Reading the Comics, September 22, 2017: Doughnut-Cutting Edition


The back half of last week’s mathematically themed comic strips aren’t all that deep. They make up for it by being numerous. This is how calculus works, so, good job, Comic Strip Master Command. Here’s what I have for you.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 20th marks its long-awaited return to these Reading The Comics posts. It’s of the traditional form of the student misunderstanding the teacher’s explanations. Arithmetic edition.

Marty Links’s Emmy Lou for the 20th was a rerun from the 22nd of September, 1976. It’s just a name-drop. It’s not like it matters for the joke which textbook was lost. I just include it because, what the heck, might as well.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 21st uses the form of a story problem. It’s a trick question anyway; there’s really no way the Doppler effect is going to make an ice cream truck’s song unrecognizable, not even at highway speeds. Too distant to hear, that’s a possibility. Also I don’t know how strictly regional this is but the ice cream trucks around here have gone in for interrupting the music every couple seconds with some comical sound effect, like a “boing” or something. I don’t know what this hopes to achieve besides altering the timeline of when the ice cream seller goes mad.

Mark Litzler’s Joe Vanilla for the 21st I already snuck in here last week, in talking about ‘x’. The variable does seem like a good starting point. And, yeah, hypothesis block is kind of a thing. There’s nothing quite like staring at a problem that should be interesting and having no idea where to start. This happens even beyond grade school and the story problems you do then. What to do about it? There’s never one thing. Study it a good while, read about related problems a while. Maybe work on something that seems less obscure a while. It’s very much like writer’s block.

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics rerun for the 22nd straddles the borders between mathematics, economics, and psychology. It’s a problem about making forecasts about other people’s behavior. It’s a mystery of game theory. I don’t know a proper analysis for this game. I expect it depends on how many rounds you get to play: if you have a sense of what people typically do, you can make a good guess of what they will do. If everyone gets a single shot to play, all kinds of crazy things might happen.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz gets in again on the 22nd with some mathematics gibberish-talk, including some tossing around of the commutative property. Among other mistakes Caulfield was making here, going from “less is more to therefore more is less” isn’t commutation. Commutation is about binary operations, where you match a pair of things to a single thing. The operation commutes if it never matters what the order of the pair of things is. It doesn’t commute if it ever matters, even a single time, what the order is. Commutativity gets introduced in arithmetic where there are some good examples of the thing. Addition and multiplication commute. Subtraction and division don’t. From there it gets forgotten until maybe eventually it turns up in matrix multiplication, which doesn’t commute. And then it gets forgotten once more until maybe group theory. There, whether operations commute or not is as important a divide as the one between vertebrates and invertebrates. But I understand kids not getting why they should care about commuting. Early on it seems like a longwinded way to say what’s obvious about addition.

Michael Cavna’s Warped for the 22nd is the Venn Diagram joke for this round of comics.

Hugo: 'There's three of us and I have four doughnuts, it won't divide ... so I'll have to eat the extra one!' Punkinhead: 'Wait, Hugo, I can solve it, I'll go get my brother.'
Bud Blake’s Tiger rerun for the 23rd of September, 2017. Do have to wonder what’s going through Julian’s head. On the one hand, he’s getting one doughnut, come what may. On the other, he’s really not needed for the joke since it would play just as well with three doughnuts to split between Hugo and Punkinhead. I suppose cutting a doughnut in thirds is more unthinkable than cutting a doughnut in half, but neither one’s an easy thing for me to imagine.

Bud Blake’s Tiger rerun for the 23rd starts with a real-world example of your classic story problem. I like the joke in it, and I also like Hugo’s look of betrayal and anger in the second panel. A spot of expressive art will do so good for a joke.

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Reading the Comics, May 2, 2017: Puzzle Week


If there was a theme this week, it was puzzles. So many strips had little puzzles to work out. You’ll see. Thank you.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 30th of April tries to address my loss of Jumble panels. Thank you, whoever at Comic Strip Master Command passed along word of my troubles. I won’t spoil your fun. As sometimes happens with a Jumble you can work out the joke punchline without doing any of the earlier ones. 64 in binary would be written 1000000. And from this you know what fits in all the circles of the unscrambled numbers. This reduces a lot of the scrambling you have to do: just test whether 341 or 431 is a prime number. Check whether 8802, 8208, or 2808 is divisible by 117. The integer cubed you just have to keep trying possibilities. But only one combination is the cube of an integer. The factorial of 12, just, ugh. At least the circles let you know you’ve done your calculations right.

Steve McGarry’s activity feature Kidtown for the 30th plays with numbers some. And a puzzle that’ll let you check how well you can recognize multiles of four that are somewhere near one another. You can use diagonals too; that’s important to remember.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute feature for the 30th is also a celebration of numerals. Enjoy the brain teaser about why the encoding makes sense. I don’t believe the hype about NASA engineers needing days to solve a puzzle kids got in minutes. But if it’s believable, is it really hype?

Marty Links’s Emmy Lou from the 29th of October, 1963 was rerun the 2nd of May. It’s a reminder that mathematics teachers of the early 60s also needed something to tape to their doors.

Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures rerun for the 2nd of May is another example of the conflating of “can do arithmetic” with “intelligence”.

Mark Litzler’s Joe Vanilla for the 2nd name-drops the Null Hypothesis. I’m not sure what Litzler is going for exactly. The Null Hypothesis, though, comes to us from statistics and from inference testing. It turns up everywhere when we sample stuff. It turns up in medicine, in manufacturing, in psychology, in economics. Everywhere we might see something too complicated to run the sorts of unambiguous and highly repeatable tests that physics and chemistry can do — things that are about immediately practical questions — we get to testing inferences. What we want to know is, is this data set something that could plausibly happen by chance? Or is it too far out of the ordinary to be mere luck? The Null Hypothesis is the explanation that nothing’s going on. If your sample is weird in some way, well, everything is weird. What’s special about your sample? You hope to find data that will let you reject the Null Hypothesis, showing that the data you have is so extreme it just can’t plausibly be chance. Or to conclude that you fail to reject the Null Hypothesis, showing that the data is not so extreme that it couldn’t be chance. We don’t accept the Null Hypothesis. We just allow that more data might come in sometime later.

I don’t know what Litzler is going for with this. I feel like I’m missing a reference and I’ll defer to a finance blogger’s Reading the Comics post.

Keith Tutt and Daniel Saunders’s Lard’s World Peace Tips for the 3rd is another in the string of jokes using arithmetic as source of indisputably true facts. And once again it’s “2 + 2 = 5”. Somehow one plus one never rates in this use.

Aaron Johnson’s W T Duck rerun for the 3rd is the Venn Diagram joke for this week. It’s got some punch to it, too.

Je Mallett’s Frazz for the 5th took me some time to puzzle out. I’ll allow it.

Reading the Comics, April 29, 2017: The Other Half Of The Week Edition


I’d been splitting Reading the Comics posts between Sunday and Thursday to better space them out. But I’ve got something prepared that I want to post Thursday, so I’ll bump this up. Also I had it ready to go anyway so don’t gain anything putting it off another two days.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 27th reruns the strip for the 4th of May, 2006. It’s another probability problem, in its way. Assume Jason is honest in reporting whether Paige has picked his number correctly. Assume that Jason picked a whole number. (This is, I think, the weakest assumption. I know Jason Fox’s type and he’s just the sort who’d pick an obscure transcendental number. They’re all obscure after π and e.) Assume that Jason is equally likely to pick any of the whole numbers from 1 to one billion. Then, knowing nothing about what numbers Jason is likely to pick, Paige would have one chance in a billion of picking his number too. Might as well call it certainty that she’ll pay a dollar to play the game. How much would she have to get, in case of getting the number right, to come out even or ahead? … And now we know why Paige is still getting help on probability problems in the 2017 strips.

Jeff Stahler’s Moderately Confused for the 27th gives me a bit of a break by just being a snarky word problem joke. The student doesn’t even have to resist it any.

The Venn Diagram of Maintenance. 12 days after cut and color, color still rresh, bluntness of cut relaxed. Same-day mani-pedi, no chips in polish. Ten days after eyebrow tint, faded to look normal. After two weeks of religiously following salt-free diet, bloating at minimum. One day after gym workout, fresh-faced vitality from exercise. The intersection the one perfect day where it all comes together.
Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 29th of April, 2017. And while it’s not a Venn Diagram I’m not sure of a better way to visually represent that the cartoonist is going for. I suppose the intended meaning comes across cleanly enough and that’s the most important thing. It’s a strange state of affairs is all.

Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 29th also gives me a bit of a break by just being a Venn Diagram-based joke. At least it’s using the shape of a Venn Diagram to deliver the joke. It’s not really got the right content.

Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 for the 29th is this week’s joke about arithmetic versus propaganda. It’s a joke we’re never really going to be without again.

Reading the Comics, April 18, 2017: Give Me Some Word Problems Edition


I have my reasons for this installment’s title. They involve my deductions from a comic strip. Give me a few paragraphs.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 16th asks for attention from whatever optician-written blog reads the comics for the eye jokes. And meets both the Venn Diagram and the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons content requirements for this week. Good job! Starts the week off strong.

Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate: First Class for the 16th, rerunning the strip from 1993, is about impossibly low-probability events. We can read the comic as a joke about extrapolating a sequence from a couple examples. Properly speaking we can’t; any couple of terms can be extended in absolutely any way. But we often suppose a sequence follows some simple pattern, as many real-world things do. I’m going to pretend we can read Jenny’s estimates of the chance she’ll go out with him as at all meaningful. If Jenny’s estimate of the chance she’d go out with Nate rose from one in a trillion to one in a billion over the course of a week, this could be a good thing. If she’s a thousand times more likely each week to date him — if her interest is rising geometrically — this suggests good things for Nate’s ego in three weeks. If she’s only getting 999 trillionths more likely each week — if her interest is rising arithmetically — then Nate has a touch longer to wait before a date becomes likely.

(I forget whether she has agreed to a date in the 24 years since this strip first appeared. He has had some dates with kids in his class, anyway, and some from the next grade too.)

J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts for the 16th is a Pi Day joke that ran late.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 17th starts a little thread about obsolete references in story problems. It’s continued on the 18th. I’m sympathetic in principle to both sides of the story problem debate.

Is the point of the first problem, Farmer Joe’s apples, to see whether a student can do a not-quite-long division? Or is it to see whether the student can extract a price-per-quantity for something, and apply that to find the quantity to fit a given price? If it’s the latter then the numbers don’t make a difference. One would want to avoid marking down a student who knows what to do, and could divide 15 cents by three, but would freeze up if a more plausible price of, say, $2.25 per pound had to be divided by three.

But then the second problem, Mr Schad driving from Belmont to Cadillac, got me wondering. It is about 84 miles between the two Michigan cities (and there is a Reed City along the way). The time it takes to get from one city to another is a fair enough problem. But these numbers don’t make sense. At 55 miles per hour the trip takes an awful 1.5273 hours. Who asks elementary school kids to divide 84 by 55? On purpose? But at the state highway speed limit (for cars) of 70 miles per hour, the travel time is 1.2 hours. 84 divided by 70 is a quite reasonable thing to ask elementary school kids to do.

And then I thought of this: you could say Belmont and Cadillac are about 88 miles apart. Google Maps puts the distance as 86.8 miles, along US 131; but there’s surely some point in the one town that’s exactly 88 miles from some point in the other, just as there’s surely some point exactly 84 miles from some point in the other town. 88 divided by 55 would be another reasonable problem for an elementary school student; 1.6 hours is a reasonable answer. The (let’s call it) 1980s version of the question ought to see the car travel 88 miles at 55 miles per hour. The contemporary version ought to see the car travel 84 miles at 70 miles per hour. No reasonable version would make it 84 miles at 55 miles per hour.

So did Mallett take a story problem that could actually have been on an era-appropriate test and ancient it up?

Before anyone reports me to Comic Strip Master Command let me clarify what I’m wondering about. I don’t care if the details of the joke don’t make perfect sense. They’re jokes, not instruction. All the story problem needs to set up the joke is the obsolete speed limit; everything else is fluff. And I enjoyed working out variation of the problem that did make sense, so I’m happy Mallett gave me that to ponder.

Here’s what I do wonder about. I’m curious if story problems are getting an unfair reputation. I’m not an elementary school teacher, or parent of a kid in school. I would like to know what the story problems look like. Do you, the reader, have recent experience with the stuff farmers, drivers, and people weighing things are doing in these little stories? Are they measuring things that people would plausibly care about today, and using values that make sense for the present day? I’d like to know what the state of story problems is.

Lee: 'I'm developing a new theory about avocado intelligence.' Joules: 'You can't be serious.' Lee: 'Avocado, what is the square root of 8,649?' Avocado: 'That's easy. It's 92?' Lee: 'Wrong. It's 93.' Joules: 'See? It's just a dumb piece of fruit.' Lee: 'I honestly thought I was on to something.'
John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 18th of April, 2017. Before you ask what exactly the old theory of avocado intelligence was remember that Edison Lee’s lab partner there is a talking rat. Just saying.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 18th uses mental arithmetic as the gauge of intelligence. Pretty harsly, too. I wouldn’t have known the square root of 8649 off the top of my head either, although it’s easy to tell that 92 can’t be right: the last digit of 92 squared has to be 4. It’s also easy to tell that 92 has to be about right, though, as 90 times 90 will be about 8100. Given this information, if you knew that 8,649 was a perfect square, you’d be hard-pressed to think of a better guess for its value than 93. But since most whole numbers are not perfect squares, “a little over 90” is the best I’d expect to do.

Reading the Comics, November 16, 2016: Seeing the Return of Jokes


Comic Strip Master Command sent out a big mass of comics this past week. Today’s installment will only cover about half of them. This half does feature a number of comics that show off jokes that’ve run here before. I’m sure it was coincidence. Comic Strip Master Command must have heard I was considering alerting cartoonists that I was talking about them. That’s fine for something like last week when I could talk about NP-complete problems or why we call something a “hypotenuse”. It can start a conversation. But “here’s a joke treating numerals as if they were beings”? All they can do is agree, that is what the joke is. If they disagree at that point they’re just trying to start a funny argument.

Scott Metzger’s The Bent Pinky for the 14th sees the return of anthropomorphic numerals humor. I’m a bit surprised Metzger goes so far as to make every numeral either a 3 or a 9. I’d have expected a couple of 2’s and 4’s. I understand not wanting to get into two-digit numbers. The premise of anthropomorphic numerals is troublesome if you need multiple-digit numbers.

Jon Rosenberg’s Goats for the 14th doesn’t directly mention a mathematical topic. But the story has the characters transported to a world with monkeys at typewriters. We know where that is. So we see that return after no time away, really.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy rerun for the 14th sees the return of “110 percent”. Happily the joke’s structured so that we can dodge arguing about whether it’s even possible to give 110 percent. I’m inclined to say of course it’s possible. “Giving 100 percent” in the context of playing a sport would mean giving the full reasonable effort. Or it does if we want to insist on idiomatic expressions making sense. It seems late to be insisting on that standard, but some people like it as an idea.

Ignatz: 'Can't sleep?' Krazy: 'No.' Ignatz: 'Why don't you try counting sheep? Count up to a thousand and you'll go to sleep.' 'Yes.' 'Silly ... heh-heh-heh. He can only count up to ten.' 'From ten up --- I'll use this edding-machine.'
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat for the 22nd of December, 1938. Rerun the 15th of November, 2016. Really though who could sleep when they have a sweet adding machine like that to play with? Someone who noticed that that isn’t machine tape coming out the top, of course, but rather is the punch-cards for a band organ. Curiously low-dialect installment of the comic.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat for the 22nd of December, 1938, was rerun on Tuesday. And it’s built on counting as a way of soothing the mind into restful sleep. Mathematics as a guide to sleep also appears, in minor form, in Darrin Bell’s Candorville for the 13th. I’m not sure why counting, or mental arithmetic, is able to soothe one into sleep. I suppose it’s just that it’s a task that’s engaging enough the semi-conscious mind can do it without having the emotional charge or complexity to wake someone up. I’ve taken to Collatz Conjecture problems, myself.

Terri Libenson’s Pajama Diaries for the 16th sees the return of Venn Diagram jokes. And it’s a properly-formed Venn Diagram, with the three circles coming together to indicate seven different conditions.

The Venn Diagram of Grocery Shopping. Overlap 'have teenagers', 'haven't grocery shopped in two weeks', and 'grocery shopping on an empty stomach' and you get 'will need to go back in two days', 'bought entire bakery aisle', and 'bought two of everything'. Where they all overlap, 'need to take out second mortgage'.
Terri Libenson’s Pajama Diaries for the 16th of November, 2016. I was never one for buying too much of the bakery aisle, myself, but then I also haven’t got teenagers. And I did go through so much of my life figuring there was no reason I shouldn’t eat another bagel again.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 16th just name-drops rhomboids, using them as just a funny word. Geometry is filled with wonderful, funny-sounding words. I’m fond of “icosahedron” myself. But “rhomboid” and its related words are good ones. I think they hit that sweet spot between being uncommon in ordinary language without being so exotic that a reader’s eye trips over it. However funny a “triacontahedron” might be, no writer should expect the reader to forgive that pile of syllables. A rhomboid is a kind of parallelogram, so it’s got four sides. The sides come in two parallel pairs. Both members of a pair have the same length, but the different pairs don’t. They look like the kitchen tiles you’d get for a house you couldn’t really afford, not with tiling like that.

Reading the Comics, August 1, 2016: Kalends Edition


The last day of July and first day of August saw enough mathematically-themed comic strips to fill a standard-issue entry. The rest of the week wasn’t so well-stocked. But I’ll cover those comics on Tuesday if all goes well. This may be a silly plan, but it is a plan, and I will stick to that.

Johnny Hart’s Back To BC reprints the venerable and groundbreaking comic strip from its origins. On the 31st of July it reprinted a strip from February 1959 in which Peter discovers mathematics. The work’s elaborate, much more than we would use to solve the problem today. But it’s always like that. Newly-discovered mathematics is much like any new invention or innovation, a rickety set of things that just barely work. With time we learn better how the idea should be developed. And we become comfortable with the cultural assumptions going into the work. So we get more streamlined, faster, easier-to-use mathematics in time.

The early invention of mathematics reappears the 1st of August, in a strip from earlier in February 1959. In this case it’s the sort of word problem confusion strip that any comic with a student could do. That’s a bit disappointing but Hart had much less space than he’d have for the Sunday strip above. One must do what one can.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 31st maybe isn’t really mathematics. I guess there’s something in the modular-arithmetic implied by it. But it depends on a neat coincidence. Follow the directions in the comic about picking a number from one to twelve and counting out the letters in the word for that number. And then the letters in the word for the number you’re pointing to, and then once again. It turns out this leads to the same number. I’d never seen this before and it’s neat that it does.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy rerun for the 31st features Ruthie teaching, as she will. She mentions offhand the “friendlier numbers”. By this she undoubtedly means the numbers that are attractive in some way, like being nice to draw. There are “friendly numbers”, though, as number theorists see things. These are sets of numbers. For each number in this set you get the same index if you add together all its divisors (including 1 and the original number) and divide it by the original number. For example, the divisors of six are 1, 2, 3, and 6. Add that together and you get 12; divide that by the original 6 and you get 2. The divisors of 28 are 1, 2, 4, 7, 14, and 28. Add that pile of numbers together and you get 56; divide that by the original 28 and you get 2. So 6 and 28 are friendly numbers, each the friend of the other.

As often happens with number theory there’s a lot of obvious things we don’t know. For example, we know that 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 have no friends. But we do not know whether 10 has. Nor 14 nor 20. I do not know if it is proved whether there are infinitely many sets of friendly numbers. Nor do I know if it is proved whether there are infinitely many numbers without friends. Those last two sentences are about my ignorance, though, and don’t reflect what number theory people know. I’m open to hearing from people who know better.

There are also things called “amicable numbers”, which are easier to explain and to understand than “friendly numbers”. A pair of numbers are amicable if the sum of one number’s divisors is the other number. 220 and 284 are the smallest pair of amicable numbers. Fermat found that 17,296 and 18,416 were an amicable pair; Descartes found that 9,363,584 and 9,437,056 were. Both pairs were known to Arab mathematicians already. Amicable pairs are easy enough to produce. From the tenth century we’ve had Thâbit ibn Kurrah’s rule, which lets you generate sets of numbers. Ruthie wasn’t thinking of any of this, though, and was more thinking how much fun it is to write a 7.

Terry Border’s Bent Objects for the 1st just missed the anniversary of John Venn’s birthday and all the joke Venn Diagrams that were going around at least if your social media universe looks anything like mine.

Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes from a Multiverse for the 1st is set in “Mathpinion City”, in the “Numerically Flexible Zones”. And I appreciate it’s a joke about the politicization of science. But science and mathematics are human activities. They are culturally dependent. And especially at the dawn of a new field of study there will be long and bitter disputes about what basic terms should mean. It’s absurd for us to think that the question of whether 1 + 1 should equal 2 or 3 could even arise.

But we think that because we have absorbed ideas about what we mean by ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘plus’, and ‘equals’ that settle the question. There was, if I understand my mathematics history right — and I’m not happy with my reading on this — a period in which it was debated whether negative numbers should be considered as less than or greater than the positive numbers. Absurd? Thermodynamics allows for the existence of negative temperatures, and those represent extremely high-energy states, things that are hotter than positive temperatures. A thing may get hotter, from 1 Kelvin to 4 Kelvin to a million Kelvin to infinitely many Kelvin to -1000 Kelvin to -6 Kelvin. If there are intuition-defying things to consider about “negative six” then we should at least be open to the proposition that the universal truths of mathematics are understood by subjective processes.

Reading the Comics, July 8, 2016: Filling Out The Week Edition


When I split last week’s mathematically-themed comics I had just supposed there’d be some more on Friday to note. Live and learn, huh? Well, let me close out last week with a not-too-long essay. Better a couple of these than a few Reading the Comics posts long enough to break your foot on.

Adrian Raeside’s The Other Coastfor the 6th uses mathematics as a way to judge the fit and the unfit. (And Daryl isn’t even far wrong.) It’s understandable and the sort of thing people figure should flatter mathematicians. But it also plays on 19th-century social-Darwinist/eugenicist ideas which try binding together mental acuity and evolutionary “superiority”. It’s a cute joke but there is a nasty undercurrent.

Wayno’s Waynovisionfor the 6th is this essay’s pie chart. Good to have.

The Vent Diagram. The overlap of Annoying Stuff At Work and Annoying Stuff At Home is the bar stool.
Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orangefor the 7th of July, 2016. I don’t know how valid it is; I don’t use the bar stools, myself.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orangefor the 7th is this essay’s Venn Diagram joke. Good to have.

Rich Powell’s Wide Open for the 7th shows a Western-style “Convolution Kid”. It’s shown here as just shouting numbers in-between a count so as to mess things up. That matches the ordinary definition and I’m amused with it as-is. Convolution is a good mathematical function, though one I don’t remember encountering until a couple years into my undergraduate career. It’s a binary operation, one that takes two functions and combines them into a new function. It turns out to be a natural way to understand signal processing. The original signal is one function. The way a processor changes a signal is another function. The convolution of the two is what actually comes out of the processing. Dividing this lets us study the behaviors of the processor separate from a particular problem.

And it turns up in other contexts. We can use convolution to solve differential equations, which turn up everywhere. We need to solve the differential equation for a special particular boundary condition, one called the Dirac delta function. That’s a really weird one. You have no idea. And it can require incredible ingenuity to find a solution. But once you have, you can find solutions for every boundary condition. You convolute the solution for the special case and the boundary condition you’re interested in, and there you go. The work may be particularly hard for this one case, but it is only the one case.

Basic Mathematics in Nature: A small mountain, a flock of birds flying in a less-than symbol, and a tall mountain.
Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Shortfor the 9th of July, 2016. The link’s probably good for a month or so. If you’re in the far future don’t worry about telling me how the link turned out, though. It’s not that important that I know.

Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Shortfor the 9th is this essay’s mathematical symbols joke. Good to have.

Reading the Comics, May 6, 2016: Mistakes Edition


I knew my readership would drop off after I fell back from daily posting. Apparently it was worse than I imagined and nobody read my little blog here over the weekend. That’s fair enough; I had to tend other things myself. Still, for the purpose of maximizing the number of page views around here, taking two whole days off in a row was a mistake. There’s some more discussed in this Reading The Comics installment.

Word problems are dull. At least at the primary-school level. There’s all these questions about trains going in different directions or ropes sweeping out areas or water filling troughs. So Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks rerun from the 5th of May (originally run the 22nd of February, 2001) is a cute change. It’s at least the start of a legitimate word problem, based on the ways the recording industry took advantage of artists in the dismal days of fifteen years ago. I’m sure that’s all been fixed by now. Fill in some numbers and the question might interest people.

Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Duplex for the 5th of May is a misunderstanding-fractions joke. I’m amused by the idea of messing up quarter-pound burgers. But it also brings to mind a summer when I worked for the Great Adventure amusement park and got assigned one day as cashier at the Great American Hamburger Stand. Thing is, I didn’t know anything about the stand besides the data point that they probably sold hamburgers. So customers would order stuff I didn’t know, and I couldn’t find how to enter it on the register, and all told it was a horrible mess. If you were stuck in that impossibly slow-moving line, I am sorry, but it was management’s fault; I told them I didn’t know what I was even selling. Also I didn’t know the drink cup sizes so I just charged you for whatever you said and if I gave you the wrong size I hope it was more soda than you needed.

On a less personal note, I have heard the claim about why one-third-pound burgers failed in United States fast-food places. Several chains tried them out in the past decade and they didn’t last, allegedly because too many customers thought a third of a pound was less than a quarter pound and weren’t going to pay more for less beef. It’s … plausible enough, I suppose, because people have never been good with fractions. But I suspect the problem is more linguistic. A quarter-pounder has a nice rhythm to it. A half-pound burger is a nice strong order to say. A third-pound burger? The words don’t even sound right. You have to say “third-of-a-pound burger” to make it seem like English, and it’s a terribly weak phrase. The fast food places should’ve put their money into naming it something that suggested big-ness but not too-big-to-eat.

Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 5th is about Heart’s dread of mathematics. Her expressed fear, that making one little mistake means the entire answer is wrong, is true enough. But how how much is that “enough”? If you add together someting that should be (say) 18, and you make it out to be 20 instead, that is an error. But that’s a different sort of error from adding them together and getting 56 instead.

And errors propagate. At least they do in real problems, in which you are calculating something because you want to use it for something else. An arithmetic error on one step might grow, possibly quite large, with further steps. That’s trouble. This is known as an “unstable” numerical calculation, in much the way a tin of picric acid dropped from a great height onto a fire is an “unstable” chemical. The error might stay about as large as it started out being, though. And that’s less troublesome. A mistake might stay predictable. The calculation is “stable” In a few blessed cases an error might be minimized by further calculations. You have to arrange the calculations cleverly to make that possible, though. That’s an extremely stable calculation.

And this is important because we always make errors. At least in any real calculation we do. When we want to turn, say, a formula like πr2 into a number we have to make a mistake. π is not 3.14, nor is it 3.141592, nor is it 3.14159265358979311599796346854418516. Does the error we make by turning π into some numerical approximation matter? It depends what we’re calculating, and how. There’s no escaping error and it might be a comfort to Heart, or any student, to know that much of mathematics is about understanding and managing error.

The further adventures of Nadine and Nina and Science Friday: 'Does it depress you to know that with the expanding universe and all the countless billions and trillions of other planets, the best-looking men probably aren't even in our galaxy?'
Joe Martin’s Boffo for the 6th of May, 2016. The link’s already expired, I bet. Yes, the panel did appear on a Sunday.

Joe Martin’s Boffo for the 6th of May is in its way about the wonder of very large numbers. On some reasonable assumptions — that our experience is typical, that nothing is causing traits to be concentrated one way or another — we can realize that we probably will not see any extreme condition. In this case, it’s about the most handsome men in the universe probably not even being in our galaxy. If the universe is large enough and people common enough in it, that’s probably right. But we likely haven’t got the least handsome either. Lacking reason to suppose otherwise we can guess that we’re in the vast middle.

David L Hoyt and Jeff Knurek’s Jumble for the 6th of May mentions mathematicians and that’s enough, isn’t it? Without spoiling the puzzle for anyone, I will say that “inocci” certainly ought to be a word meaning something. So get on that, word-makers.

SMOPT ooo--; ORFPO -o--o; INCOCI o---oo; LAUNAN ooo---. The math teacher was being reprimanded because of his -----------.
David L Hoyt and Jeff Knurek’s Jumble for the 6th of May, 2016. While ‘ORFPO’ mey not be anything, I believe there should be some company named ‘OrfPro’ that offers some kind of service.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 6th brings some good Venn Diagram humor back to my pages. Good. It’s been too long.

Reading the Comics, March 14, 2016: Pi Day Comics Event


Comic Strip Master Command had the regular pace of mathematically-themed comic strips the last few days. But it remembered what the 14th would be. You’ll see that when we get there.

Ray Billingsley’s Curtis for the 11th of March is a student-resists-the-word-problem joke. But it’s a more interesting word problem than usual. It’s your classic problem of two trains meeting, but rather than ask when they’ll meet it asks where. It’s just an extra little step once the time of meeting is made, but that’s all right by me. Anything to freshen the scenario up.

'Please answer this math question, Mr Wilkins. John is traveling east from San Francisco on a train at a speed of 80 miles per hour. Tom is going to that same meeting from New York, headed west, on a train traveling 100 miles per hour. In what state will they meet?' 'Couldn't they just Skype?'
Ray Billingsley’s Curtis for the 11th of March, 2016. I am curious what the path of the rail line is.

Tony Carrillo’s F Minus for the 11th was apparently our Venn Diagram joke for the week. I’m amused.

Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. for the 12th of March name-drops statisticians. Statisticians are almost expected to produce interesting pictures of their results. It is the field that gave us bar charts, pie charts, scatter plots, and many more. Statistics is, in part, about understanding a complicated set of data with a few numbers. It’s also about turning those numbers into recognizable pictures, all in the hope of finding meaning in a confusing world (ours).

Brian Anderson’s Dog Eat Doug for the 13th of March uses walls full of mathematical scrawl as signifier for “stuff thought deeply about’. I don’t recognize any of the symbols specifically, although some of them look plausibly like calculus. I would not be surprised if Anderson had copied equations from a book on string theory. I’d do it to tell this joke.

And then came the 14th of March. That gave us a bounty of Pi Day comics. Among them:

'Happy Pi Day.' 'Mmm. I love apple pie.' 'Pi day, not Pie Day. Pi ... you know ... 3.14 ... March 14th. Get it?' 'Today is a pie-eating holiday?' 'Sort of. They do celebrate it with pie, but it's mostly about pi.' 'I don't understand what that kid says half the time.'
John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 14th of March, 2016. The strip is like this a lot.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee trusts that the name of the day is wordplay enough.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater is also a wordplay joke, although it’s a bit more advanced.

Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit fuses the pun with one of its running, or at least rolling, gags.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range makes an urban legend out of the obsessive calculation of digits of π.

And Missy Meyer’s informational panel cartoon Holiday Doodles mentions that besides “National” Pi Day it was also “National” Potato Chip Day, “National” Children’s Craft Day, and “International” Ask A Question Day. My question: for the first three days, which nation?

Edited To Add: And I forgot to mention, after noting to myself that I ought to mention it. The Price Is Right (the United States edition) hopped onto the Pi Day fuss. It used the day as a thematic link for its Showcase prize packages, noting how you could work out π from the circumference of your new bicycles, or how π was a letter from your vacation destination of Greece, and if you think there weren’t brand-new cars in both Showcases you don’t know the game show well. Did anyone learn anything mathematical from this? I am skeptical. Do people come away thinking mathematics is more fun after this? … Conceivably. At least it was a day fairly free of people declaring they Hate Math and Can Never Do It.

Reading the Comics, December 2, 2015: The Art Of Maths Edition


Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 28th of November (originally run in 2004) depicts a “Christmas Card For Smart People”. It uses the familiar motif of “ability to do arithmetic” as denoting smartness. The key to the first word is remembering that mathematicians use the symbol ‘e’ to represent a number that’s just a little over 2.71828. We call the number ‘e’, or something ‘the base of the natural logarithm’. It turns up all over the place. If you have almost any quantity that grows or that shrinks at a speed proportional to how much there is, and describe how much of stuff there is over time, you’ll find an ‘e’. Leonhard Euler, who’s renowned for major advances in every field of mathematics, is also renowned for major advances in notation in physics, and he gave us ‘e’ for that number.

The key to the second word there is remembering from physics that force equals mass times acceleration. Therefore the force divided by the acceleration is …

And so that inspires this essay’s edition title. There are several comics in this selection that are about the symbols or the representations of mathematics, and that touch on the subject as a visual art.

Matt Janz’s Out of the Gene Pool for the 28th of November first ran the 26th of October, 2002. It would make for a good word problem, too, with a couple of levels: given the constraints of (a slightly looser) budget, how do they get the greatest number of cookies? Or if some cookies are better than others, how do they get the most enjoyment from their cookie purchase? Working out the greatest amount of enjoyment within a given cookie budget, with different qualities of cookies, can be a good introduction to optimization problems and how subtle they can be.

Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 29th of November speaks in support of accounting. It’s a worthwhile message. It doesn’t get much respect, not from the general public, and not from typical mathematics department. The general public maybe thinks of accounting as not much more than a way companies nickel-and-dime them. If the mathematics departments I’ve associated with are fair representatives, accounting isn’t even thought of except by the assistant professor doing a seminar on financial mathematics. (And I’m not sure accounting gets mentioned there, since there’s exciting stuff about the Black-Scholes Equation and options markets to think about instead.) This despite that accounting is probably, by volume, the most used part of mathematics. Anyway, Holbrook’s strip probably won’t get the field a better reputation. But it has got some great illustrations of doing things with numbers. The folks in mathematics departments certainly have had days feeling like they’ve done each of these things.

Fanciful representations of accounting: pulling numbers out of magic hats, wrangling numbers out of a herd, fixing up the interior of a number as if a car's engine, that sort of thing. Dethany respects Fi's abilities the more she sees them.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 29th of November, 2015. While the strip’s focus is accountants, it is true that most mathematicians will spend hours overhauling their 6’s.

Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump for the 30th of November is a compound interest joke. I admit I’ve told this sort of joke myself, proposing that the hour cut out of the day in spring when Daylight Saving Time starts comes back as a healthy hour and three minutes in autumn when it’s taken out of saving. If I can get the delivery right I might have someone going for that three minutes.

Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler’s Truth Facts for the 30th of November is a Venn diagram joke for breakfast. I would bet they’re kicking themselves for not making the intersection be the holes in the center.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this week interests me. It uses a figure to try explaining how to relate gallon and quart an pint and other units relate to each other. I like it, but I’m embarrassed to say how long it took in my life to work out the relations between pints, quarts, gallons, and particularly whether the quart or the pint was the larger unit. I blame part of that on my never really having to mix a pint of something with a quart of something else, which ought to have sorted that out. Anyway, let’s always cherish good representations of information. Good representations organize information and relationships in ways that are easy to remember, or easy to reconstruct or extend.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not for the 2nd of December tries to visualize how many ways there are to arrange a Rubik’s Cube. Counting off permutations of things by how many seconds it’d take to get through them all is a common game. The key to producing a staggering length of time is that it one billion seconds are nearly 32 years, and the number of combinations of things adds up really really fast. There’s over eight billion ways to draw seven letters in a row, after all, if every letter is equally likely and if you don’t limit yourself to real or even imaginable words. Rubik’s Cubes have a lot of potential arrangements. Graziano misspells Rubik, but I have to double-check and make sure I’ve got it right every time myself. I didn’t know that about the pigeons.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts for the 2nd of December (originally run in 1968) has Peppermint Patty reflecting on the beauty of numbers. I don’t think it’s unusual to find some numbers particularly pleasant and others not. Some numbers are easy to work with; if I’m trying to add up a set of numbers and I have a 3, I look instinctively for a 7 because of how nice 10 is. If I’m trying to multiply numbers, I’d so like to multiply by a 5 or a 25 than by a 7 or an 18. Typically, people find they do better on addition and multiplication with lower numbers like two and three, and get shaky with sevens and eights and such. It may be quirky. My love is a wizard with 7’s, but can’t do a thing with 8. But it’s no more irrational than the way a person might a pyramid attractive but a sphere boring and a stellated icosahedron ugly.

I’ve seen some comments suggesting that Peppermint Patty is talking about numerals, that is, the way we represent numbers. That she might find the shape of the 2 gentle, while 5 looks hostile. (I can imagine turning a 5 into a drawing of a shouting person with a few pencil strokes.) But she doesn’t seem to say one way or another. She might see a page of numbers as visual art; she might see them as wonderful things with which to play.

Reading the Comics, October 10, 2015: Wordplay Edition


Some of the past several days’ mathematically-themed comic strips have bits of wordplay in them. That’ll do for the theme. We get some familiar topics along the way.

Ruth's grandmother remarks on running into someone twice in two days, and her grandfather asks what are the odds. Ruthie says they're 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and so on.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 6th of October, 2015. Ruthie works out the odds.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 6th of October is one of the wordplay jokes you can do about probability. (This is the strip that ran in newspapers this year. One Big Happy strips on Gocomics.com are reruns from several years back.)

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 6th of October is a badly-timed Pi Day strip.

'Boy that bird just goes on and on and on ... ' The bird says, 'pi'.
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 6th of October, 2015.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 8th of October is a kids-resisting-algebra problem. The kid asks why ‘x’ has to be equal to something, why it can’t just be ‘x’. He’s wiser than his teacher has taught. We use ‘x’ as the name for a number whose exact identity we don’t know right away. Often, especially in introductory algebra, we hope to work out what number it is. That’s the sort of problem that makes us find x, or solve for x. But we don’t always care what x is. Sometimes we just want to say that it’s an example of a number with some interesting properties. We often use it this way when we try drawing the plot of a function. The plot shows all the coordinate sets that make some equation true, and we need x to organize our thoughts about that, but we never really care what x is.

Or we might use x as a ‘dummy variable’, the mathematical equivalent of falsework. We use the variable to get some work done, but never see it once we’re finished, and don’t ever care what it was. If we take the definite integral of a function of x over x, for example, the one thing our answer should not have is an ‘x’ in it. (Well, if we’re integrating some nasty function that can’t be evaluated except in terms of another integral maybe an ‘x’ will appear. But that’s a pathological case.)

Alternatively, x might be a parameter, something which has to be a fixed number for the sake of doing other work, but whose value we don’t really care about. This would be an eccentric choice — usually parameters are from earlier in the alphabet, rarely later than ‘l’ and almost never past ‘t’ — but sometimes that’s the best alternative.

In Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 8th of October, Caulfield answers his teacher’s demand to “show his work” by presenting a slide rule. It’s a cute joke although I’m not on Caulfield’s side here. If all anyone cared about was whether the calculation was right we’d need no mathematics. We have computers. What is worth teaching is “how do you know what to compute”, with a sideline of “can you do the computations correctly”. It’s important to know what you mean to do. It’s also important to know how to plausibly find an answer if you don’t know exactly what to do. None of that is shown by the answer alone.

Jim Benton’s Jim Benton Cartoons for the 8th of October is some more mathematics wordplay. I’m amused by its logic.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 9th of October is the first anthropomorphized-numerals joke we’ve had in a while.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 9th of October is our Venn Diagram joke for this installment. And it’s not quite a proper Venn diagram, but it’s hard to draw a proper Venn diagram for four propositions. Wikipedia’s entry offers a couple of examples of four-set Venn diagrams. The one made of ellipses is not too bad, although it also evokes “logo for some maybe European cable TV channel” to my eye.

Ludwig von Drake comes to 'the hardest part of all': erasing all the stuff filling his blackboard.
Disney’s Donald Duck for the 10th of October, 2015. A tough moment for any academician.

Disney’s Donald Duck for the 10th of October, a rerun from goodness knows when, depicts accurately the most terrifying moment a mathematician endures. I am delighted to see that the equations written out are correct and even consistent from one panel to the next. And yes, real mathematicians will sometimes write down what seem like altogether too-obvious propositions. That’s a good way of making sure you aren’t tripping over the easy stuff on the way to the bigger conclusions. I think it’s a bit implausible that the entire board would be this level of stuff — by the time you have your PhD, at least in mathematics or physics, you don’t need help remembering what the cosine of 120 degrees is — but it’s all valid stuff. Well, I could probably use the help remembering the tangent angle-addition formula, if I ever needed to work out the tangent of the sum of two angles.

Reading the Comics, September 22, 2015: Rock Star Edition


The good news is I’ve got a couple of comic strips I feel responsible including the pictures for. (While I’m confident I could include all the comics I talk about as fair use — I make comments which expand on the strips’ content and which don’t make sense without the original — Gocomics.com links seem reasonably stable and likely to be there in the future. Comics Kingdom links generally expire after a month except to subscribers and I don’t know how long Creators.com links last.) And a couple of them talk about rock bands, so, that’s why I picked that titel.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 17th of September is a subverted-fairy-tale-moral strip, naturally enough. It’s also a legitimate point, though. Unlikely events do happen sometimes, and it’s a mistake to draw too-strong conclusions from them. This is why it’s important to reproduce interesting results. It’s also why, generally, we like larger sample sizes. It’s not likely that twenty fair coins flipped will all come up tails at once. But it’s far more likely that will happen than that two hundred fair coins flipped will all come up tails. And that’s far more likely than that two thousand fair coins will. For that matter, it’s more likely that three-quarters of twenty fair coins flipped will come up tails than that three-quarters of two hundred fair coins will. And the chance that three-quarters of two thousand fair coins will come up tails is ignorable. If that happens, then something interesting has been found.

In Juba’s Viivi and Wagner for the 17th of September, Wagner announces his decision to be a wandering mathematician. I applaud his ambition. If I had any idea where to find someone who needed mathematics done I’d be doing that myself. If you hear something give me a call. I’ll be down at the City Market, in front of my love’s guitar case, multiplying things by seven. I may get it wrong, but nobody will know how to correct me.

A whole panel full of calculations allows him to work out when the next Tool album will be finished.
Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 18th of September, 2015. I never actually heard of Tool before this comic.

Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 18th of September uses a page full of calculations to predict when prog-rock band Tool will release their next album. (Wikipedia indicates they’re hoping for sometime before the end of 2015, but they’ve been working on it since 2008.) Some of the symbols make a bit of sense as resembling those of quantum physics. An expression like (in the lower left of the board) \langle \psi_1 u_1 | {H}_{\gamma} | \psi_1 \rangle resembles a probability distribution calculation. (There should be a ^ above the H there, but that’s a little beyond what WordPress can render in the simple mathematical LaTeX tools it has available. It’s in the panel, though.) The letter ψ stands for a probability wave, containing somehow all the information about a system. The composition of symbols literally means to calculate how an operator — a function that has a domain of functions and a range of functions — changes that probability distribution. In quantum mechanics every interesting physical property has a matching operator, and calculating this set of symbols tells us the distribution of whatever that property is. H generally suggests the total energy of the system, so the implication is this measures, somehow, what energies are more and are less probable. I’d be interested to know if Beyer took the symbols from a textbook or paper and what the original context was.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 19th of September brings in another band to this review. It uses a more basic level of mathematics, though.

Percy Crosby’s Skippy from the 19th of September — rerun from sometime in 1928 — is a clever way to get a word problem calculated. It also shows off what’s probably been the most important use of arithmetic, which is keeping track of money. Accountants and shopkeepers get little attention in histories of mathematics, but a lot of what we do has been shaped by their needs for speed, efficiency, and accuracy. And one of Gocomics’s commenters pointed out that the shopkeeper didn’t give the right answer. Possibly the shopkeeper suspected what was up.

Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 20th of September uses a basic geometry fact as an example of being “very educated”. I don’t think the area of the circle rises to the level of “very” — the word means “truly”, after all — but I would include it as part of the general all-around awareness of the world people should have. Also it fits in the truly confined space available. I like the dad’s eyes in the concluding panel. Also, there’s people who put eggplant on pizza? Really? Also, bacon? Really?

Gordo's luck is incredible, as he's won twenty card hands in a row. Some people make their own luck; he put his down to finding a leprechaun in a box of Lucky Charms.
Alex Hallatt’s Arctic Circle for the 21st of September, 2015.

Alex Hallatt’s Arctic Circle for the 21st of September is about making your own luck. I find it interesting in that it rationalizes magic as a thing which manipulates probability. As ways to explain magic for stories go that isn’t a bad one. We can at least imagine the rigging of card decks and weighting of dice. And its plot happens in the real world, too: people faking things — deceptive experimental results, rigged gambling devices, financial fraud — can often be found because the available results are too improbable. For example, a property called Benford’s Law tells us that in many kinds of data the first digit is more likely to be a 1 than a 2, a 2 than a 3, a 3 than a 4, et cetera. This fact serves to uncover fraud surprisingly often: people will try to steal money close to but not at some limit, like the $10,000 (United States) limit before money transactions get reported to the federal government. But that means they work with checks worth nine thousand and something dollars much more often than they do checks worth one thousand and something dollars, which is suspicious. Randomness can be a tool for honesty.

Peter Maresca’s Origins of the Sunday Comics feature for the 21st of September ran a Rube Goldberg comic strip from the 19th of November, 1913. That strip, Mike and Ike, precedes its surprisingly grim storyline with a kids-resisting-the-word-problem joke. The joke interests me because it shows a century-old example of the joke about word problems being strings of non sequiturs stuffed with unpleasant numbers. I enjoyed Mike and Ike’s answer, and the subversion of even that answer.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 22nd of September tries to optimize its targeting toward me by being an anthropomorphized-mathematical-objects joke and a Venn diagram joke. Also being Mark Anderson’s Andertoons today. If I didn’t identify this as my favorite strip of this set Anderson would just come back with this, but featuring monkeys at typewriters too.

Reading the Comics, September 10, 2015: Back To School Edition


I assume that Comic Strip Master Command ordered many mathematically-themed comic strips to coincide with the United States school system getting back up to full. That or they knew I’d have a busy week. This is only the first part of comic strips that have appeared since Tuesday.

Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures for the 7th and the 8th of September use mathematical talk to fill out the technobabble. It’s a cute enough notion. These particular strips ran last year, and I talked about them then. The talk of a “Lagrangian model” interests me. It name-checks a real and important and interesting scientist who’s not Einstein or Stephen Hawking. But I’m still not aware of any “Lagrangian model” that would be relevant to starship operations.

Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes from a Multiverse for the 7th of September speaks of a society of “powerful thaumaturgic diagrammers” who used Venn diagrams not wisely but too well. The diagrammers got into trouble when one made “a Venn diagram that showed the intersection of all the Venns and all the diagrams”. I imagine this not to be a rigorous description of what happened. But Venn diagrams match up well with many logic problems. And self-referential logic, logic statements that describe their own truth or falsity, is often problematic. So I would accept a story in which Venn diagrams about Venn diagrams leads to trouble. The motif of tying logic and mathematics into magic is an old one. I understand it. A clever mathematical argument often feels like magic, especially the surprising ones. To me, the magical theorems are those that prove a set of seemingly irrelevant lemmas. Then, with that stock in hand, the theorem goes on to the main point in a few wondrous lines. If you can do that, why not transmute lead, or accidentally retcon a society out of existence?

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 8th of September just delights me. Occasionally I feel a bit like Mark Anderson’s volunteer publicity department. A panel like this, though, makes me feel that he deserves it.

Jeffrey Caulfield and Alexandre Rouillard’s Mustard and Boloney for the 8th of September is the first anthropomorphic-geometric-figures joke we’ve had here in a while.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 9th of September is a drug testing joke, and a gambling joke. Both are subjects driven by probabilities. Any truly interesting system is always changing. If we want to know whether something affects the system we have to know whether we can make a change that’s bigger than the system does on its own. And this gives us drug-testing and other statistical inference tests. If we apply a drug, or some treatment, or whatever, how does the system change? Does it change enough, consistently, that it’s not plausible that the change just happened by chance? Or by some other influence?

You might have noticed a controversy going around psychology journals. A fair number of experiments were re-run, by new experimenters following the original protocols as closely as possible. Quite a few of the reported results didn’t happen again, or happened in a weaker way. That’s produced some handwringing. No one thinks deliberate experimental fraud is that widespread in the field. There may be accidental fraud, people choosing data or analyses that heighten the effect they want to prove, or that pick out any effect. However, it may also simply be chance again. Psychology experiments tend to have a lower threshold of “this is sufficiently improbable that it indicates something is happening” than, say, physics has. Psychology has a harder time getting the raw data. A supercollider has enormous startup costs, but you can run the thing for as long as you like. And every electron is the same thing. A test of how sleep deprivation affects driving skills? That’s hard. No two sleepers or drivers are quite alike, even at different times of the day. There’s not an obvious cure. Independent replication of previously done experiments helps. That’s work that isn’t exciting — necessary as it is, it’s also repeating what others did — and it’s harder to get people to do it, or pay for it. But in the meantime it’s harder to be sure what interesting results to trust.

Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 9th of September is another Chaos Butterfly installment. I don’t want to get folks too excited for posts I technically haven’t written yet, but there is more Chaos Butterfly soon.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup To Nutz for the 10th of September has Royboy guess the odds of winning a lottery are 50-50. Silly, yes, but only because we know that anyone is much more likely to lose a lottery than to win it. But then how do we know that?

Since the rules of a lottery are laid out clearly we can reason about the probability of winning. We can calculate the number of possible outcomes of the game, and how many of them count as winning. Suppose each of those possible outcomes are equally likely. Then the probability of winning is the number of winning outcomes divided by the number of probable outcomes. Quite easy.

— Of course, that’s exactly what Royboy did. There’s two possible outcomes, winning or losing. Lacking reason to think they aren’t equally likely he concluded a win and a loss were just as probable.

We have to be careful what we mean by “an outcome”. What we probably mean for a drawn-numbers lottery is the number of ways the lottery numbers can be drawn. For a scratch-off card we mean the number of tickets that can be printed. But we’re still stuck with this idea of “equally likely” outcomes. I suspect we know what we mean by this, but trying to say what that is clearly, and without question-begging, is hard. And even this works only because we know the rules by which the lottery operates. Or we can look them up. If we didn’t know the details of the lottery’s workings, past the assumption that it has consistently followed rules, what could we do?

Well, that’s what we have probability classes for, and particularly the field of Bayesian probability. This field tries to estimate the probabilities of things based on what actually happens. Suppose Royboy played the lottery fifty times and lost every time. That would smash the idea that his chances were 50-50, although that would not yet tell him what the chances really are.

A Venn Diagram of the Real Number System


I’m aware that it isn’t properly exactly a Venn diagram, now, but the mathematics-artist Robert Austin has a nice picture of the real numbers, and the most popular subsets of the real numbers, and how they relate. The bubbles aren’t to scale — there’s just as many counting numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, et cetera) as there are rational numbers, and there are far more irrational numbers than there are rational numbers — but if you don’t mind that, then, this is at least a nice little illustration.

RobertLovesPi.net

real number system

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My Math Blog Statistics, August 2014


So, August 2014: it’s been a month that brought some interesting threads into my writing here. It’s also had slightly longer gaps in my writing than I quite like, because I’d just not had the time to do as much writing as I hoped. But that leaves the question of how this affected my readership: are people still sticking around and do they like what they see?

The number of unique readers around here, according to WordPress, rose slightly, from 231 in July to 255 in August. This doesn’t compare favorably to numbers like the 315 visitors in May, but still, it’s an increase. The total number of page views dropped from 589 in July to 561 in August and don’t think that the last few days of the month I wasn’t tempted to hit refresh a bunch of times. Anyway, views per visitor dropped from 2.55 to 2.20, which seems to be closer to my long-term average. And at some point in the month — I failed to track when — I reached my 17,000th reader, and got up to 17,323 by the end of the month. If I’m really interesting this month I could hit 18,000 by the end of September.

The countries sending me the most readers were, in first place, the ever-unsurprising United States (345). Second place was Spain (36) which did take me by surprise, and Puerto Rico was third (30). The United Kingdom, Austria, and Canada came up next so at least that’s all familiar enough, and India sent me a nice round dozen readers. I got a single reader from each of Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Latvia, Mexico, Romania, Serbia, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, and Venezuela. The only country that also sent me a single reader in July was Hong Kong (which also sent a lone reader in June and in May), and going back over last month’s post revealed that Spain and Puerto Rico were single-reader countries in July. I don’t know what I did to become more interesting there in August but I’ll try to keep it going.

The most popular articles in August were:

I fear I lack any good Search Term Poetry this month. Actually the biggest search terms have been pretty rote ones, eg:

  • trapezoid
  • barney and clyde carl friedrich comic
  • moment of inertia of cube around the longest diagonal
  • where do negative numbers come from
  • comic strip math cube of binomials

Actually, Gauss comic strips were searched for a lot. I’m sorry I don’t have more of them for folks, but have you ever tried to draw Gauss? I thought not. At least I had something relevant for the moment of inertia question even if I didn’t answer it completely.

In the Overlap between Logic, Fun, and Information


Since I do need to make up for my former ignorance of John Venn’s diagrams and how to use them, let me join in what looks early on like a massive Internet swarm of mentions of Venn. The Daily Nous, a philosophy-news blog, was my first hint that anything interesting was going on (as my love is a philosopher and is much more in tune with the profession than I am with mathematics), and I appreciate the way they describe Venn’s interesting properties. (Also, for me at least, that page recommends I read Dungeons and Dragons and Derrida, itself pointing to an installment of philosophy-based web comic Existentialist Comics, so you get a sense of how things go over there.)

https://twitter.com/saladinahmed/status/496148485092433920

And then a friend retweeted the above cartoon (available as T-shirt or hoodie), which does indeed parse as a Venn diagram if you take the left circle as representing “things with flat tails playing guitar-like instruments” and the right circle as representing “things with duck bills playing keyboard-like instruments”. Remember — my love is “very picky” about Venn diagram jokes — the intersection in a Venn diagram is not a blend of the things in the two contributing circles, but is rather, properly, something which belongs to both the groups of things.

https://twitter.com/mathshistory/status/496224786109198337

The 4th of is also William Rowan Hamilton’s birthday. He’s known for the discovery of quaternions, which are kind of to complex-valued numbers what complex-valued numbers are to the reals, but they’re harder to make a fun Google Doodle about. Quaternions are a pretty good way of representing rotations in a three-dimensional space, but that just looks like rotating stuff on the computer screen.

Daily Nous

John Venn, an English philosopher who spent much of his career at Cambridge, died in 1923, but if he were alive today he would totally be dead, as it is his 180th birthday. Venn was named after the Venn diagram, owing to the fact that as a child he was terrible at math but good at drawing circles, and so was not held back in 5th grade. In celebration of this philosopher’s birthday Google has put up a fun, interactive doodle — just for today. Check it out.

Note: all comments on this post must be in Venn Diagram form.

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The Math Blog Statistics, March 2014


It’s the start of a fresh month, so let me carry on my blog statistics reporting. In February 2014, apparently, there were a mere 423 pages viewed around here, with 209 unique visitors. That’s increased a bit, to 453 views from 257 visitors, my second-highest number of views since last June and second-highest number of visitors since last April. I can make that depressing, though: it means views per visitor dropped from 2.02 to 1.76, but then, they were at 1.76 in January anyway. And I reached my 14,000th page view, which is fun, but I’d need an extraordinary bit of luck to get to 15,000 this month.

March’s most popular articles were a mix of the evergreens — trapezoids and comics — with a bit of talk about March Madness serving as obviously successful clickbait:

  1. How Many Trapezoids I Can Draw, and again, nobody’s found one I overlooked.
  2. Calculating March Madness, and the tricky problem of figuring out the chance of getting a perfect bracket.
  3. Reading The Comics, March 1, 2014: Isn’t It One-Half X Squared Plus C? Edition, showing how well an alleged joke will make comic strips popular.
  4. Reading The Comics, March 26, 2014: Kitchen Science Department, showing that maybe it’s just naming the comics installments that matters.
  5. What Are The Chances Of An Upset, which introduces some of the interesting quirks of the bracket and seed system of playoffs, such as the apparent advantage an eleventh seed has over an eighth seed.

There’s a familiar set of countries sending me the most readers: as ever the United States up top (277), with Denmark in second (26) and Canada in third (17). That’s almost a tie, though, as the United Kingdom (16), Austria (15), and the Philippines (13) could have taken third easily. I don’t want to explicitly encourage international rivalries to drive up my page count here, I’m just pointing it out. Singapore is in range too. The single-visitor countries this past month were the Bahamas, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Peru, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, and Taiwan. Hungary, Peru, and Saudi Arabia are the only repeat visitors from February, and nobody’s got a three-month streak going.

There wasn’t any good search-term poetry this month; mostly it was questions about trapezoids, but there were a couple interesting ones:

So, that’s where things stand: I need to get back to writing about trapezoids and comic strips.

I Know Nothing Of John Venn’s Diagram Work


My Dearly Beloved, the professional philosopher, mentioned after reading the last comics review that one thing to protest in the Too Much Coffee Man strip — showing Venn diagram cartoons and Things That Are Funny as disjoint sets — was that the Venn diagram was drawn wrong. In philosophy, you see, they’re taught to draw a Venn diagram for two sets as two slightly overlapping circles, and then to black out any parts of the diagram which haven’t got any elements. If there are three sets, you draw three overlapping circles of equal size and again black out the parts that are empty.

I granted that this certainly better form, and indispensable if you don’t know anything about what sets, intersections, and unions have any elements in them, but that it was pretty much the default in mathematics to draw the loops that represent sets as not touching if you know the intersection of the sets is empty. That did get me to wondering what the proper way of doing things was, though, and I looked it up. And, indeed, according to MathWorld, I have been doing it wrong for a very long time. Per MathWorld (which is as good a general reference for this sort of thing as I can figure), to draw a Venn diagram reflecting data for N sets, the rules are:

  1. Draw N simple, closed curves on the plane, so that the curves partition the plane into 2N connected regions.
  2. Have each subset of the N different sets correspond to one and only one region formed by the intersection of the curves.

Partitioning the plane is pretty much exactly what you might imagine from the ordinary English meaning of the world: you divide the plane into parts that are in this group or that group or some other group, with every point in the plane in exactly one of these partitions (or on the border between them). And drawing circles which never touch mean that I (and Shannon Wheeler, and many people who draw Venn diagram cartoons) are not doing that first thing right: two circles that have no overlap the way the cartoon shows partition the plane into three pieces, not four.

I can make excuses for my sloppiness. For one, I learned about Venn diagrams in the far distant past and never went back to check I was using them right. For another, the thing I most often do with Venn diagrams is work out probability problems. One approach for figuring out the probability of something happen is to identify the set of all possible outcomes of an experiment — for a much-used example, all the possible numbers that can come up if you throw three fair dice simultaneously — and identify how many of those outcomes are in the set of whatever you’re interested in — say, rolling a nine total, or rolling a prime number, or for something complicated, “rolling a prime number or a nine”. When you’ve done this, if every possible outcome is equally likely, the probability of the outcome you’re interested in is the number of outcomes that satisfy what you’re looking for divided by the number of outcomes possible.

If you get to working that way, then, you might end up writing a list of all the possible outcomes and drawing a big bubble around the outcomes that give you nine, and around the outcomes that give you a prime number, and those aren’t going to touch for the reasons you’d expect. I’m not sure that this approach is properly considered a Venn diagram anymore, though, although I’d introduced it in statistics classes as such and seen it called that in the textbook. There might not be a better name for it, but it is doing violence to the Venn diagram concept and I’ll try to be more careful in future.

The Mathworld page, by the way, provides a couple examples of Venn diagrams for more than three propositions, down towards the bottom of the page. The last one that I can imagine being of any actual use is the starfish shape used to work out five propositions at once. That shows off 32 possible combinations of sets and I can barely imagine finding that useful as a way to visualize the relations between things. There are also representations based on seven sets, which have 128 different combinations, and for 11 propositions, a mind-boggling 2,048 possible combinations. By that point the diagram is no use for visualizing relationships of sets and is simply mathematics as artwork.

Something else I had no idea bout is that if you draw the three-circle Venn diagram, and set it so that the intersection of any two circles is at the center of the third, then the innermost intersection is a Reuleaux triangle, one of those oddball shapes that rolls as smoothly as a circle without actually being a circle. (MathWorld has an animated gif showing it rolling so.) This figure, it turns out, is also the base for something called the Henry Watt square drill bit. It can be used as a spinning drill bit to produce a (nearly) square hole, which is again pretty amazing as I make these things out, and which my father will be delighted to know I finally understand or have heard of.

In any case, the philosophy department did better teaching Venn diagrams properly than whatever math teacher I picked them up from did, or at least, my spouse retained the knowledge better than I did.