Reading the Comics, May 23, 2020: Parents Can’t Do Math Edition


This was a week of few mathematically-themed comic strips. I don’t mind. If there was a recurring motif, it was about parents not doing mathematics well, or maybe at all. That’s not a very deep observation, though. Let’s look at what is here.

Liniers’s Macanudo for the 18th puts forth 2020 as “the year most kids realized their parents can’t do math”. Which may be so; if you haven’t had cause to do (say) long division in a while then remembering just how to do it is a chore. This trouble is not unique to mathematics, though. Several decades out of regular practice they likely also have trouble remembering what the 11th Amendment to the US Constitution is for, or what the rule is about using “lie” versus “lay”. Some regular practice would correct that, though. In most cases anyway; my experience suggests I cannot possibly learn the rule about “lie” versus “lay”. I’m also shaky on “set” as a verb.

Triptych of pictures: In the first a parent confidently points at the child's homework In the second the parent sits down, having displaced the child, and is working hard. In the third the child is gone; the parent is grimacing, head in hands, frustrated. The heading: '2020: The Year Most Kids Realized Their Parents Can't Do Math'.
Liniers’s Macanudo for the 18th of May, 2020. Essays inspired by something mentioned in Macanudo are gathered at this link.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th shows a mathematician talking, in the jargon of first and second derivatives, to support the claim there’ll never be a mathematician president. Yes, Weinersmith is aware that James Garfield, 20th President of the United States, is famous in trivia circles for having an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem. It would be a stretch to declare Garfield a mathematician, though, except in the way that anyone capable of reason can be a mathematician. Raymond Poincaré, President of France for most of the 1910s and prime minister before and after that, was not a mathematician. He was cousin to Henri Poincaré, who founded so much of our understanding of dynamical systems and of modern geometry. I do not offhand know what presidents (or prime ministers) of other countries have been like.

Weinersmith’s mathematician uses the jargon of the profession. Specifically that of calculus. It’s unlikely to communicate well with the population. The message is an ordinary one, though. The first derivative of something with respect to time means the rate at which things are changing. The first derivative of a thing, with respect to time being positive means that the quantity of the thing is growing. So, that first half means “things are getting more bad”.

Mathematician giving a speech: 'Things are bad in this country, and the first derivative of badness with respect to time is also positive. But, there is good news --- with your help the *second derivative* of badness can be turned negative!'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th of May, 2020. I feel sometimes like I’m always writing about this strip, but it’s been over a month since the last time I did. Anyway essays inspired by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal appear at this link.

The second derivative of a thing with respect to time, though … this is interesting. The second derivative is the same thing as the first derivative with respect to time of “the first derivative with respect to time”. It’s what the change is in the rate-of-change. If that second derivative is negative, then the first derivative will, in time, change from being positive to being negative. So the rate of increase of the original thing will, in time, go from a positive to a negative number. And so the quantity will eventually decline.

So the mathematician is making a this-is-the-end-of-the-beginning speech. The point at which the the second derivative of a quantity changes sign is known as the “inflection point”. Reaching that is often seen as the first important step in, for example, disease epidemics. It is usually the first good news, the promise that there will be a limit to the badness. It’s also sometimes mentioned in economic crises or sometimes demographic trends. “Inflection point” is likely as technical a term as one can expect the general public to tolerate, though. Even that may be pushing things.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 19th has a father who can’t help his son do mathematics. In this case, finding square roots. There are many ways to find square roots by hand. Some are iterative, in which you start with an estimate and do a calculation that (typically) gets you a better estimate of the square root you want. And then repeat the calculation, starting from that improved estimate. Some use tables of things one can expect to have calculated, such as exponentials and logarithms. Or trigonometric tables, if you know someone who’s worked out lots of cosines and sines already.

Child: 'Dad, how do you find a square root?' Dad: 'First of all, don't even bother looking, because trees are round, hence, there is no such thing, silly.' Child: 'You know you're scarring me for life, right?'
Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 19th of May, 2020. This strip, too, I feel like I write about all the time. No, though; it’s hasn’t been mentioned since Pi Day. You can see that and other appearances of Real Life Adventures at this link.

Henry Scarpelli and Craig Boldman’s Archie rerun for the 20th mentions romantic triangles. And Moose’s relief that there’s only two people in his love triangle. So that’s our geometry wordplay for the week.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes repeat for the 20th has Calvin escaping mathematics class.

Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set rerun for the 21st fusses around words. Along the way Burl mentions his having learned that two negatives can make a positive, in mathematics. Here it’s (most likely) the way that multiplying or dividing two negative numbers will produce a positive number.


This covers the week. My next Reading the Comics post should appear at this tag, when it’s written. Thanks for reading.

Reading the Comics, March 14, 2020: Pi Day Edition


Pi Day was observed with fewer, and fewer on-point, comic strips than I had expected. It’s possible that the whimsy of the day has been exhausted. Or that Comic Strip Master Command advised people that the educational purposes of the day were going to be diffused because of the accident of the calendar. And a fair number of the strips that did run in the back half of last week weren’t substantial. So here’s what did run.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 12th has a parent complaining about kids being allowed to use calculators to do mathematics. The rejoinder, asking how good they were at mathematics anyway, is a fair one.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes rerun for the 13th sees Calvin avoiding his mathematics homework. The strip originally ran the 16th of March, 1990.

And now we get to the strips that actually ran on the 14th of March.

Gracie, to her father: 'If I had $1.39 for every time I've struggled with a mathematics problem ... I'd have ... ' (She taps on a calculator) '6.23 cents.'
Hector D Cantú and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo for the 14th of March, 2020. Essays with some mention of Baldo are gathered at this link.

Hector D Cantú and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo is a slightly weird one. It’s about Gracie reflecting on how much she’s struggled with mathematics problems. There are a couple pieces meant to be funny here. One is the use of oddball numbers like 1.39 or 6.23 instead of easy-to-work-with numbers like “a dollar” or “a nickel” or such. The other is that the joke is .. something in the vein of “I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken”. Gracie’s calculation indicates she thinks she’s struggled with a math problem a little under 0.045 times. It’s a peculiar number. Either she’s boasting that she struggles very little with mathematics, or she’s got her calculations completely wrong and hasn’t recognized it. She’s consistently portrayed as an excellent student, though. So the “barely struggles” or maybe “only struggles a tiny bit at the start of a problem” interpretation is more likely what’s meant.

Mark Parisi’s Off the Mark is a Pi Day joke that actually features π. It’s also one of the anthropomorphic-numerals variety of jokes. I had also mistaken it for a rerun. Parisi’s used a similar premise in previous Pi Day strips, including one in 2017 with π at the laptop.

An anthropomorphic pi at a laptop, facing a web page demanding, 'Enter your full name'. It's gotten through 26 digits past the decimal.
Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark for the 14th of March, 2020. Other essays featuring something raised by Off The Mark, including a fair number of Pi Day jokes, are at this link.

π has infinitely many decimal digits, certainly. Of course, so does 2. It’s just that 2 has boring decimal digits. Rational numbers end up repeating some set of digits. It can be a long string of digits. But it’s finitely many, and compared to an infinitely long and unpredictable string, what’s that? π we know is a transcendental number. Its decimal digits go on in a sequence that never ends and never repeats itself fully, although finite sequences within it will repeat. It’s one of the handful of numbers we find interesting for reasons other than their being transcendental. This though nearly every real number is transcendental. I think any mathematician would bet that it is a normal number, but we don’t know that it is. I’m not aware of any numbers we know to be normal and that we care about for any reason other than their normality. And this, weirdly, also despite that we know nearly every real number is normal.

At the ATM, a pie with arms enters a pin. An onlooking doughnut says '3.14? Please tell me that's not really your pin.'
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 14th of March, 2020. Essays that show off something from a Reality Check panel are at this link.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check plays on the pun between π and pie, and uses the couple of decimal digits of π that most people know as part of the joke. It’s not an anthropomorphic numerals joke, but it is circling that territory.

Loose sketch of Albert Einstein, accompanied by the quote, 'Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former', along with a note wishing him a happy birthday.
Michael Cavna’s Warped for the 14th of March, 2020. The rare appearances here of Warped are gathered at this link.

Michael Cavna’s Warped celebrates Albert Einstein’s birthday. This is of marginal mathematics content, but Einstein did write compose one of the few equations that an average lay person could be expected to recognize. It happens that he was born the 14th of March and that’s, in recent years, gotten merged into Pi Day observances.


I hope to start discussing this week’s comic strips in some essays starting next week, likely Sunday. Thanks for reading.

Reading the Comics, November 9, 2019: Two Pairs Edition


So finally I get to the mathematically-themed comic strips of last week. There were four strips which group into natural pairings. So let’s use that as the name for this edition.

Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 3rd puts forth “cookie and cake charts”, as a riff on pie charts. There’s always room for new useful visual representations of data, certainly, although quite a few of the ones we do use are more than two centuries old now. Pie charts, which we trace to William Playfair’s 1801 Statistical Breviary, were brought to the public renown by Florence Nightingale. She wanted her reports on the causes of death in the Crimean War to communicate well, and illustrations helped greatly.

Woman giving a presentation in an office; the pie chart on display is lumpy and odd-shaped. She says: 'This was way hard, but my cookie and cake charts are awesome!'
Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 3rd of November, 2019. It’s been over two years since the last time I mentioned this strip. But this, and those, appearances of Pardon My Planet are available at this link.

Wayno and Piraro’s Bizarro for the 9th is another pie chart joke. If I weren’t already going on about pie charts this week I probably would have relegated this to the “casual mentions” heap. I love the look of the pie, though.

Woman explaining to a kid: 'It's 30% pumpkin, 24% apple, 19% key lime, 15% cherry, and 12% banana cream.' Label: 'Chart pie.' On the table is a pie divided into five pieces, each a different sort of pie.
Wayno and Piraro’s Bizarro for the 9th of November, 2019. It’s only been about seven months since I last mentioned Bizarro, in this and other essays at this link.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 5th jokes about stereotypes of mathematics and English classes. Or exams, anyway. There is some stabbing truth in the presentation of English-as-math-class. Many important pieces of mathematics are definitions or axioms. In an introductory class there’s not much you can usefully say about, oh, why we’d define a limit to be this rather than that. The book surely has its reasons and we’ll avoid confusion by trusting in them.

Caption: 'If Mathematics were like English Class' Exam question: 'What is the square root of 64?' Answer; 'Square rooting is a multifaceted process that has been used in myriad times, eras, and epochs. It has its 'roots' in ... ' Caption: 'if English class were like Math Class' Exam question; 'Why did Captain Ahab hunt Moby-Dick?' Answer: 'Book said so. QED.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 5th of November, 2019. It’s been whole minutes since the most recent essay mentioning Saturday Morning Breakfast Club.

I dislike the stereotype of English as a subject rewarding longwinded essays that avoid the question. It seems at least unfair to what good academic writing strives for. (If you wish to argue about bad English writing, you have your blog for that, but let’s not pretend mathematics lacks fundamentally bad papers.) And writing an essay about why a thing should be true, or interesting, is certainly worthwhile. I’m reminded of a mathematical logic professor I had, who spoke of a student who somehow could not do a traditional proper-looking proof. But could write a short essay explaining why a thing should be true which convinced the professor that the student deserved an A. The professor was sad that the student was taking the course pass-fail.

Question worked out: 'B = 1/3 (bugs encountered per km by a moving vehicle w/1-square-meter forward surface, units bugs/km*m^2); S = 1/3 (forward surface area of Superman, units m^2); D = 5500 (distance from Fortress of Solitude to Metropolis, units km); B * S * D = what superman actually looks like when he saves you. Picture of a horrified woman being mugged as a bug-encrusted Superman declares 'I'm here to help!'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 6th of November, 2019. So, uh, my apologies to people who did not need to see Superman with a whomping great mass of dead bugs on him.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 6th shows off a bit of mathematical modeling. The specific problem is silly, yes. But the approach is dead on: identify the things that affect what you’re interested in, and how they interact. Add to this estimates of the things’ values and you’ll get at least a provisional answer. You can then use that answer to guide the building of a more precise model, if you need one.

This little bugs-on-Superman problem makes note of the units everything’s measured in. Paying attention to the units is often done in dimensional analysis, a great tool for building simple models. I ought to write an essay sequence about that sometime.

Wavehead, looking at the angle the teacher's drawn and labelled 75 degrees; 'What about wind chill?'
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 9th of November, 2019. The Andertoons drought is finally over! The last mention, in August, is at this link, as are other past Andertoons discussions.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 9th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. This one plays on the use of the same word to measure an angle and a temperature. Degree, etymologically, traces back to “a step”, like you might find in stairs. This, taken to represent a stage of progress, got into English in the 13th century. By the late 14th century “degree” was used to describe this 1/360th slice of a circle. By the 1540s it was a measure of heat. Making the degree the unit of temperature, as on a thermometer, seems to be written down only as far back as the 1720s.


And for a last strip of the week, Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 7th mentions an advantage of being a cartoonist “instead of an engineer” is how cartooning doesn’t require math. Also I guess this means the regular guy in Real Life Adventures represents one (or both?) of the creators? I guess that makes the name Real Life Adventures make more sense. I just thought he was a generic comic strip male. And, of course, there’s nothing about mathematics that keeps one from being a cartoonist, although I don’t know of any current daily-syndicated cartoonists with strong mathematics backgrounds. Bill Amend, of FoxTrot, and Bud Grade, of The Piranha Club/Ernie, were both physics majors, which is a heavy-mathematics program.


And that covers last week’s comics. Reading the Comics should return Sunday at this link. And tomorrow I hope to get tothe Fall 2019 A to Z’s exploration of the letter ‘U’. Thanks for reading.

Reading the Comics, October 19, 2019: Just The Casual Mentions Edition


Let me get out of the way last week’s comic strips that I thought didn’t need much discussion. There’s discussion creeping into them anyway. This is why there’s such a rush.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 14th has a kid longing for help with algebra.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 15th is a percentages joke. It’s really tempting to just add and subtract percentages like this, when talking about sales and interest and such. If the percentages are small, like, one or two percent, this is near enough to being right. A sale of 15 percent and interest of 22 percent? That’s not close enough to approximate like that. A 15 percent sale with 22 percent interest charge would come to about a 3.7 percent surcharge. But how long the charge stays on the credit card will affect the amount.

Bob Scott’s Bear With Me for the 17th has one of Molly’s friends trying to print a mathematics assignment.

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 17th has one long message turn out to encode a completely unrelated thing. This is something you can deliberately build in to a signal. You might want to, in order to confound codebreakers working on your message. It’s possible in any message to encode a second by accident. As you’d think, the longer the unintentional message the less likely it is to just turn up.

Next Sunday should be the next time I do a Reading the Comics essay. Tomorrow and Thursday I hope to extend the A-to-Z sequence. I don’t know what’s going to happen here on Wednesday. I’m looking forward to finding out myself. See you then.

Reading the Comics, September 28, 2019: Laconic Edition


There were more mathematically-themed comic strips last week than I had time to deal with. This is in part because of something Saturday which took several more hours than I had expected. So let me start this week with some of the comics that, last week, mentioned mathematics in a marginal enough way there’s nothing to say about them besides yeah, that’s a comic strip which mentioned mathematics.

Joey Alison Sayers and Jonathan Lemon’s Little Oop — a variation of Alley Oop — for the 22nd has the caveman struggling with mathematics homework. It’s fun that he has an abacus. Also that the strip keeps with the joke from earlier this year about their only dreaming of a number larger than three.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 22nd sees Caulfield stressing out over a mathematics test.

Ralph Dunagin and Dana Summers’s The Middletons for the 24th has more kids stressing out over a mathematics test. Also about how time is represented in numbers.

Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark for the 24th is a bit of animal-themed wordplay on the New Math.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 24th has a parent offering excuses for not helping with mathematics homework.

Eric the Circle for the 27th, by GeoMaker this time, tries putting out a formula for the area of Eric the circle.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 27th has a kid wondering why they need in-person instruction for arithmetic. (I’d agree that rehearsing arithmetic skills is very easy to automate. You can make practice problems pretty near without limit. How much this has to do with mathematics is a point of debate.)

Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Flying McCoys for the 27th is a bit of wordplay and numerals humor.

Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 28th uses arithmetic, the ever-famous 2 + 2 =, as symbol for knowing anything.


With that, I’ve cleared the easy part of comics for the past week. When I get to the comics needing discussion the essay should post here, likely on Monday. And the Fall 2019 A to Z series should post on Tuesday, with ‘I’. Thanks for reading and for your forbearance.

Reading the Comics, August 30, 2019: The Ones Not Worth Mentioning Edition


Each week Comic Strip Master Command sends out some comics that mention mathematics, but that aren’t substantial enough to write miniature essays about. This past week, too. Here are the comics that just mention mathematics. You may like them; there’s just not more to explain is all.

Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 25th is a bunch of cafeteria lunch jokes. Geometry and wordplay about three square meals a day comes up.

Jeffrey Caulfield and Brian Ponshock’s Yaffle for the 26th has a bunch of jokes about representing two, as part of a “tattwo parlor”. I’m not sure how to categorize this. Wordplay, I suppose.

Brian Anderson’s Dog Eat Doug for the 27th uses “quantum entanglement equations” to represent deep thought on a complicated subject. Calculations are usually good for this.

Dan Collins’s Looks Good On Paper rerun for the 27th uses a blackboard of mathematics — geometry-related formulas — to stand in for all classwork. This strip also ran in 2017 and in 2015. I haven’t checked 2013. I know the strip is still in original production, as it’ll include strips referring to current events, so I’ll keep reading it a while yet.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 27th mentions the “Old Math”, but going against Comic Strip Law, not as part of a crack about the New Math. This is just a simple age joke.

Bill Schorr’s The Grizzwells for the 29th is a joke about rabbit arithmetic. You know, about how well rabbits multiply and all.

Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy Classics for the 29th, which originally ran the 23rd of November, 1949, is a basic cheating-in-class joke. It works for mathematics in a way it wouldn’t for, say, history. Mathematics has enough symbols that don’t appear in ordinary writing that you could copy them upside-down without knowing that you transcribe something meaningless. Well, not realizing an upside-down 4 isn’t anything is a bit odd, but anyone can get pretty lost in symbols.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 29th builds on the phrase “do the math” representing the process of thinking something out.

Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 30th originally ran the 4th of May, 1932. It’s one of those jokes subverting the form of a story problem, one about rates of completion.


This wraps up the past week’s mathematics comic strips. I should have the next Reading the Comics essay here Sunday. And starting tomorrow: the Fall 2019 Mathematics A To Z. The benefit of this sort of schedule is I have to publish whether I’m happy with the essay or not!

Reading the Comics, October 7, 2017: Rerun Comics Edition


The most interesting mathematically-themed comic strips from last week were also reruns. So be it; at least I have an excuse to show a 1931-vintage comic. Also, after discovering my old theme didn’t show the category of essay I was posting, I did literally minutes of search for a new theme that did. And that showed tags. And that didn’t put a weird color behind LaTeX inline equations. So I’m using the same theme as my humor blog does, albeit with a different typeface, and we’ll hope that means I don’t post stuff to the wrong blog. As it is I start posting something to the wrong place about once every twenty times. All I want is a WordPress theme with all the good traits of the themes I look at and none of the drawbacks; why is that so hard to get?

Castor Oyl: 'Hey, Popeye, handing out money is an easy job. Come, work on the books awhile. I'll take your place. yah. Figure up and see what the capital of our one-way bank is today.' Popeye: ? Oke. ! Eight times eight is eighty-eight ... six and' six is sixteen ... ahoy, Castor! Ya makes a nine like a six only up-side-down ain't it? ... Me figgers say we eighter got sixty thousing left of we was broke three days ago. I wonder which is right?' (At the vault.) Castor: 'What the heck are you doing?' Popeye: 'Blow me down - it's more easy to count it. 7627, 7628 ... '
Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre rerun for the 25th of April, 1931, and rerun the 5th of October, 2017. No, Kabibble Kabaret is not actually a joke and yes, it’s always like that, and no, I have no idea why Comics Kingdom includes these footers. I find them fascinating in their badness, but, yeah.

Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre rerun for the 5th originally ran the 25th of April, 1931. It’s just a joke about Popeye not being good at bookkeeping. In the story, Popeye’s taking the $50,000 reward from his last adventure and opened a One-Way Bank, giving people whatever money they say they need. And now you understand how the first panel of the last row has several jokes in it. The strip is partly a joke about Popeye being better with stuff he can hit than anything else, of course. I wonder if there’s an old stereotype of sailors being bad at arithmetic. I remember reading about pirate crews that, for example, not-as-canny-as-they-think sailors would demand a fortieth or a fiftieth of the prizes as their pay, instead of a mere thirtieth. But it’s so hard to tell what really happened and what’s just a story about the stupidity of people. Marginal? Maybe, but I’m a Popeye fan and this is my blog, so there.

Bill Rechin’s Crock rerun(?) from the 6th must have come before. I don’t know when. Anyway it’s a joke about mathematics being way above everybody’s head.

Vulture: 'How come you failed the math test?' Kid: 'Dad helped me study for it. I knew I was in trouble when he said the answer to 125 times 140 was 'a lot'.
Bill Rechin’s Crock from the 6th of October, 2017. Yeah, I don’t exactly get the vulture as a pack animal either, but it’s kind of a cute idea. Or I’m a soft touch for cartoon and comic strip vultures. I would like to identify the characters but I forget their names and Wikipedia and the official Comics Kingdom site don’t give me any help.

Norm Feuti’s Gil rerun for the 6th is a subverted word problem joke. And it’s a reminder of how hard story problems can be. You need something that has a mathematics question on point. And the question has to be framed as asking something someone would actually care to learn. Plus the story has to make sense. Much easier when you’re teaching calculus, I think.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs for the 6th is a playing-stupid joke built in percentages. Cute enough for the time it takes to read.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 6th is a parent-can’t-help-with-homework joke, done with arithmetic since it’s hard to figure another subject that would make the joke possible. I suppose a spelling assignment could be made to work. But that would be hard to write so it didn’t seem contrived.

Thaves’ Frank and Ernest for the 7th feels like it’s a riff on the old saw about Plato’s Academy. (The young royal sent home with a coin because he asked what the use of this instruction was, and since he must get something from everything, here’s his drachma.) Maybe. Or it’s just the joke that you make if you have “division” and “royals” in mind.

Mark Tatulli’s Lio for the 7th is not quite the anthropomorphic symbols joke for this past week. It’s circling that territory, though.

Reading the Comics, May 31, 2017: Feast Week Edition


You know we’re getting near the end of the (United States) school year when Comic Strip Master Command orders everyone to clear out their mathematics jokes. I’m assuming that’s what happened here. Or else a lot of cartoonists had word problems on their minds eight weeks ago. Also eight weeks ago plus whenever they originally drew the comics, for those that are deep in reruns. It was busy enough to split this week’s load into two pieces and might have been worth splitting into three, if I thought I had publishing dates free for all that.

Larry Wright’s Motley Classics for the 28th of May, a rerun from 1989, is a joke about using algebra. Occasionally mathematicians try to use the the ability of people to catch things in midair as evidence of the sorts of differential equations solution that we all can do, if imperfectly, in our heads. But I’m not aware of evidence that anyone does anything that sophisticated. I would be stunned if we didn’t really work by a process of making a guess of where the thing should be and refining it as time allows, with experience helping us make better guesses. There’s good stuff to learn in modeling how to catch stuff, though.

Michael Jantze’s The Norm Classics rerun for the 28th opines about why in algebra you had to not just have an answer but explain why that was the answer. I suppose mathematicians get trained to stop thinking about individual problems and instead look to classes of problems. Is it possible to work out a scheme that works for many cases instead of one? If it isn’t, can we at least say something interesting about why it’s not? And perhaps that’s part of what makes algebra classes hard. To think about a collection of things is usually harder than to think about one, and maybe instructors aren’t always clear about how to turn the specific into the general.

Also I want to say some very good words about Jantze’s graphical design. The mock textbook cover for the title panel on the left is so spot-on for a particular era in mathematics textbooks it’s uncanny. The all-caps Helvetica, the use of two slightly different tans, the minimalist cover art … I know shelves stuffed full in the university mathematics library where every book looks like that. Plus, “[Mathematics Thing] And Their Applications” is one of the roughly four standard approved mathematics book titles. He paid good attention to his references.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 28th deploys a big old whiteboard full of equations for the “secret” of the universe. This makes a neat change from finding the “meaning” of the universe, or of life. The equations themselves look mostly like gibberish to me, but Wise and Aldrich make good uses of their symbols. The symbol \vec{B} , a vector-valued quantity named B, turns up a lot. This symbol we often use to represent magnetic flux. The B without a little arrow above it would represent the intensity of the magnetic field. Similarly an \vec{H} turns up. This we often use for magnetic field strength. While I didn’t spot a \vec{E} — electric field — which would be the natural partner to all this, there are plenty of bare E symbols. Those would represent electric potential. And many of the other symbols are what would naturally turn up if you were trying to model how something is tossed around by a magnetic field. Q, for example, is often the electric charge. ω is a common symbol for how fast an electromagnetic wave oscillates. (It’s not the frequency, but it’s related to the frequency.) The uses of symbols is consistent enough, in fact, I wonder if Wise and Aldrich did use a legitimate sprawl of equations and I’m missing the referenced problem.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 28th mentions how many symbols are needed to write out the numbers from 1 to 100. Is this properly mathematics? … Oh, who knows. It’s just neat to know.

Mark O’Hare’s Citizen Dog rerun for the 29th has the dog Fergus struggle against a word problem. Ordinary setup and everything, but I love the way O’Hare draws Fergus in that outfit and thinking hard.

The Eric the Circle rerun for the 29th by ACE10203040 is a mistimed Pi Day joke.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classicfor the 31st, a rerun from the 7th of June, 2006, shows the conflation of “genius” and “good at mathematics” in everyday use. Amend has picked a quixotic but in-character thing for Jason Fox to try doing. Euclid’s Fifth Postulate is one of the classic obsessions of mathematicians throughout history. Euclid admitted the thing — a confusing-reading mess of propositions — as a postulate because … well, there’s interesting geometry you can’t do without it, and there doesn’t seem any way to prove it from the rest of his geometric postulates. So it must be assumed to be true.

There isn’t a way to prove it from the rest of the geometric postulates, but it took mathematicians over two thousand years of work at that to be convinced of the fact. But I know I went through a time of wanting to try finding a proof myself. It was a mercifully short-lived time that ended in my humbly understanding that as smart as I figured I was, I wasn’t that smart. We can suppose Euclid’s Fifth Postulate to be false and get interesting geometries out of that, particularly the geometries of the surface of the sphere, and the geometry of general relativity. Jason will surely sometime learn.

Reading the Comics, May 13, 2017: Quiet Tuesday Through Saturday Edition


From the Sunday and Monday comics pages I was expecting another banner week. And then there was just nothing from Tuesday on, at least not among the comic strips I read. Maybe Comic Strip Master Command has ordered jokes saved up for the last weeks before summer vacation.

Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 7th is a mathematics anxiety strip. It’s well-expressed, since Cochrane writes this sort of hyperbole well. It also shows a common attitude that words and stories are these warm, friendly things, while mathematics and numbers are cold and austere. Perhaps Agnes is right to say some of the problem is familiarity. It’s surely impossible to go a day without words, if you interact with people or their legacies; to go without numbers … well, properly impossible. There’s too many things that have to be counted. Or places where arithmetic sneaks in, such as getting enough money to buy a thing. But those don’t seem to be the kinds of mathematics people get anxious about. Figuring out how much change, that’s different.

I suppose some of it is familiarity. It’s easier to dislike stuff you don’t do often. The unfamiliar is frightening, or at least annoying. And humans are story-oriented. Even nonfiction forms stories well. Mathematics … has stories, as do all human projects. But the mathematics itself? I don’t know. There’s just beautiful ingenuity and imagination in a lot of it. I’d just been thinking of the just beautiful scheme for calculating logarithms from a short table. But it takes time to get to that beauty.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 7th is a fractions joke. It might also be a joke about women concealing their ages. Or perhaps it’s about mathematicians expressing things in needlessly complicated ways. I think that’s less a mathematician’s trait than a common human trait. If you’re expert in a thing it’s hard to resist the puckish fun of showing that expertise off. Or just sowing confusion where one may.

Daniel Shelton’s Ben for the 8th is a kid-doing-arithmetic problem. Even I can’t squeeze some deeper subject meaning out of it, but it’s a slow week so I’ll include the strip anyway. Sorry.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s Chuckle Brothers for the 8th is the return of anthropomorphic-geometry joke after what feels like months without. I haven’t checked how long it’s been without but I’m assuming you’ll let me claim that. Thank you.

Reading the Comics, February 23, 2017: The Week At Once Edition


For the first time in ages there aren’t enough mathematically-themed comic strips to justify my cutting the week’s roundup in two. No, I have no idea what I’m going to write about for Thursday. Let’s find out together.

Jenny Campbell’s Flo and Friends for the 19th faintly irritates me. Flo wants to make sure her granddaughter understands that just because it takes people on average 14 minutes to fall asleep doesn’t mean that anyone actually does, by listing all sorts of reasons that a person might need more than fourteen minutes to sleep. It makes me think of a behavior John Allen Paulos notes in Innumeracy, wherein the statistically wise points out that someone has, say, a one-in-a-hundred-million chance of being killed by a terrorist (or whatever) and is answered, “ah, but what if you’re that one?” That is, it’s a response that has the form of wisdom without the substance. I notice Flo doesn’t mention the many reasons someone might fall asleep in less than fourteen minutes.

But there is something wise in there nevertheless. For most stuff, the average is the most common value. By “the average” I mean the arithmetic mean, because that is what anyone means by “the average” unless they’re being difficult. (Mathematicians acknowledge the existence of an average called the mode, which is the most common value (or values), and that’s most common by definition.) But just because something is the most common result does not mean that it must be common. Toss a coin fairly a hundred times and it’s most likely to come up tails 50 times. But you shouldn’t be surprised if it actually turns up tails 51 or 49 or 45 times. This doesn’t make 50 a poor estimate for the average number of times something will happen. It just means that it’s not a guarantee.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 19th shows off an unusually dynamic camera angle. It’s in service for a class of problem you get in freshman calculus: find the longest pole that can fit around a corner. Oh, a box-spring mattress up a stairwell is a little different, what with box-spring mattresses being three-dimensional objects. It’s the same kind of problem. I want to say the most astounding furniture-moving event I’ve ever seen was when I moved a fold-out couch down one and a half flights of stairs single-handed. But that overlooks the caged mouse we had one winter, who moved a Chinese finger-trap full of crinkle paper up the tight curved plastic to his nest by sheer determination. The trap was far longer than could possibly be curved around the tube. We have no idea how he managed it.

J R Faulkner’s Promises, Promises for the 20th jokes that one could use Roman numerals to obscure calculations. So you could. Roman numerals are terrible things for doing arithmetic, at least past addition and subtraction. This is why accountants and mathematicians abandoned them pretty soon after learning there were alternatives.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 21st is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Probably anything would do for the blackboard problem, but something geometry reads very well.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 21st makes some comedy out of the sort of arithmetic error we all make. It’s so easy to pair up, like, 7 and 3 make 10 and 8 and 2 make 10. It takes a moment, or experience, to realize 78 and 32 will not make 100. Forgive casual mistakes.

Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff rerun for the 22nd is a similar-in-tone joke built on arithmetic errors. It’s got the form of vaudeville-style sketch compressed way down, which is probably why the third panel could be made into a satisfying final panel too.

'How did you do on the math test?' 'Terrible.' 'Will your mom be mad?' 'Maybe. But at least she'll know I didn't cheat!'
Bud Blake’s Tiger for the 23rd of February, 2017. I want to blame the colorists for making Hugo’s baby tooth look so weird in the second and third panels, but the coloring is such a faint thing at that point I can’t. I’m sorry to bring it to your attention if you didn’t notice and weren’t bothered by it before.

Bud Blake’s Tiger rerun for the 23rd just name-drops mathematics; it could be any subject. But I need some kind of picture around here, don’t I?

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 23rd is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week.

Reading the Comics, February 15, 2017: SMBC Cuts In Line Edition


It’s another busy enough week for mathematically-themed comic strips that I’m dividing the harvest in two. There’s a natural cutting point since there weren’t any comics I could call relevant for the 15th. But I’m moving a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal of course from the 16th into this pile. That’s because there’s another Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal of course from after the 16th that I might include. I’m still deciding if it’s close enough to on topic. We’ll see.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 12th mentions the “Futurama Theorem”. The trivia is true, in that writer Ken Keeler did create a theorem for a body-swap plot he had going. The premise was that any two bodies could swap minds at most one time. So, after a couple people had swapped bodies, was there any way to get everyone back to their correct original body? There is, if you bring two more people in to the body-swapping party. It’s clever.

From reading comment threads about the episode I conclude people are really awestruck by the idea of creating a theorem for a TV show episode. The thing is that “a theorem” isn’t necessarily a mind-boggling piece of work. It’s just the name mathematicians give when we have a clearly-defined logical problem and its solution. A theorem and its proof can be a mind-wrenching bit of work, like Fermat’s Last Theorem or the Four-Color Map Theorem are. Or it can be on the verge of obvious. Keeler’s proof isn’t on the obvious side of things. But it is the reasoning one would have to do to solve the body-swap problem the episode posited without cheating. Logic and good story-telling are, as often, good partners.

Teresa Burritt’s Frog Applause is a Dadaist nonsense strip. But for the 13th it hit across some legitimate words, about a 14 percent false-positive rate. This is something run across in hypothesis testing. The hypothesis is something like “is whatever we’re measuring so much above (or so far below) the average that it’s not plausibly just luck?” A false positive is what it sounds like: our analysis said yes, this can’t just be luck, and it turns out that it was. This turns up most notoriously in medical screenings, when we want to know if there’s reason to suspect a health risk, and in forensic analysis, when we want to know if a particular person can be shown to have been a particular place at a particular time. A 14 percent false positive rate doesn’t sound very good — except.

Suppose we are looking for a rare condition. Say, something one person out of 500 will have. A test that’s 99 percent accurate will turn up positives for the one person who has got it and for five of the people who haven’t. It’s not that the test is bad; it’s just there are so many negatives to work through. If you can screen out a good number of the negatives, though, the people who haven’t got the condition, then the good test will turn up fewer false positives. So suppose you have a cheap or easy or quick test that doesn’t miss any true positives but does have a 14 percent false positive rate. That would screen out 430 of the people who haven’t got whatever we’re testing for, leaving only 71 people who need the 99-percent-accurate test. This can make for a more effective use of resources.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 13th is an algebra-in-real-life joke and I can’t make something deeper out of that.

Mike Shiell’s The Wandering Melon for the 13th is a spot of wordplay built around statisticians. Good for taping to the mathematics teacher’s walls.

Eric the Circle for the 14th, this one by “zapaway”, is another bit of wordplay. Tans and tangents.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 16th identifies, aptly, a difference between scientists and science fans. Weinersmith is right that loving trivia is a hallmark of a fan. Expertise — in any field, not just science — is more about recognizing patterns of problems and concepts, ways to bring approaches from one field into another, this sort of thing. And the digits of π are great examples of trivia. There’s no need for anyone to know the 1,681st digit of π. There’s few calculations you could ever do when you needed more than three dozen digits. But if memorizing digits seems like fun then π is a great set to learn. e is the only other number at all compelling.

The thing is, it’s very hard to become an expert in something without first being a fan of it. It’s possible, but if a field doesn’t delight you why would you put that much work into it? So even though the scientist might have long since gotten past caring how many digits of π, it’s awfully hard to get something memorized in the flush of fandom out of your head.

I know you’re curious. I can only remember π out to 3.14158926535787962. I might have gotten farther if I’d tried, but I actually got a digit wrong, inserting a ‘3’ before that last ’62’, and the effort to get that mistake out of my head obliterated any desire to waste more time memorizing digits. For e I can only give you 2.718281828. But there’s almost no hope I’d know that far if it weren’t for how e happens to repeat that 1828 stanza right away.

Reading the Comics, July 14, 2012


I hope everyone’s been well. I was on honeymoon the last several weeks and I’ve finally got back to my home continent and new home so I’ll try to catch up on the mathematics-themed comics first and then plunge into new mathematics content. I’m splitting that up into at least two pieces since the comics assembled into a pretty big pile while I was out. And first, I want to offer the link to the July 2 Willy and Ethel, by Joe Martin, since even though I offered it last time I didn’t have a reasonably permanent URL for it.

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Reading the Comics, July 1, 2012


This will be a hastily-written installment since I married just this weekend and have other things occupying me. But there’s still comics mentioning math subjects so let me summarize them for you. The first since my last collection of these, on the 13th of June, came on the 15th, with Dave Whamond’s Reality Check, which goes into one of the minor linguistic quirks that bothers me: the claim that one can’t give “110 percent,” since 100 percent is all there is. I don’t object to phrases like “110 percent”, though, since it seems to me the baseline, the 100 percent, must be to some standard reference performance. For example, the Space Shuttle Main Engines routinely operated at around 104 percent, not because they were exceeding their theoretical limits, but because the original design thrust was found to be not quite enough, and the engines were redesigned to deliver more thrust, and it would have been far too confusing to rewrite all the documentation so that the new design thrust was the new 100 percent. Instead 100 percent was the design capacity of an engine which never flew but which existed in paper form. So I’m forgiving of “110 percent” constructions, is the important thing to me.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, July 1, 2012”