Reading the Comics, July 11, 2018: GoComics Hardly Needs Me Edition


The first half of last week’s comics are mostly ones from Comics Kingdom and Creators.com. That’s unusual. GoComics usually far outranks the other sites. Partly for sheer numbers; they have an incredible number of strips, many of them web-only, that Comics Kingdom and Creators.com don’t match. I think the strips on GoComics are more likely to drift into mathematical topics too. But to demonstrate that would take so much effort. Possibly any effort at all. Hm.

Bill Holbrook’s On the Fastrack for the 8th of July is premised on topographic maps. These are some of the tools we’ve made to understand three-dimensional objects with a two-dimensional representation. When topographic maps come to the mathematics department we tend to call them “contour maps” or “contour plots”. These are collections of shapes. They might be straight lines. They might be curved. They often form a closed loop. Each of these curves is called a “contour curve” or a “contour line” (even if it’s not straight). Or it’s called an “equipotential curve”, if someone’s being all fancy, or pointing out the link between potential functions and these curves.

Dethany standing, in perspective, on a white surface with black curves traced on. The camera pulls out, revealing more and more curves, until they finally form an outline of her boss, Rose Trellis. Cut to the actual meeting, where Dethany is listening to Trellis speak. Dethany thinks: 'If only there was a topographic map showing how high a priority this is to her ... '
Bill Holbrook’s On the Fastrack for the 8th of July, 2018. I do like Holbrook’s art here, in evoking a figure standing vertically upon a most horizontal surface. There’s never enough intriguing camera angles in comic strips.

Their purpose is in thinking of three-dimensional surfaces. We can represent a three-dimensional surface by putting up some reasonable coordinate system. For the sake of simplicity let’s suppose the “reasonable coordinate system” is the Cartesian one. So every point in space has coordinates named ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’. Pick a value for ‘x’ and ‘y’. There’s at most one ‘z’ that’ll be on the surface. But there might be many sets of values of ‘x’ and ‘y’ together which have that height ‘z’. So what are all the values of ‘x’ and ‘y’ which match the same height ‘z’? Draw the curve, or curves, which match that particular value of ‘z’.

Topographical maps are a beloved example of this, to mathematicians, because we imagine everyone understands them. A particular spot on the ground at some given latitude and longitude is some particular height above sea level. OK. Imagine the slice of a hill representing all the spots that are exactly 10 feet above sea level, or whatever. That’s a curve. Possibly several curves, but we just say “a curve” for simplicity.

A topographical map will often include more than one curve. Often at regular intervals, say with one set of curves representing 10 feet elevation, another 20 feet, another 30 feet, and so on. Sometimes these curves will be very near one another, where a hill is particularly steep. Sometimes these curves will be far apart, where the ground is nearly level. With experience one can learn to read the lines and their spacing. One can see where extreme values are, and how far away they might be.

Topographical maps date back to 1789. These sorts of maps go back farther. In 1701 Edmond Halley, of comet fame, published maps showing magnetic compass variation. He had hopes that the difference between magnetic north and true north would offer a hint at how to find longitude. (The principle is good. But the lines of constant variation are too close to lines of latitude for the method to be practical. And variation changes over time, too.) And that shows how the topographical map idea can be useful to visualize things that aren’t heights. Weather maps include “isobars”, contour lines showing where the atmospheric pressure is a set vale. More advanced ones will include “isotherms”, each line showing a particular temperature. The isobar and isotherm lines can describe the weather and how it can be expected to change soon.

This idea, rendering three-dimensional information on a two-dimensional surface, is a powerful one. We can use it to try to visualize four-dimensional objects, by looking at the contour surfaces they would make in three dimensions. We can also do this for five and even more dimensions, by using the same stuff but putting a note that “D = 16” or the like in the corner of our image. And, yes, if Cartesian coordinates aren’t sensible for the problem you can use coordinates that are.

If you need a generic name for these contour lines that doesn’t suggest lines or topography or weather or such, try ‘isogonal curves’. Nobody will know what you mean, but you’ll be right.

Hazel, sitting at a table, with a bunch of society women, as she works a calculator: ' ... making a total of $77.60. Fifteen percent for the tip, divided four ways ... '
Ted Key’s Hazel for the 9th of July, 2018. It’s a rerun, as all Hazel strips are. Ted Key, creator of Peabody’s Improbable History, died in 2008, and even then he’d retired in 1993. (I’m not clear whether someone else took up the strip in now-unpublished reruns or whether its original run ended then.)

Ted Key’s Hazel for the 9th is a joke about the difficulties in splitting the bill. It is archetypical of the sort of arithmetic people know they need to do in the real world. Despite that at least people in presented humor don’t get any better at it. I suppose real-world people don’t either, given some restaurants now list 15 and 20 percent tips on the bill. Well, at least everybody has a calculator on their phone so they can divide evenly. And I concede that, yeah, there isn’t really specifically a joke here. It’s just Hazel being competent, like the last time she showed up here.

Wavehead entering class: 'My dad said to tell you that geometry is squaresville. I don't understand what that means but he assured me that was comedy gold.'
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th of July, 2018. I think Wavehead’s dad is underestimating triangles here. (There is a lot that we do with triangles, and extend to other polygons by breaking them into triangles.)

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. And it’s a bit of geometry wordplay, too. Also about how you can carry a joke over well enough even without understanding it, or the audience understanding it, if it’s delivered right.

Dad: 'Joe, I gave you a five-dollar bill. The ice cream sandwich was a dollar fifty. How much change do you owe me?' Joe: 'Dad, you KNOW I don't like math. It's got so many problems!'
Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy for the 11th of July, 2018. GoComics.com has a different strip for the day, as DeTorie publishes the new strips on Creators.com and uses several-years-old reruns on GoComics.

Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy for the 11th is another strip about arithmetic done in the real world. I’m also amused by Joe’s attempts to distract from how no kid that age has ever not known precisely how much money they have, and how much of it is fairly won.

[ Toonie Excelsior Cornstarch thought green tea would make him smarter. ] Cornstarch: 'Also greener! And that's th'color of money! And most algae!' [ He downed 20 to 30 bottles of the stuff every day. ] Cornstarch: 'I already understand ALGEBRA! It comes from aliens!' [ Soon he began to think he knew everything about everything ... even quantum physics. ] Cornstarch: 'Dark matter just got much lighter!' [ But, being a TOONIE, he couldn't get a job at MIT, so he took to the streets to protest. That's when he was arrested by the INCORRECT SPELLING POLICE. ] (Cop dressed in a blend of Zippy the Pinhead gown and Keystone Cops uniform has his hand on the naked Cornstarch, who wears the sign 'MY ELEKTRONS CAN BEAT YOUR FOTONS!'
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 11th of July, 2018. This is part of a relatively new running sequence, perhaps a spinoff of Griffith’s very long Dingburg obsession, about people who are kind of generically golden-age-of-cartoon characters.

Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 11th is another example of using understanding algebra as a show of intelligence. And it follows that up with undrestanding quantum physics as a show of even greater intelligence. One can ask what’s meant by “understanding” quantum physics. Someday someone might even answer. But it seems likely that the ability to do calculations based on a model has to be part of fully understanding it.


I have even more Reading the Comics posts, gathered in reverse chronological order at this link. Other essays with On The Fastrack tagged are at this link. Other Reading the Comics posts that mention Hazel are at this link. Some of the many, many essays mentioning Andertoons are at this link. Posts with mention of One Big Happy, both then-current and then-rerun, are at this link. And other mentions of Zippy the Pinhead are at this link.

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Reading the Comics, March 5, 2018: If It’s Even Mathematics Edition


Many of the strips from the first half of last week are ones that just barely touch on mathematical content. I’m not sure how relevant they all are. I hope you like encountering them anyway.

Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 4th of March offers “an infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar” as a joke’s setup. Mathematics popularizers have a small set of jokes about infinite numbers of mathematicians, often arriving at hotels. They’re used to talk about how we now understand infinitely large sets. There’s often counter-intuitive or just plain weird results that follow. And presenting it as a joke works surprisingly well in introducing the ideas. There’s a kind of joke that is essentially a tall tale, spinning out an initial premise to as far and as absurd a consequence as you can get. In structure, that’s not much different to a proof, a discussion of the consequences of an idea. It’s a shame that it’s hard to make jokes or anecdotes about more fields of mathematics. Somehow infinitely large groups of people are funnier than, say, upper-bounded nondecreasing sequences.

['A Pinhead Walks Into A Bar' Jokes That Are Only Funny To Other Pinheads.'] An Atheist, a Vegan, and a Crossfitter walk into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' A gorilla in a tuxedo walks into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. Zippy: 'PUNCHLINE!' An amnesiac walks into a bar. Zippy: '( Empty word balloon )'.
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 4th of March, 2018. You know, it’s kind of a peculiar thing that Zippy the Pinhead is a syndicated daily newspaper comic strip, isn’t it? I’m glad we live in a world strange enough for this to be the case.

Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 4th has a bit of fraction-based wordplay. I’m not sure how mathematical this is, but I grinned.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 4th has Jason try to make a “universal” loot box that consists of zeroes and ones. As he says, accumulate enough and put them in the right order and you have any digital prize imaginable. Implementation is, as joked, the problem. Assembling ones and zeroes at random isn’t likely to turn up anything you might care about in a reasonable time. (It’s the monkeys-at-typewriters problem.) If you know how to assemble ones and zeroes to get what you want, well, what do you need Jason’s boxes for? As with most clever ideas by computer-oriented boys it shouldn’t really be listened to.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 4th has Neil make an order-of-magnitude error estimating what animal power can do. We’ve all made them. They’re particularly easy to make when switching the unit measure. Trying to go from meters to kilometers and multiplying the distance by a thousand, say. Which is annoying since often it’s easiest to estimate the order of magnitude of something first. I can’t find easily an estimate of how many calories a hamster eats over the course of the day. That seems like it would give an idea of how much energy a hamster could possibly be expected to provide, and so work out whether the estimate of four million hamsters to power a car is itself plausible. If someone has information, I’d take it.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 4th is a Rubik’s Cube joke. Also a random processes joke. If a blender could turn the faces of a cube, and could turn them randomly, and could run the right period of time … well, yeah, it could unscramble a cube. But see the previous talk about Jason Fox and the delivery of ones and zeroes.

Mark Tatulli’s Lio for the 5th is a solid geometry joke. I’ve put more thought into whether and where to put hyphens in the last three words of that sentence than is worth it.

Steve Sicula’s Home and Away rerun for the 6th has the father and son happily doing some mathematics. It’s in the service of better gambling on sports. But at least they know why they would like to do these calculations.

Reading the Comics, January 31, 2018: Workload Edition


I thought my new workflow of writing my paragraph or two about each comic was going to help me keep up and keep fresher with the daily comics. And then Comic Strip Master Command decided that everybody had to do comics that at least touched on some mathematical subject. I don’t know. I’m trying to keep up but will admit, I didn’t get to writing anything about Friday’s or Saturday’s strips yet. They’ll keep a couple days.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classicsfor the 29th of January reprints the strip from the 5th of February, 1996. (The Classics reprints finally reached the point where Amend retired from daily strips, and jumped back a dozen years to continue printing.) It just mentions mathematics exams, and high performances on both is all.

Josh Shalek’s Kid Shay Comics reprint for the 29th tosses off a mention of Uncle Brian attempting a great mathematical feat. In this case it’s the Grand Unification Theory, some logically coherent set of equations that describe the fundamental forces of the universe. I think anyone with a love for mathematics makes a couple quixotic attempts on enormously vast problems like this. Or the Riemann Hypothesis, or Goldbach’s Conjecture, or Fermat’s Last Theorem. Yes, Fermat’s Last Theorem has been proven, but there’s no reason there couldn’t be an easier proof. Similarly there’s no reason there couldn’t be a better proof of the Four Color Map theorem. Most of these attempts end up the way Brian’s did. But there’s value in attempting this anyway. Even when you fail, you can have fun and learn fascinating things in the attempt.

Carol Lay’s Lay Lines for the 29th is a vignette about a statistician. And one of those statisticians with the job of finding surprising correlations between things. I think it’s also a riff on the hypothesis that free markets are necessarily perfect: if there’s any advantage to doing something one way, it’ll quickly be found and copied until that is the normal performance of the market. Anyone doing better than average is either taking advantage of concealed information, or else is lucky.

Matt Lubchansky’s Please Listen To Me for the 29th depicts a person doing statistical work for his own purposes. In this case he’s trying to find what factors might be screwing up the world. The expressions in the second panel don’t have an obvious meaning to me. The start of the expression \int exp\left(\frac{1}{N_0}\right) at the top line suggests statistical mechanics to me, for what that’s worth, and the H and Ψ underneath suggest thermodynamics or quantum mechanics. So if Lubchansky was just making up stuff, he was doing it with a good eye for mathematics that might underly everything.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup to Nutz for the 29th circles around the anthropomorphic numerals idea. It’s not there exactly, but Andrew is spending some time giving personality to numerals. I can’t say I give numbers this much character. But there are numbers that seem nicer than others. Usually this relates to what I can do with the numbers. 10, for example, is so easy to multiply or divide by. If I need to multiply a number by, say, something near thirty, it’s a delight to triple it and then multiply by ten. Twelve and 24 and 60 are fun because they’re so relatively easy to find parts of. Even numbers often do seem easier to work with, just because splitting an even number in half saves us from dealing with decimals or fractions. Royboy sees all this as silliness, which seems out of character for him, really. I’d expect him to be up for assigning traits to numbers like that.

Zippy, in front of the Wein-O-Rama Restaurant: 'Different parts of Einstein's theory of relativity are being proven true all th'time ... hmm ... what about th'idea that an exact DUPLICATE of everything exists at th'same time on th'other side of th'universe? Or, in this case, on 'th'other side of th'the Wein-O-Rama restaurant!' Other Zippy, at the other end of the the Wein-O-Rama restaurant: 'What happens in Rhode Island stays in Rhode Island! Yow!'
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 30th of January, 2018. The the Wein-O-Rama is in Cranston, Rhode Island, and I do hope that this strip is now part of the “In Pop Culture” segment of Cranson’s Wikipedia page. DuckDuckGo’s search for Wein-O-Rama pops up, for me, this sentence from a TripAdvisor.com review: “When we go to Weinorama its [sic] always for the wieners [sic], that `RI-only’ treat. I’ll always order them all the way, but my wife always says ‘no onions’.” Thus does reality merge imperceptibly into Zippy the Pinhead comics, evoking the surrealist character’s ancient dictum, “Life is a blur of Republicans and meat”.

Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 30th mentions Albert Einstein and relativity. And Zippy ruminates on the idea that there’s duplicates of everything, in the vastness of the universe. It’s an unsettling idea that isn’t obviously ruled out by mathematics alone. There’s, presumably, some chance that a bunch of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and other atoms happened to come together in such a way as to make our world as we know it today. If there’s a vast enough universe, isn’t there a chance that a bunch of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and other atoms happened to come together that same way twice? Three times? If the universe is infinitely large, might it not happen infinitely many times? In any number of variations? It’s hard to see why not, but even if it is possible, that’s no reason to think it must happen either. And whether those duplicates are us is a question for philosophers studying the problem of identity and what it means to be one person rather than some other person. (It turns out to be a very difficult problem and I’m glad I’m not expected to offer answers.)

Tony Cochrane’s Agnes attempts to use mathematics to reason her way to a better bedtime the 31st. She’s not doing well. Also this seems like it’s more of an optimization problem than a simple arithmetic one. What’s the latest bedtime she can get that still allows for everything that has to be done, likely including getting up in time and getting enough sleep? Also, just my experience but I didn’t think Agnes was old enough to stay up until 10 in the first place.

Reading the Comics, December 30, 2017: Looking To 2018 Edition


The last full week of 2017 was also a slow one for mathematically-themed comic strips. You can tell by how many bits of marginally relevant stuff I include. In this case, it also includes a couple that just mention the current or the upcoming year. So you’ve been warned.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute activity for the 24th is a logic puzzle. I’m not sure there’s deep mathematics to it, but it’s some fun to reason out.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 24th mentions the bit of recreational group theory that normal people know, the Rubik’s Cube. The group theory comes in from rotations: you can take rows or columns on the cube and turn them, a quarter or a half or a three-quarters turn. Which rows you turn, and which ways you turn them, form a group. So it’s a toy that inspires deep questions. Who wouldn’t like to know in how few moves a cube could be solved? We know there are at least some puzzles that take 18 moves to solve. (You can calculate the number of different cube arrangements there are, and how many arrangements you could make by shuffling a cube around with 17 moves. There’s more possible arrangements than there are ones you can get to in 17 moves; therefore, there must be at least one arrangement that takes 18 moves to solve.) A 2010 computer-assisted proof by Tomas Rokicki, Herbert Kociemba, Morley Davidson, and John Dethridge showed that at most 20 face turns are needed for every possible cube to be solved. I don’t know if there’s been any success figuring out whether 19 or even 18 is necessarily enough.

Griffith: 'Here we are, Zippy, back in the land of our childhood.' Zippy: 'Are we still in the ninth grade?' Griffith: 'Kind of ... although I still can't remember a thing about algebra.' Zippy: 'So many spitballs and paper airplanes ago!!' Griffith: 'Why did I act up so much in school, Zippy? Was it a Freudian thing?' Zippy: 'It was a cry for kelp.' Griffith: 'Don't you mean a cry for help? I don't think kelp was even a word I knew back in the 50s.' Zippy: 'Seaweed is the fifth dimension!'
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 26th of December, 2017. This is not as strongly a memoir or autobiographical strip as Griffith will sometimes do, which is a shame. Those are always captivating. I have fun reading Zippy the Pinhead and understand why people wouldn’t. But the memoir strips I recommend even to people who don’t care for the usual fare.

Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 26th just mentions algebra as a thing that Griffith can’t really remember, even in one of his frequent nostalgic fugues. I don’t know that Zippy’s line about the fifth dimension is meant to refer to geometry. It might refer to the band, but that would be a bit odd. Yes, I know, Zippy the Pinhead always speaks oddly, but in these nostalgic fugue strips he usually provides some narrative counterpoint.

Larry Wright’s Motley Classics for the 26th originally ran in 1986. I mention this because it makes the odd dialogue of getting “a new math program” a touch less odd. I confess I’m not sure what the kid even got. An educational game? Something for numerical computing? The coal-fired, gear-driven version of Mathematica that existed in the 1980s? It’s a mystery, it is.

Ryan Pagelow’s Buni for the 27th is really a calendar joke. It seems to qualify as an anthropomorphic numerals joke, though. It’s not a rare sentiment either.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 29th is similarly a calendar joke. It does play on 2017 being a prime number, a fact that doesn’t really mean much besides reassuring us that it’s not a leap year. I’m not sure just what’s meant by saying it won’t repeat for another 2017 years, at least that wouldn’t be just as true for (say) 2015 or 2019. But as Frazz points out, we do cling to anything that floats in times like these.