Reading the Comics, December 5, 2016: Cameo Appearances Edition


Comic Strip Master Command sent a bunch of strips my way this past week. They’ll get out to your way over this week. The first bunch are all on Gocomics.com, so I don’t feel quite fair including the strips themselves. This set also happens to be a bunch in which mathematics gets a passing mention, or is just used because they need some subject and mathematics is easy to draw into a joke. That’s all right.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 4th uses blackboard arithmetic and the iconic minor error of arithmetic. It’s also strikingly well-composed; look at the art from a little farther away. Forgetting to carry the one is maybe a perfect minor error for this sort of thing. Everyone does it, experienced mathematicians included. It’s very gradable. When someone’s learning arithmetic making this mistake is considered evidence that someone doesn’t know how to add. When someone’s learned it, making the mistake isn’t considered evidence the person doesn’t know how to add. A lot of mistakes work that way, somehow.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup to Nutz for the 4th name-drops Fundamentals of Algebra as a devilish, ban-worthy book. Everyone feels that way. Mathematics majors get that way around two months in to their Introduction To Not That Kind Of Algebra course too. I doubt Stromoski has any particular algebra book in mind, but it doesn’t matter. The convention in mathematics books is to make titles that are ruthlessly descriptive, with not a touch of poetry to them. Among the mathematics books I have on my nearest shelf are Resnikoff and Wells’s Mathematics in Civilization; Koks’ Explorations in Mathematical Physics: The Concepts Behind An Elegant Language; Enderton’s A Mathematical Introduction To Logic; Courant, Robbins, and Stewart’s What Is Mathematics?; Murasagi’s Knot Theory And Its Applications; Nishimori’s Statistical Physics of Spin Glasses and Information Processing; Brush’s The Kind Of Motion We Call Heat, and so on. Only the Brush title has the slightest poetry to it, and it’s a history (of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics). The Courant/Robbins/Stewart has a title you could imagine on a bookstore shelf, but it’s also in part a popularization.

It’s the convention, and it’s all right in its domain. If you are deep in the library stacks and don’t know what a books is about, the spine will tell you what the subject is. You might not know what level or depth the book is in, but you’ll know what the book is. The down side is if you remember having liked a book but not who wrote it you’re lost. Methods of Functional Analysis? Techniques in Modern Functional Analysis? … You could probably make a bingo game out of mathematics titles.

Johnny Hart’s Back to B.C. for the 5th, a rerun from 1959, plays on the dawn of mathematics and the first thoughts of parallel lines. If parallel lines stir feelings in people they’re complicated feelings. One’s either awed at the resolute and reliable nature of the lines’ interaction, or is heartbroken that the things will never come together (or, I suppose, break apart). I can feel both sides of it.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 5th features the arithmetic blackboard as inspiration for a prank. It’s the sort of thing harder to do with someone’s notes for an English essay. But, to spoil the fun, I have to say in my experience something fiddled with in the middle of a board wouldn’t even register. In much the way people will read over typos, their minds seeing what should be there instead of what is, a minor mathematical error will often not be seen. The mathematician will carry on with what she thought should be there. Especially if the error is a few lines back of the latest work. Not always, though, and when it doesn’t it’s a heck of a problem. (And here I am thinking of the week, the week, I once spent stymied by a problem because I was differentiating the function ex wrong. The hilarious thing here is it is impossible to find something easier to differentiate than ex. After you differentiate it correctly you get ex. An advanced squirrel could do it right, and here I was in grad school doing it wrong.)

Nate Creekmore’s Maintaining for the 5th has mathematics appear as the sort of homework one does. And a word problem that uses coins for whatever work it does. Coins should be good bases for word problems. They’re familiar enough and people do think about them, and if all else fails someone could in principle get enough dimes and quarters and just work it out by hand.

Sam Hepburn’s Questionable Quotebook for the 5th uses a blackboard full of mathematics to signify a monkey’s extreme intelligence. There’s a little bit of calculus in there, an appearance of “\frac{df}{dx} ” and a mention of the limit. These are things you get right up front of a calculus course. They’ll turn up in all sorts of problems you try to do.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts for the 5th is not really about mathematics. Peppermint Patty just mentions it on the way to explaining the depths of her not-understanding stuff. But it’s always been one of my favorite declarations of not knowing what’s going on so I do want to share it. The strip originally ran the 8th of December, 1969.

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Reading the Comics, October 26, 2013


And once again while I wasn’t quite looking we got a round of eight comic strips with mathematical themes to review. Some of them aren’t even about kids not understanding fractions, if you can imagine.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs (October 14) does the usual confused-student joke. It’s a little unusual in having the subject be different ways to plot data, though, with line graphs, bar graphs, and scatter graphs being shown off. I think remarkable about this is that line graphs and bar graphs were both — well, if not invented, then at least popularized — by one person, William Playfair, who’s also to be credited for making pie charts a popular tool. Playfair, an engineer and economist of the late 18th and early 19th century, and I do admire him for developing not just one but multiple techniques for making complicated information easier to see.

Eric the Circle (October 16) breaks through my usual reluctance to include it — just having a circle doesn’t seem like it’s enough — because it does a neat bit of mathematical joking, in which a cube looks “my dual” in an octahedron. Duals are one of the ways mathematicians transform one problem into another, that usually turns out to be equivalent; what’s surprising is that often a problem that’s difficult for the original is easy, or at least easier, for the dual.

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Reading the Comics, January 29, 2013


I’ve got enough mathematics-themed comic strips for a fresh installment of my comic tracking. I also want to mention the January 29th Jumble has a math teacher joke in it, but I don’t know a reasonably archivable way to point to that. Jumble.com, which I think is the official web site, is suffering some kind of database glitch so there could be anything there. Also, from working it out, “rimpet” may not be a word but it does look like it ought to be.

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Reading the Comics, September 11, 2012


Since the last installment of these mathematics-themed comic strips there’s been a steady drizzle of syndicated comics touching on something mathematical. This probably reflects the back-to-school interests that are naturally going to interest the people drawing either Precocious Children strips or Three Generations And A Dog strips.

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Everything I Learned In Eighth-Grade Math


My title is an exaggeration. In eighth grade Prealgebra I learned many things, but I confess that I didn’t learn well from that particular teacher that particular year. What I most clearly remember learning I picked up from a substitute who filled in a few weeks. It’s a method for factoring quadratic expressions into binomial expressions, and I must admit, it’s not very good. It’s cumbersome and totally useless once one knows the quadratic equation. But it’s fun to do, and I liked it a lot, and I’ve never seen it described as a way to factor quadratic expressions. So let me put it on the web and do what I can to preserve its legacy, and get hundreds of people telling me what it actually is and how everybody but the people I know went through a phase of using it.

It’s a method which looks at first like it’s going to be a magic square, but it’s not, and I’m at a loss what to call it. I don’t remember the substitute teacher’s name, so I can’t use that. I do remember the regular teacher’s name, but it wasn’t, as far as I know, part of his lesson plan, and it’d not be fair to him to let his legacy be defined by one student who just didn’t get him.

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Reading the Comics, August 27, 2012


I’m also surprised to find it’s been about a month since my last roundup of mathematics-themed comic strips, but that’s about how it worked out. There was a long stretch of not many syndicated comics touching on any subjects at all and then a rush as cartoonists noticed that summer vacation is on the verge of ending. (I understand in some United States school districts it already has ended, but I grew up in a state where school simply never started before Labor Day, so the idea of school in August feels fundamentally implausible.)

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