This Is Not a Math Joke

Math Joke - The Simpsons

This is a still from The Simpsons episode “Mathlete’s Feat.” This is what society thinks of people like me. Not that I’m complaining! I like that the episode makes fun of education fads. At least I think it does. It is hard to tell anymore. The Simpsons has been thoroughly infected by the Family Guy “anything for a joke” philosophy, so the episodes don’t hang together the way they once did. Still, it was nice to see a couple of shots taken at the idea that technology can serve as a substitute for good education. But even with that, it wasn’t a sharp attack — just silly people casting off one orthodoxy for another.

But this image struck me because of the “math joke.” The screen at first showed Homer apparently laughing at the joke. It lasted a long time, I assume to give the audience the chance to “get” the joke. Then it pulled back and we saw that actually Homer was laughing at the dog with a box on its head. Why exactly that is funny, I’m not sure. But roughly the same thing can be said for the math joke.

Of course, the purpose of such “jokes” is not to be funny but to be clever. But there is something very subgenius about the whole thing, if you ask me. The joke here is that the math symbols are supposed to read out, “I ate some pie.” But that doesn’t exactly pop out of it.

When I am confronted with such a thing, I just read it out literally. And frankly, I think that is all that ought to be necessary. But that doesn’t work at all here. I read it as, “Imaginary unit eight summation pi.” And from there I quickly managed “ate some pie.” But even that seemed stupid because I don’t recall ever using the phrase “sum whatever.” I might use “sum of whatever.” Okay: I am a super pedant. But I don’t necessarily have a problem with this. It is vaguely clever, the same way it was when we were kids spelling words with upside down calculators. (That is: not very.)

The question is what one is supposed to make of that square root of negative one. It is the imaginary unit: the most basic imaginary number — beloved by differential equations everywhere. And obviously, yes: the imaginary unit is always referred to as i. To be a pedant, that’s i and not I. But okay. What bothers me is exactly what would bother Bill Clinton: what the definition of is is. Note that “two cubed” and “sigma pi” are puns — they depend upon the sound of what they are. The “square root of negative one” is not i; it is represented by i.

But even if we grant that this is a joke, ultimately, it isn’t a math joke. It’s just a joke that only people with a little mathematical education will be able to get. A joke in the Greek language is not necessarily a “Greek joke.” A math joke is something that deals with, well, math. For example, here’s a joke that people loved in graduate school but always seemed pretty dumb to me:

A biologist, a chemist, and a statistician are out hunting. The biologist shoots at a deer and misses 5 feet to the left, the chemist takes a shot and misses 5 feet to the right, and the statistician yells, “We got ‘im!”

I think I take a certain personal affront to this “math joke” on The Simpsons because the real object of the joke is nerds themselves. This has always been my problem with the television show The Big Bang Theory. So what you have is a joke that is funny because there are these weird people out there who supposedly find it funny. And actually, there aren’t. “I ate some pie” is funny in the same way as this riddle I learned in the second grade. Question: what state is round on the edges and high in the middle? Answer: Ohio! It’s funny because… Actually, it wasn’t even funny in second grade.


This article was always meant to be lighthearted. Calling myself a pedant twice would be a clear giveaway to me. But as a writer/editor, I know that most people read very inaccurately. It makes my profession very hard because I know the things I struggle with the most are lost on 90 percent of the readers. But there is a serious side to this, and it is not that The Big Bang Theory sucks.

This article is fundamentally about the difference between math and its representation. There is a similar problem in physics where people mistake quantum mechanics for reality. It is a model of reality. It predicts reality really well — but not perfectly. And reality is not running equations to figure out what it ought to do when you drop a ball on the surface of the Earth.

Or look at the Rene Magritte painting, La Trahison des Images (“The Treachery of Images”):

The Treachery of Images

At the bottom of the painting, Magritte has written, Ceci n’est pas une pipe. (“This is not a pipe.”)

Many people think the painting is a joke. But Magritte was quite serious. It is not a pipe. It is a painting of a pipe. I really like Magritte’s work, but I’ve never been fond of this one because it is such making such an obvious point (even though it is not obvious to many people) in such a bunt way. But it does sum up his career. He said similar things in much more beautiful and subtle ways.

This may all sound very abstract (You know: like mathematics!) but it’s important because people confuse these things all the time. And it’s an ontological issue. Mathematicians design symbols so that they can communicate with each other. But the math is not the equations any more than Magritte’s painting is a pipe. And if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand math or much of anything important.

See also: Why I Don’t Like The Big Bang Theory.

The “Objective” Media Take on Bernie Sanders

Jonathan TopazThese weren’t your everyday Americans who came out to support Bernie Sanders on Tuesday.

The self-described democratic socialist kicked off his long-shot run for the White House in his adopted hometown of Burlington, a lakeside city full of characters who might not have passed the pre-selection process for Hillary Clinton’s tour of round tables.

And while Sanders, the state’s independent US Senator, may be way behind in national presidential polls, in Burlington, he’s a local hero.

In the afternoon, a “people’s assembly” of hundreds of Sanders supporters gathered in City Hall Park, where dreadlocked guitarists played in the morning and patrons browsed at the nearby Hempest, which advertises itself as the largest organic hemp product store in the world.

—Jonathan Topaz
It’s Not Your Everyday Americans at Bernie Sanders’ Kickoff Rally

Note: I get the impression that Topaz actually likes Sanders a lot. And at least he’s covering him. I think this style is just God mandated in the Village.

Conservatives Want a Return to King George III

Conservative Ideal: King George IIIIan Millhiser wrote a great take-down of Charles Murray’s new book, By The People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission with the blunt title, Jeb Bush’s Favorite Author Rejects Democracy, Says the Hyper-Rich Should Seize Power. It comes with a great big picture of King George III. Because that is, in effect, what Murray is arguing for. Basically: democracy isn’t going to bring about the great libertarian utopia that Murray wants. (That’s because it is an extremely unpopular ideology.) “Murray, in other words, would rather transfer much of our sovereign nation’s power to govern itself to a single privileged individual than continue to live under the government America’s voters have chosen.” Kind of frightening that this guy is considered one of the great American conservative thinkers.

Millhiser focused a lot of attention on Murray’s misuse of James Madison to make his case. According to Murray, Madison didn’t believe in the expansive interpretation of the Constitution. That’s a questionable statement. Any time people make arguments based upon what various founding fathers did or didn’t think, we are getting into very dangerous territory. For one thing, most of the founding fathers weren’t wonderful people. For another: they lived in a completely different time with radically different needs. But when it comes specifically to Madison, he was a pretty practical guy whose opinions changed over time.

What I’m struck with is that the supposedly learned Charles Murray seems stuck with the Constitution as it existed in 1788 — that’s 227 years ago for those of you following along at home. The Constitution was set up so that it could be changed over time. This is something that people like Murray always seem to forget. They also seem to mistake the Constitution for the Articles of Confederacy. The whole point of the Constitution was to make the United States a practical possibility. The Articles of Confederacy were unworkable. And much of the original Constitution has needed to be shed because it too was unworkable.

And that brings us to the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. That was basically what turned Charles Murray’s beloved “Constitution” in the modern Constitution — greatly expanding the federal government and limiting the rights of the states. That’s because, oh I don’t know, we had just fought the Civil War over the issue of what states seemed to think were their rights. Murray claims that all that is wrong with modern America stems from the 1937 decision finding Social Security constitutional, Helvering v Davis. But what he really wants is a repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment where the federal government is neutered.

Millhiser concluded pretty much what I did a couple of weeks ago, Charles Murray Finally Realizes He Isn’t Winning. He noted the general change in the conservative outlook on politics, “When President Ronald Reagan was in office, he spoke with the confidence of a man who believed that the American people were on his side.” Conservatives sure don’t think that anymore. And here is the great big conservative “thinker” whining about how democracy can’t possibly help them to attain their goals.

Ultimately, Murray is calling for the decimation of the law itself. Of course, he is quick to add that his approach would only be used against laws that are invalid. But invalid according to whom? That’s a question that Murray doesn’t seem to grapple with, but the answer is obvious enough: the billionaires who fund his little project. So he may think that doing this will lead us back to the One True Way of (his version) of James Madison. But it leads further back than that: to King George III. This is the conservative goal. But it has always been — from Edmund Burke to Charles Murray.

A Conservative’s Disingenuous Desperation

Peter WehnerAccording to Peter Wehner, the Democratic Party has moved far to the left while the Republicans have stayed pretty much where they were. The New York Times gave him a thousand words to make a shockingly disingenuous case for his claim, Have Democrats Pulled Too Far Left? But that title gives entirely the wrong impression, because it is not a question. Wehner is convinced of it. And by cherry picking issues and creatively starting the clock at the presidency of Bill Clinton, he sounds sorta reasonable. The problem is that his argument would only be convincing to readers of The Wall Street Journal editorial page — because they already believe such nonsense.

Wehner’s main argument is that the Democratic Party has moved back to being as liberal as it was before Clinton. This is supposed to be some terrible thing, because one of the things that all conservatives know is that the Democrats lost three presidential elections (1980, 1984, and 1988) because it was too liberal. As I’ve discussed to the point of exhaustion: this narrative is wrong. The Democrats lost those elections because the political science fundamentals were in the Republicans’ favor: the economy was bad in 1980 and then good in 1984 and 1988. What’s more, Clinton won in 1992 because the economy was bad, not because he was conservative and had a “Sister Souljah moment.”

But is the modern Democratic Party more liberal than it was under Bill Clinton? In some ways it is. But this isn’t because of some great lurch to the left. It is because times and evidence have changed. Wehner pointed out that the Democrats have turned against Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies. Yep. That’s because they have been terrible for the nation. Also: Clinton has turned against them. Democrats have also turned against Bill Clinton’s end of welfare as we have known it. Again: that’s one that has long been shown to be a failure and only ever looked like it worked because we were in the middle of a stock bubble created economic boom. In addition, you can add Obama being more liberal on things like gay rights, where the entire country has moved left. Finally, Clinton did not make as big a deal of global warming as Obama does — I wonder why! But that’s the extent to which Obama is more liberal than Clinton.

Wehner also noted that Clinton lowered the capital gains rate and Obama raised it. Yes, but Clinton lowered it to 20% and Obama raised it to 20%. Nothing is said of the fact that Clinton raised the top federal income tax rate from 28% all the way up to 39.6%. Obama only allowed it to return from 35% back up to 39.6% — while allowing all the lower income tax brackets to stay lower than they were under Clinton. And then, Wehner noted that Obama created Obamacare. Fair enough. But Clinton tried to create the even more liberal Hillarycare — and failed. So how is it that Obama is more liberal than Clinton?

And then, as though Wehner can’t write so much as transmit his conservative id onto paper, he switched his discussion to the recent UK elections. According to him, the Labour Party lost because it “ran hard to the left.” Again, this is the kind of nonsense that is believed only by those who get their “news” from The Wall Street Journal editorial page. The Labour Party ran a decidedly centrist campaign, promising (very much like Democrats in the US) to be Conservative Lite. Wehner also mentioned that the election gave the Conservative Party its first outright majority since 1992. Yes, but with 36% of the vote — one of those oddities of supposedly democratic political systems.

As for how far to the right the Republicans have moved: he’s not even right on that account. He starts the clock at Clinton, so basically the big move right had already happened. But even still, as recently as 2008, the Republicans wanted to do something about global warming. As recently as 2006 they wanted to do something about immigration. On the issue of abortion, the Republicans have largely become absolutists, even while claiming that Obama’s position has somehow moved left. Republicans are now for giving more money to farmers and less food to poor children. Wehner’s entire argument is based on a very selective reading of history. It’s shocking that this guy has a job.

What comes across loud and clear in Wehner’s article, however, is his desperation. Anytime a conservative comes out in public trying to save liberals from themselves, you can be certain that it means that said conservative is very scared. And that is because conservatives long ago learned something that most liberals still don’t understand: you don’t need to win elections if you can move the political playing field far to your side. The fact that Wehner doesn’t get laughed out of polite society for claiming that Obama is a liberal firebrand shows just how successful the Republican Party has been at moving the playing field far to the right. The last thing he wants is for extremely moderate candidates like Hillary Clinton to take up any actual liberal — and popular — policy positions. So I’m glad to see him sweat. But I cannot say why The New York Times thinks it is appropriate to give such a disingenuous, nervous fool this very valuable exposure.


I wrote this yesterday morning. I didn’t think that Wehner’s article would cause so much of a stir, but at this point, it looks like everyone has written about it. The consensus is the same: Wehner is an idiot. But I thought Ed Kilgore had a good take on it, The Tired Old “Both Sides Getting More Extreme” Meme. He noted that since Wehner is a non-crazy Republican, he has to make these kinds of arguments to justify staying in the party.

Morning Music: The Supremes

The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy WebbIn 1972, the musical Pippin was produced on Broadway. It was Stephen Schwartz’s second hit in as many years, after Godspell, which ran for five straight years. When I was a kid, I loved Pippin. I saw it in 1979 at the SRJC Summer Repertory Theater. I’m not as sold on it now. “Corner of the Sky” struck me as near perfect then, but now it is almost unlistenable with its ponderous chorus. Still, many songs are quite good like “Magic to Do,” “No Time at All,” and “Spread a Little Sunshine.”

Another really strong song is, “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.” What’s nice about it is that it is sweet while still maintaining a grasp on reality with its wry sense of humor. “Some men are heroes; Some men outshine the sun; Some men are simple, good men; This man wasn’t one.” The singer is far past the point of expecting perfection — or, it turns out, even one degree past adequacy.

I didn’t realize it, but the same year the musical appeared on Broadway, The Supremes released this song on their album, The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb. In fact, they even had a minor hit with it. They manage to sap it of all its vitality and humor. But it’s still a pretty song — and highly attractive to men the world over!

Anniversary Post: Time Itself

Solar EclipseOn this day in 585 BC, time began. No, really! Sorta. I mean dating happened. You see, Thales of Miletus was one of the greatest of the Greek philosophers — born in 624 BC. He was also, in a sense, the first Greek philosopher. He tried to explain the world without mythology. This is at a time when the Jews were wandering around the desert trying not to worship golden calves. (Just kidding! That’s all mythology — the Jews never wandered the desert for forty years.) Because of his early thinking, he is widely considered the father of science. And think about it: there are many people today who find Thales’ ideas threatening.

In addition to his many other accomplishments, Thales is known for predicting the 28 May 585 BC solar eclipse that apparently caused the two sides in the Battle of Halys to call a truce. As a result of this, ancient events can be dated, because we know when this one thing happened. Of course, nothing is ever that clear. For one thing, we only know about this prediction from Herodotus, who wasn’t born until a century after the eclipse. What’s more, there are some historians who claim that we are misreading Herodotus and that he really meant a lunar eclipse and that the time was anywhere from a couple of years to a couple of decades earlier.

Ain’t that always the way with time! And dates. And science. But it sounds really cool, “This is the date time started!” And there are far worse ways of determining the truth than basing it upon the Coolness Factor (CF). Take for example: ancient dogmas. Does stoning to death adulterers sound cool? No it doesn’t. The CF strikes again!

Happy anniversary time!