Math with Bad Drawings

The Limitations of Genies (and 18 other math cartoons)


These cartoons first appeared on Facebook and Twitter during the wild and woolly month of January 2018. If you have ever found yourself thinking, “I wish my daily social media experience featured more math puns,” then I encourage you to (A) Follow Math with Bad Drawings! and (B) Take a long, careful look in the mirror to see what you’ve become.

Welcome to 2018

Some folks on Facebook offered optimistic predictions that the pattern is quadratic, with a negative leading coefficient. This is an adorable sentiment, so please don’t spoil their innocence by disagreeing with them.

Meanwhile, somebody on Twitter suggested sin(x)/x, which is a nice “end of history” prediction. My personal worry is that the world is more like x sin(x).

The Strangeness(es) of Languages

Although I meant this cartoon as a vicious elbow into the ribs of my British friends, folks on Facebook instead took the opportunity to educate me about the typographical differences between German and English.

Oh well. It’s like I say, “Blogging: come for the petty insults, stay for the surprisingly enlightening discussion with commenters.”

Parking Sign

@DynamicsSIAM pointed me to the real-life version of this:

Teacher Condolences

For other professions, you can cross out “teach” and replace it with “work for,” “serve,” or “interact with.” Another alternative: “I am sorry for the irrationality of the people whose children you teach.”


An Impossible Wish

This one struck a nerve: by the numbers, it’s the most popular cartoon I’ve ever shared on Facebook. My own experience: patiently drawing and discussing diagrams like the one in the second panel really ought to help folks understand how the distributive property works. And it really doesn’t. Clearly I am really bad at it.


Of Mice and Men

In contrast to the prior comic, this was one of the least popular cartoons I’ve ever posted, but I stand by it. History will judge that this is the best joke I’ve ever written.


A Tiny, Tiny Point

This is my go-to line for salvaging a useless lesson. Well… salvaging it rhetorically, anyway. It doesn’t really salvage the lesson itself. Also, note that no finite number of points can ever constitute an actual through-line for your curriculum.


Very Belated Birthday

Some folks thought the day I posted this was my birthday, which it was not – although those who wished me a happy birthday were certainly in keeping with the spirit of the comic. Also, a Spanish speaker on Facebook pointed out that the cartoon makes no sense in translation, because the Spanish word for “birthday” means something more like “year completion.” Spanish: language of love and logic.



Pro cartooning tip: You can get away with lousy puns if you draw a skeptical character saying how bad the puns are. Still, I was feeling shy about posting this – it’s a bit like putting a red rubber nose on the legacy of a civil rights hero – until I saw my offense pales in comparison to that egregious Super Bowl ad.


Hard-to-Remember Mnemonics

This is sort of how I feel about all mnemonics. My personal philosophy: mnemonics for definitions (e.g., SOHCAHTOA) are useful. Mnemonics for computational strategies (FOIL) and easily derived facts (ASTC), nope.


Rare Used Books

I have no interest in reading Finnegans Wake, but I find the Wikipedia page for it pretty fascinating. H.G. Wells wins for “best quote,” in a personal letter to Joyce:

[Y]ou have turned your back on common men, on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence […] I ask: who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousands I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?



If any gifted singers out there want to belt this line at the top of their lungs and then send me the mp3, please feel encouraged!



This cartoon generated lots of great discussion on Twitter and Facebook, and – anecdotally – I saw a cultural split. British educators identified with the teacher in the comic; American educators, with the student.

On this matter, as many others, I am a true American. Best I can tell, the reason we “rationalize the denominator” is a historical artifact: in the absence of a calculator, it’s much easier to do the long division for √2 divided by 2 than for 1 divided by √2. For pedagogical purposes, I’m with James Tanton: the standard manipulation is worth learning, but works better when accompanied by other manipulations. It better captures the nature of mathematical technique, and is actually more engaging and puzzle-y.

(For example, to prove that √N and √(N+1) grow infinitely close as n grows, the best path is to rationalize the numerator!)


A Pedantic Birthday Card

In 2016, I happened to have a Leap Day Child in my homeroom class. We celebrated his third birthday with enthusiasm. He’ll turn 4 in 2020.

Also, I learnt there are levels beyond extra pedantic: One commenter sagely pointed out that the comic should read “how many Leap Days you’ve lived through.” Touché!


Great Moments in Conversation with My Father

My father (a mathematician) has a quintessentially mathematical memory: it flushes out all extraneous details, stores the minimum data necessary, and reconstructs facts from the available information. That reconstructive process is characteristic of all human memory, but is especially valuable in mathematics, where it mirrors the deductive reasoning at the heart of the discipline.


The Danger of an Art Dealer Who’s Read Thinking Fast and Slow

You can’t see it in the scan, but the “painting” is of a smiling pig. $10,000 is a bargain if you ask me.


Ron Weasley’s Insecurities

I’ve been known to say a few ill words about Harry Potter’s best mate (particularly as he appears in the films, where I firmly believe the characters Fred, George, and Ron should have been folded into a single character called “Ron Weasley”). Still, I get where the guy is coming from. Also working against him: He has five older, more popular brothers, and a hot younger sister who’s in love with his best friend. Plus he’s from a demographic category subject to awful prejudice in the UK: gingers. The guy needs a break.


The Malcolm Gladwell of Math

In reality, I just said, “Sure, Ryland, that sounds attainable.” But this is what I said later, in my head, and it’s my blog, so that counts.

Also, it surprised me to see how many Facebook commenters hadn’t heard of Gladwell! I suppose his name recognition peaked sometime in the early-to-mid 2000s, so folks a decade younger than me may not be as familiar with his work.


Bonus Cartoon! The Scaling Factors of Giants

I drew this one on a $0 commission for Jim Propp’s January essay at Mathematical Enchantments. Like all his posts, it’s a fun read – check it out!