“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:


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2 Responses to “The Value of Comparative Purposes”

  1.   Campus Whits » Blog Archive » MS said:

    […] 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 […]

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