March 30, 2011

My work with the James Forman Library is ongoing, and involves a term new to my vocabulary, “bio-bibliography,” which is the study of a person by way of their book reading, and the traces of their life’s work that can be found in the books they left, beginning with jottings, underlines, inscriptions, bookmarks, to get happy on the trust that these aims are true, painted from memory.

I have found several things so far that support the living interpretation of the collection, as in a signed copy of Toward Soviet America (1932) by William Z. Foster, a Communist leader in the 1920s who ran for President in the Jazz Age; and a copy of River of No Return, by Cleveland Sellers, a memoir of SNCC, and lengthily inscribed to Forman.

My focus is Forman’s collection of FBI reports – giant stacks of manila-backed papers compiled by J. Edgar Hoover’s crew-cut knights on SNCC, James Forman himself, and mid-20th century mob bosses like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky.  Forman was a prolific chronicler of his own times, and studied the FBI reports as alternative, authoritarian versions of history – on which versions Forman called bluff.

Here is a page from Forman’s FBI Report, 1967, where Forman is introduced in terms of Hoover’s informant:

Here the G-Man assesses Forman’s psycho-political predicament:

Forman’s actions are cast in the mold of a master spy:

The FBI moves forward to make their subject an inFormant:

To study the “marginalia” of a reader’s book collection, one can never be sure whose marginalia it is.  Avid bookbuyers often get the bug for the musty majesty of used bookstores, which are cheap and bountiful.  A working survey of James Forman’s library, written last semester by QC bibliographist  David Gary, finds that “most of the books were acquired second hand by Forman at used bookshops in Detroit, New York, Ithaca, and Washington,” and that he “also bought books that were sold by public libraries after weeding.”  To authenticate the notations, one might get familiar with the subject’s reading, writing, thinking habits.   Otherwise you could hire someone like Joe Nickell, an investigator of mysteries.   Judging by several books in the personal collection of Campus Whits which have previous owners’ markings, it seems most readers stop underlining by page 20, especially if the volume was once assigned on the syllabus.

I worked at a used and rare book shop for five years in downtown Manhattan – the type of place James Forman might buy books.  But in the used book market, marked-up copies lessen the value of the “piece.”  When our shop bought the library of historian and fervent diarist Edward Ellis, alot of good books were sold cheaply because Ellis had a habit of highlighting passages with a yellow fluorescent pen. If anything, it would tell the bio-bibliographer how Ellis compiled his research, how and what information he valued as writer of history and as a prodigious jotter of his own times – and also that Ellis had little aesthetic for marginalia, since a yellow highlighter is about the most offputting of penscript.

One time, the shop had a copy of a rare Timothy Leary book, published in the heyday, which a curious browser was interested in but only because he liked how its former owner marked it up, with doodlings induced by a state of mind brightly bewizened by the brown acid. But we priced-up the book, at a bookdealer’s number, and the curious browser put it back.  If it was five bucks we would have had a sale, but the book’s rarity outweighed any doodle depreciation.  In both these cases, with the books of Edward Ellis and Timothy Leary, the value and lack of value of each book had equally nothing to do with its contents.

The writer Edmund Wilson, in 1926 (The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties), takes bookdealers to task for what he sees as their exsanguination of books.  They are “the most blighting influence on the book shops,” who “traffic in first editions and other rarities.”  Wilson is acrimonious in recognizing that “there are book galleries just as there are art galleries,” which are staffed by “old gentlemen with eyeglasses and ragged mustaches, who seem to live in a state of morose trepidation for fear somebody will ask them for a copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

If the biobibliographer of the year 2111 found my copy of Gaming: The Future’s Language (1974, Richard D. Duke), they might have been turned on to the hermeneutics of finding this clipping I recently found stuck in the pages of the book, for some reason:

As a NYC tour guide for Gray Line Bus Tours, I like to tell passengers that the city is not just the Big Apple, but also The Big Book, since while you’re here you get a story.  So it was encouraging to find this Gray Line brochure from 2001, which trademarks the sentiment:

This book I found in the QC Special Collections room, which allows a peer into the third eye of design by which the QC campus has come to life:


March 24, 2011

Every six months my mother visits a neurologist in Livingston, New Jersey.  Ten years ago she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  There are lesions on her spine and brain.  She doesn’t walk too well and has problems remembering things sometimes – though whether Bonnie’s memory is a direct result of MS is uncertain.  In fact, pretty much everything regarding MS is uncertain, especially what causes it and how to abate its symptoms.  Montel Williams, the fervent talk show host, and Teri Garr, the actress, are two celebrities who have it.  Montel spoke at my brother’s graduation ceremony at Lehigh University in 2000, and shouted across the vast football stadium: “Mountain!”  And then very softly, “Get out my way.”  Teri Garr was a personal early cream dream of 80s screwball comedy, Tootsie and Mr. Mom fame.  Captain Beefheart, the gonzo psychedelic honkytronic bandmaster, who died last year, was diagnosed with MS, but you don’t exactly “die” from the disease, like cancer – but it is degenerative and debilitating.

Captain Beefheart

Doctors do not like to be put in positions which exhibit their ignorance – too long they went to school and too much money they make.  My mother’s neurologist, Dr. Joseph Herbert, must be renowned, since he has appeared on Montel Williams (there are pictures of him as a guest on the show hanging around his office), and has co-authored numerous articles and papers in abstruse diagnostic medicalese.  But when I visited the other day, I wish I had Montel with me, since Dr. Herbert didn’t want to talk much, and comported his answers as if to discourage more questions.  This void of dialogue, coupled with the limited social worker who talked to my mom like a teenager, and who was quick to suggest Xanax as the solution to anxiety, acted against my departure from the doctor’s office with hope for the profession.  My mom has a positive attitude all around, and that is all I can go by – but couldn’t this guy translate some of the complex crap into layman’s terms?

Doctors, like lawyers, are information controllers. If one gets to0 close to perhaps understanding the nuance of legal jargon without a law degree, most lawyers will start to either play mind games, try to distract you, or just whine.  Sure, some lawyers and doctors do great things, like perform life-saving surgery, and win big cases that convict corrupt corporations or vindicate the falsely accused.  My mother has benefited greatly from medical attention in the past, so I can’t get too worked up.  But I cannot relate the same for my father, who, when he was fatally ill in the late 1990s, was uninsured, and treated accordingly by medical professionals like the CIA treats inmates at Gitmo.

It’s not like I was trying to get all up in the Doc’s knowledge. I listened.  Sometimes silence intimidates more than noise.  I definitely must have made the social worker nervous – she stammered and awkwardly called me “sir.”

… Between the Radiolab podcast I mentioned in last week’s post, and a series of articles by Errol Morris in the New York Times regarding Anosognosia (a brain condition where one is not conscious of one’s own medical predicament, whether paralysis of the limbs, or maybe just one’s own stupidity), the topic of self-deception now pops up in varied places.  I thought of it this weekend.  I am now back giving doubledecker bus tours – this past weekend was my inaugural return to Gray Line after the “layoff.”  It was a vibrant weekend, the people tipped well and were fun, and my tour was, ahem, on fire.  Usually one needs a short grace period to get the momentum and style back.  I needed about five minutes.  Times Square, inexplicably apt, was jampacked with sightseers – it made me think of self-deception.  If the billboards are big enough, the marquees bright enough, and the crowds of epic size, one can gain comfort in the realistical moment that our country is supposed to be in a recession.  Times Square has no purpose but to delude an otherwise unknowing public who is hungry for no purpose.  Like the old songster George M. Cohan once told a young Regis Philbin, who was back then still a bootblack for card sharks and press buzzards, “Give it a break, kiddo – this is showbiz.”

“They’re only words… unless they’re true.”
–  Speed-the-Plow
, David Mamet (1988).

Last week, the American Society of News Editors hosted the celebration of “Sunshine Week,” which promotes government accountability and transparency. Going back to ancient history – the 2008 presidential elections – transparency was a big issue championed by Obama, in some ways a reaction to the snide secrecy of the Bush Administration, which deliberately mis-archived presidential emails and coined the phrase “unknown unknowns.”  The Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, blogs about Sunshine Week here, and touts the Open Government Initiative.  It seems fitting that during “Sunshine Week,” the U.S. and its allies would attack Libya with a military airstrike  called Operation Odyssey Dawn… “Sunshine Week” sounds like a flyer from the days of the Green Tambourine and nights at Millbrook house with Dr. Timothy Leary, who encouraged students to take the journey out of your mind.

MillbrookRecently, WikiLeaks put the administration’s platform in a thorny position, and just recently the president defended the conditions under which Pvt. Bradley Manning is incarcerated at Quantico stockade. Pvt. Manning has become a pariah of transparency, but he is a soldier, not a civilian, and is subject to war laws. He was turned in by Adrian Lamo, a computer hacker, and since hackers are sort of pro-transparency – in their activist, reactionary role –  in a strange twist of irony Lamo made haste to expose Manning as the Whiki-blower. The true secret right now is how Obama will mobilize the forces which mounted his first run in order to win in 2012.

Sunshine Week did not cast in shadow old St. Patrick’s Day, when revelers begin to Olcottimbibe verdant booze at the crack of dawn in open containers.  Listen to an old Irish tune here, What Ho! She Bumps! And the Library of Congress has duly nodded to the wearin’ o the green.

Transparency is the closest the government can allow itself to recognize a sense of honesty, without having to say it is being honest.  That’s fine. The bigger an institution, the bigger the inclination to fool.  There are loads of government documents online that are open access and unclassified that are just as interesting as anything “secret.”  But “unclassified” is the fat-free ice milk to “secret’s” triple scoop banana split….  Another question is whether the Bush tactic or the Obama tactic more respects the public – to flagrantly admit you are full of it, like Bush; or make overtures of disambiguation, like Obama’s “Good Government,” while upholding illegal wiretapping surveillance.

Individuals are different.  A recent podcast on Radiolab is devoted to the subject of “deception,” and one of the guests, Paul Ekman, a security guard at JFK Airport, invented a machine, the Facial Action Coding System, which he claims can detect the various combinations of each muscle movement in the human face – Ekman concludes that there are about 3,000 “micro facial expressions.”  But Ekman says that there is not a single combination that indicates without a doubt that the person is lying.

In good card games, the game is premised on the best combination of cards which will yield opportunities for skill, challenge and luck. Cribbage, invented in the seventeenth century by the rakish soldier-poet Sir John Suckling, is based on possible combinations of 15 and 31. Like Ekman’s micro-facial expressions, the game is finite but a mystery.  The human face is provoked by emotion and circumstance as a cribbage game is by the deal and the rules. It has been determined that the highest possible points to peg in a single round is 61. Campus Whits has played cribbage for over 10 years and never once been dealt this extravagant happenstance – described in 1773 by Henry Proctor in The Sportsman’s Sure Guide, or Gamester’s Vade-Mecum.

John Scarne, the legendary lexicographer of card games, notes that cribbage is deceptively simple, and “although memory counts for little in the strategy of the game, there are many real possibilities for skillful play.”  Watch Scarne demonstrate the prestidigitation of card sharks here.

Herbert O. YardleyCard games may also rely on a player’s bluff, where the opponent cannot read the player’s cards, but can read their face and movements.  In the movie House of Games (1987), written and directed by David Mamet, a seasoned con man explains some of the tricks of his trade.  In a poker game, the con man watches his opponent for a “tell,” which is a gesture or indication made by the cardplayer which exhibits that he is bluffing.  The tell is an unconsious act of communication which the con man uses to his advantage.  In one scene, a poker player played by the master sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay (who also runs a consulting business called Deceptive Practices,”arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis”) involuntarily fiddles with his ring every time he holds a bad hand.  This is his tell.  Of course, as played out in the movie, the con man’s explanation of “the tell” is part of a bigger con, and true or not was told to gain the confidence of both the character and the audience.

Paul Ekman, the JFK security guard, says that for a lie to be genuine, a true lie, it must be unexpected by the person being lied to.  Poker players expect each other to bluff, it is part of the rules. A police interrogation is likewise. When basketball star Kobe Bryant was interrogated by Colorado cops on rape charges, Eagle County Pulp Magsheriff’s investigators Doug Winters and Dan Loya seek the truth from Kobe, but comport their questioning to expect that he will lie (read the transcript here).  The way to get Kobe to talk honestly is to give him the impression that the investigators are also being truthful .  So Detective Loya starts off with what are essentially true remarks: “I mean we’d like to find out your side of the story, we’ll get into the details of it, we’ll explain what’s going on. Um, but that’s all we want to do, Kobe.”  But is that all they want to do?  They ask Kobe if he and the victim hugged and kissed, and Kobe says no, but they know he is lying, so they follow up with what seems like a question already answered: “Did you have sexual intercourse with her?”  One can assume that if they had sex, then they hugged and kissed.  Kobe denies it again, and Det. Winters says “OK, but you know, I’m giving you an opportunity to tell the truth if something did happen, because I’m going to tell you now, um, we’re going to find out.”  Kobe admits they had sex.  The interrogators played Kobe like a winning high-stakes hand.

There is much written about scientists taking a statistical crack at Big Julie of Vegassurmounting the element of chance in gambling.  In Big Julie of Vegas (1974), a Runyonesque biography of a “self-confessed ‘degenerate craps player,'” the author tells a side story about Murray Friedman, a scientist “in charge of space development” with a hankering for blackjack:

“As a scientist, he knows that blackjack can be beaten.  As a scientist, he knows he has the kind of mind to do it.  Never mind that he has been going to Las Vegas for fifteen years and hasn’t beaten the game yet.”

Ekman says that “we don’t have a Pinocchio’s nose.”  There is no scientific way to determine if a person’s micro-facial expression indicates they are bullshitting.  Ekman’s theories find a parallel with certain bygone linguists, who have disavowed that similarities between words in different languages can be linked to a common archetypal pattern. In a study of Indian languages in old Brooklyn –  Indian Place-Names on Long Island (1911) by William Wallace Tooker – the author, listed on the title page as an “Algonkinist,” describes “an example of erroneous interpretation” in the work of a rival linguist:

“Marechkawick (1637), the Indian name of Brooklyn, cannot possibly be derived from Mereca, the South American name for a wild duck, now applied to the species classified scientifically, which had not been done in the early seventeenth century. Nor can Moriches be derived from the name of a South American palm, Moriche palmata; or Canarsie be made the equivalent of an East Indian Canarese. The Algonkian origin of these three names is beyond doubt, their resemblances to words in other languages being simply chance.”

Tooker corroborates his ideas with a quote from “Major J. W. Powell, the eminent ethnologist,” that “such accidental resemblances are often found, and… such adventitious similarities are discovered in all departments of human activities, and have no value for comparative purposes.'”

Tooker discredits his rival philologist on the basis of Tooker’s discovery that the man, an authority in the field, has self-deceived himself without expecting to….  So it should be that Tooker might not indict the value of comparative purposes presented by Campus Whits, which openly hoodwinks itself.  To quote a poem, “Against Fruition,” by Sir John Suckling:


March 1, 2011

(from the dispatch desk of city room flimflammer, Mac Jasper)
Mac Jasper

Listen to Jasper’s broadcast here:

Vegetarian options are on the downslide in New York City, as severely as the many shanks for the carnivore are now everywhere advertised. The non-meat munchers of the city have now found even their beverages buggered by the baloney-biters, over at the new gastro-café, where one may order the bacon martini, in fact a martini made with bacon.

Says one local cabbage-jockey, quote “I would scarf down homefries cooked on a skillet where Taylor Ham just sizzled, before I’d ever take a bite of gluten-free pizza,” end quote. Such a skillet sizzles with Jersey’s own pork roll most delectably at Johny’s Luncheonette, on 25th St. btwn 6th and 7th, where, as a regular reports, quote, “George runs a tight ship for the breakfast and lunch crowd. Sure, Johny’s has a veggie burger, and it’s probably great, but why not have one of Johny’s special pita-pizzas,” end quote. The people are boffo for Johny’s.

This just in, from the Manila, Philippines desk:
At least 750 kilos of “double dead” or tainted hog meat were seized while three suspected vendors of the hot meat were arrested in a predawn raid on a market in Quezon City Wednesday. Radio dzBB’s Paulo Santos reported the joint operation by the city police and health office swooped down on the Balintawak Market at 2:30 a.m. Found in the raid conducted at about 2:30 a.m. were 700 kilos of hot meat and 50 kilos of lechon (roasted pig) meat. Arrested were three suspected vendors, initially identified as Ludy dela Rosa, Lea Balte, and Carlo Trinidad. City health officer Dr. Ana Marie Cabel cited initial findings most of the hot meat seized Wednesday may have come from Bulacan province. Earlier, the National Meat Inspection Service said it is monitoring farms in Bulacan, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Tarlac, Nueva Ecija as possible sources of the hot meat. Authorities have intensified their watch for hot meat, anticipating a rise in demand for the commodity as the Christmas holidays draw closer.

Double-dead huh? Double-dead, eh?  That’s what they used to call Ed Falzone back on the Glittering Gulch, on account of he felt out the window 17 floors from the Astor Hotel, and walked away without injury – over for a dime-a-dance up the Stem… for a little hot meat.

And that’s the squib.


March 1, 2011

(From the dispatch desk of Park Row squibber & city room toff, Mac Jasper)Mac Jasper

Listen to the broadcast here: Veg BBQ I

“Vegetarian options are on the downslide in New York City, as severely as the many shanks for the carnivore are now everywhere advertised. Open most local Brooklyn papers, and see the ads for Texas BBQ, or Arkansas BBQ, with microbrews and locally sourced cow hocks and sustainable duck fat. Retrofitted menus from the beefsteak days, as if marketing to the intelligentsia, who are ravenous for pulled pork and loaves of knuckle. Is it a backlash against the preponderance of 1990s-propelled vegetarian options? The veg options on these menus are typically of dense pallor, gratuitous nods to some kind of cultural egalitarianism which must coincide with political acts of economic responsibility. A non-meatmuncher is best served at a place like Hill Country, on 26th btwn Broadway and Sixth, which declaims any veg options, tho the sides of mac and cheese, Texas caviar (black-eyed peas), and rich slaw are plentiful and pleasing to system of palate and gut.”