Ovid (publius_ovidius) wrote,

Drunkard's Walk

In computer science there is a search algorithm known as the drunkard's walk (known boringly but diplomatically as a "random walk"). It's a long story, but basically, imagine an infinite city where you can only head north, south, east and west. In an infinite amount of time, will a drunk leaving a bar and always heading in a random direction every block get back to his bar? Two or fewer dimensions, yes, the drunk will always return to his bar. In three or more dimensions, all bets are off.¹

The last drunkard's walk I took in real life was on the south bank of the River Thames. Not the Thames River. The River Thames. You've probably heard about the Mississippi River. You've probably heard about the Amazon River. You've probably not heard about the Thames River. You see, the Thames River is a river in Ontario, Canada. The "River Thames", however, flows through London. It is not the "Thames River".

I suspect this is a holdover from the year 1066, when William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (for Americans: Normandy is in France), strolled into England, shot an arrow through the king's eye and moved into his flat, hoping no one would notice. That's why, even to this day, we refer to shooting an arrow through someone's eye as "the Battle of Hastings." Thus, France ruled England, French became the official language, and the English taught the French how to surrender. Today it's estimated that 40% of modern English is derived from the French language. That's why if you pronounce a polysyllabic word with a French accent, it's often the same word in French. For example, the word "imagination" in French is imagination, though presumably without the italics. This led to _sister_madly_ visiting France and trying to describe American jelly as full of "preservatives". Regrettably, the word she used was preservatif. This is the French word for "condom". Had she been referring to KY Jelly, everyone would have nodded like a savant and made passes at her.

Getting back to the "River Thames", the French have the habit of referring to the noun first and the adjectives just show up late to the party. You do not have a red car. You have a car red (la voiture rouge).² It takes English speakers a bit to get used to, but really, it makes sense. You hear the important information up front and the less important information gets skipped if the speaker is momentarily interrupted by, say, a guillotine.

Frankly, I've never quite understood the guillotine. In the 18th century France, the Enlightenment was more popular than Starbucks. Then the French decided the best way of spreading their enlightened principles was via the guillotine. For a while, it seemed like being French was synonymous with being guillotined. Prodded on by Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre, a name sure to lead to fits of giggles today, the French "Reign of Terror" spread and beheadings became a popular spectator sport. They enlightenedly guillotined their King, they enlightenedly guillotined their probably innocent queen and, in a fit of real enlightenment, they finally, and ironically, guillotined Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre.

Regrettably, this little drunkard's walk is in three dimensions (as I'm moving forward in time), not two, so I won't be able to neatly wrap this up by returning us to the Thames (or discussions of search algorithms), but I'll leave you with this little tidbit: in the US, friends often ask if it's "too early" to order beer at lunchtime. In the UK, this is a silly question. If you want beer, drink beer. If you don't want beer, don't drink beer. I wanted beer, so I had it. Then I hopped on LJ after returning to my hotel room and hence this slight diversion from whatever else you were doing.

And what shall I do with my evening? Beer, I think. Perhaps upon the Thames.

1. And if you know anything about the math behind this, you know I did a hell of a lot of hand-waving. Shut up. My friends in music, photography, bookbinding, and many other areas simplify their explanations, too. Otherwise, I'd feel like an idiot when they try to explain things.

2. Unbeknownst to many Christians, the Sabbath is not on Sunday. It's Friday sundown to Saturday sundown (or simply Saturday to some). Sunday is what's actually known in Christianity as "The Lord's Day". The Catholic Church claims they transferred the solemnity of the Sabbath from the Sabbath to the Lord's Day and any Christian church whose worshipers rested on Sunday were implicitly acknowledging the authority of the Catholic Church. By the same token, I suppose that anyone who refuses to refer to the "River Tames" as the "Thames River" is still acknowledging that France rules England.
Tags: writing
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