Reading the Comics, January 14, 2017: Redeye and Reruns Edition


So for all I worried about the Gocomics.com redesign it’s not bad. The biggest change is it’s removed a side panel and given the space over to the comics. And while it does show comics you haven’t been reading, it only shows one per day. One week in it apparently sticks with the same comic unless you choose to dismiss that. So I’ve had it showing me The Comic Strip That Has A Finale Every Day as a strip I’m not “reading”. I’m delighted how thisbreaks the logic about what it means to “not read” an “ongoing comic strip”. (That strip was a Super-Fun-Pak Comix offering, as part of Ruben Bolling’s Tom the Dancing Bug. It was turned into a regular Gocomics.com feature by someone who got the joke.)

Comic Strip Master Command responded to the change by sending out a lot of comic strips. I’m going to have to divide this week’s entry into two pieces. There’s not deep things to say about most of these comics, but I’ll make do, surely.

Julie Larson’s Dinette Set rerun for the 8th is about one of the great uses of combinatorics. That use is working out how the number of possible things compares to the number of things there are. What’s always staggering is that the number of possible things grows so very very fast. Here one of Larson’s characters claims a science-type show made an assertion about the number of possible ideas a brain could hold. I don’t know if that’s inspired by some actual bit of pop science. I can imagine someone trying to estimate the number of possible states a brain might have.

And that has to be larger than the number of atoms in the universe. Consider: there’s something less than a googol of atoms in the universe. But a person can certainly have the idea of the number 1, or the idea of the number 2, or the idea of the number 3, or so on. I admit a certain sameness seems to exist between the ideas of the numbers 2,038,412,562,593,604 and 2,038,412,582,593,604. But there is a difference. We can out-number the atoms in the universe even before we consider ideas like rabbits or liberal democracy or jellybeans or board games. The universe never had a chance.

Or did it? Is it possible for a number to be too big for the human brain to ponder? If there are more digits in the number than there are atoms in the universe we can’t form any discrete representation of it, after all. … Except that we kind of can. For example, “the largest prime number less than one googolplex” is perfectly understandable. We can’t write it out in digits, I think. But you now have thought of that number, and while you may not know what its millionth decimal digit is, you also have no reason to care what that digit is. This is stepping into the troubled waters of algorithmic complexity.

Shady Shrew is selling fancy bubble-making wands. Shady says the crazy-shaped wands cost more than the ordinary ones because of the crazy-shaped bubbles they create. Even though Slylock Fox has enough money to buy an expensive wand, he bought the cheaper one for Max Mouse. Why?
Bob Weber Jr’s Slylock Fox and Comics for Kids for the 9th of January, 2017. Not sure why Shady Shrew is selling the circular wands at 50 cents. Sure, I understand wanting a triangle or star or other wand selling at a premium. But then why have the circular wands at such a cheap price? Wouldn’t it be better to put them at like six dollars, so that eight dollars for a fancy wand doesn’t seem that great an extravagance? You have to consider setting an appropriate anchor point for your customer base. But, then, Shady Shrew isn’t supposed to be that smart.

Bob Weber Jr’s Slylock Fox and Comics for Kids for the 9th is built on soap bubbles. The link between the wand and the soap bubble vanishes quickly once the bubble breaks loose of the wand. But soap films that keep adhered to the wand or mesh can be quite strangely shaped. Soap films are a practical example of a kind of partial differential equations problem. Partial differential equations often appear when we want to talk about shapes and surfaces and materials that tug or deform the material near them. The shape of a soap bubble will be the one that minimizes the torsion stresses of the bubble’s surface. It’s a challenge to solve analytically. It’s still a good challenge to solve numerically. But you can do that most wonderful of things and solve a differential equation experimentally, if you must. It’s old-fashioned. The computer tools to do this have gotten so common it’s hard to justify going to the engineering lab and getting soapy water all over a mathematician’s fingers. But the option is there.

Gordon Bess’s Redeye rerun from the 28th of August, 1970, is one of a string of confused-student jokes. (The strip had a Generic Comedic Western Indian setting, putting it in the vein of Hagar the Horrible and other comic-anachronism comics.) But I wonder if there are kids baffled by numbers getting made several different ways. Experience with recipes and assembly instructions and the like might train someone to thinking there’s one correct way to make something. That could build a bad intuition about what additions can work.

'I'm never going to learn anything with Redeye as my teacher! Yesterday he told me that four and one make five! Today he said, *two* and *three* make five!'
Gordon Bess’s Redeye rerun from the 28th of August, 1970. Reprinted the 9th of January, 2017. What makes the strip work is how it’s tied to the personalities of these kids and couldn’t be transplanted into every other comic strip with two kids in it.

Corey Pandolph’s Barkeater Lake rerun for the 9th just name-drops algebra. And that as a word that starts with the “alj” sound. So far as I’m aware there’s not a clear etymological link between Algeria and algebra, despite both being modified Arabic words. Algebra comes from “al-jabr”, about reuniting broken things. Algeria comes from Algiers, which Wikipedia says derives from `al-jaza’ir”, “the Islands [of the Mazghanna tribe]”.

Guy Gilchrist’s Nancy for the 9th is another mathematics-cameo strip. But it was also the first strip I ran across this week that mentioned mathematics and wasn’t a rerun. I’ll take it.

Donna A Lewis’s Reply All for the 9th has Lizzie accuse her boyfriend of cheating by using mathematics in Scrabble. He seems to just be counting tiles, though. I think Lizzie suspects something like Blackjack card-counting is going on. Since there are only so many of each letter available knowing just how many tiles remain could maybe offer some guidance how to play? But I don’t see how. In Blackjack a player gets to decide whether to take more cards or not. Counting cards can suggest whether it’s more likely or less likely that another card will make the player or dealer bust. Scrabble doesn’t offer that choice. One has to refill up to seven tiles until the tile bag hasn’t got enough left. Perhaps I’m overlooking something; I haven’t played much Scrabble since I was a kid.

Perhaps we can take the strip as portraying the folk belief that mathematicians get to know secret, barely-explainable advantages on ordinary folks. That itself reflects a folk belief that experts of any kind are endowed with vaguely cheating knowledge. I’ll admit being able to go up to a blackboard and write with confidence a bunch of integrals feels a bit like magic. This doesn’t help with Scrabble.

'Want me to teach you how to add and subtract, Pokey?' 'Sure!' 'Okay ... if you had four cookies and I asked you for two, how many would you have left?' 'I'd still have four!'
Gordon Bess’s Redeye rerun from the 29th of August, 1970. Reprinted the 10th of January, 2017. To be less snarky, I do like the simply-expressed weariness on the girl’s face. It’s hard to communicate feelings with few pen strokes.

Gordon Bess’s Redeye continued the confused-student thread on the 29th of August, 1970. This one’s a much older joke about resisting word problems.

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics rerun for the 10th talks about multiverses. If we allow there to be infinitely many possible universes that would suggest infinitely many different Shakespeares writing enormously many variations of everything. It’s an interesting variant on the monkeys-at-typewriters problem. I noticed how T-Rex put Shakespeare at typewriters too. That’ll have many of the same practical problems as monkeys-at-typewriters do, though. There’ll be a lot of variations that are just a few words or a trivial scene different from what we have, for example. Or there’ll be variants that are completely uninteresting, or so different we can barely recognize them as relevant. And that’s if it’s actually possible for there to be an alternate universe with Shakespeare writing his plays differently. That seems like it should be possible, but we lack evidence that it is.

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Reading the Comics, June 25, 2016: Busy Week Edition


I had meant to cut the Reading The Comics posts back to a reasonable one a week. Then came the 23rd, which had something like six hundred mathematically-themed comic strips. So I could post another impossibly long article on Sunday or split what I have. And splitting works better for my posting count, so, here we are.

Charles Brubaker’s Ask A Cat for the 19th is a soap-bubbles strip. As ever happens with comic strips, the cat blows bubbles that can’t happen without wireframes and skillful bubble-blowing artistry. It happens that a few days ago I linked to a couple essays showing off some magnificent surfaces that the right wireframe boundary might inspire. The mathematics describing how a soap bubbles’s shape should be made aren’t hard; I’m confident I could’ve understood the equations as an undergraduate. Finding exact solutions … I’m not sure I could have done. (I’d still want someone looking over my work if I did them today.) But numerical solutions, that I’d be confident in doing. And the real thing is available when you’re ready to get your hands … dirty … with soapy water.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup To Nutz for the 19th Shows RoyBoy on the brink of understanding symmetry. To lose at rock-paper-scissors is indeed just as hard as winning is. Suppose we replaced the names of the things thrown with letters. Suppose we replace ‘beats’ and ‘loses to’ with nonsense words. Then we could describe the game: A flobs B. B flobs C. C flobs A. A dostks C. C dostks B. B dostks A. There’s no way to tell, from this, whether A is rock or paper or scissors, or whether ‘flob’ or ‘dostk’ is a win.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range for the 20th is the old joke about tipping being the hardest kind of mathematics to do. Proof? There’s an enormous blackboard full of symbols and the three guys in lab coats are still having trouble with it. I have long wondered why tips are used as the model of impossibly difficult things to compute that aren’t taxes. I suppose the idea of taking “fifteen percent” (or twenty, or whatever) of something suggests a need for precision. And it’ll be fifteen percent of a number chosen without any interest in making the calculation neat. So it looks like the worst possible kind of arithmetic problem. But the secret, of course, is that you don’t have to have “the” right answer. You just have to land anywhere in an acceptable range. You can work out a fraction — a sixth, a fifth, or so — of a number that’s close to the tab and you’ll be right. So, as ever, it’s important to know how to tell whether you have a correct answer before worrying about calculating it.

Allison Barrows’s Preeteena rerun for the 20th is your cheerleading geometry joke for this week.

'I refuse to change my personality just for a stupid speech.' 'Fi, you wouldn't have to! In fact, make it an asset! Brand yourself as The Math Curmudgeon! ... The Grouchy Grapher ... The Sour Cosine ... The Number Grump ... The Count of Carping ... The Kvetching Quotient' 'I GET IT!'
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 22nd of June, 2016. There are so many bloggers wondering if Holbrook is talking about them.

I am sure Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 22nd is not aimed at me. He hangs around Usenet group rec.arts.comics.strips some, as I do, and we’ve communicated a bit that way. But I can’t imagine he thinks of me much or even at all once he’s done with racs for the day. Anyway, Dethany does point out how a clear identity helps one communicate mathematics well. (Fi is to talk with elementary school girls about mathematics careers.) And bitterness is always a well-received pose. Me, I’m aware that my pop-mathematics brand identity is best described as “I guess he writes a couple things a week, doesn’t he?” and I could probably use some stronger hook, somewhere. I just don’t feel curmudgeonly most of the time.

Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy rerun for the 22nd is about arithmetic as a way to be obscure. We’ve all been there. I had, at first, read Bucky’s rating as “out of 178 1/3 π” and thought, well, that’s not too bad since one-third of π is pretty close to 1. But then, Conley being a normal person, probably meant “one-hundred seventy-eight and a third”, and π times that is a mess. Well, it’s somewhere around 550 or so. Octave tells me it’s more like 560.251 and so on.

Minimal Yet Interesting Surfaces


Some days you just run across a shape you never heard of before and that’s interesting. Matthias Weber of The Inner Frame gave me one last night. In a string of essays Weber shows a figure which comes up from minimal surface theory. This is a study of making a shape that fits to some given boundary while keeping a property called “mean curvature” equal to zero. This is how mathematicians make it sound all academic when they talk about soap bubbles in wire frames.

This is from a particular kind of surface developed in the 1860s by Alfred Enneper, whom I admit I never heard of before either. It’s just outside my specialty. But he was a student of Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet, who’s just all over partial differential equations and Fourier series. Enneper and Karl Weierstrauss — whose name is all over analysis — described a way to describe these surfaces, using differential geometry. Once again I’m sad I don’t know that field more, as it produces such compelling pictures.

Here Weber introduces the surface, complete with a craft project! If you’d like you can cut out and fit together a wonderful exotic little surface. The second essay looking at some shapes with similar properties, and at what you get by stacking these surfaces. The third part extends this even farther, to the part of mathematics that’s just Googie architecture. I hope you enjoy.

Reading the Comics, October 5, 2015: Boxes and Hyperboxes Edition


I’ve got more mathematically-themed comic strips than this to write about, but this should do for one day’s postings. Motley did give me the puzzle of figuring out whether the character’s description of a process could be made sensible, which is a bit of extra fun. Boxes and cubes come up in three of the comics, too.

John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 3rd of October drops in the abacus as a backup for the bank’s computers. It’s a cute enough idea. Deep down, I admit, I’m not sure that an abacus would be needed for most of the work a teller has to do during a temporary computer outage, though. Most of the calculations to do would be working out whether there’s enough money in the account to allow a given withdrawal. That’s database-checking, really. Also I’m not sure that’s a model of abacus that’s actually been made, but if I understood what was wanted, then in some ways wasn’t the artwork successful?

Larry Wright’s Motley Classics for the 3rd of October is a rerun from the same day in 1987. Debbie gives the terribly complicated instructions on how to calculate a tip. I’m not sure how tip-calculating got to the pop culture position of “most complicated thing people do with mathematics that isn’t taxes”. Probably that it is a fairly universal need for mathematics that isn’t taxes (and so seasonally bound) explains it. I think she’s describing a valid algorithm, though, if we make some assumptions about her pronouns.

Suppose we start with the price P. Double that and move the decimal one place over, to the left I suppose, and we have 0.20 times P. Suppose that this is the first answer. If we divide this first answer by four, then, this second answer will be 0.05 times P. And subtracting the second answer from the first is, indeed, 0.15 times P, or fifteen percent of the original price. While correct, though, it’s still a lousy algorithm. Too many steps, too much division, and subtraction is a challenge. Taking one-tenth the price plus half a tenth would be numerically identical and less challenging. Taking one-sixth the price would be a division, yes, but get you to near enough fifteen percent with only one move.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow for the 4th of October, another rerun, shows off one of the silly semantic-equation games that mathematics majors sometimes play. Forgive them. There’s a similar argument which proves that half a ham sandwich is greater than God. It all amounts to playing on arguments which might (not always!) be correct in form but have things with silly meanings plugged into them.

Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine for the 4th of October gives Pig the chance to panic. It’s another strip about the difference between what “positive” and “negative” mean in inference testing, and so in medical testing, versus the connotations of “good” and “`bad” they have. I’ve explained this before, in other Reading the Comics essays, so I’ll spare the whole thing. But in short, “positive” in this case means “these test results are so far away from normal values that it strains plausibility to think it’s normal”. “Negative” means “these test results are not so far away from normal values as to strain plausibility to think it’s normal”.

Geoff Grogan’s Jetpack Jr for the 5th of October draws a hypercube as the box little alien Jetpack Junior arrived in. Well, these are some of the common representations of how a four-dimensional cube would look in our three-dimensional space (and that, rendered on a two-dimensional screen). The difficult-to-conceptualize part is that in the cube, seen in the middle third of the strip, every one of the red lines is the same length, and is perpendicular to all its neighbors. The triptych of shapes are all the same four-dimensional cube, too, just rotated along different axes by different amounts.

All my old links to play with hypercube rotations seem to have expired or turn out to be Java applets. Here’s a page that offers a couple of pictures, though. It has a link to an iOS app that should let people play with rotating a four-dimensional hypercube. Might enjoy it. I think this is the first time Jetpack Jr as such has got around here. It used to run as Plastic Babyheads from Outer Space, with a silly overarching story about aliens with plastic baby heads, ah, invading. I don’t think that made the Reading the Comics roster, though, unless some of the aliens mentioned pi, which they might have done.

Charles Brubaker’s Ask A Cat for the 5th of October I think is another debuting strip around here. It’s about the problem of Schrödinger’s Cat, a thought-experiment designed to show we don’t really understand what the conventional mathematical models of quantum mechanics mean. In at least some views, the mathematics of quantum mechanics suggests we could have an apparently ridiculous result: something big, like a cat, that we expect should work like a classical-physics entity, behaving instead like a quantum-mechanical entity, with no definable state. The problem has been with us for eighty years and isn’t well-answered, but that happens. Zeno’s paradoxes have been with us three thousand years and are still showing us things we don’t quite understand about divisibility and continuity.

Anthony Smith’s Learn to Speak Cat for the 5th of October is a completely different cat comic strip that I think is making a debut here. This is more a matter of silly symbolic manipulation than anything serious, though.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am from the 5th of October is a rerun from 1999. And it shows a soap-bubble cube. Soap bubbles allow for some neat mathematics. They act like animate computers working out the way to enclose a given volume with the least surface area. A web site written by Dr Michael Hutchings at the University of California/Berkeley describes some of the mathematical work involved. Surprising to me is that it was only in the 1970s that the “double bubble conjecture” was proven. That’s a question about how to cover a given volume using two bubbles. The answer is what you might get from playing with soap bubble wands, but it took about a century of working on to prove. Granting, mathematicians did other things with their time, so it wasn’t uninterrupted soap-bubble work. Hutchings includes some review of the field as it existed in the early 2000s, and lists three open problems. The first of them is one that’s understandable even without knowing more mathematical lingo than what R3 is. (And folks who’re hanging around here know that by now.) Also it has pictures of soap bubbles, which are good for a lazy Friday morning.