Reading the Comics, February 25, 2019: Barely Mathematics Edition


These days I’ve been preparing these comics posts by making a note of every comic that seems like it might have a mathematical topic. Then at the end of the week I go back and re-read them all and think what I could write something about. This past week’s had two that seemed like nice juicy topics. And then I was busy all day Saturday so didn’t have time to put the thought into them that they needed. So instead I offer some comic strips with at least mentions of mathematical subjects. If they’re not tightly on point, well, I need to post something, don’t I?

Jeffrey Caulfield and Brian Ponshock’s Yaffle for the 24th is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. It did get me thinking about the numbers which (in English) are homophones to other words. There don’t seem to be many, though: one, two, four, six, and eight seem to be about all I could really justify. There’s probably dialects where “ten” and “tin” blend together. There’s probably a good Internet Argument to be had about whether “couple” should be considered the name of a number. That there aren’t more is probably that there, in a sense, only a couple of names for numbers, with a scheme to compound names for a particular number of interest.

Anthropomorphized numerals 3 and 5 are at the golf course. 3 asks: 'Now where did four go?' 5: 'I don't know.' 3: 'Four? FOUR!!?' Caption: 'A tradition begins.'
Jeffrey Caulfield and Brian Ponshock’s Yaffle for the 24th of February, 2019. I had thought this would be a new comics tag, but no. There’s already been another appearance here by Yaffle, which you can find at this link.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 25th mentions algebra, but is mostly aimed at the Reading the Comics for some historian blogger. I kind of admire Hilburn’s willingness to go for the 70-year-old scandal for a day’s strip. But a daily strip demands a lot of content, especially when it doesn’t have recurring characters. The quiz answers as given are correct, and that’s easy to check. But it is typically easy to check whether a putative answer is correct. Finding an answer is the hard part.

A spy passes a sheet of quiz answers (4x + 3 = 7, x = 1. 18 - 4x = 5x, x = 2) to another spy. Caption: Algebra Hiss.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 25th of February, 2019. There was never a moment I’d think this was a new tag. The Argyle Sweater gets discussed often and essays including it are at this link.

I’m not aware of any etymological link between the term algebra and the name Alger. The word “algebra” derivate from the Arabic “al-jabr”, which the Oxford English Dictionary tells me literally derives from a term for “the surgical treatment of fractures”. Less literally, it would mean putting things back together, restoring the missing parts. We get it from a textbook by the 9th century Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, whose last name Europeans mutated into “algorithm”, as in, the way to solve a problem. That’s thanks to his book again. “Alger” as in a name seems to trace to Old English, although exactly where is debatable, as it usually is. (I’m assuming ‘Alger’ as a first name derives from its uses as a family name, and will angrily accept correction from people who know better.)

8-year-old Nicholas is doing addition problems. 4-year-old Alec asks 'Whatcha doing.' Nicholas: 'Math. And it's really hard.' Alec: 'Maybe I can help.' Nicholas: 'You're four years old. How can YOU help?' Alec: 'You can use my fingers too! Then you can count to twenty!'
Daniel Shelton’s Ben for the 25th of February, 2019. I had also thought this might be a new tag, but again no. Ben has appeared at least twice before, in essays at this link.

Daniel Shelton’s Ben for the 25th has a four-year-old offering his fingers as a way to help his older brother with mathematics work. Counting on fingers can be a fine way to get the hang of arithmetic and at least I won’t fault someone for starting there. Eventually, do enough arithmetic, and you stop matching numbers with fingers because that adds an extra layer of work that doesn’t do anything but slow you down.

Catching my interest though is that Nicholas (the eight-year-old, and I had to look that up on the Ben comic strip web site; GoComics doesn’t have a cast list) had worked out 8 + 6, but was struggling with 7 + 8. He might at some point get experienced enough to realize that 7 + 8 has to be the same thing as 8 + 7, which has to be the same thing as 8 + 6 + 1. And if he’s already got 8 + 6 nailed down, then 7 + 8 is easy. But that takes using a couple of mathematical principles — that addition commutes, that you can substitute one quantity with something equal to it, that you addition associates — and he might not see where those principles get him any advantage over some other process.

Caption: What does it mean when you see repeating numbers? A set of people say things: 'That's the third 8 I've seen this week.' 'Everywhere I go ... a 12 is following me.' 'When I turn on the TV ... there's that 5 again.' 'Is the DEEP STATE trying to tell us something?' 'Have THEY concealed the existence of 'certain numbers'?' 'If you see something stupid ... ' '... Say something STUPIDER!'
Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena for the 25th of February, 2019. And I never seriously suspected this was a new tag. Unstrange Phenomena gets discussed in essays at this link.

Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena for the 25th builds its Dadaist nonsense for the week around repeating numbers. I learn from trying to pin down just what Allison means by “repeating numbers” that there are people who ascribe mystical significance to, say, “444”. Well, if that helps you take care of the things you need to do, all right. Repeating decimals are a common enough thing. They appear in the decimal expressions for rational numbers. These expressions either terminate — they have finitely many digits and then go to an infinitely long sequence of 0’s — or they repeat. (We rule out “repeating nothing but zeroes” because … I don’t know. I would guess it makes the proofs in some corner of number theory less bothersome.)

You could also find interesting properties about numbers made up of repeating strings of numerals. For example, write down any number of 9’s you like, followed by a 6. The number that creates is divisible by 6. I grant this might not be the most important theorem you’ll ever encounter, but it’s a neat one. Like, a strong of 4’s followed by a 9 is not necessarily divisible by 4 or 9. There are bunches of cute little theorem like this, mostly good for making one admit that huh, there’s some neat coincidences(?) about numbers.

Although … Allison’s strip does seem to get at seeing particular numbers over and over. This does happen; it’s probably a cultural thing. One of the uses we put numbers to is indexing things. So, for example, a TV channel gets a number and while the station may have a name, it makes for an easier control to set the TV to channel numbered 5 or whatnot. We also use numbers to measure things. When we do, we get to pick the size of our units. We typically pick them so our measurements don’t have to be numbers too big or too tiny. There’s no reason we couldn’t measure the distance between cities in millimeters, or the length of toes in light-years. But to try is to look like you’re telling a joke. So we get see some ranges — 1 to 5, 1 to 10 — used a lot when we don’t need fine precision. We see, like, 1 to 100 for cases where we need more precision than that but don’t have to pin a thing down to, like, a quarter of a percent. Numbers will spill past these bounds, naturally. But we are more likely to encounter a 20 than a 15,642. We set up how we think about numbers so we are. So maybe it would look like some numbers just follow you.


Over the next few days I should have more chance to think. I’ll finish Reading the Comics from the past week and put an essay up at this link.

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Reading the Comics, January 30, 2019: Interlude Edition


I think there are just barely enough comic strips from the past week to make three essays this time around. But one of them has to be a short group, only three comics. That’ll be for the next essay when I can group together all the strips that ran in February. One strip that I considered but decided not to write at length about was Ed Allison’s dadaist Unstrange Phenomena for the 28th. It mentions Roman Numerals and the idea of sneaking message in through them. But that’s not really mathematics. I usually enjoy the particular flavor of nonsense which Unstrange Phenomena uses; you might, too.

John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 29th uses an arithmetic problem as shorthand for an accomplished education. The problem is solvable. Of course, you say. It’s an equation with quadratic polynomial; it can hardly not be solved. Yes, fine. But McPherson could easily have thrown together numbers that implied x was complex-valued, or had radicals or some other strange condition. This is one that someone could do in their heads, at least once they practiced in mental arithmetic.

Cars lined up at a toll booth. The sign reads: 'Welcome to New York State! To enter the state, please solve the following problem: (2x^2 + 7)/3 = 13, solve for x'. Attendant telling a driver: 'It's part of the state's new emphasis on improving education. I'm afraid you'll have to turn around, Mr Strob.'
John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 29th of January, 2019. Essays inspired by Close To Home should appear at this link.

I feel reasonably confident McPherson was just having a giggle at the idea of putting knowledge tests into inappropriate venues. So I’ll save the full rant. But there is a long history of racist and eugenicist ideology that tried to prove certain peoples to be mentally incompetent. Making an arithmetic quiz prerequisite to something unrelated echoes that. I’d have asked McPherson to rework the joke to avoid that.

(I’d also want to rework the composition, since the booth, the swinging arm, and the skirted attendant with the clipboard don’t look like any tollbooth I know. But I don’t have an idea how to redo the layout so it’s more realistic. And it’s not as if that sort of realism would heighten the joke.)

Lecturer: 'Since Babylonian days mathematicians have wondered if it were possible to 'square the circle' using only a compass and straightedge. Mathematicians *supposedly* proved you couldn't back in 1882. They were wrong. Imagine your compass and straightedge. First, put a pencil on one end of the compass and an eraser on the other. Second, designate any number of tiny boxes on your straightedge. Using the compass, you can draw or erase symbols on the straightedge. And what's *that* called? A Turing machine. So now we can rephrase the problem: using only a *computer*, can you construct a square with the same area as a given circle? Using this general method we can unlock *all* 'compass and straightedge' problems! Attendee: 'Are you missing the point accidentally or strategically?' Lecturer: 'I'm mostly trying to make the philosophy students sad.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 29th of January, 2019. Every Reading the Comics essay has a bit of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal in it. The essays with a particularly high Breakfast Cereal concentration appear at this link, though.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 29th riffs on the problem of squaring the circle. This is one of three classical problems of geometry. The lecturer describes it just fine: is it possible to make a square that’s got the same area as a given circle, using only straightedge and compass? There are shapes it’s easy to do this for, such as rectangles, parallelograms, triangles, and (why not?) this odd crescent-moon shaped figure called the lune. Circles defied all attempts. In the 19th century mathematicians found ways to represent the operations of classical geometry with algebra, and could use the tools of algebra to show squaring the circle was impossible. The squaring would be equivalent to finding a polynomial, with integer coefficients, that has \sqrt{\pi} as a root. And we know from the way algebra works that this can’t be done. So squaring the circle can’t be done.

The lecturer’s hack, modifying the compass and straightedge, lets you in principle do whatever you want. The hack isn’t new either. Modifying the geometric tools changes what you can and can’t do. The Ancient Greeks recognized that adding some specialized tools would make the problem possible. But that falls outside the scope of the problem.

Which feeds to the secondary joke, of making the philosophers sad. Often philosophy problems test one’s intuition about an idea by setting out a problem, often with unpleasant choices. A common problem with students that I’m going ahead and guessing are engineers is then attacking the setup of the question, trying to show that the problem couldn’t actually happen. You know, as though there were ever a time significant numbers of people were being tied to trolley tracks. (By the way, that thing about silent movie villains tying women to railroad tracks? Only happened in comedies spoofing Victorian melodramas. It’s always been a parody.) Attacking the logic of a problem may make for good movie drama. But it makes for a lousy student and a worse class discussion.

Li'l Bo: 'How are you on logic, Quincy?' Quincy: 'Average, I guess. I can usually put two and two together, but sometimes I have a fraction or so left over.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 30th of January, 2019. It originally ran the 6th of December, 1979. I’m usually happy when I get the chance to talk about this strip. The art’s pretty sweet. When I do discuss Quincy the essays should appear at this link.

Ted Shearer’s Quincy rerun for the 30th uses a bit of mathematics and logic talk. It circles the difference between the feeling one can have about the rational meaning of a situation and how the situation feels to someone. It seems like a jump that Quincy goes from being asked about logic to talking about arithmetic. Possibly Quincy’s understanding of logic doesn’t start from the sort of very abstract concept that makes arithmetic hard to get to, though.


There should be another Reading the Comics post this week. It should be here, when it appears. There should also be one on Sunday, as usual.

Reading the Comics, August 15, 2017: Cake Edition


It was again a week just busy enough that I’m comfortable splitting the Reading The Comments thread into two pieces. It’s also a week that made me think about cake. So, I’m happy with the way last week shaped up, as far as comic strips go. Other stuff could have used a lot of work Let’s read.

Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal rerun for the 13th depicts “teaching the kids math” by having them divide up a cake fairly. I accept this as a viable way to make kids interested in the problem. Cake-slicing problems are a corner of game theory as it addresses questions we always find interesting. How can a resource be fairly divided? How can it be divided if there is not a trusted authority? How can it be divided if the parties do not trust one another? Why do we not have more cake? The kids seem to be trying to divide the cake by volume, which could be fair. If the cake slice is a small enough wedge they can likely get near enough a perfect split by ordinary measures. If it’s a bigger wedge they’d need calculus to get the answer perfect. It’ll be well-approximated by solids of revolution. But they likely don’t need perfection.

This is assuming the value of the icing side is not held in greater esteem than the bare-cake sides. This is not how I would value the parts of the cake. They’ll need to work something out about that, too.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 13th features a bit of numerical wizardry. That the dates in a three-by-three block in a calendar will add up to nine times the centered date. Why this works is good for a bit of practice in simplifying algebraic expressions. The stunt will be more impressive if you can multiply by nine in your head. I’d do that by taking ten times the given date and then subtracting the original date. I won’t say I’m fond of the idea of subtracting 23 from 230, or 17 from 170. But a skilled performer could do something interesting while trying to do this subtraction. (And if you practice the trick you can get the hang of the … fifteen? … different possible answers.)

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot rerun for the 14th mentions mathematics. Young nerd Jason’s trying to get back into hand-raising form. Arithmetic has considerable advantages as a thing to practice answering teachers. The questions have clear, definitely right answers, that can be worked out or memorized ahead of time, and can be asked in under half a panel’s word balloon space. I deduce the strip first ran the 21st of August, 2006, although that image seems to be broken.

Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena for the 14th suggests changes in the definition of the mile and the gallon to effortlessly improve the fuel economy of cars. As befits Allison’s Dadaist inclinations the numbers don’t work out. As it is, if you defined a New Mile of 7,290 feet (and didn’t change what a foot was) and a New Gallon of 192 fluid ounces (and didn’t change what an old fluid ounce was) then a 20 old-miles-per-old-gallon car would come out to about 21.7 new-miles-per-new-gallon. Commenter Del_Grande points out that if the New Mile were 3,960 feet then the calculation would work out. This inspires in me curiosity. Did Allison figure out the numbers that would work and then make a mistake in the final art? Or did he pick funny-looking numbers and not worry about whether they made sense? No way to tell from here, I suppose. (Allison doesn’t mention ways to get in touch on the comic’s About page and I’ve only got the weakest links into the professional cartoon community.)

Todd the Dinosaur in the playground. 'Kickball, here we come!' Teacher's voice: 'Hold it right there! What is 128 divided by 4?' Todd: 'Long division?' He screams until he wakes. Trent: 'What's wrong?' Todd: 'I dreamed it was the first day of school! And my teacher made me do math ... DURING RECESS!' Trent: 'Stop! That's too scary!'
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 15th of August, 2017. Before you snipe that there’s no room on the teacher’s worksheet for Todd to actually give an answer, remember that it’s an important part of dream-logic that it’s impossible to actually do the commanded task.

Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 15th mentions long division as the stuff of nightmares. So it is. I guess MathWorld and Wikipedia endorse calling 128 divided by 4 long division, although I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. This may be idiosyncratic; I’d thought of long division as where the divisor is two or more digits. A three-digit number divided by a one-digit one doesn’t seem long to me. I’d just think that was division. I’m curious what readers’ experiences have been.

Reading The Comics, May 20, 2012


Since I suspect that the comics roundup posts are the most popular ones I post, I’m very glad to see there was a bumper crop of strips among the ones I read regularly (from King Features Syndicate and from gocomics.com) this past week. Some of those were from cancelled strips in perpetual reruns, but that’s fine, I think: there aren’t any particular limits on how big an electronic comics page one can have, after all, and while it’s possible to read a short-lived strip long enough that you see all its entries, it takes a couple go-rounds to actually have them all memorized.

The first entry, and one from one of these cancelled strips, comes from Mark O’Hare’s Citizen Dog, a charmer of a comic set in a world-plus-talking-animals strip. In this case Fergus has taken the place of Maggie, a girl who’s not quite ready to come back from summer vacation. It’s also the sort of series of questions that it feels like come at the start of any class where a homework assignment’s due.

Continue reading “Reading The Comics, May 20, 2012”