Reading the Comics, July 2, 2019: Back On Schedule Edition


I hoped I’d get a Reading the Comics post in for Tuesday, and even managed it. With this I’m all caught up to the syndicated comic strips which, last week, brought up some mathematics topic. I’m open for nominations about what to publish here Thursday. Write in quick.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange for the 30th is a struggling-student joke. And set in summer school, so the comic can be run the last day of June without standing out to its United States audience. It expresses a common anxiety, about that point when mathematics starts using letters. It superficially seems strange that this change worries students. Students surely had encountered problems where some term in an equation was replaced with a blank space and they were expected to find the missing term. This is the same work as using a letter. Still, there are important differences. First is that a blank line (box, circle, whatever) has connotations of “a thing to be filled in”. A letter seems to carry meaning in to the problem, even if it’s just “x marks the spot”. And a letter, as we use it in English, always stands for the same thing (or at least the same set of things). That ‘x’ may be 7 in one problem and 12 in another seems weird. I mean weird even by the standards of English orthography.

Summer School. Student, as the instructor writes a^2 + b^2 != c^2 on the board: 'Math isn't fair. It's numbers, numbers, numbers, then bam! It's letters.'
Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange for the 30th of June, 2019. Essays with some mention of Rhymes With Orange should be at this link.

A letter might represent a number whose value we wish to know; it might represent a number whose value we don’t care about. These are different ideas. We usually fall into a convention where numbers we wish to know are more likely x, y, and z, while those we don’t care about are more likely a, b, and c. But even that’s no reliable rule. And there may be several letters in a single equation. It’s one thing to have a single unknown number to deal with. To have two? Three? I don’t blame people fearing they can’t handle that.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy for the 30th has Billy and Cow pondering the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This is one of the first examples someone encounters in game theory. Game theory sounds like the most fun part of mathematics. It’s the study of situations in which there’s multiple parties following formal rules which allow for gains or losses. This is an abstract description. It means many things fit a mathematician’s idea of a game.

Billy: 'If we're ever arrested for the same crime we should never rat each other out. If we don't rat, then maybe we both go free. If we both rat, we both go to jail. If one rats, then the other goes to jail. But since we can't trust the interro --- ' Cow: 'BUT BOOGER GNOME STOLE THAT STEREO EQUIPMENT FOR HIS PIZZA BOX HOUSE!' Billy: 'YOU THINK THE COPS ARE GONNA BUY THAT?' Booger Gnome, with the stolen equipment: 'THERE'S NO @$#&* OUTLETS?!'
Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy rerun for the 30th of June, 2019. The comic strip is long since ended, but hasn’t quite rerun enough times for me to get tired of it. So essays featuring Cow and Boy appear this link. The gnome is a lawn gnome who came to life and … you know, this was a pretty weird comic and I understand why it didn’t make it in the newspapers. Just roll with it.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is described well enough by Billy. It’s built on two parties, each — separately and without the ability to coordinate — having to make a choice. Both would be better off, under interrogation, to keep quiet and trust that the cops can’t get anything significant on them. But both have the temptation that if they rat out the other, they’ll get off free while their former partner gets screwed. And knowing that their partner has the same temptation. So what would be best for the two of them requires them both doing the thing that maximizes their individual risk. The implication is unsettling: everyone acting in their own best interest is supposed to produce the best possible result for society. And here, for the society of these two accused, it breaks down entirely.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby for the 1st is a rerun. I discussed it last time it appeared, in November 2016, which was before I would routinely include the strips under discussion. The strip’s built on wordplay, using the word ‘power’ in its connotations for might and for exponents.

Robbie: 'My opinion letter is really going to make a difference!' Bobby: 'More power to you, Robbie!' Robbie: 'You've been saying that a lot lately ... know what? I *do* feel more powerful! ... Ooh, an exponent!' (A '10' appears over Robbie's typewriter. Bobby grabs it.) Robbie: 'Hey! I earned that!' Bobby: 'You have no clue what I'll do with this power!' Next panel: Bobby's sleeping, with his sleep sound being 'zzzz^{10}'.
Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby rerun for the 1st of July, 2019. I think but am not sure that this comic strip has lapsed into eternal reruns. In any case the essays that mention some topic raised by Robbie and Bobby are at this link.

Exponents have been written as numbers in superscript following a base for a long while now. The notation developed over the 17th century. I don’t know why mathematicians settled on superscripts, as opposed to the many other ways a base and an exponent might fit together. It’s a good mnemonic to remember, say, “z raised to the 10th” is z with a raised 10. But I don’t know the etymology of “raised” in a mathematical context well enough. It’s plausible that we say “raised” because that’s what the notation suggests.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 2nd argues for the beauty of mathematics as a use for it. It’s presented in a brutal manner, but saying brutal things to kids is a comic motif with history to it. Well, in an existentialist manner, but that gets pretty brutal quickly.

Kids: 'Will we ever use math?' Teacher: 'Of course! Life is an express train headed for oblivion city, and this proof of Pythagoras' theorem is one more pretty thing to contemplate before you pull into the station.' (The diagram is of a large square, with each leg divided into segments of length a and b; inside is a smaller square, connecting the segments within each of the outer square's edges, with the sides of this inner square length c.) Kid: 'I mean, like, will it get me a job?' Teacher: 'It got me this job conducting your express train!'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 2nd of July, 2019. This one doesn’t appear in every Reading the Comics essay, so you can find my discussions inspired by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal at this link.

The proof of the Pythagorean Theorem is one of the very many known to humanity. This one is among the family of proofs that are wordless. At least nearly wordless. You can get from here to a^2 + b^2 = c^2 with very little prompting. If you do need prompting, it’s this: there are two expressions for how much area of the square with sides a-plus-b. One of these expressions uses only terms of a and b. The other expression uses terms of a, b, and c. If this doesn’t get a bit of a grin out of you, don’t worry. There’s, like, 2,037 other proofs we already know about. We might ask whether we need quite so many proofs of the Pythagorean theorem. It doesn’t seem to be under serious question most of the time.


And then a couple comic strips last week just mentioned mathematics. Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals for the 1st of July has the kids trying to understand their mathematics homework. Could have been anything. Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 5th started a sequence with the kids at Math Camp. The comic is trying quite hard to get me riled up. So far it’s been the kids agreeing that mathematics is the worst, and has left things at that. Hrmph.


Whether or not I have something for Thursday, by Sunday I should have anotherReading the Comics post. It, as well as my back catalogue of these essays, should be at this link. Thanks for worrying about me.

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Reading the Comics, March 23, 2019: March 23, 2019 Edition


I didn’t cover quite all of last week’s mathematics comics with Sunday’s essay. There were a handful that all ran on Saturday. And, as has become tradition, I’ll also list a couple that didn’t rate a couple paragraphs.

Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 23rd has a neat variation on story problems. Zoe’s given the assignment to make her own. I don’t remember getting this as homework, in elementary school, but it’s hard to see why I wouldn’t. It’s a great exercise: not just set up an arithmetic problem to solve, but a reason one would want to solve it.

Composing problems is a challenge. It’s a skill, and you might be surprised that when I was in grad school we didn’t get much training in it. We were just taken to be naturally aware of how to identify a skill one wanted to test, and to design a question that would mostly test that skill, and to write it out in a question that challenged students to identify what they were to do and how to do it, and why they might want to do it. But as a grad student I wasn’t being prepared to teach elementary school students, just undergraduates.

Dad: 'Homework?' Zoe: 'Yeah, math. Our teacher is having us write our own story problem.' Dad: 'What have you got?' Zoe: 'If Hammie picks his nose at the rate of five boogers an hour ... ' Hammie: 'Ooh! Put me on a jet ski!'
Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 23rd of March, 2019. Essays inspired by some Baby Blues strip appear at this link.

Mastroianni and Hart’s B.C. for the 23rd is a joke in the funny-definition category, this for “chaos theory”. Chaos theory formed as a mathematical field in the 60s and 70s, and it got popular alongside the fractal boom in the 80s. The field can be traced back to the 1890s, though, which is astounding. There was no way in the 1890s to do the millions of calculations needed to visualize any good chaos-theory problem. They had to develop results entirely by thinking.

Wiley’s definition is fine enough about certain systems being unpredictable. Wiley calls them “advanced”, although they don’t need to be that advanced. A compound pendulum — a solid rod that swings on the end of another swinging rod — can be chaotic. You can call that “advanced” if you want but then people are going to ask if you’ve had your mind blown by this post-singularity invention, the “screw”.

Cute Chick, reading Wiley's Dictionary: 'Chaos Theory. Mathematical principle that advanced systems are wholly unpredictable due to the introduction of random tweets.'
Mastroianni and Hart’s B.C. for the 23rd of March, 2019. Appearances here inspired by B.C., current syndication or 1960s reprints on GoComics, are at this link. Yeah, the character here is named ‘Cute Chick’ because that was funny when the comic started in 1958 and it can’t be updated for some reason?

What makes for chaos is not randomness. Anyone knows the random is unpredictable in detail. That’s no insight. What’s exciting is when something’s unpredictable but deterministic. Here it’s useful to think of continental divides. These are the imaginary curves which mark the difference in where water runs. Pour a cup of water on one side of the line, and if it doesn’t evaporate, it eventually flows to the Pacific Ocean. Pour the cup of water on the other side, it eventually flows to the Atlantic Ocean. These divides are often wriggly things. Water may mostly flow downhill, but it has to go around a lot of hills.

So pour the water on that line. Where does it go? There’s no unpredictability in it. The water on one side of the line goes to one ocean, the water on the other side, to the other ocean. But where is the boundary? And that can be so wriggly, so crumpled up on itself, so twisted, that there’s no meaningfully saying. There’s just this zone where the Pacific Basin and the Atlantic Basin merge into one another. Any drop of water, however tiny, dropped in this zone lands on both sides. And that is chaos.

Neatly for my purposes there’s even a mountain at a great example of this boundary. Triple Divide Peak, in Montana, rests on the divides between the Atlantic and the Pacific basins, and also on the divide between the Atlantic and the Arctic oceans. (If one interprets the Hudson Bay as connecting to the Arctic rather than the Atlantic Ocean, anyway. If one takes Hudson Bay to be on the Atlantic Ocean, then Snow Dome, Alberta/British Columbia, is the triple point.) There’s a spot on this mountain (or the other one) where a spilled cup of water could go to any of three oceans.

There's at least a 99.9 percent chance that in a group of 70 people at least two will share a birthday. The Pentagon had to ban staff from playing Pokemon Go in the building. Picasso created more than 13,500 paintings and designs, 10,000 prints and engravings, 34,000 book illustrations, and 300 sculptures and ceramics --- making him one of the world's most prolific artists.
John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 23rd of March, 2019. The various pieces of mathematics trivia featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not get shown off at this link. I still think it’s weird to write Graziano’s Ripley’s. Anyway, with 57,800 listed pieces of art here Picasso is only credited as “one of” the world’s most prolific artists? Who’s out there with 57,802 pieces?

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 23rd mentions one of those beloved bits of mathematics trivia, the birthday problem. That’s finding the probability that no two people in a group of some particular size will share a birthday. Or, equivalently, the probability that at least two people share some birthday. That’s not a specific day, mind you, just that some two people share a birthday. The version that usually draws attention is the relatively low number of people needed to get a 50% chance there’s some birthday pair. I haven’t seen the probability of 70 people having at least one birthday pair before. 99.9 percent seems plausible enough.

The birthday problem usually gets calculated something like this: Grant that one person has a birthday. That’s one day out of either 365 or 366, depending on whether we consider leap days. Consider a second person. There are 364 out of 365 chances that this person’s birthday is not the same as the first person’s. (Or 365 out of 366 chances. Doesn’t make a real difference.) Consider a third person. There are 363 out of 365 chances that this person’s birthday is going to be neither the first nor the second person’s. So the chance that all three have different birthdays is \frac{364}{365} \cdot \frac{363}{365} . Consider the fourth person. That person has 362 out of 365 chances to have a birthday none of the first three have claimed. So the chance that all four have different birthdays is \frac{364}{365} \cdot \frac{363}{365} \cdot \frac{362}{365} . And so on. The chance that at least two people share a birthday is 1 minus the chance that no two people share a birthday.

As always happens there are some things being assumed here. Whether these probability calculations are right depends on those assumptions. The first assumption being made is independence: that no one person’s birthday affects when another person’s is likely to be. Obvious, you say? What if we have twins in the room? What if we’re talking about the birthday problem at a convention of twins and triplets? Or people who enjoyed the minor renown of being their city’s First Babies of the Year? (If you ever don’t like the result of a probability question, ask about the independence of events. Mathematicians like to assume independence, because it makes a lot of work easier. But assuming isn’t the same thing as having it.)

The second assumption is that birthdates are uniformly distributed. That is, that a person picked from a room is no more likely to be born the 13th of February than they are the 24th of September. And that is not quite so. September births are (in the United States) slightly more likely than other months, for example, which suggests certain activities going on around New Year’s. Across all months (again in the United States) birthdates of the 13th are slightly less likely than other days of the month. I imagine this has to be accounted for by people who are able to select a due date by inducing delivery. (Again if you need to attack a probability question you don’t like, ask about the uniformity of whatever random thing is in place. Mathematicians like to assume uniform randomness, because it akes a lot of work easier. But assuming it isn’t the same as proving it.)

Do these differences mess up the birthday problem results? Probably not that much. We are talking about slight variations from uniform distribution. But I’ll be watching Ripley’s to see if it says anything about births being more common in September, or less common on 13ths.


And now the comics I didn’t find worth discussing. They’re all reruns, it happens. Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 20th just mentions mathematics class. That could be any class that has tests coming up, though. Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 21st is not quite the anthropomorphic numerals jokes for the week. It’s getting around that territory, though, as Skippy claims to have the manifestation of a zero. Bill Rechin’s Crock for the 22nd is a “pick any number” joke. I discussed as much as I could think of about this when it last appeared, in May of 2018. Also I’m surprised that Crock is rerunning strips that quickly now. It has, in principle, decades of strips to draw from.


And that finishes my mathematical comics review for last week. I’ll start posting essays about next week’s comics here, most likely on Sunday, when I’m ready.

Reading the Comics, October 6, 2018: Curve Edition


There’s three more comics from last week I want to talk about. To ease my workload I’m going to put those off until Saturday. This is not an attempt to inflate the number of posts I make so that I can do a post-a-day-for-a-month again, as has happened in previous A-to-Z series. I already missed yesterday anyway. I just didn’t have time to think of things to write about six comics yesterday.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals for the 3rd has an interesting description of a circle. Definitions are a big part of mathematical work. This is especially so as we tend to think of mathematical objects as things that relate to one another in different ways. You want a definition that includes the relationships that are important, and excludes the ones you don’t want.

Wellington: 'Can you describe a circle, Nipper?' Nipper: 'Sure! A circle is a curved line with no kinks in it ... its ends join up so as not to show where it began.'
Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals for the 3rd of October, 2018. It previously ran the 9th of October, 2013. I suspect the strip was a rerun even in 2013, as the lines are pretty tightly drawn; other strips around that era were much more erratic. Also in 2013 I don’t seem to have thought this strip worth mention, which shows how standards are mutating around these parts.

Nipper’s definition of a circle … well, eh. I wouldn’t say that captures a circle. A ‘closed smooth curve’, yes. It’s closed because the ends join up. It’s smooth because there aren’t any corners, any kinks in it. It’s a curve because … well, there you go. There are many interesting shapes that are closed smooth curves. You can find some by tossing a rubber band in the air and seeing what it looks like when it lands. But I think what most people find important about circles are ideas like all the points on a curve being the same distance from some single “center” point. Nipper would probably realize his definition didn’t work by experimenting. Try drawing shapes that meet the rule he set out, but that aren’t what he thinks a circle ought to be.

This can be fruitful. It can develop a sharper idea of what a definition ought to have. Or it might force you to accept, in order to get the cases you want included, that something which seems wrong has to count too. This mathematicians faced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We learned that the best definition we’ve had for an idea like “a continuous function” means we have to allow weird conclusions, like that it’s possible to have a function continuous at a single point and nowhere else. But any other definition rules out things we absolutely have to call continuous, so, what’s there to do?

(Flo and a friend watch Flo's teenage daughter and friend walk past.) Friend: 'Sometimes I look at those girls and wish I was that age again.' Flo: 'I can understand that. But then you remember how rich your life has been?' Friend: 'No. Then I remember the algebra.'
Jenny Campbell’s Flo and Friends for the 4th of October, 2018. I’m not sure which friend Flo is speaking with here; Wikipedia suggests either Ruthie or Winnie most likely. So if I may summarize: cast lists. Why do we not have them? Thank you.

Jenny Campbell’s Flo and Friends for the 4th presents algebra as one of the burdens of youth. And one that’s so harsh that it makes old age more pleasant. I get the unpleasantness of being stuck in a class one doesn’t understand or like. But my own slight experience with that thing where you wake up, and a thing hurts, and there’s no good reason but eventually it either goes away or you get so used to it you don’t realize it still actually hurts? I would take the boring class, most of the time.

Maria's Mother: 'Very good, Maria! You got every problem on your math homework right.' (Later.) Maria: 'Thanks for the help, Math Wiz!' Math-wiz monster in the closet: 'Yeah, yeah. Where's my raw chicken? A deal's a deal.'
John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 4th of October, 2018. All right, so she got the questions right, but we can see she didn’t write her name at the top of the page. Please, please, PLEASE make sure you put your name on the page. Every page, too. It’s so very stressful for your instructor to have to figure out which of the three anonymous papers are which.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 4th is a joke about how hard mathematics is. Maria’s finding the monsters in her room less frightening than arithmetic. Well, as long as she’s picking up a couple useful things about multiplication.


I do at least one Reading the Comics post per week, and often two.They’ll be at this link. Other appearances by Wee Pals should be at this link. Topics raised by Flo and Friends are discussed at this link. And essays mentioning Maria’s Day are at this link. Thanks as ever for reading. I’m trusting that you did, or you wouldn’t be seeing this.

Reading the Comics, July 21, 2018: Infinite Hotels Edition


Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 18th is based on Hilbert’s Hotel. This is a construct very familiar to eager young mathematicians. It’s an almost unavoidable pop-mathematics introduction to infinitely large sets. It’s a great introduction because the model is so mundane as to be easily imagined. But you can imagine experiments with intuition-challenging results. T-Rex describes one of the classic examples in the third through fifth panels.

The strip made me wonder about the origins of Hilbert’s Hotel. Everyone doing pop mathematics uses the example, but who created it? And the startling result is, David Hilbert, kind of. My reference here is Helge Kragh’s paper The True (?) Story of Hilbert’s Infinite Hotel. Apparently in a 1924-25 lecture series in Göttingen, Hilbert encouraged people to think of a hotel with infinitely many rooms. He apparently did not use it for so many examples as pop mathematicians would. He just used the question of how to accommodate a single new guest after the infinitely many rooms were first filled. And then went to imagine an infinite dance party. I don’t remember ever seeing the dance party in the wild; perhaps it’s a casualty of modern rave culture.

T-Rex: 'David Hilbert was a mathematician and hotelier who was born in 1892. He built an infinite hotel, you guys! THE INFINITE HOTEL: A TRUE STORY. So Hilbert built this infinite hotel that was infinitely big and had infinitely many rooms; I believe this was a matter of some investment. But build it he did, and soon after a bus with infinity people in it showed up, with each of them wanting a room! Lucky for Hilbert he had his infinite hotel, so each guest got a room, and the hotel was filled up to capacity. Nice! But just then another friggin' bus showed up, and it ALSO had infinity people in it!' Utahraptor: 'Nobody builds for TWO infinite buses showing up right after the other!' T-Rex: 'Turns out they do! He just told every guest already there to move into the room that was double their current room number. So the guest in room 3 moved into room 6, and so on! Thus, only the even-numbered rooms were occupied, and everyone on the new bus could have an odd-numbered room!' Utahraptor: 'Amazing!' T-Rex: 'Yep! Anyway! It's my understanding he died an infinitely rich man infinity years later.'
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 18th of July, 2018. The strip likely ran sometime before on North’s own web site; I don’t know when.

Hilbert’s Hotel seems to have next seen print in George Gamow’s One, Two Three … Infinity. Gamow summoned the hotel back from the realms of forgotten pop mathematics with a casual, jokey tone that fooled Kragh into thinking he’d invented the model and whimsically credited Hilbert with it. (Gamow was prone to this sort of lighthearted touch.) He came back to it in The Creation Of The Universe, less to make readers consider the modern understanding of infinitely large sets than to argue for a universe having infinitely many things in it.

And then it disappeared again, except for cameo appearances trying to argue that the steady-state universe would be more bizarre than what we actually see. The philosopher Pamela Huby seems to have made Hilbert’s Hotel a thing to talk about again, as part of a debate about whether a universe could be infinite in extent. William Lane Craig furthered using the hotel, as part of the theological debate about whether there could be an infinite temporal regress of events. Rudy Rucker and Eli Maor wrote descriptions of the idea in the 1980s, with vague ideas about whether Hilbert actually had anything to do with the place. And since then it’s stayed, a famous fictional hotel.

David Hilbert was born in 1862; T-Rex misspoke.

Teacher: 'Sluggo --- describe an octagon.' Sluggo: 'A figure with eight sides and eight angles.' Teacher: 'Correct. Now, Nancy --- describe a sphere'. (She blows a bubble-gum bubble.)
Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy Classics for the 20th of July, 2018. Originally run, it looks to me, like the 18th of October, 1953.

Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy Classics for the 20th gets me out of my Olivia Jaimes rut. We could probably get a good discussion going about whether giving an example of a sphere is an adequate description of a sphere. Granted that a bubble-gum bubble won’t be perfectly spherical; neither will any example that exists in reality. We always trust that we can generalize to an ideal example of this thing.

I did get to wondering, in Sluggo’s description of the octagon, why the specification of eight sides and eight angles. I suspect it’s meant to avoid calling an octagon something that, say, crosses over itself, thus having more angles than sides. Not sure, though. It might be a phrasing intended to make sure one remembers that there are sides and there are angles and the polygon can be interesting for both sets of component parts.

Literal Figures: a Venn diagram of two circles, their disjoint segments labelled 'Different' and their common area labelled 'Same'. A graph, 'Height of Rectangles', a bar chart with several rectangles. A graph, 'Line Usage': a dashed line labelled Dashed; a jagged line labelled Jagged; a curvy line labelled Curvy. A map: 'Global Dot Concentration', with dots put on a map of the world.
John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for the 20th of July, 2018. So this spoils a couple good ideas for my humor blog’s Statistics Saturdays now that you know I’ve seen this somewhere.

John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for the 20th is the Venn Diagram joke for the week. The half-week anyway. Also a bunch of other graph jokes for the week. Nice compilation of things. I love the paradoxical labelling of the sections of the Venn Diagram.

Ziggy: 'I wish I'd paid more attention in math class! I can't even count the number of times I've had trouble with math!'
Tom II Wilson’s Ziggy for the 20th of July, 2018. Tom Wilson’s still credited with the comic strip, though he died in 2011. I don’t know whether this indicates the comic is in reruns or what.

Tom II Wilson’s Ziggy for the 20th is a plaintive cry for help from a despairing soul. Who’s adding up four- and five-digit numbers by hand for some reason. Ziggy’s got his projects, I guess is what’s going on here.

Cop: 'You were travelling at 70 miles per hour. How much later would you have arrived if you were only going 60?' Eno: 'No fair --- I hate word problems!'
Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Duplex for the 21st of July, 2018. So the strip is named The Duplex because it’s supposed to be about two families in the same, uh, duplex: this guy with his dog, and a woman with her cat. I was reading the strip for years before I understood that. (The woman doesn’t show up nearly so often, or at least it feels like that.)

Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Duplex for the 21st is set up as an I-hate-word-problems joke. The cop does ask something people would generally like to know, though: how much longer would it take, going 60 miles per hour rather than 70? It turns out it’s easy to estimate what a small change in speed does to arrival time. Roughly speaking, reducing the speed one percent increases the travel time one percent. Similarly, increasing speed one percent decreases travel time one percent. Going about five percent slower should make the travel time a little more than five percent longer. Going from 70 to 60 miles per hour reduces the speed about fifteen percent. So travel time is going to be a bit more than 15 percent longer. If it was going to be an hour to get there, now it’ll be an hour and ten minutes. Roughly. The quality of this approximation gets worse the bigger the change is. Cutting the speed 50 percent increases the travel time rather more than 50 percent. But for small changes, we have it easier.

There are a couple ways to look at this. One is as an infinite series. Suppose you’re travelling a distance ‘d’, and had been doing it at the speed ‘v’, but now you have to decelerate by a small amount, ‘s’. Then this is something true about your travel time ‘t’, and I ask you to take my word for it because it has been a very long week and I haven’t the strength to argue the proposition:

t = \frac{d}{v - s} = \frac{d}{v}\left(1 + \left(\frac{s}{v}\right) + \left(\frac{s}{v}\right)^2 + \left(\frac{s}{v}\right)^3 + \left(\frac{s}{v}\right)^4 + \left(\frac{s}{v}\right)^5 + \cdots \right)

‘d’ divided by ‘v’ is how long your travel took at the original speed. And, now, \left(\frac{s}{v}\right) — the fraction of how much you’ve changed your speed — is, by assumption, small. The speed only changed a little bit. So \left(\frac{s}{v}\right)^2 is tiny. And \left(\frac{s}{v}\right)^3 is impossibly tiny. And \left(\frac{s}{v}\right)^4 is ridiculously tiny. You make an error in dropping these \left(\frac{s}{v}\right) squared and cubed and forth-power and higher terms. But you don’t make much of one, not if s is small enough compared to v. And that means your estimate of the new travel time is:

\frac{d}{v} \left(1 + \frac{s}{v}\right)

Or, that is, if you reduce the speed by (say) five percent of what you started with, you increase the travel time by five percent. Varying one important quantity by a small amount we know as “perturbations”. Working out the approximate change in one quantity based on a perturbation is a key part of a lot of calculus, and a lot of mathematical modeling. It can feel illicit; after a lifetime of learning how mathematics is precise and exact, it’s hard to deliberately throw away stuff you know is not zero. It gets you to good places, though, and fast.

Wellington: 'First our teacher says 25 plus 25 equals 50. Then she says 30 and 20 equals 50. Then she says 10 and 40 equals 50. Finally she says 15 and 35 equals 50. Shouldn't we have a teacher who can make up her mind?'
Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 21st of July, 2018. Originally ran the 22nd of July, 2013.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals for the 21st shows Wellington having trouble with partitions. We can divide any counting number up into the sum of other counting numbers in, usually, many ways. I can kind of see his point; there is something strange that we can express a single idea in so many different-looking ways. I’m not sure how to get Wellington where he needs to be. I suspect that some examples with dimes, quarters, and nickels would help.

And this is marginal but the “Soul Circle” personal profile for the 20th of July — rerun from the 20th of July, 2013 — was about Dr Cecil T Draper, a mathematics professor.


You can get to this and more Reading the Comics posts at this link. Other essays mentioning Dinosaur Comics are at this link. Essays that describe Nancy, vintage and modern, are at this link. Wrong Hands gets discussed in essays on this link. Other Ziggy-based essays are at this link. The Duplex will get mentioned in essays at this link if any other examples of the strip get tagged here. And other Wee Pals strips get reviewed at this link.

Reading the Comics, July 3, 2018: Fine, Jef Mallett Wants My Attention Edition


Three of these essays in a row now that Jef Mallett’s Frazz has done something worth responding to. You know, the guy lives in the same metro area. He could just stop in and visit sometime. There’s a pinball league in town and everything. He could view it as good healthy competition.

Bill Hinds’s Cleats for the 1st is another instance of the monkeys-on-typewriters metaphor. The metaphor goes back at least as far as 1913, when Émile Borel wrote a paper on statistical mechanics and the reversibility problem. Along the way it was worth thinking of the chance of impossibly unlikely events, given enough time to happen. Monkeys at typewriters formed a great image for a generator of text that knows no content or plan. Given enough time, this random process should be able to produce all the finite strings of text, whatever their content. And the metaphor’s caught people’s fancy I guess there’s something charming and Dadaist about monkeys doing office work. Borel started out with a million monkeys typing ten hours a day. Modern audiences sometimes make this an infinite number of monkeys typing without pause. This is a reminder of how bad we’re allowing pre-revolutionary capitalism get.

Kid: 'Mom, Dad, I want to go bungee jumping this summer!' Dad: 'A thousand monkeys working a thousand typewriters would have a better chance of randomly typing the complete works of William Shakespeare over the summer than you have of bungee jumping.' (Awksard pause.) Kid: 'What's a typewriter?' Dad: 'A thousand monkeys randomly TEXTING!'
Bill Hinds’s Cleats rerun for the 1st of July, 2018. It originally ran the 28th of June, 2009. Oh, but you figured that out yourselves, didn’t you? Also, boy, that’s not much of a punch line. Most comics aren’t actually written with disdain for young people and their apps and their podcasts and their emojis and all that. But sometimes one kind of hits it.

Sometimes it’s cut down to a mere thousand monkeys, as in this example. Often it’s Shakespeare, but sometimes it’s other authors who get duplicated. Dickens seems like a popular secondary choice. In joke forms, the number of monkeys and time it would take to duplicate something is held as a measure of the quality of the original work. This comes from people who don’t understand. Suppose the monkeys and typewriters are producing truly random strings of characters. Then the only thing that affects how long it takes them to duplicate some text is the length of the original text. How good the text is doesn’t enter into it.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 1st is about the comfort of knowing about things one does not know. And that’s fine enough. Frazz cites Fermat’s Last Theorem as a thing everyone knows of but doesn’t understand. And that choice confuses me. I’m not sure what there would be to Fermat’s Last Theorem that someone who had heard of it would not understand. The basic statement of it — if you have three positive whole numbers a, b, and c, then there’s no whole number n larger than 2 so that a^n + b^n equals c^n — has it.

Frazz: 'You know what I like? Fermat's last theorem.' Jane: 'Do you even understand it?' Frazz: 'Nope. And neither do you. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we live in a world where too many people don't know what they don't know. With Fermat's Last Theorem, we can all agree on something we don't know.' Jane: 'Nice. Except how many people have ever heard of Fermat's Last Theorem?' Frazz: '2,125,420,566.' Jane: 'You don't know that.' Frazz: 'I know!'
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 1st of July, 2018. Frazz’s estimate of how many have heard of Fermat’s Last Theorem seems low to me. But I grew up at a time when the theorem was somewhat famous for being something easy to understand and that had defied four hundred years’ worth of humanity trying to prove. And even then my experience is selected to a particular kind of Western-culture person. Was the theorem ever so interesting to, say, Indian or Chinese mathematicians? (Come to it, was there someone in the South Asian or Chinese or Japanese traditions who ran across the same property but didn’t get famous in Western literature for it?)

But “understanding” is a flexible concept. He might mean that people don’t know why the Theorem is true. Fair enough. Andrew Wiles and Richard Taylor’s proof is a long thing that goes deep into a field of mathematics that even most mathematicians don’t study. Why it should be true can be an interesting question, and one that’s hard to ever satisfyingly answer. What is the difference between a proof that something is true and an explanation for why it’s true? And before you say there’s not one, please consider that many mathematicians do experience a difference between seeing something proved and understanding why something is true.

And Frazz might also mean that nobody knows what use Fermat’s Last Theorem is. This is a fair complaint too. I’m not aware offhand of any interesting results which follow from its truth, nor of anything neat that would come about had it been false. It’s just one of those things that happens to be true, and that we’ve found to be pretty, perhaps because it is easy to ask whether it’s true and hard to answer. I don’t know.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals for the 2nd has a kid looking for a square root. We all have peculiar hobbies. His friends speak of it as though it’s a lost physical object. This is a hilarious misunderstanding until it strikes you that we speak about stuff like square roots “existing”. Indeed, the language of mathematics would be trashed if we couldn’t speak about numerical constructs “existing” somewhere to be “found”. But try to put “four” in a box and see what you get. That we mostly have little trouble understanding what we mean by showing some mathematical construct exists, and what we hope to do by looking for it, suggests we roughly know what we mean by the phrases. All right then; what is that, in terms a kid could understand?

Ralph: 'Whatcha doin', Oliver?' Oliver: 'Trying to find the square root of 8,765,510.' Ralph: 'Where did you lose it? Randy and I will help you find it!'
Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 2nd of July, 2018. It originally ran the 2nd of July, 2013. Just saying, it would have been slick if Oliver had been working out something for which 42 was the answer. Why couldn’t he have been looking for the cube root of 74,088 instead?

There are many ways to numerically compute a square root, if you have to do it by hand and it isn’t a perfect square. My preference is for iterative methods, in which you start with a rough guess and try to improve things. One good enough method for we call the Babylonian method, reflecting how old we think it is. Start with your number S whose square root you want. And start with a number x0, a first guess for what the square root is. This can be anything. The great thing about iterative methods is even if you start with a garbage answer, you get to a good answer soon enough. Still, if you have a suspicion of what the square root should be, start there.

Your first iteration, the first guess for a better answer, is to calculate the number x_1 = \frac{1}{2}\left( x_0 + \frac{S}{x_0}\right) . Typically, x1 will be closer to the square root of S than will x0 be. And in any case, we can get closer still. Use x1 to calculate a new number. This is x_2 = \frac{1}{2}\left( x_1 + \frac{S}{x_1}\right) . And then x3 and x4 and x5 and so on. In theory, you never finish; you’re stuck finding an infinitely long sequence of better approximations to the square root. In practice, you finish; you find that you’re close enough to the square root. Well, the square root of a whole number is either a whole number (if it was a perfect square to start) or is an irrational number. You were going to stop on an approximation sooner or later.

The method requires doing division. Long division, too, after the first couple steps. I don’t know a way around that which doesn’t divert into something less pleasant, such as logarithms and exponentials. Or maybe into trigonometric functions. This can be tedious to do by hand. Great thing, though, is if you make a mistake? That’s kind of all right. The next iteration will (usually) correct for it. That’s the glory of iterative methods. They tend to be forgiving of numerical error, whatever its source. Another iteration reduces, or even eliminates, the mistake of the previous iteration.

At the bar. Harley's Friend: 'I've done the math. You won't make it across the canyon without a good ramp, Harley! You need a quadrilateral with exactly one pair of parallel sides. You'll be riding into a trap ... ezoid.' Harley, in jail, to the sheriff: 'Who knew a calculator could go that far up his nose.'
Dan Thompson’s Harley for the 3rd of July, 2018. I don’t know the guy’s name here. The storyline is part of Harley’s annual effort to jump across the canyon and no, it doesn’t go well.

Dan Thompson’s Harley for the 3rd is a shapes joke. Haven’t had a proper anthropomorphic geometric figures joke in a while. This is near enough.


For more of these Reading the Comics posts please follow this link. If you’re only interested in Reading the Cleats strips, please use this link instead. But Cleats is a new tag this essay, so for now, there aren’t others. If you’re hoping to see all my Reading the Comics posts about Frazz, try this link. If you’d like more of my essays which mention Wee Pals, you can use this link. And if you’d like more Reading the Comics posts that mention Harley, use this link. That’s another new tag, but I believe Dan Thompson is still making new examples of the strip. So it may appear again.

Reading the Comics, February 26, 2018: Possible Reruns Edition


Comic Strip Master Command spent most of February making sure I could barely keep up. It didn’t slow down the final week of the month either. Some of the comics were those that I know are in eternal reruns. I don’t think I’m repeating things I’ve already discussed here, but it is so hard to be sure.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 24th of February has a mathematics problem with a joke answer. The approach to finding the area’s exactly right. It’s easy to find areas of simple shapes like rectangles and triangles and circles and half-circles. Cutting a complicated shape into known shapes, finding those areas, and adding them together works quite well, most of the time. And that’s intuitive enough. There are other approaches. If you can describe the outline of a shape well, you can use an integral along that outline to get the enclosed area. And that amazes me even now. One of the wonders of calculus is that you can swap information about a boundary for information about the interior, and vice-versa. It’s a bit much for even Jason Fox, though.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 25th is a dispute between Mrs Olsen and Caulfield about whether it’s possible to give more than 100 percent. I come down, now as always, on the side that argues it depends what you figure 100 percent is of. If you mean “100% of the effort it’s humanly possible to expend” then yes, there’s no making more than 100% of an effort. But there is an amount of effort reasonable to expect for, say, an in-class quiz. It’s far below the effort one could possibly humanly give. And one could certainly give 105% of that effort, if desired. This happens in the real world, of course. Famously, in the right circles, the Space Shuttle Main Engines normally reached 104% of full throttle during liftoff. That’s because the original specifications for what full throttle would be turned out to be lower than was ultimately needed. And it was easier to plan around running the engines at greater-than-100%-throttle than it was to change all the earlier design documents.

Jeffrey Caulfield and Alexandre Rouillard’s Mustard and Boloney for the 25th straddles the line between Pi Day jokes and architecture jokes. I think this is a rerun, but am not sure.

Matt Janz’s Out of the Gene Pool rerun for the 25th tosses off a mention of “New Math”. It’s referenced as a subject that’s both very powerful but also impossible for Pop, as an adult, to understand. It’s an interesting denotation. Usually “New Math”, if it’s mentioned at all, is held up as a pointlessly complicated way of doing simple problems. This is, yes, the niche that “Common Core” has taken. But Janz’s strip might be old enough to predate people blaming everything on Common Core. And it might be character, that the father is old enough to have heard of New Math but not anything in the nearly half-century since. It’s an unusual mention in that “New” Math is credited as being good for things. (I’m aware this strip’s a rerun. I had thought I’d mentioned it in an earlier Reading the Comics post, but can’t find it. I am surprised.)

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 26th is a reassuring island of normal calm in these trying times. It’s a student-at-the-blackboard problem.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 26th just mentions arithmetic as the sort of homework someone would need help with. This is another one of those reruns I’d have thought has come up here before, but hasn’t.

Reading the Comics, January 22, 2018: Breaking Workflow Edition


So I was travelling last week, and this threw nearly all my plans out of whack. We stayed at one of those hotels that’s good enough that its free Internet is garbage and they charge you by day for decent Internet. So naturally Comic Strip Master Command sent a flood of posts. I’m trying to keep up and we’ll see if I wrap up this past week in under three essays. And I am not helped, by the way, by GoComics.com rejiggering something on their server so that My Comics Page won’t load, and breaking their “Contact Us” page so that that won’t submit error reports. If someone around there can break in and turn one of their servers off and on again, I’d appreciate the help.

Hy Eisman’s Katzenjammer Kids for the 21st of January is a curiously-timed Tax Day joke. (Well, the Katzenjammer Kids lapsed into reruns a dozen years ago and there’s probably not much effort being put into selecting seasonally appropriate ones.) But it is about one of the oldest and still most important uses of mathematics, and one that never gets respect.

Mama: 'Der deadline fer der kink's taxes iss dis veek! Der kink's new tax law makes gif'ink him yer money much easier!' Captain: 'Mit der new forms it should be a snep!' All that day ... Captain: 'Let's see. Add lines 4, 8 und 12 to line 18 und subtract line 22'. And also the next day. Captain: 'Add der number uf fish caught by you diss year und divide by der veight uf der bait ...' And the day after that ... 'If you ate t'ree meals a day all t'rough der year, check idss box ... if you vun money playink pinochle mit der Kink, enter der amount ... ' As the Captain throws the forms up, Mama says, 'Captain! Der tax collector iss here!' The Captain raspberries the agent: 'Hey! Tax collector!' Next panel, in prison. Mama: 'Dumkopf! Why din't you fill out der new easy tax forms?' Captain, in chains: 'Diss iss easier!'
Hy Eisman’s Katzenjammer Kids for the 21st of January, 2018. And, fine, but if the tax forms are that impossible to do right then shouldn’t there be a lot more people in jail for the same problem? … Although I suppose the comic strip hasn’t got enough of a cast for that.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 21st gets Oliver the reputation for being a little computer because he’s good at arithmetic. There is something that amazes in a person who’s able to calculate like this without writing anything down or using a device to help.

Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker’s Dustin for the 22nd seems to be starting off with a story problem. It might be a logic problem rather than arithmetic. It’s hard to say from what’s given.

Dustin: 'Next problem. Howard mails letters to four friends: Don, Mary, Tom, and Liz. It takes two days for the letter to get to Don.' Student: 'Excuse me? What's a letter?' Other student: 'Dude, it's the paper the mailman brings for your parents to put in the recycling.'
Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker’s Dustin for the 22nd of January, 2018. Yeah, yeah, people don’t send letters anymore and there’s an eternal struggle to make sure that story problems track with stuff that the students actually do, or know anything about. I still feel weird about how often the comic approaches Ruben Bolling’s satirical Comics For The Elderly. Usually Dustin (the teacher here) is getting the short end; it’s odd that he isn’t, for a change.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 22nd is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Well, for Monday, as I write this. It’s got your classic blackboard full of equations for the people in over their head. The equations look to me like gibberish. There’s a couple diagrams of aromatic organic compounds, which suggests some quantum-mechanics chemistry problem, if you want to suppose this could be narrowed down.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 22nd has Luann despair about ever understanding algebra without starting over from scratch and putting in excessively many hours of work. Sometimes it feels like that. My experience when lost in a subject has been that going back to the start often helps. It can be easier to see why a term or a concept or a process is introduced when you’ve seen it used some, and often getting one idea straight will cause others to fall into place. When that doesn’t work, trying a different book on the same topic — even one as well-worn as high school algebra — sometimes helps. Just a different writer, or a different perspective on what’s key, can be what’s needed. And sometimes it just does take time working at it all.

Richard Thompson’s Richard’s Poor Almanac rerun for the 22nd includes as part of a kit of William Shakespeare paper dolls the Typing Monkey. It’s that lovely, whimsical figure that might, in time, produce any written work you could imagine. I think I’d retired monkeys-at-typewriters as a thing to talk about, but I’m easily swayed by Thompson’s art and comic stylings so here it is.

Darrin Bell and Theron Heir’s Rudy Park for the 18th throws around a lot of percentages. It’s circling around the sabermetric-style idea that everything can be quantified, and measured, and that its changes can be tracked. In this case it’s comments on Star Trek: Discovery, but it could be anything. I’m inclined to believe that yeah, there’s an astounding variety of things that can be quantified and measured and tracked. But it’s also easy, especially when you haven’t got a good track record of knowing what is important to measure, to start tracking what amounts to random noise. (See any of my monthly statistics reviews, when I go looking into things like views-per-visitor-per-post-made or some other dubiously meaningful quantity.) So I’m inclined to side with Randy and his doubts that the Math Gods sanction this much data-mining.

Reading the Comics, June 10, 2017: Some Vintage Comics Edition


It’s too many comics to call this a famine edition, after last week’s feast. But there’s not a lot of theme to last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. There’s a couple that include vintage comic strips from before 1940, though, so let’s run with that as a title.

Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Flying McCoys for the 4th of June is your traditional blackboard full of symbols to indicate serious and deep thought on a subject. It’s a silly subject, but that’s fine. The symbols look to me gibberish, but clown research will go along non-traditional paths, I suppose.

Bill Hinds’s Tank McNamara for the 4th is built on mathematics’ successful invasion and colonization of sports management. Analytics, sabermetrics, Moneyball, whatever you want to call it, is built on ideas not far removed from the quality control techniques that changed corporate management so. Look for patterns; look for correlations; look for the things that seem to predict other things. It seems bizarre, almost inhuman, that we might be able to think of football players as being all of a kind, that what we know about (say) one running back will tell us something about another. But if we put roughly similarly capable people through roughly similar training and set them to work in roughly similar conditions, then we start to see why they might perform similarly. Models can help us make better, more rational, choices.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 4th is another word-problem resistance joke. I suppose it’s also a reminder about the unspoken assumptions in a problem. It also points out why mathematicians end up speaking in an annoyingly precise manner. It’s an attempt to avoid being shown up like Oliver is.

Which wouldn’t help with Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 7th of April, 1930, and rerun the 5th. Skippy’s got a smooth line of patter to get out of his mother’s tutoring. You can see where Percy Crosby has the weird trait of drawing comics in 1930 that would make sense today still; few pre-World-War-II comics do.

Why some of us don't like math. One part of the brain: 'I'm trying to solve an equation, but it's HARD when someone in here keeps shouting FIGHT, FLIGHT, FIGHT, FLIGHT the whole time.' Another part: 'I know, but we should fight or run away.' Another part: 'I just want to cry.'
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 7th of June, 2017. If I may intrude in someone else’s work, it seems to me that the problem-solver might find a hint to what ‘x’ is by looking to the upper right corner of the page and the x = \sqrt{13} already there.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 7th is a joke about mathematics anxiety. I don’t know that it actually explains anything, but, eh. I’m not sure there is a rational explanation for mathematics anxiety; if there were, I suppose it wouldn’t be anxiety.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat for the 15th of July, 1939, and rerun the 8th, extends that odd little faintly word-problem-setup of the strips I mentioned the other day. I suppose identifying when two things moving at different speeds will intersect will always sound vaguely like a story problem.

Krazy: 'The ida is that I run this way at fotty miles a hour eh?' Ignatz: 'Right, and my good arm will speed this brick behind you, at a sixty-mile gait - come on - get going - ' And Krazy runs past a traffic signal. The brick reaches the signal, which has changed to 'stop', and drops dead. Ignatz: 'According to the ballistic law, my projectile must be well up to him by now.' Officer Pupp: 'Unless the traffic law interferes, mousie.'
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat for the 15th of July, 1939, as rerun the 8th of June, 2017. I know the comic isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I like it. I’m also surprised to see something as directly cartoonish as the brick stopping in midair like that in the third panel. The comic is usually surreal, yes, but not that way.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am rerun for the 9th is about the sometimes-considered third possibility from a fair coin toss, and how to rig the results of that.