More attacks on anonymity in DNA databases.

A letter from Kurt Vonnegut to the head of a school board in North Dakota who burned copies of Slaughterhouse Five. (via MeFi)

An interview with Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos on giving a black power salute at the 1968 Olympics.

Tomorrow is National Grilled Cheese Day.

I really enjoyed this exhibit of Tagore’s painting at The Art Institute of Chicago, although my favorite drawing is not online, this bird was pretty cool.


The history of the martingale

The other day I found myself wondering “so what does the word martingale come from?” A short time on Google later, I came across this paper from Journal Electronique d’Histoire des Probabilités et de la Statistique, which had a special issue on The Splendors and Miseries of Martingales (Splendeurs et misères des martingales):

The Origins of the Word “Martingale”
Roger Mansuy
(earlier version : “Histoire de martingales” in Mathématiques & Sciences Humaines/Mathematical Social Sciences, 43th year, no. 169, 2005(1), pp. 105–113.)

It’s 10 pages and worth a read just for fun. Some of the fun facts:

  • Doob is the one who really made the name popular (in addition to proving many fundamental results). He got the name from a thesis by Ville.
  • A martingale is the name for a Y-shaped strap used in a harness — it runs along the horse’s chest and then splits up the middle to join the saddle.
  • A martingale is a name for a betting strategy (usually we think of doubling bets) but it’s not clear which one from the historical record.
  • “To play the martingale is to always bet all that was lost” (dictionary of the Acad ́emie Fran ̧caise, 4th ed.) — there are earlier dictionary definitions too, to 1750.
  • “A very slim trail seems to indicate a derivation of the word from the Provençal expression jouga a la martegalo, which means ‘to play in an absurd and incomprehensible way’.” Apparently Provençal is also the origin of Baccarat.
  • So what is martegalo? It might refer to a place called Martigues, whose residents are supposedly a bit naïve.
  • “Martingale pants” are from Martigues, and have, according to Rabelais, “a drawbridge on the ass that makes excretion easier.”
  • There’s a woman in the 17th century who called herself La Martingale and who made a number of prophetic predictions.
  • There were sailors called martégaux who gave their name to a rope called a martegalo used on sailboats. Perhaps this is where the horse connection comes in?
  • Apparently “martingale” is also vernacular for “prostitute,” but the etymology for that usage is not well-documented.

All in all, perhaps this essay ends up raising more questions than it answers, but I certainly had no idea that there was this much to be unearthed behind a simple word.