Reading the Comics, January 7, 2016: Just Before GoComics Breaks Everything Edition


Most of the comics I review here are printed on GoComics.com. Well, most of the comics I read online are from there. But even so I think they have more comic strips that mention mathematical themes. Anyway, they’re unleashing a complete web site redesign on Monday. I don’t know just what the final version will look like. I know that the beta versions included the incredibly useful, that is to say dumb, feature where if a particular comic you do read doesn’t have an update for the day — and many of them don’t, as they’re weekly or three-times-a-week or so — then it’ll show some other comic in its place. I mean, the idea of encouraging people to find new comics is a good one. To some extent that’s what I do here. But the beta made no distinction between “comic you don’t read because you never heard of Microcosm” and “comic you don’t read because glancing at it makes your eyes bleed”. And on an idiosyncratic note, I read a lot of comics. I don’t need to see Dude and Dude reruns in fourteen spots on my daily comics page, even if I didn’t mind it to start.

Anyway. I am hoping, desperately hoping, that with the new site all my old links to comics are going to keep working. If they don’t then I suppose I’m just ruined. We’ll see. My suggestion is if you’re at all curious about the comics you read them today (Sunday) just to be safe.

Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots is a curious little strip I never knew of until GoComics picked it up a few years ago. Its format is compellingly simple: a little illustration alongside a wry, often despairing, caption. I love it, but I also understand why was the subject of endless queries to the Detroit Free Press (Or Whatever) about why was this thing taking up newspaper space. The strip rerun the 31st of December is a typical example of the strip and amuses me at least. And it uses arithmetic as the way to communicate reasoning, both good and bad. Brilliant’s joke does address something that logicians have to face, too. Whether an argument is logically valid depends entirely on its structure. If the form is correct the reasoning may be excellent. But to be sound an argument has to be correct and must also have its assumptions be true. We can separate whether an argument is right from whether it could ever possibly be right. If you don’t see the value in that, you have never participated in an online debate about where James T Kirk was born and whether Spock was the first Vulcan in Star Fleet.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains for the 2nd of January, 2017, is a loaded-dice joke. Is this truly mathematics? Statistics, at least? Close enough for the start of the year, I suppose. Working out whether a die is loaded is one of the things any gambler would like to know, and that mathematicians might be called upon to identify or exploit. (I had a grandmother unshakably convinced that I would have some natural ability to beat the Atlantic City casinos if she could only sneak the underaged me in. I doubt I could do anything of value there besides see the stage magic show.)

Jack Pullan’s Boomerangs rerun for the 2nd is built on the one bit of statistical mechanics that everybody knows, that something or other about entropy always increasing. It’s not a quantum mechanics rule, but it’s a natural confusion. Quantum mechanics has the reputation as the source of all the most solid, irrefutable laws of the universe’s working. Statistical mechanics and thermodynamics have this musty odor of 19th-century steam engines, no matter how much there is to learn from there. Anyway, the collapse of systems into disorder is not an irrevocable thing. It takes only energy or luck to overcome disorderliness. And in many cases we can substitute time for luck.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 3rd is the anthropomorphic-geometry-figure joke that’s I’ve been waiting for. I had thought Hilburn did this all the time, although a quick review of Reading the Comics posts suggests he’s been more about anthropomorphic numerals the past year. This is why I log even the boring strips: you never know when I’ll need to check the last time Scott Hilburn used “acute” to mean “cute” in reference to triangles.

Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue uses some arithmetic as the visual cue for “any old kind of schoolwork, really”. Steve Breen’s name seems to have gone entirely from the comic strip. On Usenet group rec.arts.comics.strips Brian Henke found that Breen’s name hasn’t actually been on the comic strip since May, and D D Degg found a July 2014 interview indicating Thompson had mostly taken the strip over from originator Breen.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 5th is another name-drop that doesn’t have any real mathematics content. But come on, we’re talking Andertoons here. If I skipped it the world might end or something untoward like that.

'Now for my math homework. I've got a comfortable chair, a good light, plenty of paper, a sharp pencil, a new eraser, and a terrific urge to go out and play some ball.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 14th of November, 1977, and reprinted the 7th of January, 2017. I kind of remember having a lamp like that. I don’t remember ever sitting down to do my mathematics homework with a paintbrush.

Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 14th of November, 1977, doesn’t have any mathematical content really. Just a mention. But I need some kind of visual appeal for this essay and Shearer is usually good for that.

Corey Pandolph, Phil Frank, and Joe Troise’s The Elderberries rerun for the 7th is also a very marginal mention. But, what the heck, it’s got some of your standard wordplay about angles and it’ll get this week’s essay that much closer to 800 words.

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Reading the Comics, August 3, 2015: Things That Make Me Cranky Edition


My edition name sounds cranky and I’m sorry for that. But the fact is a couple of the comics in this roundup did things that irritated me. I hope you don’t think worse of me when you’ve heard why they made me cranky.

Todd the Dinosaur figures the implications of 100 T-rexes and 100 monkeys in a room with 100 typewriters. The T-rexes need the monkeys as food.
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 31st of July, 2015.
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur (July 31) is a riff on the infinite-monkey problem, often discussed in the comics. Todd isn’t quite into the perfect randomness that the thought experiment wants. The strip does make me wonder if there have been any variations on the infinite monkey problem in which, instead of a series of randomly typed characters, random words are picked instead. On the one hand, there are many more possible words than there are letters every time something is to be typed. On the other hand, obvious nonsense like ‘gazurlnikov’ won’t turn up. But it’s easier to imagine a keyboard than it is a random pick of all the words in the language.

Lorie Ransom’s Daily Drawing (July 31) is some compass and protractor wordplay. Protractors aren’t part of the classical set of tools used for geometric proofs — compasses and straightedges alone do it — although they are convenient things to have. And they can be used to confirm hunches or refute possibilities, in much the same way trying out a specific case of a problem can guide one to solving a general problem.

Tony Carillo’s F Minus (August 1) makes a joke that I admit I don’t quite get. I think it’s trying to say that you get better pay with more mathematics training. That ought to be a nice affirmation of my chosen field’s value, although it comes across to me as snotty. For one, typically, more training in any field correlates with higher salaries. It’s not some magic that only mathematics has. For another, salary is not the measure of the worth of something, nor should it be.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (August 1) tries to use up the mathematics puns for this installment.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue (August 2) is another entry in the “kids refusing mathematics for summer break” string of comics. And, of course, the kids display an ironic understanding of probability while trying to avoid Grandma’s mathematics workbooks. I’m on the kids’ side here, by the way. Previous summer installments have shown Grandma making the kids do tedious, boring, repetitive calculations that make me, now, not want to do mathematics. It’s in the name of getting them back in practice before the school year starts, but as depicted, it’s an attempt to crush all the joy of mathematics. At least working out best ways to hide is a use of probability that has some clear purpose and some fun to it. The daily strips for this week seem to be going in a different direction.

Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump (August 2) makes me wonder something I never thought about before. Would Romans see the symbols I, V, X, and so on as “one” and “five” and “ten” and so on? I mean, certainly they would in contexts where a number was expected. But if they just encountered the symbol without context, would they read it as the letter or as the number? I rate this as my favorite of this set of strips because it has given me something so fresh to ponder.

Reading the Comics, February 4, 2015: Neutral Edition


Several of the comic strips that’ve been sent my way the past couple days touch on cultural neutrality in mathematics problems. People like to think of mathematics as a universal language, which makes me think of, for example, the quipu — twisted woolen cords with smaller cords tied to the main one — that Incans used to represent numbers. Even knowing the number one is supposed to represent doesn’t help me work out how to read the thing, and that’s not even doing calculations, just representing a number.

Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy (February 1) uses several mathematics questions as part of a “general knowledge” quiz. Mathematics questions, particularly reasoning questions, are held up a good bit as examples of general knowledge since we’ve always cherished reasoning as a particularly precious sort of thinking, and because it’s easy to convince oneself that arithmetic and logic problems are culturally neutral. They’re not, but I would agree that “one times four” or the candy-counting problem are more culture-neutral than naming places with “-ham” or (to invent something not in the strip) identifying prime ministers of Canada would be. Really intriguing to me, though, is that Conley has Bucky Katt mention the Times as a newspaper without comics and the Daily News as one with: I had believed the strip to be set in or around Boston in the past, while this is pretty soundly a New York reference. Perhaps Conley’s let his daily comics lapse into reruns because he’s been moving, very slowly, across Connecticut?

Mac and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute (February 1) isn’t really a mathematics puzzle, but it does employ mathematical symbols in a way that I remember fondly from a bunch of “stories with holes” — superficially nonsensical problems which have logical resolutions if you can avoid being hobbled by implicit assumptions — so it’s really well-fitted for kids of the right age.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, February 4, 2015: Neutral Edition”

Reading the Comics, January 24, 2015: Many, But Not Complicated Edition


I’m sorry to have fallen behind on my mathematics-comics posts, but I’ve been very busy wielding a cudgel at Microsoft IIS all week in the service of my day job. And since I telecommute it’s quite hard to convincingly threaten the server, however much it deserves it. Sorry. Comic Strip Master Command decided to send me three hundred billion gazillion strips, too, so this is going to be a bit of a long post.

Jenny Campbell’s Flo and Friends (January 19) is almost a perfect example of the use of calculus as a signifier of “something really intelligent people think of”. Which is flattening to mathematicians, certainly, although I worry that attitude does make people freeze up in panic when they hear that they have to take calculus.

The Amazing Yet Tautological feature of Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix (January 19) lives up to its title, at least provided we are all in agreement about what “average” means. From context this seems to be the arithmetic mean — that’s usually what people, mathematicians included mean by “average” if they don’t specify otherwise — although you can produce logical mischief by slipping in an alternate average, such as the “median” — the amount that half the results are less than and half are greater than — or the “mode” — the most common result. There are other averages too, but they’re not so often useful. On the 21st Super-Fun-Pak Comix returned with another installation of Chaos Butterfly, by the way.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, January 24, 2015: Many, But Not Complicated Edition”

Reading the Comics, July 3, 2014: Wulff and Morgenthaler Edition


Sorry to bring you another page of mathematics comics so soon after the last one, but, I don’t control Comic Strip Master Command. I’m not sure who does, but it’s obviously someone who isn’t paying very close attention to Mary Worth because the current psychic-child/angel-warning-about-pool-safety storyline is really going off the rails. But I can’t think of a way to get that back to mathematical topics, so let me go to safer territories instead.

Mickey's nephew figures this is rocket science.
The Disney Corporation’s _Mickey Mouse_ comic strip rerun on the 28th of June, 2014.

The Disney Corporation’s Mickey Mouse (June 28, rerun) uses the familiar old setup of mathematics stuff — here crossbred with rocket science — as establishment that someone is just way smarter than the rest of the room.

Wulff and Morgenthaler’s Truth Facts — a new strip from the people who do that WuMu which is replacing the strangely endless reruns of Get Fuzzy in your local newspaper (no, I don’t know why Get Fuzzy has been rerunning daily strips since November, and neither do its editors, so far as they’re admitting) — shows a little newspaper sidebar each day. The premise is sure to include a number of mathematics/statistics type jokes and on June 28th they went ahead with the joke that delivers statistics about statistics, so that’s out of the way.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (June 29) brings out two of the songs that prominently mention numbers.

Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures (June 30) drops in a bit of mathematics technobabble for the sake of sounding all serious and science-y and all that. But “apply the standard Lagrangian model” is a better one than average since Joseph-Louis Lagrange was an astoundingly talented and omnipresent mathematician and physicist. Probably his most useful work is a recasting of Newton’s laws of physics in a form in which you don’t have to worry so much about forces at every moment and can instead look at the kinetic and potential energy of a system. This generally reduces the number of equations one has to work with to describe what’s going on, and that usually means it’s easier to understand them. That said I don’t know a specific “Lagrangian model” that would necessarily be relevant. The most popular “Lagrangian model” I can find talks about the flow of particles in a larger fluid and is popular in studying atmospheric pollutants, though the couple of medical citations stuggest it’s also useful for studying how things get transported by the bloodstream. Anyway, it’s nice to hear somebody besides Einstein get used as a science name.

Mary Beth figures if she works her apple-dividing and giving right she can get al the apple.
John Rose’s _Barney Google and Snuffy Smith_ for the 1st of July, 2014, featuring neither Barney Google nor Snuffy Smith.

John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith (July 1) plays with division word problems and percentages and the way people can subvert the intentions of a problem given any chance.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (July 1, rerun) lets Calvin’s Dad gently blow Calvin’s mind by pointing out that rotational motion means that different spots on the same object are moving at different speeds yet the object stays in one piece. When you think hard enough about it rotation is a very strange phenomenon (I suppose you could say that about any subject, though), and the difference in speeds within a single object is just part of it. Sometime we must talk about the spinning pail of water.

Wulff and Morgenthaler’s WuMo (July 1) — I named this edition after them for some reason, after all — returns to the potential for mischief in how loosely one uses the word “half”.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers (July 3) dips into the well of mathematics puns. I admit I had to reread the caption before noticing where the joke was. It’s been a busy week.