Reading the Comics, June 27, 2019: Closing A Slow Month Edition


Some months stretch my pop-mathematics writing skills, tasking me with finding new insights into the things I thought I understood and new ways to present them. Some months I’ve written about comic strips a lot. This was one of the latter. Here, let me nearly finish writing about the comic strips of June 2019 that had some mathematical content.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 23rd is the Venn Diagram meta-joke for the week. Properly speaking, yes, Eight-Ball hasn’t drawn a Venn Diagram here. Representing two sets in a Venn Diagram, by the proper rules, requires two circles with one overlap. Indicating that both sets have the same elements means noting that there are no elements outside the intersection of these circles. One point of a Venn Diagram is showing all the possible logical relations between sets and maybe then marking off the ones that happen to be relevant to the problem. What Eight-Ball is drawing is an Euler Diagram, which has looser requirements. There’s no sense fighting this terminology battle, though. It makes cleaner pictures to draw a Venn Diagram modified to only show the relations that actually exist. If the goal is to communicate information, clarity counts. A joke counts as information.

Eight-Ball, drawing: 'I'm making my first Venn Diagram! See, in the first set I'm including people who like to think they're good at math. And see here, I'm using a second set to show which of those people like Venn diagrams. It's a perfect circle.' (He shows a circle with two small balloons, labelled A and B, stuck off it. Weenus looks to the audience unimpressed.) Weenus: 'Logic isn't really your thing.' Eight-Ball: 'I guess that changes the diagram!'
Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 23rd of June, 2019. Oh, this strip again. You’ve seen Rabbits Against Magic in essays at this link.

Eight-Ball’s propositions are … well, a bit muddled. His first set is “people who like to think they are good at math”. His second set is “which of those people like Venn Diagrams”. This implies the second set can’t be anything but a subset of the first. So this we’d represent as one circle inside another, at least if we allow that there exists at least one person who likes to think they’re good at math, but still doesn’t like Venn Diagrams. It’s fine for the purposes of comic hyperbole to claim there is no such thing, of course, and I don’t quarrel with that.

Why not have the second group be “people who like Venn Diagrams”, without the restriction that they already think they’re good at math? Here I think there is a serious logical constraint. My suspicion is that Venn Diagrams are liked by people who don’t think they’re good at math. Also by people who aren’t good at math. Venn Diagrams are a wonderful tool because they present the relationships of sets in a way that uses our spatial intuitions. They wouldn’t make a good Internet joke format if they were liked only by people who think they’re good at math. Which is why Jonathan Lemon had to write the joke that way. It’s plausible comic hyperbole to say everyone who thinks they’re good at math likes Venn Diagrams. But there are too many people who react to explicit mathematics content with a shudder, but who like Venn Diagram jokes, to make “everyone who likes Venn Diagrams thinks they’re good at math” plausible.

Man In Black: 'Ma'am! Ma'am! I'm from the government. I'm so glad we found you. You're the median citizen!' Woman: 'What?' MIB: 'In terms of retirment savings you're exactly in the middle! Half the country has more than you and half the country has less!' Woman: 'So?" MIB: 'There's an election coming. This is a briefcase containing one million dollars. I need you to deposit it in your bank account and pretend you never saw me.' Newspaper headline: 'MEDIAN AMERICAN IS NOW MILLIONAIRE'. Secondary headline: 'Math scores continue decline'.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 23rd of June, 2019. Oh, this strip again. You’ve seen Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal in essays at this link.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 23rd is a lying-with-statistics joke. The median is an average of a data set. It’s “an” average because, in English, we mean several different things by “average”. Translated into mathematics these different things are, really, completely unrelated. The “median” is the midpoint of the ordered list of the data set. So, as the Man In Black says, half the data in the set is below that value, and half is above. This can be a better measure of “average” than the arithmetic mean is. It tells us a slight something about the distribution, about how the data is arranged. Not much, but then, it’s just one number. What do you want? It has an advantage over the arithmetic mean, which is the thing normal people intend when they say “average”. That advantage is that it’s relatively insensitive to outliers. One or two really large, or tiny, data points can throw the mean way off. The classic example we use these days is to look at the average wealth of twenty people in the room. If Bill Gates enters the room, the mean jumps way up. The median? Doesn’t alter much. (Bill Gates is the figure I see used these days, but it could be anyone impossibly wealthy. I imagine there are versions where it’s Jeff Bezos entering the room. I imagine a century ago, the proposition would be to imagine J P Morgan entering the room, except that a century ago he had been dead six years.)

Cook: 'Two cups water, one cup chicken stock.' Chicken the cook holds: 'Ding ding ding!' Cook: 'You know how to do math? What's 4 minus 2?' Chicken: 'Ding ding.' Cook: '3 plus 2?' Chicken dings five times. Cook: 'Something tells me you're worth more as a sideshow attraction than dinner.' [ Later ] Onlooker: 'A poker-playing chicken? He's probably worth a lot of money!' Chicken is wearing the dealer's cap and in front of a pile of chips. Cook, looking over his cards: 'I hope so! I'm down 50 bucks!'
Steve Skelton’s 2 Cows and a Chicken for the 26th of June, 2019. Oh, this strip ag — wait, no. Is this a new tag?. No, but the strip was on hiatus a while. 2 Cows And A Chicken has appeared before, in essays at this link. You know it wasn’t until transcribing this comic for the alt text that I realized the ‘dings’ were Chicken pecking at the pot and not a noise that he was making directly. I don’t know why I would have thought he’d have just been making ‘ding’ noises. Also it was the end of my transcribing when I realized what Chicken was doing.

Steve Skelton’s 2 Cows and a Chicken for the 26th shows off a counting chicken as a wonder. Animals do have some sense of mathematics. We know in some detail how well crows and ravens can count, and do simple arithmetic. This is partly because we know good ways to test crow and raven arithmetic skills. And we’ve come to appreciate their intelligence as deep and surprising. Chickens, to my knowledge, have gotten less study. But I would expect they’ve got skills. If nothing else, I would expect chickens to have a good understanding of the transitive property. This is the rule that if ‘a’ is greater than ‘b’, and ‘b’ is greater than ‘c’, then it follows that ‘a’ is greater than ‘c’. Chickens have a pecking order, and animals with that kind of hierarchy tend to know transitivity. I don’t know that the reasons for that link have been proven, but, c’mon. And animals doing arithmetic, like the cook says, have been good sideshow attractions or performances for a long while. They’ve also been good starts for scientific study, as people try to work out questions like how intelligence formed, and what other ways it might have formed.

Young kid: 'How do you spell 'fifteen'?' Mom: 'F-I-F-T ... ' (Young kid looks distressed.) Mom: 'What? Oh. 1-5.'
Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 27th of June, 2019. All right, this one appears kind of middlingly often. The Buckets turns up in essays at this link.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 27th is a joke about the representation of numbers. Cravens has a good observation here about learning the differences between representations, and of not being able to express just what representation you want. I love Eddie’s horrified face as his mother (Sarah) tries to spell out the word. There’s probably a good exercise to be done in thinking of as many ways to represent fifteen as possible.

Etymologically, “fifteen” has exactly the origin you would say if you were dragged out of a sound sleep by someone demanding the history of the word RIGHT NOW, THERE’S NO TIME TO EXPLAIN. In Old English it was “fiftyne”, with “fif” meaning “five” and “tyne” meaning “ten more than”. This construction, pretty much five-and-ten, has fallen out of favor in English. Once we get past nineteen we more commonly write out, like, “twenty-one” and “thirty-five” and such. The alternate construction, which would be, like, one-and-twenty, or nine-and-sixty, or such, seems to have fallen out of use except as a more poetic way to express the idea. I don’t know why, say, five-and-twenty would have shifted to twenty-five while the equivalent five-and-ten didn’t shift to … teenfive(?). I would make an uninformed guess that words used more commonly tend to be more stable, and we tend to need smaller numbers more than bigger ones.


I’ll have some more comic strips for you later in the week. Before then should be a statistics review, as I figure out whether anyone is reading this blog after a month when I wrote basically nothing. The next Reading the Comics post should be at this link probably on Thursday. Thank you for reading any of this.

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Reading the Comics, March 5, 2018: If It’s Even Mathematics Edition


Many of the strips from the first half of last week are ones that just barely touch on mathematical content. I’m not sure how relevant they all are. I hope you like encountering them anyway.

Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 4th of March offers “an infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar” as a joke’s setup. Mathematics popularizers have a small set of jokes about infinite numbers of mathematicians, often arriving at hotels. They’re used to talk about how we now understand infinitely large sets. There’s often counter-intuitive or just plain weird results that follow. And presenting it as a joke works surprisingly well in introducing the ideas. There’s a kind of joke that is essentially a tall tale, spinning out an initial premise to as far and as absurd a consequence as you can get. In structure, that’s not much different to a proof, a discussion of the consequences of an idea. It’s a shame that it’s hard to make jokes or anecdotes about more fields of mathematics. Somehow infinitely large groups of people are funnier than, say, upper-bounded nondecreasing sequences.

['A Pinhead Walks Into A Bar' Jokes That Are Only Funny To Other Pinheads.'] An Atheist, a Vegan, and a Crossfitter walk into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' A gorilla in a tuxedo walks into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' An amnesiac walks into a bar. Zippy: '( Empty word balloon )'.
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 4th of March, 2018. You know, it’s kind of a peculiar thing that Zippy the Pinhead is a syndicated daily newspaper comic strip, isn’t it? I’m glad we live in a world strange enough for this to be the case.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 4th has a bit of fraction-based wordplay. I’m not sure how mathematical this is, but I grinned.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 4th has Jason try to make a “universal” loot box that consists of zeroes and ones. As he says, accumulate enough and put them in the right order and you have any digital prize imaginable. Implementation is, as joked, the problem. Assembling ones and zeroes at random isn’t likely to turn up anything you might care about in a reasonable time. (It’s the monkeys-at-typewriters problem.) If you know how to assemble ones and zeroes to get what you want, well, what do you need Jason’s boxes for? As with most clever ideas by computer-oriented boys it shouldn’t really be listened to.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 4th has Neil make an order-of-magnitude error estimating what animal power can do. We’ve all made them. They’re particularly easy to make when switching the unit measure. Trying to go from meters to kilometers and multiplying the distance by a thousand, say. Which is annoying since often it’s easiest to estimate the order of magnitude of something first. I can’t find easily an estimate of how many calories a hamster eats over the course of the day. That seems like it would give an idea of how much energy a hamster could possibly be expected to provide, and so work out whether the estimate of four million hamsters to power a car is itself plausible. If someone has information, I’d take it.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 4th is a Rubik’s Cube joke. Also a random processes joke. If a blender could turn the faces of a cube, and could turn them randomly, and could run the right period of time … well, yeah, it could unscramble a cube. But see the previous talk about Jason Fox and the delivery of ones and zeroes.

Mark Tatulli’s Lio for the 5th is a solid geometry joke. I’ve put more thought into whether and where to put hyphens in the last three words of that sentence than is worth it.

Steve Sicula’s Home and Away rerun for the 6th has the father and son happily doing some mathematics. It’s in the service of better gambling on sports. But at least they know why they would like to do these calculations.

Reading the Comics, February 6, 2017: Another Pictureless Half-Week Edition


Got another little flood of mathematically-themed comic strips last week and so once again I’ll split them along something that looks kind of middle-ish. Also this is another bunch of GoComics.com-only posts. Since those seem to be accessible to anyone whether or not they’re subscribers indefinitely far into the future I don’t feel like I can put the comics directly up and will trust you all to click on the links that you find interesting. Which is fine; the new GoComics.com design makes it annoyingly hard to download a comic strip. I don’t think that was their intention. But that’s one of the two nagging problems I have with their new design. So you know.

Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 5th sees a brand-new mathematics. Always dangerous stuff. But mathematicians do invent, or discover, new things in mathematics all the time. Part of the task is naming the things in it. That’s something which takes talent. Some people, such as Leonhard Euler, had the knack a great novelist has for putting names to things. The rest of us muddle along. Often if there’s any real-world inspiration, or resemblance to anything, we’ll rely on that. And we look for terminology that evokes similar ideas in other fields. … And, Agnes would like to know, there is mathematics that’s about approximate answers, being “right around” the desired answer. Unfortunately, that’s hard. (It’s all hard, if you’re going to take it seriously, much like everything else people do.)

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 5th is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for this essay.

Carol Lay’s Lay Lines for the 6th depicts the hazards of thinking deeply and hard about the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small. They’re hard. Our intuition seems well-suited to handing a modest bunch of household-sized things. Logic guides us when thinking about the infinitely large or small, but it takes a long time to get truly conversant and comfortable with it all.

Paul Gilligan’s Pooch Cafe for the 6th sees Poncho try to argue there’s thermodynamical reasons for not being kind. Reasoning about why one should be kind (or not) is the business of philosophers and I won’t overstep my expertise. Poncho’s mathematics, that’s something I can write about. He argues “if you give something of yourself, you inherently have less”. That seems to be arguing for a global conservation of self-ness, that the thing can’t be created or lost, merely transferred around. That’s fair enough as a description of what the first law of thermodynamics tells us about energy. The equation he reads off reads, “the change in the internal energy (Δ U) equals the heat added to the system (U) minus the work done by the system (W)”. Conservation laws aren’t unique to thermodynamics. But Poncho may be aware of just how universal and powerful thermodynamics is. I’m open to an argument that it’s the most important field of physics.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 6th is another strip Intro to Calculus instructors can use for their presentation on instantaneous versus average velocities. There’s been a bunch of them recently. I wonder if someone at Comic Strip Master Command got a speeding ticket.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 6th is about numeric bases. They’re fun to learn about. There’s an arbitrariness in the way we represent concepts. I think we can understand better what kinds of problems seem easy and what kinds seem harder if we write them out different ways. But base eleven is only good for jokes.