Drunkard’s Walk

No, I’m not tipsy. It’s not-yet-coffee in the morning, and I’m leading a Forage Walk a little later today. I don’t need to be drunk to explain wild edible plants and ecology to folks, and I don’t need to be drunk to write, either, although there are time… ahem. Anyway, I was referring to the mathematical process that describes randomness, ” examples include the path traced by a molecule as it travels in a liquid or a gas, the search path of a foraging animal, the price of a fluctuating stock and the financial status of a gambler can all be approximated by random walk models, even though they may not be truly random in reality.” I’d run across this concept long before Bioinformatics class, where we discussed it as a Markov chain and used it to describe evolution and map out phylogenetic trees. 

Yesterday, I was using it as a story generation process. You see, I had some time to kill, and I wasn’t up to writing on an existing piece, but I was ideating this post, so I did something I’ve wanted to do for a while – I clicked the “I’m feeling lucky” button under the Google search bar in my browser (note: I was on IE at the time, it doesn’t show when I’m home on Chrome, but typing in I’m feeling Lucky, curious, or bored will create the same effect).

I got this… a fine example of what happens when craftsmen are well-paid to create improbably beautiful items. It’s a gunner’s level, and it’s made by a goldsmith (click on image for more details). If that doesn’t start your story juices flowing… Look at that thing. It’s gorgeous, and so practical (well, ok, I don’t know how well it actually worked. But the scientist and the artist in me made a unanimous SQUEE when they saw it).

And that got me started. From the initial stumble, I jumped to Google Arts & Culture, which frankly is a bit like standing in a Mall where all the shops are museums and you don’t have to contend with other shoppers or lookers. I know – a real museum is even better. And I highly recommend one in person if you have that kind of time, because I think every time I go, I come back with story bits and ideas and just full of wonder. But if you don’t have the time, or the unlimited travel budget, this is a fantastic way to pretend portals exist and you can step through to browse… anything. How about the Chun Young Yang Embroidery Museum? Wearable art and inspiration, indeed. That kimono of muscles paired with the old-school styles got me thinking about what the future will think of our ripped-jeans trash culture. My daughter who loves all things bone might appreciate the muscles. Want to pair that with the kinds of rings they were wearing in 500 BC?

Maybe instead of looking into the past, you want to gather the threads of a story ripped from the headlines, looking forward into the abyss of the future. For that, try out the ‘trending’ button. You can select different countries, not just the US, although I did discover that countries like Israel and Finland don’t have trending data available at this time. US, Australia, Germany, Mexico, and New Zealand do, however. 

I have no idea who most of those people are… but it doesn’t matter. It’s a fascinating glimpse into what the world cares about. Which seems to be mostly sports, based on the results I was getting! Random bit of trivia – the CDC uses google searches to predict the rise and flow of the flu every year, looking at who is searching for how to deal with fevers, etc. It’s also possible to use it to watch for emerging epidemics.

Want to get out on the bleeding edge of science, rather than the public’s curiousity? Check out BioRxiv, the preprint server for research papers. There are a number of categories you can choose from here, but keep in mind these have not been peer-reviewed – or even published – yet, and as such are a bit squishy. Perfect for scientific speculation into science fiction. I’m there fairly often, so this isn’t really part of the Drunkard’s Walk, it just seems like a good idea to stagger in that direction as I try to lead you in search of story ideas. Below, the list of areas with links, for your delight and erudition!

Of course, sometimes when you’re playing a game, you want to roll a die, or flip a coin, to decide what to do next. There are online random generators for that, too, should you choose to incorporate it into your story writing and world building decisions. Just don’t do what these two idiots did.

So, hope you enjoy your Drunkard’s Walk. See, for you it’s not really random because you click on things you’re already interested it. A visual that caught your attention, words that made you want to know more. It might seem like you’re staggering aimlessly, but eventually you’ll realize that it’s a pattern, and one you can weave into a uniquely-yours story.

(Header Image: 1963 Mercury Comet seen alongside Hwy 22 in Ohio, photo by Cedar Sanderson You can find items to spark ideas everywhere!)


  1. I wager that the goldsmith who made that instrument either trained in or was from Nuremberg. The Imperial Free City had amazing craftsmen, in part because the guild standards were looser and allowed more cross-pollination of techniques and ideas. One of the major arms producers in central Europe, the first working wheel-lock gun mechanisms came from Nuremberg. They are beautiful, elegant, and a little too delicate for most battlefield applications, which is why simpler mechanisms dominated the market.

  2. I think I first heard of the Drunkard’s Walk from the fanfic series of the same name.

    I’ve been reading some stuff on fluids, and came across it again, but my sources were formal, and didn’t use the term.

  3. I first came across drunkard’s walk in The Number Of The Beast. Heinlein posited that if you have a vehicle that can instantly teleport itself anywhere a drunkard’s walk made the perfect search pattern.

  4. I’d almost bet that was a gunner’s level for artillery, not shipboard use. At a range of 2000 yards, it probably dates around 1600 or so, and it’s too complicated to use on ship, given the rolling and pitching. On ship, close enough was good enough… 🙂

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