Reading the Comics, April 7, 2020: April 7, 2020 Edition (Mostly)


I’m again falling behind the comic strips; I haven’t had the writing time I’d like, and that review of last month’s readership has to go somewhere. So let me try to dig my way back to current. The happy news is I get to do one of those single-day Reading the Comics posts, nearly.

Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 for the 7th strongly implies that the kid wearing a lemon juicer for his hat has nearly flunked arithmetic. At the least it’s mathematics symbols used to establish this is a school.

Nate Fakes’s Break of Day for the 7th is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 7th has kids thinking about numbers whose (English) names rhyme. And that there are surprisingly few of them, considering that at least the smaller whole numbers are some of the most commonly used words in the language. It would be interesting if there’s some deeper reason that they don’t happen to rhyme, but I would expect that it’s just, well, why should the names of 6 and 8 (say) have anything to do with each other?

Evan, to Kevyn: 'Whoa! Only two numbers rhyme with each other! And only a few other words rhyme with them and they're good words. I think that says something.' Devin: 'What are Evan and Kevyn looking so smug about?' Frazz: 'I don't know, Devin.'
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 7th of April, 2020. Essays that explore some topic raised in Frazz are at this link.

There are, arguably, gaps in Evan and Kevyn’s reasoning, and on the 8th one of the other kids brings them up. Basically, is there any reason to say that thirteen and nineteen don’t rhyme? Or that twenty-one and forty-one don’t? Evan writes this off as pedantry. But I, admittedly inclined to be a pedant, think there’s a fair question here. How many numbers do we have names for? Is there something different between the name we have for 11 and the name we have for 1100? Or 2011?

There isn’t an objectively right or wrong answer; at most there are answers that are more or less logically consistent, or that are more or less convenient. Finding what those differences are can be interesting, and I think it bad faith to shut down the argument as “pedantry”.

[ Birds aren't partial to fractions. ] Bird at a chalkboard, looking over a figure of a bird over a hand, set equal to a 3 over a bush. Bird: 'Worth 3 in the bush? No, that doesn't add up ... '
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 7th of April, 2020. The essays that address something that appeared in Reality Check are at this link.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 7th claims “birds aren’t partial to fractions” and shows a bird working out, partially with diagrams, the saying about birds in the hand and what they’re worth in the bush.

The narration box, phrasing the bird as not being “partial to fractions”, intrigues me. I don’t know if the choice is coincidental on Whamond’s part. But there is something called “partial fractions” that you get to learn painfully well in Calculus II. It’s used in integrating functions. It turns out that you often can turn a “rational function”, one whose rule is one polynomial divided by another, into the sum of simpler fractions. The point of that is making the fractions into things easier to integrate. The technique is clever, but it’s hard to learn. And, I must admit, I’m not sure I’ve ever used it to solve a problem of interest to me. But it’s very testable stuff.


And that’s slightly more than one day’s comics. I’ll have some more, wrapping up last week, at this link within a couple days.

Some Mathematical Tweets To Read


Can’t deny that I will sometimes stockpile links of mathematics stuff to talk about. Sometimes I even remember to post it. Sometimes it’s a tweet like this, which apparently I’ve been carrying around since April:

I admit I do not know whether the claim is true. It’s plausible enough. English has many variants in England alone, and any trade will pick up its own specialized jargon. The words are fun as it is.

From the American Mathematical Society there’s this:

I talk a good bit about knot theory. It captures the imagination and it’s good for people who like to doodle. And it has a lot of real-world applications. Tangled wires, protein strands, high-energy plasmas, they all have knots in them. Some work by Paul Sutcliffe and Fabian Maucher, both of Durham University, studies tangled vortices. These are vortices that are, er, tangled together, just like you imagine. Knot theory tells us much about this kind of vortex. And it turns out these tangled vortices can untangle themselves and smooth out again, even without something to break them up and rebuild them. It gives hope for power cords everywhere.

Nerds have a streak which compels them to make blueprints of things. It can be part of the healthier side of nerd culture, the one that celebrates everything. The side that tries to fill in the real-world things that the thing-celebrated would have if it existed. So here’s a bit of news about doing that:

I like the attempt to map Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. It’s a fun exercise in matching stuff to a thin set of data. But as mentioned in the article, nobody should take it too seriously. The exact arrangement of things in Utopia isn’t the point of the book. More probably didn’t have a map for it himself.

(Although maybe. I believe I got this from Simon Garfield’s On The Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration Of The Way The World Looks and apologize generally if I’ve got it wrong. My understanding is Robert Louis Stevenson drew a map of Treasure Island and used it to make sure references in the book were consistent. Then the map was lost in the mail to his publishers. He had to read his text and re-create it as best he could. Which, if true, makes the map all the better. It makes it so good a lost-map story that I start instinctively to doubt it; it’s so colorfully perfect, after all.)

And finally there’s this gem from the Magic Realism Bot:

Happy reading.

Making A Joke Of Entropy


This entered into my awareness a few weeks back. Of course I’ve lost where I got it from. But the headline is of natural interest to me. Kristy Condon’s “Researchers establish the world’s first mathematical theory of humor” describes the results of an interesting paper studying the phenomenon of funny words.

The original paper is by Chris Westbury, Cyrus Shaoul, Gail Moroschan, and Michael Ramscar, titled “Telling the world’s least funny jokes: On the quantification of humor as entropy”. It appeared in The Journal of Memory and Language. The thing studied was whether it’s possible to predict how funny people are likely to find a made-up non-word.

As anyone who tries to be funny knows, some words just are funnier than others. Or at least they sound funnier. (This brings us into the problem of whether something is actually funny or whether we just think it is.) Westbury, Shaoul, Moroschan, and Ramscar try testing whether a common measure of how unpredictable something is — the entropy, a cornerstone of information theory — can tell us how funny a word might be.

We’ve encountered entropy in these parts before. I used it in that series earlier this year about how interesting a basketball tournament was. Entropy, in this context, is low if something is predictable. It gets higher the more unpredictable the thing being studied is. You see this at work in auto-completion: if you have typed in ‘th’, it’s likely your next letter is going to be an ‘e’. This reflects the low entropy of ‘the’ as an english word. It’s rather unlikely the next letter will be ‘j’, because English has few contexts that need ‘thj’ to be written out. So it will suggest words that start ‘the’ (and ‘tha’, and maybe even ‘thi’), while giving ‘thj’ and ‘thq’ and ‘thd’ a pass.

Westbury, Shaoul, Moroschan, and Ramscar found that the entropy of a word, how unlikely that collection of letters is to appear in an English word, matches quite well how funny people unfamiliar with it find it. This fits well with one of the more respectable theories of comedy, Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory that humor comes about from violating expectations. That matches well with unpredictability.

Of course it isn’t just entropy that makes words funny. Anyone trying to be funny learns that soon enough, since a string of perfect nonsense is also boring. But this is one of the things that can be measured and that does have an influence.

(I doubt there is any one explanation for why things are funny. My sense is that there are many different kinds of humor, not all of them perfectly compatible. It would be bizarre if any one thing could explain them all. But explanations for pieces of them are plausible enough.)

Anyway, I recommend looking at the Kristy Condon report. It explains the paper and the research in some more detail. And if you feel up to reading an academic paper, try Westbury, Shaoul, Moroschan, and Ramscar’s report. I thought it readable, even though so much of it is outside my field. And if all else fails there’s a list of two hundred made-up words used in field tests for funniness. Some of them look pretty solid to me.

15,000 And A Half


I’d failed to mention the day it happened but I reached my 15,000th page view, just a couple days past the end of April. (If I haven’t added wrong, it was somebody who read something on the 5th of May.) So I like that my middling popularity is continuing, and, as I said in the review of April’s statistics, the blog-writing has felt particularly rich for me of late, for reasons I don’t consciously know. Meanwhile I’m already about a sixth of the way to 16,000, again, a gratifying touch. It’s horribly easy for a personality like mine to get worried about readership statistics; the flip side is when I’m not worried it feels so contented.

To cover the other half of my title, my dear love mentioned tripping over something in the tangent-plane article: “imagine the sphere sliced into a big and a small half by a plane. Imagine moving the plane in the direction of the smaller slice; this produces a smaller slice yet.” And how can there be a big and a small half?

Well, because I was sloppy in writing, is all. I should’ve said something like “a big and a small piece”. I failed to spend enough time editing and rereading before publishing. All I can say is this made me notice that apparently one can speak of two unequal halves of something without noticing that one is defying the literal meaning of the word. Maybe the ability to do so reflects an idea that a division of something might be equal in one way and unequal in others and the word “half” has to allow either sense. Maybe it just reflects that English is a supremely flexible language in that any word can mean pretty much anything, at any time, without any warning. Or I was just being sloppy.

Reading the Comics, January 16, 2013


I was beginning to wonder whether my declaration last time that I’d post a comics review every time I had seven to ten strips to talk about was going to see the extinguishing of math-themed comic strips. It only felt like it. The boom-and-bust cycle continues, though; it took better than two weeks to get six such strips, and then three more came in two days. But that’s the fun of working on relatively rare phenomena. Let me get to the most recent installment of math-themed comics, mostly from Gocomics.com:

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, January 16, 2013”