. That there are subscripts with forms like “12” and “22” with a bar over them reinforces that. I would, knowing nothing else, expect this to represent some interaction between particles 1 and 2, and 2 with itself, and that the bar means some kind of complement. This doesn’t mean much to me, but with luck, it means enough to the scientist working it out that it could be turned into a coherent paper.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack is this week about the wedding of the accounting-minded Fi. And she’s having last-minute doubts, which is why the strip of the 3rd brings in irrational and anthropomorphized numerals. π gets called in to serve as emblematic of the irrational numbers. Can’t fault that. I think the only more famously irrational number is the square root of two, and π anthropomorphizes more easily. Well, you can draw an established character’s face onto π. The square root of 2 is, necessarily, at least two disconnected symbols and you don’t want to raise distracting questions about whether the root sign or the 2 gets the face.
That said, it’s a lot easier to prove that the square root of 2 is irrational. Even the Pythagoreans knew it, and a bright child can follow the proof. A really bright child could create a proof of it. To prove that π is irrational is not at all easy; it took mathematicians until the 19th century. And the best proof I know of the fact does it by a roundabout method. We prove that if a number (other than zero) is rational then the tangent of that number must be irrational, and vice-versa. And the tangent of π/4 is 1, so therefore π/4 must be irrational, so therefore π must be irrational. I know you’ll all trust me on that argument, but I wouldn’t want to sell it to a bright child.
Holbrook continues the thread on the 4th, extends the anthropomorphic-mathematics-stuff to call people variables. There’s ways that this is fair. We use a variable for a number whose value we don’t know or don’t care about. A “random variable” is one that could take on any of a set of values. We don’t know which one it does, in any particular case. But we do know — or we can find out — how likely each of the possible values is. We can use this to understand the behavior of systems even if we never actually know what any one of it does. You see how I’m going to defend this metaphor, then, especially if we allow that what people are likely or unlikely to do will depend on context and evolve in time.
Now to close out what Comic Strip Master Command sent my way through last Saturday. And I’m glad I’ve shifted to a regular schedule for these. They ordered a mass of comics with mathematical themes for Sunday and Monday this current week.
Karen Montague-Reyes’s Clear Blue Water rerun for the 17th describes trick-or-treating as “logarithmic”. The intention is to say that the difficulty in wrangling kids from house to house grows incredibly fast as the number of kids increases. Fair enough, but should it be “logarithmic” or “exponential”? Because the logarithm grows slowly as the number you take the logarithm of grows. It grows all the slower the bigger the number gets. The exponential of a number, though, that grows faster and faster still as the number underlying it grows. So is this mistaken?
I say no. It depends what the logarithm is, and is of. If the number of kids is the logarithm of the difficulty of hauling them around, then the intent and the mathematics are in perfect alignment. Five kids are (let’s say) ten times harder to deal with than four kids. Sensible and, from what I can tell of packs of kids, correct.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 17th is a resisting-the-word-problem joke. There’s probably some warning that could be drawn about this in how to write story problems. It’s hard to foresee all the reasonable confounding factors that might get a student to the wrong answer, or to see a problem that isn’t meant to be there.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 19th continues Fi’s story of considering leaving Fastrack Inc, and finding a non-competition clause that’s of appropriate comical absurdity. As an auditor there’s not even a chance Fi could do without numbers. Were she a pure mathematician … yeah, no. There’s fields of mathematics in which numbers aren’t all that important. But we never do without them entirely. Even if we exclude cases where a number is just used as an index, for which Roman numerals would be almost as good as regular numerals. If nothing else numbers would keep sneaking in by way of polynomials.
Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Vintage Hi and Lois for the 27th of July, 1959 uses calculus as stand-in for what college is all about. Lois’s particular example is about a second derivative. Suppose we have a function named ‘y’ and that depends on a variable named ‘x’. Probably it’s a function with domain and range both real numbers. If complex numbers were involved then the variable would more likely be called ‘z’. The first derivative of a function is about how fast its values change with small changes in the variable. The second derivative is about how fast the values of the first derivative change with small changes in the variable.
The ‘d’ in this equation is more of an instruction than it is a number, which is why it’s a mistake to just divide those out. Instead of writing it as it’s permitted, and common, to write it as . This means the same thing. I like that because, to me at least, it more clearly suggests “do this thing (take the second derivative) to the function we call ‘y’.” That’s a matter of style and what the author thinks needs emphasis.
There are infinitely many possible functions y that would make the equation true. They all belong to one family, though. They all look like , where ‘C’ and ‘D’ are some fixed numbers. There’s no way to know, from what Lois has given, what those numbers should be. It might be that the context of the problem gives information to use to say what those numbers should be. It might be that the problem doesn’t care what those numbers should be. Impossible to say without the context.
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.
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.
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.