All That Vanished Glory


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The central preoccupation of Americans — those who are literate enough to be preoccupied with history — is the Civil War, a.k.a. the War Between the States, a.k.a. the Recent Unpleasantness. The degree of preoccupation varies according to the distance between where one lives and the areas where most of the fighting took place. Since Virginia is the state where most of the battles were fought, any Virginia family — black or white — of sufficiently long lineage can tell you stories that have been passed down from generation to generation for a century and a half.

Mind you, I’m not talking about the hysterical preoccupation with “racism”, “slavery”, and “oppression” that is raging in the land as I write these words. I’m talking about a deep and abiding interest in the tragic years 1861-1865 generated by the impact they had on one’s family and environment.

I wrote about such matters in my poem “Sayler’s Creek” (the full text is here), which opens with these stanzas:

There is too much history here in Virginia;
we are drowning in its muddy flood.
Every April sweeps its pontoons from their moorings
on the North Fork of the Shenandoah
with Federal soldiers watching helplessly from the bank.
Every pitcher toeing the mound
scuffs up a lode of Minié balls.
A metal detector swept over any ravine
uncovers the belt buckles and canteens
urgently shed by fleeing infantry.
A faded daguerreotype of General Lee
stares down from every wall,
a stern reminder of all that vanished glory.

The top drawer of every dusty dresser
in every second-hand shop
opens to reveal a brittle bundle of worthless banknotes.
Everyone’s great-great-uncle Theophrastus
led the charge at the Crater.

That poem was written in 1996, when one could still see photographs of General Lee here and there in public places. Those days are gone, alas. A rearguard action is even now being fought against the removal of his statue from Monument Avenue in Richmond, but the cause is just as lost as it was the spring of 1865. The Wokerati will prevail. The last depictions of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson will eventually be erased from public view in the Commonwealth, no matter what the average Virginia citizen might think of the matter. All objective accounts of Confederate history will be removed from high school and university curricula. The stories will be passed down by word of mouth only. The artifacts and written accounts of the events of those years will be confined to private collections and family attics.

And one such attic will obviously be mine.

There are little pieces of family lore in the stanzas of my poem. My mother’s great-great uncle was famous for leading the charge at the Crater in Petersburg, but his name wasn’t Theophrastus. He was Brigadier General David Weisiger (pronounced “Wizziger”, for readers who live outside the Richmond area), and was renowned, at least in Virginia, for his heroism on that day.

I am also in possession of a brittle bundle of worthless banknotes from the period. For many years they were kept in the top drawer of Dymphna’s and my dresser.

My grandmother’s first cousin (i.e. my first cousin twice removed) was the only daughter of the eldest daughter (there were five daughters, no sons) of David Weisiger’s brother, so she inherited most of the family heirlooms from the plantation. She never married, and when she died the various items were divided among her cousins.

The largest pieces of furniture went to my uncle and my mother. The item that I coveted most was a plantation medical kit, which was a wooden cabinet with little drawers and cubbies for medicinal substances, surgical implements, etc. I remember one drawer was labeled “Opium”, and there was a dried black tarry residue at the bottom of it. I really wanted that cabinet, but it went to one of my cousins.

One of the few things I received (which I had also wanted) was an envelope full of Confederate money. I’ve scanned some of the notes to display here.

In my bundle of worthless banknotes are two hundred-dollar bills, one twenty (not shown here), eighteen Confederate tens, one Virginia ten, and three pieces of fractional scrip from the City of Richmond — 25¢ (not shown here), 30¢, and 75¢. That makes a total of $411.30, which was a lot of money in 1862, especially since it was presumably received in exchange for gold and/or silver coins. I’m certain those were sorely missed in April of 1865.

This is the back of the hundred-dollar note shown at the top of this post:


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The interest rate paid on the note was 2¢ daily, which is an APR of 7.3%.


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There’s no indication that any interest was paid on the tens and twenties.

The fractional notes issued by the City of Richmond are worn and wrinkled, indicating that they saw wide circulation. The other bills were in better shape, and may not have circulated much before coming to rest in the family strongbox.

For the higher-denomination notes, the Confederate government promised to pay the bearer the face amount on demand six months or two years (depending on the note) after a peace treaty was signed with the United States. It was hoped that the delay would allow the nascent state to accumulate enough gold and silver through taxes and tariffs to be able to pay off its promissory notes.

Alas, no peace treaty ever came. The surrender was signed by General Lee on April 9, 1865 (which day I refer to in my more sardonic moments as “the Confederate naqba”), and all those Confederate, Virginia, and Richmond banknotes suddenly became worthless pieces of paper.

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A Looter’s Life for Me

Below is JLH’s latest topical pastiche in verse form.

A Looter’s Life for Me

by JLH
With apologies to Pinocchio and other blockheads

Hi diddle-dee-dee,
A looter’s life for me.
A full face mask and a baseball bat;
I’ll show those $%&!*#s where I’m at.

Hi diddle-dee-dee,
Anonymous funding for me.
Bashing elders is lots of fun;
If they don’t fall down, away I run.
Breaking windows done with care
So none of the glass gets in my hair.
It’s so much better than going to war.
It’s not some principle we’re fighting for,
But just the fun of being rash,
And maybe looting some extra cash.

Hi diddle-dee-dome,
The basement is my home.
When I get the call to go destroy,
It is a moment of utter joy.
I leave the game of killing orcs,
And join my fellow mayhem dorks.
We maim and destroy and sometimes kill—
Slaughtering folks is such a thrill.
We’re avenging angels for some rich guy
Who hates everything that he can’t buy.

Hey diddle dee dum,
That’s where progress comes from.

One More Midnight Ride

One More Midnight Ride

by JLH, with apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Listen, people, and you shall hear
Of the coming of sickness and pain and fear.
By the 18th of April in 2020,
Folks who realize now are plenty:
How Communism as politely as you might wish
Served the world a plague on a petri dish.

It came by air, by land, by sea.
It breathed its ill on you and me.
A friendly hello and a warm embrace,
And millions were sick at a dizzying pace.
“Herd immunity” pray, what is that?
We’ll all find out in nothing flat.

“Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
No thanks, I’ll just stay home and get high.
In Italy, they’re singing; in Buffalo, they dance.
But six feet away and taking no chance.
Music reaches further than germs on the air.
If you have a tin ear, who said Life is fair?

The world is in lockdown, so it’s perfectly clear —
Let the prisoners out, they’ve nothing to fear.
If MS-13 should break in your door,
Just blow them away, that’s what guns are for.
Hoard toilet paper — more than enough,
So you can decorate your neighbor’s tree with the stuff.

Don’t breathe on your children; just wave as they pass.
Monopoly at six feet is a pain in the posterior.
“Meals cafeteria style—it just isn’t fair!
From six feet away, I can’t pull Sis’s hair!
“Mom! Tommy blew all his germs right at me!”
“From six feet away?” “He’s fanning them — see?’

Time to go shopping. Let’s put on face masks,
And nylon gloves for manual tasks.
Let’s all stay together — but not too close.
Six feet! When you pass someone hold your nose.
Fifteen person limit in the whole big store!
Our grouchy neighbor just went home and swore.

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Frick and Frack at Sea

To take your mind off the Chinese virus, here’s another inimitable pastiche by JLH.

Frick and Frack at Sea

by JLH (with apologies to Edward Lear)

I

Bernie and Biden were all at sea.
Their faces as green as the kelp.
They brought some money — but it was funny,
They both still needed more help.
Biden looked up at the stars above,
And sang to his mandolin:
“Oh Bernie my friend
You’re insane without end.
What an absolute kook you are.
You are,
What a nutcase from Vermont you are!”

II

Bernie said to old Joe, “It’s too bad that your Id
Is the only thing left of your mind.
If you’d done all the things you said that you did
We wouldn’t be in this bind.”
So they sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the money tree grows.
And there on a hill, a Hillary stood,
With a permanently out-of-joint nose.
A nose.
A permanently out-of-joint nose.

III

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Impeachment Meets Sennacherib

We are currently in the midst of the most insane political season that I can remember. It’s not just the USA, but the impeachment circus is the Greatest Show on Earth at this point, so that’s what JLH has spotlighted in his latest pastiche.

Impeachment Meets Sennacherib

by JLH, with apologies to the shade of Lord Byron

The Democrats came down like lemmings in heat,
And the might of their anger would brook no retreat;
And the glare of their fury was like fire in the brush,
And the heat of their hate turned their minds into mush.

Like ants in an anthill when summer is warm,
Like termites mindlessly forming a swarm;
Like hyenas circling what they think is half dead.
They carelessly created their own end instead.

For the Spirit of Truth and the obvious facts
Blew through the lies and inventions so fast,
That the troika of traitors who’d chosen this task
Stood forth in the klieg lights, unaware and unmasked.

The Fatman, the Pipe Cleaner, Cruella Deville,
Who wished no one good and everyone ill,
Intoned and squeaked and flew ‘round on a broom,
Mindlessly causing their own allies’ doom.

And the iceberg of treason to sink the ship of state
Passed through Hurricane Donald to a well-deserved fate.
Its melting portends a political tsunami
To wash away the corrupt, the banal and the commie.

The Temporal Princes

In the early days of this blog, back when I was commuting to work in Richmond and was only home on weekends, Saturday was often designated Poetry Day (and when it wasn’t, it was Ranting Day, which was also fun).

Today’s poem is actually an excerpt from a much longer work by C. Day Lewis, “The Magnetic Mountain”. I’ve never seen any of the rest of the poem, so these four stanzas must be the best part. The excerpt was included in an anthology of modern verse that I was assigned to study for O-level English in the late 1960s. I memorized it back then (we had to memorize lengthy chunks of verse to quote in the exam), but I don’t own a copy of it, so I hadn’t thought of it in decades.

As I mentioned last weekend, I’ve been sorting through a big old trunk of odds and ends. Some of the memorabilia in it are more than fifty years old, and I hadn’t laid eyes on any of the stuff in more than forty years. As a result, I’ve been running into some (mostly pleasant) surprises.

This past week I encountered the first two stanzas of the poem mentioned above in that trunk. I had scribbled them from memory on the cover of a William and Mary notebook — in class, when I was bored — in about 1971. When I saw them, they seemed VERY familiar, and gradually all four stanzas came back to me. But I couldn’t remember who the poet was, so I googled a piece of the text, and found it on someone’s blog (with minor textual errors, and possibly missing some commas).

This is a superb poem. I’m glad I recovered it after all these years. It’s somewhat gloomy, but I’ve just returned from a funeral, so gloom is appropriate:

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To Our Cloying Mistresses

For a change of pace, here’s a riff by JLH on a well-known poem by the great Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell.

To:   Nancy forever-the-Speaker Pelosi, A I-despise-my-constituents OC, “truly Illegal” Omar, Rash and-then-some Tlaib, Alyssa my-bottom-is my-best-known-feature Milano, Jane if-I-can’t-be-a world-class-beauty-I-can-be-a-world-class-jerk Fonda, and honorary “mean girls” Adam my-pencil-neck-constricts-my-thinking Schiff and Gerald they-sucked-out-my-fat-and-some-of-my-brain Nadler
 

To Our Cloying Mistresses

by JLH, with apologies to Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough and time,
This nonsense, ladies, were less a crime.
We could leisurely propose a bill,
That just might heal the nation’s ills.
And tarry by Potomac’s rush
To declaim the nation’s debt to us.
Non-partisan, we’d find a way
To pass the tardy USMCA.
We’d debate in principle, friendship and calm
Until the conversion of all Islam.
We’d reduce our pay and also our pension
And never again give “pork” a mention.
We’d praise our nation, which is like no other
And greet new citizens as sister and brother.
We’d praise each of us of any race or station
Who freely chooses to love this nation.

But at your back you too must hear
The next election hurrying near.
Your power, as all power must,
Will shrivel up and turn to dust,
And as an hourglass’s sands,
Will trickle through your nerveless hands.
Consider, as you greatly dare:
Defeat is something no one shares.

While capable still of reasoned thought,
Compare what you “may” to what you “ought”.
And think while in the light of day,
Unlike nocturnal birds of prey,
How to squeeze yourself, if you are quick
Through the iron gate of politics.
And seek relief by setting free
Again this land of liberty.

A Cat Who Depends on Secondary Sources

This week’s edition of Dymphna’s Greatest Hits is an unusual one: not only has the poem below never been published before, but until now it had never existed except in manuscript form. It was written in pencil on a half-sheet of paper torn out of a spiral notebook. As far as I know she wrote it in the late winter of 1978-79, a few months before we met. It was the first poem by Dymphna I ever read.

Charlie was a stray cat who wandered into Dymphna’s household in Maryland and was adopted by her (probably at the behest of her kids). When she moved in here the following summer, Charlie came with her. I remember him as an amiable fellow, but he didn’t stick around very long. He hadn’t yet fully bonded with Schloss Bodissey, and it may be that the lure of the vast wilderness outside the front door was irresistible to him. In any case, a few days after he arrived he went out one morning and never returned.

Charlie was here so briefly that no photos were ever taken of him, so I used a picture of Moe instead for the header of this post. I don’t think Charlie had any black on him, but the picture will have to do.

[Moe appeared in this space a few times a quarter-century later, most notably in a heroic role in 2005 when his piteous meowing alerted his master that his mistress had fallen off a ladder picking figs and couldn’t get up.]

And now for the poem:

Conversations With Charlie

by Dymphna

Not Nietzsche…
Charlie and I discussed the weather:
Whether it would rain;
When Spring would come;
Where the mice had gone for Winter.

I sat there on the car,
Breathing the becoming air
And glad to be
With Charlie in the dark.

But Nietzsche? No…
Charlie doesn’t read him,
Except in translation,
And I have nothing
To say to a cat
Who depends on secondary sources.

Knowing Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

This week’s edition of Dymphna’s Greatest Hits requires a special explanation, because the poem featured below has never previously been published. She wrote it in the summer of 1995 as part of an extended collection that we called Therapy Poems, although its official title eventually became Intense Disclosures (which itself would require a separate essay to explain, but Wallace Stevens aficionados may recognize the reference).

Dymphna liked to say that she had been in therapy longer than Woody Allen. She had seen several therapists before I met her, but after we got together we were quite poor for almost two decades, so her opportunities for professional psychotherapeutic assistance became very infrequent.

In the mid-1990s, however, she was given the opportunity to have weekly sessions with a young psychiatrist who had just entered his residency. She was to be the central case for his thesis, or whatever it is that psychiatric residents do to achieve their final release from training and be allowed to practice. She was able to see him gratis for therapy once a week over a period of a couple of years.

She was, as she herself described it, a Difficult Patient. She knew far too much about psychology, philosophy, theology, and other esoteric subjects to be easy going for a therapist. Fortunately, her doctor was (and is) a competent, kind, considerate, and humane man, and was able to navigate the stormy seas raised by Dymphna’s psychological tempest.

Their sessions were intense, needless to say. Early in their relationship she took to writing a poem after every session, which she would then deliver to him at the start of their next meeting. At the end of his residency, when he had to terminate the therapy, she collected the poems together into a volume entitled Intense Disclosures, had it printed and bound, and gave him a copy.

To create the book, she turned all the original Word documents over to me, and I did all the formatting and indexing necessary for the print version. As a result, I have the full collection — which we always called “Therapy Poems” between ourselves until she picked out an official title — in a form that is easily accessible. “There is a Midnight” (which I posted as part of my eulogy for her), was a member of that collection, as was “Lament For My Brother”, which I posted here.

The poem below may be the best in the collection. She wrote it when she was very unhappy and angry with her therapist (as patients in psychotherapy often are). He was such a WASPy guy, with his blond hair and blue eyes, so she tweaked his nose with “To Young Dr. O’Malley From the Bi-Polar on Ward A-2”.

The poem would still be worth reading if the story ended there. However, after he had read it, he confided to her a personal detail about his life: he had recently learned that his parents had adopted him, and that his biological parents were in fact Jewish. He looked so Aryan, and had been raised a Christian, but genetically speaking, he was a Jew.

Not an old one, though. Not yet.

The poem is below the jump. By the way: “O’Malley” is not his real surname, so there’s no point in searching the lists of accredited Virginia psychiatrists to try and find him.

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The Strangulation of Democracy

For the a change of pace, here’s a new pastiche from JLH, who has a knack for this sort of thing.

The Strangulation of Democracy

by JLH
(In memoriam Sam McGee, and thanks to Robert Service)

There are strange things done in the Silicon sun
By the men who spin the gold,
And the cyber trails hold their secret tales
That could make your blood run cold.
The city lights have seen bad sights.
But the worst they ever will see:
Is not far away from San Francisco Bay,
Where they’re strangling democracy.

Now the men gathered there are from everywhere —
But they are here, we all know why.
They all play the game and their goal is the same —
A slice of the American Pie.
Oh, the wages of sin! They are raking it in.
The billions come rolling along.
To the wealthy comes power, and now is their hour
To buy the world for a song.

But it’s not simply greed, there’s also the need
To determine what’s good and what’s bad.
If you’re not in their group, then you’re out of the loop,
You’re as old as yesterday’s fad.
Join the crowd, show your face, tell us what you embrace,
Give a glimpse of your shy little soul.
This service is free, no psychiatrist’s fee,
Since you’re telling the world as a whole.

It’s a magical realm with no one at the helm.
Your entrails exposed on the ground
Attract the trolls first, and they’re not the worst;
Carrion-eaters in this place abound.
And so you’ve been shilled, your guts have been spilled,
And the vermin crept into your life.
There’s no magic spell to conquer this hell.
Just chill out and witness the strife.

Sit back and relax, pursue some fun facts,
But be careful what questions you ask.
Algorithmically speaking, the answer you’re seeking
May incite a tortuous task.
Seek President Trump, and you may soon be jumped
To trumps in the game of Whist.
Should you next try to reach for freedom of speech,
You may find yourself on a list.

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Two Laments

Years ago I used to assign Saturday as either Ranting Day or Poetry Day, depending on my mood. Yesterday I was busy with other things, so this week Sunday will have to serve as Poetry Day.

The first of the two poems below was written by Dymphna. It is possibly her greatest poem. She wrote it in the mid-1990s, a few months after her mother died.

Some context is in order: Dymphna’s mother married a man from a wealthy Irish family when she was young. For reasons I won’t go into here, he abandoned his wife and their two children when the latter were still infants. Dymphna’s mother became destitute, and there was no welfare in Florida at that time, so she had to go off to work. For several years the children were placed with various foster families, where conditions ranged from awful to severely abusive.

The priest at Dymphna’s mother’s church eventually helped her place her son and daughter at separate orphanages, one for boys and one for girls, where they were to remain until they were ten or eleven — i.e. old enough to be latchkey kids.

Her poem describes the moment she and her brother were separated from their mother and from each other to be taken to the orphanages. At the time she wrote these verses, her brother had been estranged from his mother and sister for many years, and no one knew where he was. She assumed he was dead, probably of heart disease, since all her mother’s brothers had died that way when they were relatively young. But he wasn’t dead: her cousin was able to locate him, and Dymphna and her brother began an intermittent correspondence that continued until his death last year.

This, then, was her lament:

Lament for My Brother

It was so long ago
Those who stopped my tears
Then, who could not countenance
My guttural sorrow,
Are no doubt dead
Or disarmed by age and distance.

It was so long ago.
Yet my tears are the solvent
Melting the time between here
And then. I am five again.
The little brother being forced
From my arms is four.
We are crying, in the moment before
We learn it is not allowed.

It was so long ago.
Yet the wrench of grief
Tightens my throat now
Brings me to my knees here.
The void where my little brother
Was is hollowed out still;
I cannot fill it.

It was so long ago.
Yet the loss is as current
As the moment here before us.
The gods to whom all moments are one
Who do not understand
My linear “long ago”
Cannot hear my plea
To protect him.

It was so long ago.
He’s no doubt dead by now.
The men in my family die young
Whether they stay or flee.
The women in my family don’t teach
Them how to use their hearts.
The men succumb when
Flight is no longer possible
And they are overtaken
By feeling.

It was so long ago.

The second poem was written in the early 17th century by the great metaphysical poet John Donne. Fifty years ago I had to study the metaphysical poets intensively for A-level English Literature. I don’t know how they do it nowadays, but in those days a student was expected to quote at length from the assigned poetry at the exam, working entirely from memory. Thus, in preparation for the exam I memorized reams of Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Vaughn, Crashaw, etc.

I memorized three of the five stanzas of the following poem, and they’re still here in my head, intact after half a century. However, we were also required to present them in the original 17th-century spelling, and unfortunately that aspect of the task has largely evaporated (although I do remember that “festival” was spelled “festivall”).

In this poem Donne is mourning the death of his wife, for whom he grieved deeply. The conceit is that he is writing it at midnight on St. Lucy’s Day, the shortest day of the year. Dymphna’s case is the opposite: she, too, died at about midnight, but her death was almost exactly at Midsummer’s.

A technical note: the “Goat” to which the lesser (i.e. weaker) sun has run is the constellation Capricorn, in which the winter solstice falls.

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Old Sobersides

JLH sends the saga of Miz Hillary in verse form. One can only hope that the shade of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (father of the Supreme Court justice) is not overly agitated tonight…

Old Sobersides
by JLH

Ay, tear her tatty logo down!
Too long has it made us sigh,
And many a face has had to frown
At what “justice” let go by.
Vince Foster, Seth Rich and others, too —
What is it they may have seen:
Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater all true,
In the service of the Queen?

Erupting bimbos, Tammy Wynette,
The little woman wasn’t pleased.
Hillary Care was not a good bet.
Nuclear secrets for the Chinese,
And who knew pork bellies could be so swell,
If their futures were bright enough?
And who knew the Russians would pay so well
For that radioactive stuff?

Now, a former first lady has little to do,
When hubby’s not home at night,
Unless public office comes into view…
Get that carpetbag packed up tight!
So she walks the Senate like one who belongs,
And fades right into the crowd:
How to look brave while going along,
And skim off whatever’s allowed.

When Bill said “Two for the price of one”
No one could have guessed the price.
This inexorable couple is just never done.
They are back like undaunted lice.
The only way to stop this first woman’s run:
A black man’s program of hope.
As Highlander says, “There can be only one”
And Hillary runs out of rope.

But all is not lost — to the victor come the spoiled.
Run the Department of State?
So what if you’re looking a little bit soiled —
After Kerry, who needs to be great?
First, our uranium buddies of old
Need a friendly re-start.
The wording is wrong, so we are told —
Google Translate’s not worth a… damn.

Her greatest achievement was Ghadaffi’s demise.
Some minor Americans died too.
Parents, wives and children apprised:
There was nothing we could do.
We came, we saw, we made a mess.
Move on; there’s nothing to see.
“What difference now if I should confess —
I’d get off on a guilty plea.”

This time is different, there is no Barack.
We all know that now it’s my turn
No one has the guts to mount an attack…
But I think I “Feel the Bern,”
Doesn’t he know everyone has been paid?
Why is he still around?
This is not how the game is played.
I’ll pound him into the ground.

So what if I fixed some things here and there?
He can whimper all he wants.
So what if he doesn’t think it’s been fair?
Who asked him to leave Vermont?
And now I am off to the race of my life,
And I’m running against a clown!
Dirt and rumor against him are rife,
He’ll likely be run out of town.

Hey! Why am I not way ahead right now!?
Where are these polls coming from?
Who are they talking to, anyhow:
Deplorables, reactionaries, dumb!
I KNEW it — that damned electoral thing —
Now it’s gone and cost me the race!
Who cares what tune the “flyovers” sing?
They’re a colossal waste of space!

I will not be Trumped by that arrogant jerk,
But my hands are not lily-white…
Oops, I mean: Now y’all gots to git to work,
‘cause we gots us a rilly tough fight…
Ze basket of deplorable sink zey have won over us;
We’ll show zem “Si, se puede, señor”…
And we are woman, just hear us cuss!…
And we are gayer than ever before!

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Humility in the Face of the Stochasm


In my introduction to a news feed early last month I confounded some of our readers by using the word “stochastic”. In its context it meant “indeterminate”. The most commonly used synonym for it would be “random”, but that’s not exactly what it means. More on that later.

I first encountered the word in about 1970, when I was looking at the course catalog for the Math Department of the College of William and Mary. Back then Computer Science was a subdivision of the Math Department (a few years later it was elevated to the status of a separate department), so while I was browsing through the advanced math courses I came across an entry for “Discrete Stochastic Systems”, probably a 400-level course. I understood “discrete”, but I had to look up “stochastic”. In its computer context it referred to the fact that some events within a complex electronic computer are indeterminate, since they are affected by quantum fluctuations at the lowest level. One of the major tasks in the development of modern digital computers was to control for stochastic events as much as possible — via parity checks and so on.

The “discrete” in the course title referred, of course, to the fact that digital computers were under discussion. Analog computers had been fairly widespread in the early days (late ’40s and ’50s), but for reasons that are too complicated for this discussion, digital computation eventually won out and became the preferred method used in modern computers.

I duly incorporated the useful word “stochastic” in my vocabulary. A few years later I even wrote a poem entitled “The Intelligence of Discrete Stochastic Systems” (it wasn’t any good). In the decades that followed I forgot how specialized the word was; that’s how I ended up confusing the readers of the news feed.

Interestingly enough, in both of my major dictionaries (which are very old), the specialized meaning for the word is not listed. The definition given is “pertaining to conjecture”. The 1921 Webster’s lists it as “rare”, while the Oxford (more precisely: The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles) says it is “obsolete or rare”.

But not anymore. Now it’s simply a geek word.

It comes from the Ancient Greek word στοχαστικός (stokhastikós), which is formed from στοχάζομαι (stokházomai, “to take aim, as at a target, or to guess”), from στόχος (stókhos, “an aim, a guess”). I don’t know how it eventually acquired its current mathematical meaning; perhaps indeterminate events were things that geeks had to guess at. The Wikipedia entry has a lot more information on stochastic processes, for those who are interested.

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The most common synonym for “stochastic” (as you can see from the Wiki) is “random”, but that’s not really accurate, and I wouldn’t use it myself. I prefer “indeterminate”, or more fully: “a stochastic event is one whose cause cannot be determined.”

In my computer science courses it was drummed into us that there is no such thing as a random number in digital computing. What are commonly called “random number generators” are actually algorithms that output pseudo-random numbers. Every number produced by them is generated by a process that is totally determined, and not at all random. A programmer finds them useful to employ when it is necessary to simulate a series of random numbers.

In mathematical terms, randomness doesn’t exist. It has no meaning. Try to define it yourself — you’ll end up in a circular chain of references, without an external phenomenon to peg the word to. It’s not like “light”, or “vacuum”, or “hydrogen”. It has no meaning in a scientific or mathematical sense. It’s just a quaint linguistic relic, and is no more real than phlogiston or the aether.

What is commonly called a random event is simply one for which a cause has not been determined. Believing in “randomness” is therefore a form of religious faith, like believing in God, or Satan, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. We are continuously bathed in events that seem random, but accepting their randomness is a leap of faith on our part.

The discipline of Statistics was devised to help understand the patterns and mathematical structures behind large quantities of “random” data. Events that may be indeterminate on an individual basis are totally predictable when a large enough quantity of data is aggregated. But data on totally determined events can also be analyzed — the behavior of thousands of vehicles on a freeway, for example, can be statistically evaluated, even though the causes of individual drivers’ choices are unknown to the statisticians. That doesn’t mean that those decisions are random, but rather that they are indeterminate from the statistician’s point of view.

Darwinian evolution is a statistical model that relies on indeterminate events at the micro level to explain the process of natural selection. However, to call the underlying genetic changes “random” is to take a leap of faith that is no different, scientifically speaking, from believing in Intelligent Design or the Garden of Eden. All three are forms of religious faith. A scientific observer doesn’t observe randomness, but only events whose causes have not been determined.

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Two and a half centuries ago the paradigm of the Clockwork Universe had its day. Newtonian physics provided the tantalizing possibility that the mechanism of the universe could eventually be understood in its entirety. Given enough data, and enough careful calculation, there would be no indeterminacy left. The causes of all phenomena would be known and understood.

It was a heady time. Newtonian ideas gave rise to Deism, which posited a Creator who created the universe the way a clockmaker builds a clock. Once the clock was completed and wound, all observed processes would follow from it without any further intervention by the Creator.

Later the Creator was abandoned, and the clock just kind of came into being, with the Big Bang serving as the ultimate “explanation” for how everything eventually happened.

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