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A Glimpse of How My Mind Works

(Offered to all-comers, but especially patrick_vecchio)

Earlier today, I was waiting for the bus when I caught sight of a sign board outside a betting shop. “Sprott to get yellow card in Nether Strumping Wanderers v. Oggen Fen United - odds of 33/1” it said. (Well, it didn’t say that exactly. I’m immune to the charm of sport in general and football in pertickler, so don’t rely on Me to remember either the name of the athlete in question or indeed the teams competing for glory.)

Anyway… it started me wondering how they work out the odds on something like that (or indeed any other wager - snow on Christmas, winner of Rear of the Year, exact date of world’s Trump-related spontaneous combustion, etc.).

It’s probably an algorithm, I told myself. Everything’s algorithms nowadays. This is without really knowing what an algorithm is or how it works - but it is a thing that apparently exists, and is observed to turn raw data into excuses for stuff (or perhaps I mean ‘reasons’… who knows). I must admit that I regard an algorithm with the same bemused, trusting expression with which 18th C. courtiers remarked the Mechanical Turk, whilst at the same time suspecting the existence of a secret compartment containing a conspiracy.

This should tell you that I am as about as well-informed as anyone else, i.e. Not Much.

Anyway… anyway… inward use of the word algorithm got me pondering its etymology. Which fished the word algolagnia from a small velvet-lined compartment in the left-hand side of my mind (somewhere towards the back). I began to wonder if the two words might be related.

Just then, the bus arrived. Equipped with the adult-pacifier, the together-alone machine, the just-in-case engine - a smartphone - I spent the first two minutes of my journey home enquiring of Google (because that is how ill-informed droolers like me find out stuff): “algorithm etymology”. Yes, these days we don’t even ask questions in whole sentences. This is the learning equivalent of ordering your dinner by pointing first at a photograph of chips and then at your open mouth.

Google told me that the word algorithm derives ultimately (via a twisty scenic route through Medieval Latin, French and mangled Greek) from Arabic: al-Khwarizmi, the name of a 9th C. Persian mathematician. Not just any 9th C. Persian mathematician - his works, when they arrived in translation in Europe, were immensely influential.

It gives one pause, to be reminded that much that we consider modern, much that our way of life relies on, can be traced back to the advances made by Islamic scholars like al-Khwarizmi. Without such discoveries, would there be Twitter?

Call me an ill-informed romantic nostalgia-junkie, but when I think of Islamic culture I tend to think of 9th C. mathematicians, Moorish architecture and generally feeling like an ignorant fellow next to those elegant minds whose fruits yielded the seeds that grew into the Renaissance. Politics and morals flare and die, but wisdom is aeternal.

Anyway… anyway… anyway… clearly, algorithms and algolagnia are not related after all.

I edited my verbless query: it now read “algolagnia etymology”.

All I could remember about the word from prior encounters was that it is has more euphony about it than ‘sadomasochism’, along with a piquant whiff of the alienist’s office. (Wouldn’t you rather confess your weirdness to an alienist than emote away to a counsellor?) Also that Algernon Swinburne had it, …often.

Google reminded me that it was coined in German, around the turn of the last century, “from Greek algos ‘pain’ + lagneia ‘lust’.”

Did you know that there are two contrary algolagniac trajectories available to the human? It has long been a belief of mine that formal, recreational sensation-seeking can be beneficial to one’s health and wellbeing. However, the unconscious, incidental, passive, tidal drift towards everyday pain is anything but good for you. Conscious intense ritual exploration can help do away with baseless guilt, allow you to confront fear and enable you to forge trust. (Is this the Archduke speaking through me right now? I rather think it is.) But blithely stumbling towards hurt and harm in everyday life is liable to cause great damage.

Is this what we (a broad, collective ‘we’) are currently allowing?


Popular media asks that we characterise ourselves and each other as Victims, Survivors, Heroes, Villains. If you’re not one, you must be another. Except, I and divers fellow delinquents are anomalous. We are in the precarious position of - oh dear me - Observers. This feels embarrassing (embarrasingly unnecessary) in Times Like These. If you’re not sitting on a sofa numbing yer inputs with Netflix, then you must be marching, surely. Because, because, if you’re not marching, you must be sitting on a sofa numbing yer inputs with Netflix.

I haven’t yet worked out whether it really is egregious to Observe. I spent most of last year feeling like a blot on the landscape, so much so that the present tumult has left me feeling strangely peaceful. I think it’s partly because what we have right now is Chaos. It is unpredictable. There is always, in life, the temptation to predict. To divine. That is especially catnippy to those of an anxious bent. But when you suddenly confront actual, live Chaos, you are forcibly made to realise that divination is not only impossible but farcical.

I’ll spell it out: I’m not shrugging and accepting it all, but the sheer bombastic appallingness is, in its own way, a relief. Our ‘what ifs’ have resolved into stark reality. Honest, blatant awfulness is much easier to name, describe and deal with than covert awfulness disguised as common sense. I’m also thankful for the opportunity to question my assumptions and reaffirm my principles. (I shall ever avoid morals but uphold principles.)

Ok, so now a new thought pops up: when the world stage is giving us a 24-hour rolling performance of real-live farce, what we need (amongst other things) is… fools. I mean, those individuals whose job it is to process the raw farce into surreal deadpan wit. I do not quite run to surreal deadpan wit, but I am most definitely a stubborn weirdo.

I know things look scary and unrecognisable right now, but I have this really strong feeling that 2017 is going to be a good year in which to be weird. In fact, weirdness is going to be crucial. We are going to need a lot of it.

What exists is permitted to exist. Included in that measure is a quantity of stubborn weirdos. Now that blatant awfulness is parading around smugly in broad daylight, that feels like an open invitation for weirdness to exist HARDER. I don’t know quite how that shall manifest for Yrs Trly, but it shall manifest nonetheless.


( 5 confidences — Confide in me... )
Jan. 31st, 2017 11:03 pm (UTC)
This is a clever, humorous, serious, acrobatic post with a distinct voice. Brava!
Feb. 4th, 2017 12:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading, and for your kind words! :-)
Feb. 1st, 2017 08:54 pm (UTC)
From what little I know of sports betting, betting lines do not necessarily reflect the real world odds of a particular team winning, or even the bookie's opinion of what those odds should be. The gambling house is simply trying to have an equal amount bet on each team. This strategy maximizes profit and minimizes catastrophe. As bets come in, the gambling house adjusts the line in one direction or the other if too many bets are being placed on any one side.

I'm sure if they layered in a few more subtle rules and guidelines to working out the odds, we could get away with calling it an algorithm.
Feb. 4th, 2017 12:28 pm (UTC)
Profits rather than prophets, eh?! That feels correct.

As a highly risk-averse creature, the lure of gambling is not exactly a mystery to me, but it's something that just doesn't seem like it would be enjoyable. Here in the UK we have betting shops on high streets and lots of ads on TV for bookies, online casinos and bingo. Each one has to include the government-approved warning: "When the fun stops, stop." But that slogan is surely meaningless and powerless if someone's addicted or in serious debt. By the time it's not 'fun' any more, it's probably too late. Well, we also have loads of cutesy ads for payday loan companies and those dubious credit cards that are easy to get "even if you've been refused by other lenders".

Yay, imaginary money for everyone! :-D ...I daresay there's an algorithm for that as well, or maybe it's just somebody in an office somewhere playing shove-halfpenny with the devil... ;-)
Feb. 5th, 2017 09:27 pm (UTC)
Exactly, ha!

For me, the fun stopped immediately. In high school we played a game with a pack of traditional playing cards called Thirteen. Everyone is dealt (surprise!) thirteen cards and you have to empty your hand by playing a variety of runs and pairs. 4th place pays 1st two dollars and 3rd place pays 2nd one dollar. When I finally built up the nerve to play, I came in third and handed Mr. Second Place one dollar. It felt awful. I couldn't even imagine trying to win the dollar back, during that lunch period or at any other point in my life.
( 5 confidences — Confide in me... )

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