Reading the Comics, November 9, 2018: Standing For Things Edition


There was something in common in two of the last five comic strips worth attention from last week. That’s good enough to give the essay its name.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 8th showcases Toby discovering the point of letters in algebra. It’s easy to laugh at him being ignorant. But the use of letters this way is something it’s easy to miss. You need first to realize that we don’t need to have a single way to represent a number. Which is implicit in learning, say, that you can write ‘7’ as the Roman numeral ‘VII’ or so, but I’m not sure that’s always clear. And realizing that you could use any symbol to write out ‘7’ if you agree that’s what the symbol means? That’s an abstraction tossed onto people who often aren’t really up for that kind of abstraction. And that we can have a symbol for “a number whose identity we don’t yet know”? Or even “a number whose identity we don’t care about”? Don’t blame someone for rearing back in confusion at this.

Friend 1: 'That algebra test was awful.' Friend 2: 'Toby just gave up and handed his paper in!' Toby: 'No, I finished. My mom said as long as I studied I didn't have to do any chores.' Friend 1: 'That'd eat up all your gaming hours!' Toby: 'Yep. Hey, did you know algebra letters stand for things?'
Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 8th of November, 2018. I’m sorry I can’t figure out the names of Toby’s friends here. Character lists, cartoonists, please.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 8th talks about vectors and scalars. And about the little ways that instructors in one subject can sabotage one another. In grad school I was witness to the mathematics department feeling quite put-upon by the engineering departments, who thought we were giving their students inadequate calculus training. Meanwhile we couldn’t figure out what they were telling students about calculus except that it was screwing up their understanding.

Funtime Activity: Ruining students forever. Teacher: 'Physics students must learn the difference between vectors and scalars is that scalars don't exist.' Student: 'What about 'amount of apples'?' Teacher: 'Huh? Oh, you're referring to 'distance in apple-space'.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 8th of November, 2018. Also, shouldn’t that be “displacement in apple-space”?

To a physicist, a vector is a size and a direction together. (At least until they get seriously into mathematical physics when they need a more abstract idea.) A scalar is a number. Like, a real-valued number such as ‘4’. Maybe a complex-valued number such as ‘4 + 6i’. Vectors are great because a lot of physics problems become easier when thought of in terms of directions and amounts in that direction.

A mathematician would start out with vectors and scalars like that. But then she’d move into a more abstract idea. A vector, to a mathematician, is a thing you can add to another vector and get a vector out. A scalar is something that’s not a vector but that, multiplied by a vector, gets you a vector out. This sounds circular. But by defining ‘vector’ and ‘scalar’ in how they interact with each other we get a really sweet flexibility. We can use the same reasoning — and the same proofs — for lots of things. Directions, yes. But also matrices, and continuous functions, and probabilities of events, and more. That’s a bit much to give the engineering student who’s trying to work out some problem about … I don’t know. Whatever they do over in that department. Truss bridges or electrical circuits or something.

Billy: 'On the 80s station I think I just heard my favorite song ever! It's about carrying a laser down some road. I think it's called 'Carry a laser' and it's all about lasers!' Cow: 'Actually, it's 'Kyrie Eleison'. It means 'Lord, have Mercy'. It has nothing at all to do with lasers.' Billy: 'Right, and 'Hip to b^2' has nothing to do with algebra.' Cow: 'That I don't know.'s
Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy rerun for the 9th of November, 2018. It first ran the 19th of March, 2012.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy for the 9th is really about misheard song lyrics, a subject that will never die now that we don’t have the space to print lyrics in the album lining anymore, or album linings. But it has a joke resonant with that of The Buckets, in supposing that algebra is just some bunch of letters mixed up with numbers. And Cow and Boy was always a strip I loved, as baffling as it might be to a casual reader. It had a staggering number of running jokes, although not in this installment.

Brad: 'I think I've got this worked out. It takes 500 half-inch hairs to make a good moustache. If I grow one hair a week, and each new hair grows 1/8 inch per month, I can grow a perfect moustache in ... ' Luann: '225 years, not bad!'
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 9th of November, 2018. It first ran the 9th of November, 1990.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 9th shows Brad happy to work out arithmetic when it’s for something he’d like to know. The figure Luan gives is ridiculously high, though. If he needs 500 hairs, and one new hair grows in each week, then that’s a little under ten years’ worth of growth. Nine years and a bit over seven months to be exact. If a moustache hair needs to be a half-inch long, and it grows at 1/8th of an inch per month, then it takes four months to be sufficiently long. So in the slowest possible state it’d be nine years, eleven months. I can chalk Luann’s answer up to being snidely pessimistic about his hair growth. But his calculator seems to agree and that suggests something went wrong along the way.

Test Question: 'Mr Gray drove 55 mph to a city 80 miles away. He made two stops: one for 20 minutes, and one for 5. How long did it take Mr Gray to reach the city?' Student's answer: 'This made my head hurt, so I'm just going to say 'the whole trip'. You can't argue that.'
John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 9th of November, 2018. Again, character lists. I don’t know which of the characters this is except that he’s either very small or has an enormous pencil.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 9th is a story problem joke. It looks to me like a reasonable story problem, too: the distance travelled and the speed are reasonable, and give sensible numbers. The two stops add a bit of complication that doesn’t seem out of line. And the kid’s confusion is fair enough. It takes some experience to realize that the problem splits into an easy part, a hard part, and an easy part. The first easy part is how long the stops take all together. That’s 25 minutes. The hard part is realizing that if you want to know the total travel time it doesn’t matter when the stops are. You can find the total travel time by adding together the time spent stopped with the time spent driving. And the other easy part is working out how long it takes to go 80 miles if you travel at 55 miles per hour. That’s just a division. So find that and add to it the 25 minutes spent at the two stops.


The various Reading the Comics posts should all be at this link. Essays which discuss The Buckets are at this link. The incredibly many essays mentioning Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal are at this link. Essays which mention Cow and Boy are at this link. Essays inspired in part by Luann, both the current-day and the vintage 1990 run, are at this link. The credibly many essays mentioning Maria’s Day are at this link.

And through the end of December my Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z should have two new posts a week. You might like some of them.

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Reading the Comics, October 6, 2018: Square Root of 144 Edition


And I have three last strips from last week to talk about. For those curious, I have ten comics for this week that I flagged for mention, at least before reading the Saturday GoComics pages. So that will probably be two or three installments next week. It’ll depend how many Saturday GoComics strips raise a point I feel like discussing.

Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon for the 5th uses arithmetic as the archetypical homework problem that’s short enough to fit in a panel but also too hard for an adult to do. And, neatly, easy for a computer to do. Were I either shark here I’d have reasoned out the square root of 144 something like this: they’re not getting homework where they’d be asked the square root of something that wasn’t a perfect square. So it’s got to be a whole number. 144 is between 100 and 400, so it’s got to be the square root of something between 10 and 20. 144 is pretty close to 100, so 144’s square root is probably close to 10. The square of 1 is 1, so 11 squared has to be one-hundred-something-and-one. The square of 2 is 4, so 12 squared has to be one-hundred-something-and-four. The square of 3 is 9, so 13 squared has to be one-hundred-something-and-nine. The square of 4 is 16, so 14 squared has to be at least one-hundred-something-and-six. And by then we’re getting pretty far from 10. So the only plausible candidate is 12. Test that out and, what do you know, there it is.

Herman: 'Dad, can you help me with my math homework?' Sherman: 'Highly doubtful. But I'm sure Alexa can. Ask her anything.' Herman: 'Alexa, what's the square root of 144?' Alexa: 'The square root of 144 is 12.' Herman: 'Wow. She's good. has Mom finally decided to replace you?' Sherman: 'Should I be worried?'
Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon for the 5th of October, 2018. And if you’re wondering how an Alexa eavesdropping device is working underwater, go away. The strip’s not for you, and that’s your loss, because it’s nicely low-key weird and teaches me more about ocean biology than I ever imagined I’d know.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 6th is a riff on the monkeys-at-keyboards joke. Well, what keeps monkeys-at-typewriters from writing interesting things is that they don’t have any selection. They just produce text to no end, in principle. Picking out characters and words that carry narrative is what makes essayists and playwrights. … That said, I think every instructor has faced the essay that is, somehow, worse than gibberish. The process is to try to find anything that could be credited, even if it’s just including at least one of the words from the topic of the essay, and move briskly on.

Eddie: 'You know the old saying about putting an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters, and eventually they'll accidentally write Shakespeare's plays?' Toby: 'I guess.' Eddie: 'My English teacher says that nothing about our class should worry those monkeys ONE BIT!'
Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 6th of October, 2018. I’m mostly sure the guy with all the hair is Eddie but, again, character lists. Please.

Larry Wright’s Motley for the 6th is a riff on the idea tips are impossibly complicated to calculate. And that any mathematics might as well be algebra. My question: what the heck calculation is Debbie describing here? There are different ways to find a 15 percent tip. One two-step one is to divide the bill by ten, which is easy and gets you 10 percent. Then divide that by two, which is not-hard, and gets you 5 percent. Add together the 10 percent and 5 percent and you get 15 percent. A one-step method is to just divide by six. This gets you a bit under 17 percent, but that’s close enough. It just requires an ability to divide by six.

Debbie, on the phone: '... multiply by two and move the decimal over one digit ... then divide by four and subtract that answer from the first answer.' Toady: 'Were you helping someone with their algebra?' Debbie: 'No, Dad's at the restaurant and wanted to leave a 15 percent tip.'
Larry Wright’s Motley for the 6th of October, 2018. This strip originally ran in 1987, although I can’t make out when. Also see earlier comments about cast lists; I had to look through about a month’s worth of comics to find both characters’ names here.

There’s other ways to go about it, surely. There are many ways to do any calculation you like. Some of them have the advantages of requiring fewer steps. Some require more steps, but hopefully easier steps. Debbie is, obviously, just describing a nonsensically complicated calculation, to fit the needs of the joke. I’m just trying to think of what a plausible process would lead into the first panel and still get the right answer.

My many Reading the Comics posts are at this link. Essays which mention Sherman’s Lagoon should be at this link. Other essays with The Buckets should appear at this link. And other essays discussing Motley Classics should be here.

Reading the Comics, April 28, 2018: Friday Is Pretty Late Edition


I should have got to this yesterday; I don’t know. Something happened. Should be back to normal Sunday.

Bill Rechin’s Crock rerun for the 26th of April does a joke about picking-the-number-in-my-head. There’s more clearly psychological than mathematical content in the strip. It shows off something about what people understand numbers to be, though. It’s easy to imagine someone asked to pick a number choosing “9”. It’s hard to imagine them picking “4,796,034,621,322”, even though that’s just as legitimate a number. It’s possible someone might pick π, or e, but only if that person’s a particular streak of nerd. They’re not going to pick the square root of eleven, or negative eight, or so. There’s thing that are numbers that a person just, offhand, doesn’t think of as numbers.

Crock to the two prisoners in lockboxes: 'Guess the number I'm thinking and I'll set you free.' First prisoner: '4,796,034,621,322.' Crock: 'Sorry, it's nine.' Second prisoner: 'What made you guess THAT number?' First prisoner: 'It was the first one to pop into my head.'
Bill Rechin’s Crock rerun for the 26th of April, 2018. Going ahead and guessing there’s another Crock with the same setup, except the prisoner guesses nine, and Crock says it was 4,796,034,621,322, and then in the final panel we see that Crock really had thought nine and lied.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 26th sees Wavehead ask about “borrowing” in subtraction. It’s a riff on some of the terminology. Wavehead’s reading too much into the term, naturally. But there are things someone can reasonably be confused about. To say that we are “borrowing” ten does suggest we plan to return it, for example, and we never do that. I’m not sure there is a better term for this turning a digit in one column to adding ten to the column next to it, though. But I admit I’m far out of touch with current thinking in teaching subtraction.

On the board: 51 - 26, with the 51 rewritten as 4 with a borrowed 11. Wavehead: 'So we're just borrowing 10 no questions asked? What about a credit check? What's the interest rate?'
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 26th of April, 2018. This is Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 26th is kind of a practical probability question. And psychology also, since most of the time we don’t put shirts on wrong. Granted there might be four ways to put a shirt on. You can put it on forwards or backwards, you can put it on right-side-out or inside-out. But there are shirts that are harder to mistake. Collars or a cut around the neck that aren’t symmetric front-to-back make it harder to mistake. Care tags make the inside-out mistake harder to make. We still manage it, but the chance of putting a shirt on wrong is a lot lower than the 75% chance we might naively expect. (New comic tag, by the way.)

Larry: 'Your shirt is on all wrong.' Toby: 'It was bound to happen.' Larry: 'What? Why?' Toby: 'There's FOUR different ways a shirt can go on! That gives me only, like, a 20% chance any time I put it on.'
Greg Cravens’s The Buckets for the 26th of April, 2018. I’m not sure Larry (the father)’s disbelief at his kid figuring putting the shirt on all wrong was bound to happen. It’s a mistake we all make; accepting the inevitability of that doesn’t seem that wrong.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts rerun for the 27th is surely set in mathematics class. The publication date interests me. I’m curious if this is the first time a Peanuts kid has flailed around and guessed “the answer is twelve!” Guessing the answer is twelve would be a Peppermint Patty specialty. But it has to start somewhere.

Sally, at her schooldesk: 'The answer is twelve! It isn't? How about six? Four? Nine? Two? Ten? ... Do you have the feeling that I'm guessing?'
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts rerun for the 27th of April, 2018. This strip first ran the 30th of April, 1971. It also was rerun the 25th of April, 2003, with a different colorization scheme for some reason.

Knowing nothing about the problem, if I did get the information that my first guess of 12 was wrong, yeah, I’d go looking for 6 or 4 as next guesses, and 12 or 48 after that. When I make an arithmetic mistake, it’s often multiplying or dividing by the wrong number. And 12 has so many factors that they’re good places to look. Subtracting a number instead of adding, or vice-versa, is also common. But there’s nothing in 12 by itself to suggest another place to look, if the addition or subtraction went wrong. It would be in the question which, of course, doesn’t exist.

Venn Diagram. One circle's labelled 'Venn Diagrams'; the second 'Jokes'. The intersection is 'Lazy Cartoonists'.
Maria Scrivan’s Half-Full for the 28th of April, 2018. Hey, cartoonists deserve easy days at work too. And there’s not always a convenient holiday they can have the cast just gather around and wish everyone a happy instance of.

Maria Scrivan’s Half-Full for the 28th is the Venn Diagram joke for this week. It could include an extra circle for bloggers looking for content they don’t need to feel inspired to write. This one isn’t a new comics tag, which surprises me.

Guy: 'Relax. Half the time, job interviewers don't even read your resume. They just see how long it is.' Mathematician: 'Really?' Guy: 'Yeah. Where are you going?' Mathematician: 'To make a Mobius strip.' Interviewer: 'Wow! I've never met someone with *infinite* skills and work experience.' Mathematician: 'I don't like to brag.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 28th of April, 2018. If I had seen this strip in 2007 maybe I would’ve got that tenure-track posting instead of going into the world of technically being an extant mathematics blog.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 28th uses the M&oum;bius Strip. It’s an example of a surface that you could just go along forever. There’s nothing topologically special about the M&oum;bius Strip in this regard, though. The mathematician would have as infinitely “long” a résumé if she tied it into a simple cylindrical loop. But the M&oum;bius Strip sounds more exotic, not to mention funnier. Can’t blame anyone going for that instead.