To close out last week’s comics I got a bunch of strips that were repeats, or that touch on topics I’ve discussed quite a bit around these parts already. I’m pretty sure all the words I have here are new in their specific organization. The words themselves are pretty old.
Maria Scrivan’s Half Full for the 4th is the Rubik’s Cube joke for the week. I ought to write up a proper description of the algebra of Rubik’s Cubes. The real stuff is several books’ worth of material, yes. But a couple hundred words about what’s interesting should be doable. … Or I could just ask folks if they’ve read good descriptions of the group theory that cubes show off. I’m always open to learning other people have said stuff better than me. This is part of why I’ve never published an essay about Cantor’s Diagonal Proof; many people have written such essays and I couldn’t add anything useful to that heap of words.
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 5th is about the heap paradox. Or the sorites paradox, depending on what book you’ve been reading from. The problem is straightforward enough. As God, in the strip says, a big pile of sand is clearly a heap. One or two grains of sand is clearly not. If you remove grains from the heap, eventually, you lose the heap-ness. T-Rex suggests solving the question of when that happens by statistical survey, finding what people on average find to be the range where things shift over.
As with many attempts to apply statistical, or experimental, methods to philosophical questions it misses the point. There are properties that things seem to have only as aggregations. Where do they come from? How can there be something true about a collection of things that isn’t true about any part of the thing? This is not just about messy real-world properties either; we can say stuff about groups of mathematical objects that aren’t true about individual objects within the set. For example, suppose we want to draw a real number at random, uniformly, from the continuous interval 0 to 10. There’s a 50% chance we’ll draw a number greater than 5. The chance of drawing any specific number greater than 5, though, is zero. But we can always draw one. Something weird is happening here, as often happens with questions we’ve been trying to answer for thousands of years.
Norm Feuti’s Retail for the 6th is a new strip, although the joke’s appeared before. There’s some arithmetic calculations that are easy to do, or that become easy because you do them a lot. Or because you see them done a lot and learn what the patterns are. A handful of basic tricks — like that 80 percent off is 20 percent of something, or that 20 percent of a thing is one-fifth the original thing — can be stunning. Stage magicians find the same effect.
Bob Shannon’s Tough Town for the 7th is the anthropomorphized abacus joke of the week. Been a while since we had one of those. I suppose an adding machine would be at least as good a representative of the abstract concept of doing arithmetic, but it’s likely harder to draw too. This is just tiring to draw.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 8th presents the old complaint about mathematics’s utility, here in an ancient setting. I’m intereste that the caveman presents counting in terms of matching up other things to his fingers. We use this matching of one set of things to another even today. It gets us to ordinal and cardinal numbers, and the to what we feel pretty sure about with infinitely large sets. An idea can be ancient and basic and still be vital.
Steve Sicula’s Home and Away for the 9th is about the hatred people profess for mathematics. Some of that is more hatred of how it’s taught, which is too often as a complicated and apparently pointless activity. Some of that is hatred of how it’s used, since it turns up in a lot of jobs. And for some reason we’ve designed society so that we do jobs we don’t like. I don’t know why we think that’s a good idea. We should work on that.
So this past week saw a lot of comic strips with some mathematical connection put forth. There were enough just for the 26th that I probably could have done an essay with exclusively those comics. So it’s another split-week edition, which suits me fine as I need to balance some of my writing loads the next couple weeks for convenience (mine).
Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 25th of June is fun as the comic strip almost always is. And it’s even about estimation, one of the things mathematicians do way more than non-mathematicians expect. Mathematics has a reputation for precision, when in my experience it’s much more about understanding and controlling error methods. Even in analysis, the study of why calculus works, the typical proof amounts to showing that the difference between what you want to prove and what you can prove is smaller than your tolerance for an error. So: how do we go about estimating something difficult, like, the number of stars? If it’s true that nobody really knows, how do we know there are some wrong answers? And the underlying answer is that we always know some things, and those let us rule out answers that are obviously low or obviously high. We can make progress.
Russell Myers’s Broom Hilda for the 25th is about one explanation given for why time keeps seeming to pass faster as one age. This is a mathematical explanation, built on the idea that the same linear unit of time is a greater proportion of a young person’s lifestyle so of course it seems to take longer. This is probably partly true. Most of our senses work by a sense of proportion: it’s easy to tell a one-kilogram from a two-kilogram weight by holding them, and easy to tell a five-kilogram from a ten-kilogram weight, but harder to tell a five from a six-kilogram weight.
As ever, though, I’m skeptical that anything really is that simple. My biggest doubt is that it seems to me time flies when we haven’t got stories to tell about our days, when they’re all more or less the same. When we’re doing new or exciting or unusual things we remember more of the days and more about the days. A kid has an easy time finding new things, and exciting or unusual things. Broom Hilda, at something like 1500-plus years old and really a dour, unsociable person, doesn’t do so much that isn’t just like she’s done before. Wouldn’t that be an influence? And I doubt that’s a complete explanation either. Real things are more complicated than that yet.
Norm Feuti’s Retail for the 26th is about how you get good at arithmetic. I suspect there’s two natural paths; you either find it really interesting in your own right, or you do it often enough you want to find ways to do it quicker. Marla shows the signs of learning to do arithmetic quickly because she does it a lot: turning “30 percent off” into “subtract ten percent three times over” is definitely the easy way to go. The alternative is multiplying by seven and dividing by ten and you don’t want to multiply by seven unless the problem gives a good reason why you should. And I certainly don’t fault the customer not knowing offhand what 30 percent off $25 would be. Why would she be in practice doing this sort of problem?
Johnny Hart’s Back To B.C. for the 26th reruns the comic from the 30th of December, 1959. In it … uh … one of the cavemen guys has found his calendar for the next year has too many days. (Think about what 1960 was.) It’s a common problem. Every calendar people have developed has too few or too many days, as the Earth’s daily rotations on its axis and annual revolution around the sun aren’t perfectly synchronized. We handle this in many different ways. Some calendars worry little about tracking solar time and just follow the moon. Some calendars would run deliberately short and leave a little stretch of un-named time before the new year started; the ancient Roman calendar, before the addition of February and January, is famous in calendar-enthusiast circles for this. We’ve now settled on a calendar which will let the nominal seasons and the actual seasons drift out of synch slowly enough that periodic changes in the Earth’s orbit will dominate the problem before the error between actual-year and calendar-year length will matter. That’s a pretty good sort of error control.
8,978,432 is not anywhere near the number of days that would be taken between 4,000 BC and the present day. It’s not a joke about Bishop Ussher’s famous research into the time it would take to fit all the Biblically recorded events into history. The time is something like 24,600 years ago, a choice which intrigues me. It would make fair sense to declare, what the heck, they lived 25,000 years ago and use that as the nominal date for the comic strip. 24,600 is a weird number of years. Since it doesn’t seem to be meaningful I suppose Hart went, simply enough, with a number that was funny just for being riotously large.
Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 26th places itself on my Grand Avenue warning board. There’s plenty of time for things to go a different way but right now it’s set up for a toxic little presentation of mathematics. Heart, after being grounded, was caught sneaking out to a slumber party and now her mother is sending her to two weeks of Math Camp. I’m supposing, from Tatulli’s general attitude about how stuff happens in Heart and in Lio that Math Camp will not be a horrible, penal experience. But it’s still ominous talk and I’m watching.
Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer story for the 26th is part of the strip’s rerun on GoComics. (Many comic strips that have ended their run go into eternal loops on GoComics.) This is one of the strips with mathematical content. The spatial dimension of a thing implies relationships between the volume (area, hypervolume, whatever) of a thing and its characteristic linear measure, its diameter or radius or side length. It can be disappointing.
Nicholas Gurewitch’s Perry Bible Fellowship for the 26th is a repeat of one I get on my mathematics Twitter friends now and then. Should warn, it’s kind of racy content, at least as far as my usual recommendations here go. It’s also a little baffling because while the reveal of the unclad woman is funny … what, exactly, does it mean? The symbols don’t mean anything; they’re just what fits graphically. I think the strip is getting at Dr Loring not being able to see even a woman presenting herself for sex as anything but mathematics. I guess that’s funny, but it seems like the idea isn’t quite fully developed.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Again for the 26th has a mathematician snort about plotting a giraffe logarithmically. This is all about representations of figures. When we plot something we usually start with a linear graph: a couple of axes perpendicular to one another. A unit of movement in the direction of any of those axes represents a constant difference in whatever that axis measures. Something growing ten units larger, say. That’s fine for many purposes. But we may want to measure something that changes by a power law, or that grows (or shrinks) exponentially. Or something that has some region where it’s small and some region where it’s huge. Then we might switch to a logarithmic plot. Here the same difference in space along the axis represents a change that’s constant in proportion: something growing ten times as large, say. The effective result is to squash a shape down, making the higher points more nearly flat.
And to completely smother Weinersmith’s fine enough joke: I would call that plot semilogarithmically. I’d use a linear scale for the horizontal axis, the gazelle or giraffe head-to-tail. But I’d use a logarithmic scale for the vertical axis, ears-to-hooves. So, linear in one direction, logarithmic in the other. I’d be more inclined to use “logarithmic” plots to mean logarithms in both the horizontal and the vertical axes. Those are useful plots for turning up power laws, like the relationship between a planet’s orbital radius and the length of its year. Relationships like that turn into straight lines when both axes are logarithmically spaced. But I might also describe that as a “log-log plot” in the hopes of avoiding confusion.
Can’t say this was too fast or too slow a week for mathematically-themed comic strips. A bunch of the strips were panel comics, so that’ll do for my theme.
Norm Feuti’s Retail for the 21st mentions every (not that) algebra teacher’s favorite vague introduction to group theory, the Rubik’s Cube. Well, the ways you can rotate the various sides of the cube do form a group, which is something that acts like arithmetic without necessarily being numbers. And it gets into value judgements. There exist algorithms to solve Rubik’s cubes. Is it a show of intelligence that someone can learn an algorithm and solve any cube? — But then, how is solving a Rubik’s cube, with or without the help of an algorithm, a show of intelligence? At least of any intelligence more than the bit of spatial recognition that’s good for rotating cubes around?
I don’t see that learning an algorithm for a problem is a lack of intelligence. No more than using a photo reference shows a lack of drawing skill. It’s still something you need to learn, and to apply, and to adapt to the cube as you have it to deal with. Anyway, I never learned any techniques for solving it either. Would just play for the joy of it. Here’s a page with one approach to solving the cube, if you’d like to give it a try yourself. Good luck.
Nate Fakes’s Break of Day for the 24th features the traditional whiteboard full of mathematics scrawls as a sign of intelligence. The scrawl on the whiteboard looks almost meaningful. The integral, particularly, looks like it might have been copied from a legitimate problem in polar or cylindrical coordinates. I say “almost” because while I think that some of the r symbols there are r’ I’m not positive those aren’t just stray marks. If they are r’ symbols, it’s the sort of integral that comes up when you look at surfaces of spheres. It would be the electric field of a conductive metal ball given some charge, or the gravitational field of a shell. These are tedious integrals to solve, but fortunately after you do them in a couple of introductory physics-for-majors classes you can just look up the answers instead.
My guide for how many comics to include in one of these essays is “at least five, if possible”. Occasionally there’s a day when Comic Strip Master Command sends that many strips at once. Last Sunday was almost but not quite such a day. But the business of that day did mean I had enough strips to again divide the past week’s entries. Look for more comics in a few days, if all goes well here. Thank you.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 26th reminds me of something I had wholly forgot about: decimals inside fractions. And now that this little horror’s brought back I remember my experience with it. Decimals in fractions aren’t, in meaning, any different from division of decimal numbers. And the decimals are easily enough removed. But I get the kid’s horror. Fractions and decimals are both interesting in the way they represent portions of wholes. They spend so much time standing independently of one another it feels disturbing to have them interact. Well, Andertoons kid, maybe this will comfort you: somewhere along the lines decimals in fractions just stop happening. I’m not sure when. I don’t remember when the last one passed my experience.
Hector Cantu and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo for the 26th is built on a riddle. It’s one that depends on working in shifting addition from “what everybody means by addition” to “what addition means on a clock”. You can argue — I’m sure Gracie would — that “11 plus 3” does not mean “eleven o’clock plus three hours”. But on what grounds? If it’s eleven o’clock and you know something will happen in three hours, “two o’clock” is exactly what you want. Underlying all of mathematics are definitions about what we mean by stuff like “eleven” and “plus” and “equals”. And underlying the definitions is the idea that “here is a thing we should like to know”.
Addition of hours on a clock face — I never see it done with minutes or seconds — is often used as an introduction to modulo arithmetic. This is arithmetic on a subset of the whole numbers. For example, we might use 0, 1, 2, and 3. Addition starts out working the way it does in normal numbers. But then 1 + 3 we define to be 0. 2 + 3 is 1. 3 + 3 is 2. 2 + 2 is 0. 2 + 3 is 1 again. And so on. We get subtraction the same way. This sort of modulo arithmetic has practical uses. Many cryptography schemes rely on it, for example. And it has pedagogical uses; modulo arithmetic turns up all over a mathematics major’s Introduction to Not That Kind Of Algebra Course. You can use it to learn a lot of group theory with something a little less exotic than rotations and symmetries of polygonal shapes or permutations of lists of items. A clock face doesn’t quite do it, though. We have to pretend the ’12’ at the top is a ‘0’. I’ve grown more skeptical about whether appealing to clocks is useful in introducing modulo arithmetic. But it’s been a while since I’ve needed to discuss the matter at all.
Rob Harrell’s Big Top rerun for the 26th mentions sudoku. Remember when sudoku was threatening to take over the world, or at least the comics page? Also, remember comics pages? Good times. It’s not one of my hobbies, but I get the appeal.
Bob Shannon’s Tough Town I’m not sure if I’ve featured here before. It’s one of those high concept comics. The patrons at a bar are just what you see on the label, and there’s a lot of punning involved. Now that I’ve over-explained the joke please enjoy the joke. There are a couple of strips prior to this one featuring the same characters; they just somehow didn’t mention enough mathematics words for me to bring up here.
Norm Feuti’s Retail for the 27th is about the great concern-troll of mathematics education: can our cashiers make change? I’m being snottily dismissive. Shops, banks, accountants, and tax registries are surely the most common users of mathematics — at least arithmetic — out there. And if people are going to do a thing, ordinarily, they ought to be able to do it well. But, of course, the computer does arithmetic extremely well. Far better, or at least more indefatigably, than any cashier is going to be able to do. The computer will also keep track of the prices of everything, and any applicable sales or discounts, more reliably than the mere human will. The whole point of the Industrial Revolution was to divide tasks up and assign them to parties that could do the separate parts better. Why get worked up about whether you imagine the cashier knows what $22.14 minus $16.89 is?
I will say the time the bookstore where I worked lost power all afternoon and we had to do all the transactions manually we ended up with only a one-cent discrepancy in the till, thank you.
This might not be the most exciting week of mathematically-themed comic strips. But it gives me the chance to be more autobiographical than usual. And it’s got more reruns than average, too.
Also, I’m trying out a new WordPress Theme. I’m a little suspicious of it myself, but will see what I think of it a week from now. Don’t worry, I remember the name of the old one in case I want to go back. Also, WordPress Master Command: stop hiding the option to live-preview themes instead of switching to them right away.
Norm Feuti’s Retail (May 11) led off a week of “Epic Customer Fails” with an arithmetic problem. My own work in retail was so long ago and for so short a time I don’t remember this happening. But I can believe in a customer being confused this way. I think there is a tendency to teach arithmetic problems as a matter of “pick out the numbers, pick out the operation, compute that”. This puts an emphasis placed on computing quickly. That seems to invite too-quick calculation of not-quite the right things. That percentages are a faintly exotic construct to many people doesn’t help either.
My own retail customers-with-percentages story is duller. A customer asked about a book, I believe an SAT preparation book, which had a 20 percent (or whatever) off sticker. He specifically wanted to know whether 20 percent was taken off the price before the sales tax (6 percent) was calculated, or whether the registers added the sales tax and then took 20 percent off that total. I tried to reassure him that it didn’t matter, the resulting price would be the same. He tried to reassure me that it did matter because the sales tax should be calculated on the price paid, not reduced afterward. I believed, then and now, that he was right legally, but for the practical point of how much he had to pay it made no difference.
He judged me warily, but I worked out what the price paid would be, and he let me ring the book up. And the price came out about a dollar too high. The bar code had a higher price for the book than the plain-english corner said. He snorted “Ha!” and may have told me so. I explained the problem, showing the bar code version of the price (it’s in the upper-right corner of the bar code on books) and the price I’d used to calculate. He repeated that this was why he had asked, while I removed the wrong price and entered the thing manually so I could put in the lower price. And took the 20 percent off, and added sales tax, which came out to what I had said the price was.
I don’t believe I ever saw him again, but I would like the world to know that I was right. And the SAT prep book-maker needed to not screw up their bar codes.
I’ve gotten enough comics, I think, to justify a fresh roundup of mathematics appearances in the comic strips. Unfortunately the first mathematics-linked appearance since my most recent entry is also the most badly dated. Pab Sugenis’s The New Adventures of Queen Victoria took (the appropriate) day to celebrate the birthday of Tom Lehrer, but fails to mention his actual greatest contribution to American culture, the “Silent E” song for The Electric Company. He’s also author of the humorous song “Lobachevsky”, which is pretty much the only place to go if you need a mathematics-based song and can’t use They Might Be Giants for some reason. (I regard Lehrer’s “New Math” song as not having a strong enough melody to count.)