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Friday, June 11, 2010



By Studs Terkel

C.P. Ellis was born in 1927 and was 53 years old at the time of this interview with Studs Terkel. For Terkel, America's foremost oral historian, this remained the most memorable and moving of all the interviews he'd done in a career spanning more than seven decades, for C.P. Ellis had once been the exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, N.C. During the interview, Terkel learned that Ellis had been born extremely poor in Durham, North Carolina; had struggled all his life to feed his family; had felt shut out of American society and had joined the Klan to feel like somebody. But later he got involved in a local school issue and reluctantly, gradually, began to work on a committee with a black activist named Ann Atwater, whom he despised at the time. Eventually, after many small epiphanies, he realized that they shared a common concern for their children, common goals as human beings. More surprising still, Ellis became a union organizer for a janitor's union—a long way from his personal philosophical roots. The Ellis-Atwater story is best documented in The Best of Enemies, a book by Osha Gray Davidson that tells of the unlikely friendship that developed between Ann and C.P. Ellis, when they first met in the 1960's. Apparently, their commonalities as oppressed human beings proved far stronger than the racial hatred that initially divided them.

All my life, I had work, never a day without work, worked all the overtime I could get and still could not survive financially. I began to see there’s something wrong with this country. I worked my butt off and just never seemed to break even. I had some real great ideas about this nation. They say to abide by the law, go to church, do right and live for the Lord, and everything’ll work out. But it didn’t work out. It just kept getting worse and worse…

Tryin’ to come out of that hole, I just couldn’t do it. I really began to get bitter. I didn’t know who to blame. I tried to find somebody. Hating America is hard to do because you can’t see it to hate it. You gotta have somethin’ to look at to hate. The natural person for me to hate would be Black people, because my father before me was a member of the Klan…

So I began to admire the Klan… To be part of somethin’. … The first night I went with the fellas . . . I was led into a large meeting room, and this was the time of my life! It was thrilling. Here’s a guy who’s worked all his life and struggled all his life to be something, and here’s the moment to be something. I will never forget it. Four robed Klansmen led me into the hall. The lights were dim and the only thing you could see was an illuminated cross… After I had taken my oath, there was loud applause goin’ throughout the buildin’, musta been at least 400 people. For this one little ol person. It was a thrilling moment for C.P. Ellis…
The majority of [the Klansmen] are low-income Whites, people who really don’t have a part in something. They have been shut out as well as Blacks. Some are not very well educated either. Just like myself. We had a lot of support from doctors and lawyers and police officers.

Maybe they’ve had bitter experiences in this life and they had to hate somebody. So the natural person to hate would be the Black person. He’s beginnin to come up, he’s beginnin’ to . . . start votin’ and run for political office. Here are White people who are supposed to be superior to them, and we’re shut out… Shut out. Deep down inside, we want to be part of this great society. Nobody listens, so we join these groups…

We would go to the city council meetings and the Blacks would be there and we’d be there. It was a confrontation every time… We began to make some inroads with the city councilmen and county commissioners. They began to call us friend. Call us at night on the telephone: “C.P., glad you came to that meeting last night.” They didn’t want integration either, but they did it secretively, in order to get elected. They couldn’t stand up openly and say it, but they were glad somebody was sayin it. We visited some of the city leaders in their homes and talked to em privately. It wasn’t long before councilmen would call me up: “The Blacks are comin up tonight and makin outrageous demands. How about some of you people showin up and have a little balance?
We’d load up our cars and we’d fill up half the council chambers, and the Blacks the other half. During these times, I carried weapons to the meetings, outside my belt. We’d go there armed. We would wind up just hollerin’ and fussin’ at each other. What happened? As a result of our fightin’ one another, the city council still had their way. They didn’t want to give up control to the Blacks nor the Klan. They were usin’ us.

I began to realize this later down the road. One day I was walkin' downtown and a certain city council member saw me comin. I expected him to shake my hand because he was talkin' to me at night on the telephone. I had been in his home and visited with him. He crossed the street [to avoid me]... I began to think, somethin's wrong here. Most of 'em are merchants or maybe an attorney, an insurance agent, people like that. As long as they kept low-income Whites and low-income Blacks fightin', they're gonna maintain control. I began to get that feelin' after I was ignored in public. I thought: . . . you're not gonna use me any more. That's when I began to do some real serious thinkin'.

The same thing is happening in this country today. People are being used by those in control, those who have all the wealth. I’m not espousing communism. We got the greatest system of government in the world. But those who have it simply don’t want those who don’t have it to have any part of it. Black and White. When it comes to money, the green, the other colors make no difference.
I spent a lot of sleepless nights. I still didn’t like Blacks. I didn’t want to associate with them. Blacks, Jews, or Catholics. My father said: “Don’t have anything to do with ‘em.” I didn’t until I met a Black person and talked with him, eyeball to eyeball, and met a Jewish person and talked to him, eyeball to eyeball. I found they’re people just like me. They cried, they cussed, they prayed, they had desires. Just like myself. Thank God, I got to the point where I can look past labels. But at that time, my mind was closed.
I remember one Monday night Klan meeting. I said something was wrong. Our city fathers were using us. And I didn’t like to be used. The reactions of the others was not too pleasant: “Let’s just keep fightin’ them niggers.”

I’d go home at night and I’d have to wrestle with myself. I’d look at a Black person walkin’ down the street, and the guy’d have ragged shoes or his clothes would be worn. That began to do something to me inside. I went through this for about six months. I felt I just had to get out of the Klan. But I wouldn’t get out…

clip_image001 (Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis)

Ellis was invited, as a Klansman, to join a committee of people from all walks of life to make recommendations on how to solve racial problems in the school system. He very reluctantly accepted. After a few stormy meetings, he was elected co-chair of the committee, along with Ann Atwater, a combative Black woman who for years had been leading local efforts for civil rights.

By 1971, CP had become the Exalted Cyclops of the Klan’s Durham “klavern.” When a program was announced to facilitate the court-ordered desegregation of the Durham public schools CP went to the initial meeting to make sure the plan didn’t work. Also at the meeting was Ann Atwater, a Black community organizer CP had battled for years. The program director, a risk-taking innovator named Bill Riddick wanted to get both sides on-board. He nominated — and people approved — Atwater and CP as co-chairs of the two-week program.

Both were repulsed by the idea and both initially refused. Eventually, CP signed on, after realizing he’d be in a much better position to sabotage the program if he were leading it. Atwater felt compelled to accept the appointment so that people didn’t think she was afraid of the klansman.

A Klansman and a militant Black woman, co-chairmen of the school committee. It was impossible. How could I work with her? But it was in our hands. We had to make it a success. This gave me another sense of belongin’, a sense of pride. This helped the inferiority feeling I had. A man who has stood up publicly and said he despised Black people, all of a sudden he was willin’ to work with ‘em. Here’s a chance for a low-income White man to be somethin. In spite of all my hatred for Blacks and Jews and liberals, I accepted the job. Her and I began to reluctantly work together. She had as many problems workin with me as I had workin with her.

One night, I called her: “Ann, you and I should have a lot of differences and we got ‘em now. But there’s somethin’ laid out here before us, and if it’s gonna be a success, you and I are gonna have to make it one. Can we lay aside some of these eelins? She said:

“I’m willing if you are.” I said: “Let’s do it.”

My old friends would call me at night: “C.P., what the hell is wrong with you? You’re sellin’ out the White race.” This begin’ to make me have guilt feelings. Am I doin’ right? Am I doin’ wrong? Here I am all of a sudden makin’ an about-face and tryin’ to deal with my feelings, my heart. My mind was beginnin’ to open up. I was beginnin’ to see what was right and what was wrong. I don’t want the kids to fight forever…

One day, Ann and I went back to the school and we sat down. We began to talk and just reflect… I begin to see, here we are, two people from the far ends of the fence, havin’ identical problems, except hers bein’ Black and me bein’ White… The amazing thing about it, her and I, up to that point, has cussed each other, bawled each other, we hated each other. Up to that point, we didn’t know each other. We didn’t know we had things in common…

They had steered clear of each other, and separately led discussion groups to talk about school problems. For the first time in his life CP was sitting in a room with Blacks and actually listening to them. He hated the experience. He hated being near them. He hated being forced to breathe the same air with them. He hated their smell. Most of all, CP hated the fact that most of the problems voiced by Black parents, he agreed with. When a Black woman cried while describing how some teachers allowed children to mock her daughter’s threadbare clothing, CP knew that feeling first-hand. A Black man asked how come their inner-city school had ancient typewriters that barely worked, while an all-white school in the affluent suburbs had new machines. CP hadn’t known about that and was also angry. The experience of identifying with Black complaints was repeated over and over. Each time, CP tried to convince himself that it meant nothing.

The problem was that CP knew better. His father had worked in Durham’s cotton mills for pennies a day and had died early of brown lung. Though he never worked in the mills himself, he knew what wealthy whites called him when they thought he couldn’t hear. Linthead — which was a Durham equivalent to “poor white trash.” In the mills, tufts of cotton would get caught in workers’ hair. Even living nearby, as CP did, meant that you’d occasionally have bits of fluff stuck on your head. Combing it out had no effect. Being born a linthead was like being born Black. It wasn’t something one could change, it was a permanent state of being. Many middle-to-upper class whites may have hated Blacks. But they despised and ridiculed lintheads — and CP had felt that sting his entire life.

His progress up the ladder of the Klan was an attempt to climb out of the social class he had been born into. As Exalted Cyclops, CP met regularly with the white powers-that-be in Durham. But the meetings were in secret, usually at night. When he was summoned to their homes to discuss Klan strategy, he was told to use the back door. He believed their explanation that for political reasons the relationship had to be kept secret. Or he pretended to believe that explanation. He even had himself convinced. Until the school meetings and the conversations he began having with his nemesis, Ann Atwater, in the gym when no one else was around.

Atwater hated CP, but she was a Christian, a follower of King, and believed in redemption. Helping CP became her mission. Several other leaders in the Black community who had never had a conversation with a Klansman, now were listening to and watching CP. They, too, knew what King would have wanted them to do.

CP complained that Black students had organized a gospel music night during the meetings, but that he wasn’t allowed to present information about his culture. Like what? he was asked. CP answered that he wanted to erect a display about the Ku Klux Klan. Atwater led the group in approving the idea.

Speaking on the last night of the program, CP announced that lintheads like him had more in common with poor Blacks than with rich whites. (He had tried convincing his Klansmen to share his vision, to turn the group into a class-based organization instead of one based on race. He was lucky to make it out of the Klavern hall alive.) In front of the stunned crowd, he tore up his KKK membership card.

The whole world was openin’ up, and I was learning new truths that I had never learned before. I was beginning to look at a Black person, shake hands with him, and see him as a human bein’. I hadn’t got rid of all this stuff. I’ve still got a little bit of it. But somethin’ was happenin to me… I come to work one morning and some guys says: “We need a union.” At this time I wasn’t pro-union. My daddy was antilabor too. We’re not gettin’ paid much, we’re havin’ to work seven days in a row. We’re all starvin’ to death… I didn’t know nothin’ about organizin’ unions, but I knew how to organize people, stir people up. That’s how I got to be business agent for the union.

When I began to organize, I began to see far deeper. I begin to see people again bein’ used. Blacks against Whites… There are two things management wants to keep: all the money and all the say-so. They don’t want none of these poor workin’ folks to have none of that. I begin to see management fightin’ me with everythin’ they had. Hire antiunion law firms, badmouth unions. The people were makin $1.95 an hour, barely able to get through weekends…

It makes you feel good to go into a plant and … see Black people and White people join hands and defeat the racist issues [union-busters] use against people… I tell people there’s a tremendous possibility in this country to stop wars, the battles, the struggles, the fights between people. People say: “That’s an impossible dream. You sound like Martin Luther King.” An ex-Klansman who sounds like Martin Luther King. I don’t think it’s an impossible dream. It’s happened in my life. It’s happened in other people’s lives in America…

When the news came over the radio that Martin Luther King was assassinated, I got on the telephone and begin to call other Klansmen… We just had a real party… Really rejoicin’ ’cause the son of a bitch was dead. Our troubles are over with. They say the older you get, the harder it is for you to change. That’s not necessarily true. Since I changed, I’ve set down and listened to tapes of Martin Luther King. I listen to it and tears come to my eyes cause I know what he’s sayin now. I know what’s happenin’.

Thirty years later, CP retired as steward of a union with a membership that was 80-90% African-American.

All parts in plain text are Copyright © 1980 by Studs Terkel. Reprinted from Studs Terkel, American Dreams: Lost and Found (New York: Pantheon Books, Random House, Inc., 1980).

If you’re curious as to more details about C.P. Ellis’ life, including many of the parts I’ve italicized, please click here: http://trueslant.com/oshagraydavidson/2010/01/18/dr-king-and-the-klansman/

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Galileo, Game Theory, and the Grand Duchess

Signing off
Was the Galileo Affair inevitable?
By Jason Rhode
(Taken from a paper written for di Poppa’s Modern European Philosophy Grad Course.  I have edited it substantially to make it readable to my readers on Facebook, and to add my own personal observations.)


galileo_parabolaThe signal velocity is the speed at which a wave carries information. It describes how quickly a message can be communicated (using any particular method) between two separated parties. Every signal velocity is always slower than (or equal to) the speed of a light pulse in a vacuum – “Signal velocity,” Wikipedia

I wish to examine Galileo Galilei's 1615 Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany (L) through the lens of game theory. For brevity’s sake I will assume that my audience has some knowledge of the conflict between the players Galileo (G) and the Catholic Church (CC) which began with Starry Messenger in 1610.

Game theory has a mixed lineage as far as accuracy in representing human affairs. Some days, I consider it in the same light I do the Chicago School of Economics: a neat model employed by academics funded by corporate/defense think tanks that seems cool in some aspects but fatally flawed as far as mimicking reality.

Other days, I think it’s the best thing ever. In the paper that I wrote for di Poppa, I took the “Best Thing Ever” tack.

Because to say that game theory is fatally flawed because it does not fully and accurately represent the mundane world is like faulting Mercator’s map for not being correct about the continents or as wet as the oceans; it’d be like eating a Chinese restaurant menu and then complaining it doesn’t taste like General Tso’s chicken.

Not as a representational model, but as a explanatory model, does game theory have real and impressive (to me at least) value. Then again, I haven’t gone deep enough into it to have even a novice’s expertise, so take my opinions with a grain of salt.

 No, not *this* game theory.

No, not album by the Roots. Well, some of us may not be familiar with game theory. Here’s what Wikipedia says:


Game theory attempts to mathematically capture behavior in strategic situations, in which an individual's success in making choices depends on the choices of others. 

A game consists of a set of players, a set of moves (or strategies) available to those players, and a specification of payoffs for each combination of strategies.

Most cooperative games are presented in the characteristic function form, while the extensive and the normal forms are used to define noncooperative games.


In other words … mathematics and science take apart games to see how conflicts work, and what are the best strategies in different kinds of conflicts. They then try to translate these findings to the real world.

In game theory, there are “cooperative” aka “ non-zero-sum” games, where both players can benefit – I give you a bushel of wheat for a bucket of fish. That’s a non-zero game. Sex is a non-zero game. In non-zero games, we can have win-win and lose-lose situations. The existence of non-zero-sum situations is what makes all economics and maybe all of human interaction possible, if you follow game theory down the trail that way.  When you think non-zero/cooperative games, think “economics” or “peace treaty.”

In “non-cooperative” aka “zero-sum” games, there has to be a winner and a loser. Think of a chess game: every victory for your side is a loss for the other side: taking pieces captive, securing territory, and so on. Zero-sum games are to the death, or to the certain disadvantage of both parties. Arm wrestling is a zero-sum game: there has to be a winner, and a loser. When you think of zero-sum games, think of “arm-wrestling,” “chess,” or “war.”

Back to a history of game theory. Well: After the Second World War, the cheery prospects of incipient nuclear holocaust pushed the Pentagon to cook up the RAND thinktank and staff it with McNamara-looking grey flannel drone-men, probably looted or borrowed at any rate from IBM, where they were cloned in tanks and taught Mainstream Protestantism through speaker tubes, as in Brave New World.

Just kidding. What they did was get the smartest people in America in one room and let ‘em come up with all kinds of wild shit. This was the era of the Brain Trust; the professors domestic and foreign had gathered to create a false sun in Los Alamos.     

The Intellectuals. The Scientists. The men in white lab coats.

They had given us the bomb and they might give us much else. The RAND guys used wargames and computers to completely rethink strategies, tactics and systems for the Cold War. Picture a room with guys with short shirtsleeves and slide rules, the sort of get-together necessary before the big computers that scared the hell out of us in War Games were possible. Here are pictures of the Rand boys. This is what alpha-nerds did in the quiet years between World War II and Wikipedia:


The social scientists at RAND, the great far-visioned planners of the mid-20th century (this was also the age of Robert Moses and bulldozing neighborhoods to make way for rational highways) were encouraged to create mathematical models that often bore only a faint resemblance to reality. They were needed to avoid the End of All Things under a mushroom cloud. New American citizen Johnny Von Neumann's game theory required endlessly sophisticated math, and was mysterious but mickle in the projections of the postwar American order.

In 1950, two guys at RAND, Flood and Dresher, came up with the most famous game in game theory, the first game you learn about in any game theory book or class. It is called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”:

prisoners-dilemmaTwo suspects are arrested by the police.

The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal.

If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence.

If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge.

If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

As Wikipedia points out, in the iterated prisoner's dilemma, the game is played repeatedly. Each player has an opportunity to punish the other player for previous non-cooperative play, i.e., for stabbing him in the back the turn before.

This chart shows the various outcomes for all games possible in a single play of The Prisoner’s Dilemma:

Write your own moral from the above. It might be something like selfishness is not the solution or why is there still war if it’s so destructive for everyone involved? Here is a possible explanation or even something like Snitches don’t always get stitches. Use your imagination.

Here’s a wonderful explanation of Game Theory written by Brian Shader of Everything2:

It is important to understand that game theory applies beyond the bounds of what one would usually consider "games". Certainly game theory has something to say on games like Chess and Go, but it applies equally well to any system where parties are in potential competition. I say potential because game theory also handles ideas like the emergence of co-operation! You will perhaps now be getting a feeling for how broadly game theory is actually spread.game-theory-7

An example of a 'game theory' emerging in a situation which is certainly not considered a game by most affected would be in the recent firemen's strike here in the UK. This is certainly a game according to our earlier definition, having competing parties - firemen and the government - and a number of end results. Yet it is of the utmost seriousness! Note also that it needn't be a zero-sum 'game'; had it been resolved earlier, both parties might have come out of it better off. As it is, both parties will probably lose public favour.

It is these non-zero-sum games that most interested the great John Nash, subject of the film A Beautiful Mind.

There's a fair amount about that great hero of game theory under his node, but within the topic of this one I'd like to point out just how far-reaching his ideas were.

In nature, non-zero-sum games are just as common as zero-sum ones -- unlike humanly constructed games, where we would usually consider it quite strange for both sides to lose! His work on Nash equilibrium had huge implications for an array of topics. To borrow a quote from that node, Nash equilibrium was described as "the most important idea in noncooperative game theory... whether analyzing election strategies, or causes of war."

That was the first point I wanted to make. Game theory is everywhere. It makes enough sweeping assumptions to satisfy any physicist, and yet it does have applications in the real world and provides us with much interesting mathematics to study.

Read David Levy on human aggression and social order seen through the game theory lens:

In his Leviathan, Hobbes contended that in a free “state of nature” unrestrained by fear of retaliation, each man's self-interest would unleash his “natural passions” in violence. Freedom and self-interest seemed to condemn man's life to being “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.”

In game theory language, Hobbes attacked a society of individual freedom with the “prisoner's paradox: that state of affairs in which an individual's maximizing of his own utility does not seem to lead to maximizing results for the group.”

In effect, we need the fear of Big Brother, the Leviathan State, to serve as a “civil theology” to restrain our anti-social self-interest … [Adam] Smith rejected Hobbes's malevolent view of man's nature as tied to debased anti-social passions. Men, for Smith, would adopt a rule of law because it in fact reflects humanity's commonly chosen morality.

Through social evolution, as Mandeville pointed out in The Fable of the Bees, men would recognize their frail but good human nature and freely choose those institutions that would confer social order and benefits.

So: human beings play games, and then human beings invent game theory (Von Neumann was probably too smart to be counted as human, but we’ll let that slide), then humans make computers to play games so that the humans can study game theory objectively.

Computers that play games can play a some games well: checkers, chess, backgammon. Others, not so well. Game theorists Koffer and Pfeffer explain (bolding is by me):

There have been far fewer successful programs that play games such as poker or bridge. We claim that this is not an accident. These games fall into two fundamentally different classes, and the techniques that apply to one do not usually apply to the other. The essential difference lies in the information that is available to the players. In games such as chess or even backgammon, the current state of the game is fully accessible to both players. The only uncertainty is about future moves. In games such as poker, the players have imperfect information: they have only partial knowledge about the current state of the game. Fig_-_Power_of_Communication

This can result in complex chains of reasoning such as: “Since I have two aces showing, but she raised, then she is either bluffing or she has a good hand; but then if I raise a lot, she may realize that I have at least a third ace, so she might fold; so maybe I should underbid, but . . . .” It should be fairly obvious that the standard techniques are inadequate for solving such games …  In real life one rarely has perfect information.

It is well-known in game theory that the notion of a strategy is necessarily different for games with imperfect information. In perfect information games, the optimal move for each player is clearly defined: at every stage there is a “right” move that is at least as good as any other move. But in imperfect information games, the situation is not as straightforward. In the simple game of “scissors-paper-stone,” any deterministic strategy is a losing one as soon as it is revealed to the other players.

This term of “perfect” vs. “imperfect” information is an important one. Now on to “singalling,” which for some reason is spelled in game theory literature with two Ls. To sum up, when you hear “perfect info,” think of checkers. When you hear “imperfect information,” think of “poker" or “life.”

The last important game theory term I’ll bother you with is signalling.

What is “signalling”? I’m not talking about turn signals or colored lights at intersections. I’m talking about singalling as it is used in game theory, economics, and biology.

The best short, simple intro is from Carl Bergstrom, writing about gazelles (bolding and underlining mine):

stottingGrazing on the savannah, a gazelle spots a feline form moving through the tall grass fifty meters away. It lifts its head, listening and sniffing the breeze.

Released like a jack-in-the-box, it springs suddenly straight up into the air.

It lands, only to repeatedly leap in place, six feet high, again and again. Other members of the herd notice, and quickly begin to imitate its display.

A magpie alights at the edge of her nest, a juicy caterpiller dangling from her beak. Even before her feet touch the haphazard assembly of twigs, her four nestlings launch into a cacophany of squawks, warbles, clucks, and clackings.

As you are waiting for friend in the hotel lobby, a well-dressed man walks up and asks you for the time. You notice his thousand-dollar suit and, without thinking, address him as "Sir."

What, if anything, do these behaviors have in common?

_AUTOIMAGES_TRCBS154lgThe gazelle's leaping behavior, the nestlings' begging, the expensive suit - all of these things are signals. All are intended to convey information about a signaller, to a signal receiver. For humans, the fancy suit - like a fast car, an expensive bottle of wine, or a precious gemstone - indicates some property or quality of the signaller. In this case, that property might be the relative wealth of an individual.     

Gazelles may be doing something similar with their jumping or "stotting" displays. Biologists have argued that the stotting display serves as a signal of quality to potential predators. "I'm a strong and healthy gazelle," the display demonstrates. "See how high I can jump? It would be a waste of your time and energy to chase after me!"

Baby birds, through their begging behavior, may be informing their parents about how badly they need to be fed. Additional examples are easy to find. Bull elk signal their quality to rivals and to potential mates with a large rack of antlers and a loud bugling call.

A peacock's fine tail serves to advertise the high quality of its bearer to potential mates.

These signals share an additional feature: all are costly to produce and send.

Expensive suits, fast cars, wine, or jewelery are not cheap in terms of that all-important human currency, money. Similarly, the stotting display is expensive - albeit in a different sort of currency - to the gazelle.

By leaping up and down, a gazelle is expending the very energy that it will need desperately should a chase ensue. Squawking to one's parents takes energy and may also alert predators to the location of a nest; producing and bearing a huge flashy tail is also energetically expensive, not to mention risky when predators are around. hurun

Why do so many different species of animals all use signals that are inherently expensive, in a wide range of different signalling contexts?

Why not simply "whisper" the message to the intended receiver, rather than producing an elaborate and costly display?

And why do these expensive signals seem to be so convincing to the intended signal receivers?

An area of game theory called signalling theory examines the nature of communication behavior, and attempts to answer these sorts of questions.

Signalling theory can be applied broadly to human and non-human alike, and as such will be of interest to researchers in a wide range of fields, including biology, economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, communication studies, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology. ungu_al_11_07_stotting

Wherever there are organisms, there are signals.

Whether you are walking through a forest, sitting in a meadow, or swimming along a coral reef, your senses are bombarded with messages, most of the produced by non-human signallers and intended for non-human receivers.

Calls, patterns, colors, fragrances - these are just a few of the modalities by which signals are sent and received.

To a certain degree these signals must be honest, at least on average. 

After all, if they were not honest, the intended signal receivers would evolve to ignore them. And if signal receivers ignored these messages, they would be useless - and signallers would eventually evolve not to send them. But why do these signals stay honest? In the short run, at least, there would sometimes seem to be advantages to deception.

Much of honest signalling theory can be thought of as an attempt to answer this question.

Though the problem is simple to express, the solution is by no means obvious:

Two individuals have access to different information.

They could both gain if they could honestly share this information.

However, their interests do not coincide entirely, and so each has an incentive to deceive the other.

How can honest communication be ensured?

Interesting, eh?

If stotting is too new for you … consider Batman, as I often do.

the-bat-signalBatman is a signal. Everything he does, from the Bat-Spotlight atop Gotham Police Headquarters to his batarangs, is meant to deter criminals. He is sending a message. Bats uses fear to thwart them.

After all, this is the importance of dressing up like a bat. Otherwise, he would no better than some grad student explaining economic-mathematical theories in pop culture language.

I suggest the phenomenon of signalling explains why the Galileo Affair happened – and what we can learn from it.

Returning to L (remember, L is our letter-stand in for the document Galileo’s 1615 Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina…):

Letter (L) is seen (correctly) as a philosophical statement by G regarding the different, non-overlapping magisteria (to borrow Gould’s phrase) of science and religion in human society.

However, I argue that L serves another purpose in addition to its function as a treatise; properly considered, L is polysemic. G’s L is meant to be a signal in the game theory sense: “I entreat those wise and prudent Fathers to consider with great care the difference that exists between doctrines subject to proof and those subject to opinion.”

galileoblueWhy bother to signal the player CC at all? Those familiar with the names Bellarmine and Foscarini will know that the catastrophic end of the G affair was not inevitable.

The G-CC Game (GCCG) is a text that may be read as a tragicomedy of errors, of misread signals; the formal authorization of Dialogue and Bellarmine’s letter being the two most obvious examples. A review of all GCCG’s signalings is of course beyond the scope of this essay, but L seems a crucial signal, a missed opportunity in GCCG.

I argue GCCG was a variant of the iterated prisoner's dilemma, which began as a non-zero-sum game, but with imperfect information.

The “imperfect information” part of the description is crucial. Both G and CC attempted to signal the other at various stages throughout the game, only to have their signals misinterpreted or ignored. Furthermore, GCCG eventually became a noncooperative zero-sum engagement.

GCCG is a possible answer to the question “What happens in a game if there is a terrible misunderstanding in which another player seems to have defected from an agreement, but hasn't?”

In this light, GCCG may be read as a game theory parable of how a “saving face” strategy, when combined with a repeated misreading of signals sent by both parties, escalated into the worst possible conclusion for both players.

Concerning the text: I argue G is writing what an open letter, nominally addressed to an individual but intended for the consumption of moderate parties within CC. G refers to the common person's limited understanding in his argument for why the Bible cannot be read as a scientific treatise: the truths contained in the Bible were written for the general public.

Scientific truth was put second to getting the reader (or listener's) soul to heaven. While the above summary is true in a general sense, L is deeply equivocal in its rhetoric, by G’s design.galileo1med

Consider: "These propositions uttered by the Holy Ghost were set down in that manner by the sacred scribes in order to accommodate them to the capacities of the common people, who are rude and unlearned."

Yet also in L: “The reason produced for condemning the opinion that the earth moves and the sun stands still in many places in the Bible one may read that the sun moves and the earth stands still.

Since the Bible cannot err; it follows as a necessary consequence that anyone takes an erroneous and heretical position who maintains that the sun is inherently motionless and the earth movable.”

G refers to the tempests “stirred up against me no small number of professors-as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences."

Regarding Augustine: “These men would perhaps not have fallen into such error had they but paid attention to a most useful doctrine of St. Augustine's, relative to our making positive statements about things which are obscure and hard to understand by means of reason alone.” 

galileo-telescopeI grant I may misunderstand G. But I read his argument as: “The Bible is the Word of the Holy Ghost. Everything the Holy Ghost says is true. The Holy Ghost’s job in giving the Word to the Bible’s writers was to save souls and provide a moral guide to life. However, to explain the ways of God to the unwashed multitude, the Holy Ghost had to speak in a constrained and simple way that precludes the Bible’s readers from understanding physical truths that the Holy Spirit didn’t put into the Bible in the first place, and don’t blame for seeing what’s up there in the first place, as I didn’t put them there, and, anyway, Augustine would agree with me too.”

On the surface, G’s method in writing to Christina is (ironically) the same method used by the Holy Spirit in writing the Bible: talk down. Yet I doubt that “talking down” to a Grand Duchess is G’s purpose.

The astronomer is following a rhetoric of epistolary composition, ars dictaminis, as described "The Medieval Art of Letter Writing: Rhetoric as Institutional Expression" by Les Perelman, according to custom set down in Bologna during the twelfth century: “A modified 'Approved Format' version of  Murphy's table comparing the format presented in The Principles of Letter Writing with the Ciceronian six-part oration provides a vivid of the movement of  the ars dictaminis away from a rhetoric illustration of persuasion toward a rhetoric of personal relationship.”

G, to my reading, follows the Bolognese form in writing to his social superior. It is unlike his tone in Dialogue. But why would a “Bolognese letter” read like a treatise, a rhetorical set-piece, and employ such strange loops of contradiction?

Given that the letter was created in response to a letter by Benedetto Castelli detailing a dinner argument – given that these words are written to a member of G’s patron family – given all mentioned above, we must read L as a signal in GCCG. In this reading, the apparent contradictions of GCCG are not errors, but G offering, in effect, terms: “I will leave the Bible alone if I am free to posit my physical, scientific speculations. However, I can defend myself, if need be. But I am not unreasonable; see, I am quoting Augustine. Furthermore, I understand your position, and am a good Catholic.”

science-religionBigots, the close-minded, and reactionaries we will have with us always. On every side. It’s human nature. Anybody who’s read Galileo’s biography will know the Great Man was no diplomat. Quite the opposite, in fact.

But what happened to Galileo needn’t have occurred. This is not to excuse the church – even thought it had a cadre of reasonable, educated men who helped and were willing to protect Galileo, it was also a conservative institution trying to hold onto its power in the face of what it saw as a terrifying upheaval of tradition and God’s order. I am not offering any moral or ethical judgment.

What I do wonder about is why in situations of delicacy such as the Galileo Affair, both parties often end up with the worst of all possible worlds.

Short of Galileo being thrown into a dungeon or tortured by the Inquisition, it’s hard to see how the Church and the Astronomer could have handed each other a worse outcome.

On one side, a blind old man all but excommunicated, locked in his villa until death.

On the other side: a religious institution that for all its sins had been the source of intellectual life in Europe for a millennium getting with the (sadly deserved) mark of religious Cain to scientific Abel.

I think it was Burke that said the triumph of evil is that the good are often in conflict. Good men and women of God on one side. Good people of reason on the other. It needn’t be so. But it has been. It will be.

We are in a prisoner’s dilemma, a reiterated one, which started with Galileo and has not stopped until this day.


In the West, much as the Death of Socrates defined the relationship of Philosophy to Power, and the Death of Jesus of Nazareth defined the relationship of State to Church, the Trial of Galileo defined the relationship between Reason and Faith: War.

Maybe it would have happened anyway. Perhaps it was inevitable. Maybe the conflict gave both a kick in the pants: teaching Reason it couldn’t tie itself to authority to be safe, and telling Faith it needed to adapt and change to a new world. Maybe millennia from now, some far-seeing historian will read the history of GCCG and decide that, yes, that was the moment that Religion turned its gaze from physical explanation and temporal dominion to a higher, more elevated sphere; that when it gave up on enforcing physics, it began to fathom souls all the better. That Christianity yielded suzerainty over the outer world, and turned its gaze to the inner, leaving Reason the outer.

Perhaps the Galileo Game, the GCCG, was win-win after all.

Perhaps so.

But I wonder. The Galileo trial was the first meeting of Science and Faith.

And you know what they say about first impressions.

Galileo was the first modern scientist. His experience was novel, and formative. And it is remembered.

By me, for one.

Don’t you think this story is part of the reason that I’m on the side that I’m on?  I say this not to argue my point, but to show how far this particular game, the GCCG Prisoner’s Dilemma has reached.

And even though I know better, Enlightenment secular humanists like myself will always see the shadow of the Church Militant in our nightmares, a harbinger of what will happen if society should lapse into the Sleep of Reason. If I may use an American example, we are like General Motors and the Union: rationally, we ought to be able to get along. But we have an acid history.

I think we all know how each group sees the other:


Maybe I’m exaggerating the conflict. Maybe the War’s over.

Even so. The lessons of the past remain, and we are as much held hostage by them as we are our current beliefs.

G. seems to have read the game theoretician Aesop’s story The Scorpion and the Frog:

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the
scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The
frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion
says, "Because if I do, I will die too."

The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream,
the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of
paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown,
but has just enough time to gasp "Why?"

Replies the scorpion: "It’s my nature..."

The man knew. And so in the letter, he writes: “Considering the force exerted by logical deductions, they may ascertain that it is not in the power of the professors of demonstrative sciences to change their opinions at will and apply themselves first to one side and then to the other.” L seems logically consistent if we expand its semantic space: we moderns need to see L not just as philosophy but also as a signal gambit in GCCG – one that, unfortunately, was missed.

By then it was too late.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Two Crowning Moments of Heartwarming in “The Empire Strikes Back”


I have two favorite moments in Star Wars. Both are in "Empire."


My favorite moment, the one that gets to the heart of the entire saga, is when Solo's about to be frozen, Leia says "I love you," and Han says "I know."


I didn't realize how great this was until I heard about how long it took them to shoot it. They were having Ford say every thing they could think of -- if I recall, they just eventually told him to wing it, and he just responds with that. It's the kind of moment that can only come from impromptu. It's *exactly* what Han would say.

More importantly, it illustrates why the prequels didn't work. Han's role in the original trilogy is the same as the character of "Boy" in "The Invisibles": he's the one that calls "bullshit!" on the entire thing.

He doesn't buy into it, until he does. He's the skeptic, the one that's about five seconds from running of, saying "Aw, fuck this."
All the stuff we get later about him being this big idealist underneath is sensible, I guess, but it's not necessarily. Solo's a hard, bitter man. Which is why it's so important in the original, un-Stalinized "New Hope" that Han, not Greedo, shoots first. To borrow a line from Zach Cason, I grew up in a world where Han shot first. It was a Colder world. 

Han's a killer. Really think about what happens in that bar. It's nothing to him. He has just cause, but he takes a life like it’s nothing. And not in a starship; face to face with his enemy. He’s looking Greedo in the eyes when he shoots him.

I mean, if Han shoots first, you go "Oh, he's alive because he's a ruthless pirate." If Greedo shoots first, you go "Oh, he's still alive because the people hunting him are idiots." Completely different, Lucas.

Han is such a great character because he's not a bad man, but he's not a nice man. Han Solo is Oskar Schindler: a flawed person, not a hero, who's willing to deal and tolerate evil people -- and who, quite against his own intentions, gets dragged into this idealistic mess.  Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

Think of it this way: one reason why the trilogy works is the often-quoted idea of the "used universe" -- it's commonplace now but wasn't at the time. It's not just that it's set "A long, long time ago," but that everything is beat up and shitty and kinda dusty and dented, and how the Falcon keeps falling apart.

As great as it is, Star Trek isn't the world I live in, it's the world I'd like to see, but not the one that's around me. "I know" is the first time Solo's completely vulnerable; "I know" is the best he can do. It's enough.



The second is also from "Empire": Luke has just run off from Dagobah like the impetuous fool he is. Yoda knew, man. Anyway, he's fighting Vader and completely outmatched. He's holding his own but barely.

"Empire" reads like a litany of great "Vader" moments. They realized (if they hadn't before) what an awesome character they had, so they make him even *more* evil in the sequel: choking fools left and right. The makers of Star Wars wanted to top Vader in the first film, and top him they did.

In the first film, "A New Hope," the only boss Vader has is Tarkin. In "Empire," we learn that Vader has a master. Now, it's important to build suspense and tension for the arrival of Palpatine in "Return," so what Kershner and Kasdan do in "Empire" is show how double hardcore Vader is -- for chrissake, he's got kill license over his own people -- so by the time we see the Emperor in Episode VI, we've had quite a while to think to ourselves "Vader's monster straight out of Grendel. What kind of hardcore motherfucker could possibly boss *that* guy around? He must be a New God straight out of the night terrors of Harry Potter. A badass of badasses." And indeed, the Emperor is.

Jesus, there's the scary scene where he orders the fleet into the asteroid field and he's talking with the captains in hologram and one of them just disappears. Dark Lord doesn't even flinch.  Remember that Vader found out how Luke was his son between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. He’s had a while to ponder this, just how to take down the kid. Luke, of course, knows nothing. To him, Vader’s just the son-of-a-bitch who turned Obi-Wan into a commentary track, and later, a blue night-lite. Luke doesn’t know who he’s fighting, and is completely unprepared for the match. Why should he be? Ever since the end of Hope, Luke is much more powerful than anybody else he comes across.

He’s kicked ass left and right and has no idea how to measure Jedi powers or what he might be capable of. That’s because all of the Force Users In The Galaxy consist of:

  • Evil septugenarian overlord
  • Crippled cyborg evil-in-a-can
  • Late-blooming Desert Hick who has no fucking idea what he’s doing until he gets about eight minutes of trading from…
  • Ancient swamp muppet
  • Casper, the Compulsively Lying Jedi Ghost (“different point of view,” my ass)

Luke goes into his first battle with the Dark Lord not knowing what to do and completely unaware of his relationship with Anakin. The gap between Episode 4 and 5 is, I think, two years? Vader’s had forever to think this over. He knows exactly what Luke is and what he’s capable of. He outguesses the entire Rebel Scooby Gang and shows up at Cloud City. He has the entire resources of a Galactic Empire to capture them, and he chooses to fight his boy alone. It’s kind of sweet.

So we're near the end of Empire," and the Dark Lord, he's fighting his punk-ass kid, Luke ... taunting him, basically treating Luke like a kitten -- before getting bored and saying, that's enough of this shit. Vader hides from Luke, like you’d hide your face from a baby. Do you remember any other time in the series where Vader does this? No.

Meanwhile Luke is having an adrenalin rush, and is beginning to sense he’s being hazed by the Imperial Pledgemaster himself. Vader can feel Luke’s emotions, remember? He’s poking the kid, just waiting for him to blow.

Eventually he does. "Rrrraoooor!" goes young Skywalker, fairly unstable by now.

What does Vader do?

Just steps out of the shadows and starts throwing shit at him with his mind. In the most casual way ever. Just like he was ordering tea or refilling a pharmacy order.

He’s fucking toying with him. Watch the scene again and tell me I’m wrong. Vader lowers his guard for about a minute just to prove to the scamp nipping at his heels that, yes, your Old Man is a marauding badass of biblical proportions, watch as I will a mosh pit into existence from these wall components.

Luke, with all the grace of an albino in a woolen helmet clapping for meat, swings his laser sword around like a drunk kid at a pinata party. It’s kind of sad, by which I mean hilarious.

During this scene, I also like to remember that Vader’s never been a parent before. He doesn’t know how to just say to young Skywalker, “Hey, son, it’s time we had a chat.” This is how Vader and his offspring have conversations. What’s really going on during this fight is that the Dad Lord is just trying to have a heart-to-hear with his boy. Kind of a parent-teacher conference. George Lucas hated his father, and this is probably how his talks with the old guy went:

GEORGE: “Hey Dad, I’m making a movie about all the wonderful creatures and planets, the energy that surrounds them, I thought maybe—“
OLD MAN LUCAS: (Sitting in barcalounger) “Hmph!” (Furrows his brow, plaques from the Lions’ Club and the Exalted Order of California Rotarians begin flying off the paneled living room wall and battering his college-aged, flannel-wearing  son. )

The fight in Empire is a real moment of awesome. It's the first time you've seen Vader fight someone who's not an old man -- we've been given ample proof of what a badass Luke is for the previous two films -- and the Man in Black checks his watch, says "Most impressive ... oh, guess it's time to finish this," and just starts lobbing furniture at him. Not only does it show how powerful Anakin is (and that he has a dark sense of humor), it shows how completely outmatched Luke was (and even in the last movie, is) to his father.  It’s a father and son, playing catch. It’s sweet and scary at the same time.

So there you go. Your mileage may vary.


About Me

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They take it already upon their salvation, that though I be but Prince of Wales, yet I am the king of courtesy; and tell me flatly I am no proud Jack, like Falstaff, but a corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy,--by the Lord, so they call me;--and, when I am King of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap.