With Guiliani Aboard, Are There Now Two, Three or a Thousand Stooges?

Well, despite running a 2016 presidential campaign akin to a fallen soufflé, Jeb Bush got something right. Remember the Republican primary debate in which Bush declared that Donald Trump was “great at the one-liners. But he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.” Enter Rudy Guiliani, stage right, as the White House’s new legal point man in dealing with Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation–and more. In last week’s Fox interview of Guiliani, Sean Hannity clearly couldn’t believe what he was hearing when the more became the matter of hush money paid to Stormy Daniels with apparently the president’s knowledge.

But, oh, wait: Guiliani needs to learn to “get his facts straight” Trump then informed us.

The new, latest round of subsequent media interviews by Guiliani has solved nothing, of course. How could it be otherwise when the “facts” are something Guiliani admits “we’re still working on,” like a script you’re constantly rewriting in hopes the entire episode won’t turn out to be a flop, or worse, a disaster of historical proportions. “I can prove it’s rumor. I can’t prove it’s fact.” That’s one garbled statement. Another on-air answer this past weekend trailed off into saying a previous statement by Guiliani himself was actually, instead, “one of the possibilities of one of the rumors.”

In contrast, the nonverbal message being communicated by Guiliani was crystal-clear: fear. Here’s a man with his eyes bugging out, to go along with an occasional gulp or a mouth twitching wide in a display of anxiety about as well handled as a drunken man trying to hold onto a wet bar of soap in the shower.

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The old Guiliani mostly showed combatant disgust, with a raised upper lip (see the left image) to ward off his critics. But now he’s simultaneously closing his eyes, unable to punch his way out of a paper bag. Truth be told, it might all be so funny—like a scene from The Three Stooges—if it 050918-02 Three Stoogesweren’t all so sad and dangerous. With one eye on Erdogan’s ever-tightening grip in Turkey, with the other I’m watching a serious, madcap farce playing out here at home. Guiliani is but the latest, inept addition to a cast of grafters (Scott Pruitt) and henchmen (Michael Cohen) that makes Trump’s boast of engaging in “truthful hyperbole” only half true most days.

Michelle Wolf at the White House Press Dinner

At least three analogies come to mind.  Pick your favorite. When the comedian Michelle Wolf gave the keynote roast at last Saturday’s televised White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, D.C., was her performance a matter of speaking-truth-to-power, humor-as-torture or humor-as-colonoscopy? (Check out Youtube for the full performance.) Certainly, President Donald Trump’s stand-in, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was not amused by the proceedings. Sitting on the dais just a few feet from Wolf, what did Sanders’s face reveal when the comedian aimed her barbed jokes at the press secretary starting at about the 13-minute mark of what proved to be a 19-minute performance?

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  • “I love you as Aunt Lydia in ‘The Handsmaid’s Tale’” Wolf puckishly said on stage, alluding to the terrifying re-education maestro at the center of the book, film, and now Hulu television series. In response, Sanders did more than flinch. Lips pressed in anger, with a slight disgust sneer, was Sanders’s first response, followed by the slightest of grimace smiles, closed eyes, and a raised eyebrow, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding shrug of dismissal.
  • As to the evening’s perhaps most notorious line about the press secretary, “she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” how did Sanders respond? A wide-mouth shudder of fear followed the reference to “burns facts.” Then Sanders settled back into coping with the pointed criticism by resorting to a combination of a slight smile, firm lips, and eyes momentarily closed in disappointment.

It wasn’t only Sanders who was disappointed. When Wolf moved from alluding to Aunt Lydia to rhetorically asking, “What’s Uncle Tom for white women who disappoint other white women?” the audience responded with both laughter and jeers. Did Wolf know she was pushing the edge? Absolutely, as Wolf’s rejoiner (“Oh, I know: Ann Coulter”) was one of the few times on stage that Wolf managed a true, eyes-crinkling smile of joy. Otherwise, Wolf tended to display a mixture of mouth-pulled-wide fear, fairly slight smiles, and a lower lip pulled down and out in disgust.

Some pundits have compared Wolfe’s performance to Stephen Colbert’s roast of George W. Bush at the 2006 White House press dinner. But after re-watching that earlier performance by Colbert, I can tell you the similarity is limited. Colbert mostly displayed eyes wide in mock surprise at his own jokes, delivered with numerous smiles amid mock consternation at what he had to tell the president seated beside him. Yes, Bush wasn’t always amused but at evening’s end he shook Colbert’s hand with a smile. This year after the roast was over, Sanders refused to participate in a photograph on the dais that would have brought her and Wolf together.

What’s the big take-away here? In 2006, the Iraq war fiasco and the aftermath of Katrina were ugly enough. But the country’s mood nowadays is, if anything, even uglier amid so much partisan rancor. When Wolf began to warm up for “ribbing” Sanders, she started by saying “We should definitely talk about the women in the Trump administration” and showed both a raised upper lip and a down-ward twisting lower lip at the same time: a double dose of disgust. Sanders on stage and Trump on a daily basis are likewise given to showing disgust, in turn, for those denouncing them. As an emotion, disgust signals that something tastes bad, smells bad; rejection results, and a loss of intimacy.

There is nothing congenial left in how Americans are interacting, politically, in the age of Trump. Many people found Wolfe’s remarks in poor taste, vulgar, and far more mean-spirited than funny, and they have a point. The president gleefully joined in, tweeting that the dinner was “DEAD as we know it.” But for anyone objecting to Wolf’s tone and content – given Trump’s own demeanor and antics – that’s a little bit akin to imagining Al Capone complaining back in the day about John Dillinger’s behavior. Being “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius,” Trump promised us he would hire the “best people” to join his administration. A year and a half after Trump won the election, I’m voting for humor-as-colonoscopy to explain Wolf’s performance.

Grief-Stricken: Comey Pushes Back Against Trump

One name kept coming to mind as I watched former F.B.I. director Jim Comey’s interview on ABC’s “20/20” program last night, and it wasn’t Vladimir Putin. Instead, the name was John Dean: the man who served as Richard Nixon’s White House counsel from 1970 to 1973. Why did Dean’s name resurface now? It’s that moment before the Senate Watergate Committee when Dean recalls telling the president that, given the cover-up underway, there was “a cancer growing on the presidency and if the cancer was not removed that the president himself would be killed by it.”

Two details of Dean’s testimony stand out for me even after all these years. The first was the high stakes involved. While Alexander Butterfield’s inadvertent disclosure about the existence of a taping system within the White House was the torpedo that sank Nixon’s presidency, Dean’s testimony was the major, sustained, initial hit. The other detail is just how flat-footed but earnest Dean was as he stoically read a seven-hour opening statement, rarely emoting.

Comey’s five hours of being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos was boiled down into an hour-long segment on ABC. Also, there was plenty of emoting by the former F.B.I. director. Those are the differences between Dean and Comey’s televised appearances, neither of which takes away from the similarities between the two men and the circumstances they found themselves in. With Comey likely to be central to Robert Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice case against Trump, the stakes in judging Comey’s veracity and motives are immense; and, yes, Comey came across on the air as equally flat-footed but earnest.

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Of all the ways a person might emote, few if any are as hard to fake as when somebody’s inner eyebrows arch upwards without the entire brow rising. That movement is a reliable sign of sadness, fear and surprise.  Call it grief, for short. On “20/20”, Comey expressed grief repeatedly and in bipartisan fashion. The inner eyebrows shot up, for example, while discussing Barrack Obama’s attorney general Loretta Lynch insisting Comey call his probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server a “matter”, not an “investigation”.  And they shot up again and again as Comey talked about Trump extracting a pledge of “honest loyalty” from Comey at a private White House dinner; about Trump raising Michael Flynn’s case and asking Comey to “let it go;” about inviting Russian guests into the White House shortly after firing Comey and telling those guests the “pressure is off;” about the possibility of Muller being fired by Trump; and finally even about the possibility of Trump ever being impeached.

Since Comey calls Trump’s presidency a “forest fire” causing grievous damage to America in his new book, A Higher Loyalty, why not favor impeachment? The former F.B.I. director’s rationale is that to do so would be the easy way out. As he said on “20/20”, the American people need to “vote their values,” values Comey believes amount to faith in maintaining that nobody is above the law. In making that statement on the air, for one of the few times in the interview Comey’s lower eyelids grew taut with anger.

Why is anger, and its rarity compared to expressions of grief, significant? Because expressing anger so rarely speaks to Comey’s motives in going on offense against Trump with the new book and an extensive book tour. Will Comey make some money? Yes. Does he hope to restore and possibly even burnish his reputation? Undoubtedly. Is he out for revenge? Due to the far greater frequency of grief instead of anger, I don’t think so. I believe Comey is utterly earnest about seeing Trump as equivalent to a mafia boss who must be stopped before inflicting more damage on the country. (Other instances where Comey shows that brand of anger is Trump’s habit of trying to establish dominance, and Trump treating women “like meat.”)

One pejorative slang term for cops is to of course call them “flatfoots”.  Of Comey’s fundamental honesty and decency I have little doubt after watching him on “20/20”. As to any criticism of him, who could say they would do better in the situations Comey experienced? Still, there is something a little odd about a veteran, high-level law enforcement officer allowing himself to be alone with Trump more than once, no witnesses present, for compromising conversations.

Comey admits to not having had “the guts” to push back against Trump in-person. In making that admission to Stephanopoulos, Comey’s entire brow raised as if in perpetual surprise and discomfort about his own lack of courage.  In perhaps being naïve in an un-naïve sort of way, Comey brought to mind Dean yet again, given the moment captured on tape of Dean telling Nixon, “I have the impression that you don’t know everything I know,” when in fact Nixon knew plenty more than Dean had yet to realize.

A Tight-Lipped Zuckerberg: The Face of Facebook in the Congressional Hot Seat

So it’s over. Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has spent two days being questioned by Congress about Russian and Cambridge Analytica malfeasance involving Facebook’s platform, and the verdict from Wall Street is that Zuckerberg did great. Over those two days, the stock price rose more than 5%, adding over $24 billion to Facebook’s capitalization and personally netting Zuckerberg around $3 billion. That’s not a bad return on Facebook’s investment of hiring a team from the law firm WilmerHale to put Zuckerberg through “charm school” before the hearings began.

So far so good, but how did Zuckerberg really perform? Can Congressional leaders and the American public believe what Facebook’s CEO said? The nonverbal signals suggest otherwise.

The goal was for Zuckerberg to come across as humble, contrite, and trustworthy. That would be Zuckerberg as kindly Dr. Jekyll (in a newfound suit and tie) and not the evil Mr. Hyde version (in his usual gray t-shirt and hoodie) as emphasized in the movie The Social Network. Yes, Zuckerberg (mostly) said all the right things. “Our top priority has always been our social mission,” Zuckerberg intoned right on-message as he spoke of “connecting people” and “building communities.” But often the CEO wasn’t especially on-emotion when it came to appearing open-minded and open-hearted regarding users’ concerns about privacy and transparency.  Examples abound.

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 In an opening statement mea culpa, Zuckerberg told the Senators “I’m sorry” while glaring at them defiantly.  Is Facebook a monopoly? Zuckerberg managed a forced smile as he asserted that it “certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.” But by then, his eyebrows had already shot up, while averting his gaze, in initially reacting to Senator Lindsey Graham’s query. Clearly, the question had hit its mark.

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Sometimes, Zuckerberg backtracked. For example, Senator Diane Feinstein wanted to know: “Why not ban Cambridge [Analytica from accessing data]?” Of course, the real answer is that Facebook’s business model depends on harvesting and sharing people’s personal data. So Zuckerberg’s voice got tight and his mouth pulled wide in fear as he dodged the question by saying Cambridge Analytica wasn’t an advertiser (and therefore seemingly immune to any ban). After a break and conferring with “his team,” however, Zuckerberg informed the Senators he’d “misspoke.” Zuckerberg gave that admission with his eyes wide, alert to whatever danger his fudging might bring.

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All in all, it’s true that the Senators and Representatives didn’t extract any firm, worthwhile promises from Zuckerberg to do better in terms of users’ privacy. The team that was so quick to inform Zuckerberg that he’d misspoken in regards to Cambridge Analytica’s initial status as an advertiser apparently couldn’t be as quick to provide specific solutions for the concerns Congress was raising. Relatively unscathed, an ever more confident Zuckerberg eventually moved by degrees to being his usual reckless, happy-go-lucky self.

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Asked point blank by a member of the House of Representatives on day two of his testimony, “Why should we trust you?” Zuckerberg felt comfortable blithely smiling his way through his answer.

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At 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park, California, “move fast and break things” remains the unofficial model of an enterprise that first found its footing by posting photos of Harvard female students being often harshly ranked by other (male) students regarding their beauty. Anger was Zuckerberg’s primary mode during the hearings, a closed, tightly-expressed emotion about wanting to be in control and move ahead as you see fit.  Zuckerberg’s initial, angry Mr. Hyde tendency, on display this week on Capitol Hill, doesn’t bode well for Congress or users getting anything close to what they want from Facebook going forward. Advertisers, well, that’s another story altogether.

When “You’re Fired” Becomes a Constitutional Crisis

Trained killers will kill, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the presidency of Donald Trump could be approaching a constitutional crisis. As a way to squelch special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of him, will Trump fire U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein? And would Trump be within his rights to do so? The legality of this and other possible maneuvering by Trump to avoid further scrutiny in the wake of the FBI raid that seized documents from Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen is a story still to be told: likely in Congress, in the courts, and most of all in the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, as Lou Reed’s favorite poet Delmore Schwartz once observed, the past is inevitable. So it’s to the past we can turn for a more definitive perspective on the current mess.

A large part of this looming crisis goes back to Donald’s relationship with his father, Fred, and how Donald was trained. “You are a killer . . . you are a king . . . you are a killer . . . you are a king” was the mantra Fred used to tell his two boys, Freddy and Donald, from their early childhoods onward. Never be vulnerable was the underlying message. Freddy the “loveable loser” flamed out long ago from alcoholism, but Donald is still going strong . . . or is he? Was Donald ever really, truly strong? To what degree is the boy who endlessly sought to gain his father’s attention and approval, while eager to best him, still the insecure brat who once bullied classmates and engaged in mischief involving stink bombs and switchblades?

Trained killers will kill, which brings us back to the present. Watch the extraordinary video of Trump objecting to the FBI raid—“an attack on our country”—and beyond the words, what stands out the most? To be sure, there’s Trump’s anger.  In calling the investigation “a total witch hunt,” Trump’s eyes narrow. And when he characterizes the raid as a “break in,” there’s more of that look of eyes reduced to slits, with the lower eyelids taut with anger to go along with an upper lip raised in anger and disgust.

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But an infuriated, fuming Trump is only part of the story here, emotionally speaking. Never be vulnerable. There’s also a president understandably weary of an investigation that’s lasted almost the length of his presidency. The strain would hamper any man, and certainly somebody now 71 years old. He’s not a boy anymore, but what are the odds Trump hasn’t been engaged in mischief that might earn him more than just his father’s begrudging admiration? Watch the video, and you’ll also see Trump closing his eyes as if to ward off the mess he’s found himself in. Even more so, note the fear. Cohen’s “a good man” Trump vows, but the president’s mouth pulls wide in fear as he says so. Cohen has been by all accounts his fixer, and now the fixer could be somebody who, given enough legal pressure, could spill the beans and leave Trump extremely vulnerable. Fear piles up. The investigation’s “a disgrace” Trump also says, even as his right outer eyebrow arches up in fear and surprise, eyes closed again. A “biased” team of investigators, Trump objects. Again his mouth pulls wide in fear. Everybody’s unfairly after him, Trump believes and feels the danger.

What Mueller knows, or is about to know thanks in part to Cohen’s documents, we don’t know. But eventually the public will find out. What we already know is Donald Trump’s personality and modus operandi. His grandfather ran brothels in the Wild West. His father, Fred, augmented his other real estate earnings by building G.I. housing after World War Two—and was investigated by the government for possibly bilking it. Now his son is the government, he’s the president, but he’s wild and quite likely been operating outside the law while supposedly embodying the law of the land. Trump’s signature line on The Apprentice was, of course, telling people “You’re fired”: in effect killing off “losers.” Waves of people have already left this administration. Will Trump fire Rosenstein, Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Who’s next? Or will it be Trump ultimately getting fired from his own White House reality show? Whatever happens, the ratings will remain sky-high.

 

The Importance of Being Angry: John Bolton’s New Job

In The Godfather, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered character of Tom Hagen loses his role within the Corleone family because he may be a good lawyer, but he’s not a “war-time” consigliere. In conflict with the other ruling mafia families in New York City, Michael Corleone wants to rely on his father’s advice instead.  With John Bolton replacing H. R. McMaster as Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, heaven help us now that a “kiss-up, kick-down” character has the President’s ear. Out goes somebody Hagen-like in being a voice of reason; in comes Belligerence personified.

“Kiss-up, kick-down” was how Bolton was described during the U.S. Senate hearings in which Republicans helped deny Bolton’s formal nomination as America’s next U.N. ambassador. (George W. Bush gave Bolton the job anyway, for a while, by making him a recess appointee.) Bolton is colorful. A brown-noser of those in power above him while infamous for browbeating subordinates, Bolton has dismissed government bureaucrats as “munchkins.”

Not unexpectedly, a comparison of out-going McMaster’s emotive tendencies and Bolton’s points to major differences. McMaster is over five times more given to expressing surprise on his face than Bolton, also sadder, more anxious—and only half as prone to anger. In other words, McMaster tends to be more curious and sensitive to disappointments and danger. In contrast, over 50% of Bolton’s emotional profile consists of a single emotion, anger, the purpose of which is to hit out, attack, and remove what the person (rightly or wrongly) considers to be barriers to progress.

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Anger can facilitate tunnel-vision; Bolton advocated for the war in Iraq, and still views it as having been a good decision to intervene there. He’s also called for the “swift takeover” of North Korea by South Korea, believes in bombing Iran, and sees wisdom in rearranging Syria’s borders (by force).

Neither of the two remaining generals near Trump—White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—are exactly thrilled about Bolton’s new job. But it’s easy to see how Trump could be. Drama and ego are what the former Apprentice ringmaster feeds on. We already know that lead attorney John Dowd resigned in no small part because he objected to Trump’s desire to have a sit-down with Robert Mueller’s investigative team. How could Trump resist such a starring role? Forget the risk of getting caught perjuring yourself and thereby enabling possible impeachment hearings.

Being on trial would be exciting.  Stormy Daniels already was.  Why not go all the way, because what could be more diverting and dramatic than becoming a war-time president? With the help of Bolton and the new nominee for Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Trump may just get there.  The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s satirical play about staid Victorian society, was a good fit for its time. But this is now the Age of Trump and in being a bully who constantly spoils for a fight, what’s more handy for the President than having henchmen who like to hit others, too.

Trump and the Trinity of Blood, Money, and Sex

The Israeli author Amos Oz has noted the wicked irony of the Jewish people being forever condemned to rehash in conversations an unlikely pair of men they’ve suffered because of: Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler. So it is with America and Donald Trump, who seemingly lives to have his name on everybody’s lips. Day after day there’s another incident.  It’s amazing how Trump keeps reducing the dignity of being our President by violating basic standards of decency faster than anyone could have ever anticipated. All of which brings me to the subject of this particular blog: Stormy Daniels.

Bill Clinton had his infidelities exposed, from Jennifer Flowers to taking advantage of a still very young and impressionable Monica Lewinsky. But there’s never been quite anything like having a sitting President under scrutiny after his lawyer, Michael Cohen, admits to having paid $130,000 in 2016 to keep a porn star silent about the intimate details of her alleged relationship with the President a decade ago.

What kind of person is Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, aka Peggy Peterson in the legal agreement in which Trump is referred to as David Dennison? Should she get to tell her whole story to the media, including “60 Minutes,” the person on screen will show us smiles of varying intensities, accompanied by an upper lip raised in disgust, anger, and contempt. Now the smiles aren’t something for which Trump has any emotional affinity. He’s sadder than any President we’ve had since Richard Nixon. But disgust is the other emotion Trump specializes in. Everything stinks, is gross, causing a famous germophobe like Trump to also have problems with true intimacy, as disgust is an emotion all about creating boundaries between yourself and what’s around you.

 

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Trump doesn’t drink or smoke or do drugs. His “loveable loser” of a brother did, and Freddy died of alcoholism.  But Trump will have sex, lots of sex, with wives and prostitutes alike. In Fire & Furry, Steve Bannon gets quoted as saying there have been “a hundred” instances like Stormy Daniels,  and Abe Wallach, the former head of acquisitions for the Trump Organization, has said that “Donald is actually the most insecure man I’ve ever met,” somebody who needs to “fill a void inside. He used to do it with deals and sex. Now he does it with publicity.”

Well, actually it seems like Wallach got it half-right: insecurity, a void, a whirl of activity, yes. Trump moving on from sex? Not so much. Cohen’s pay off (supposedly from his own pocket, without being reimbursed by Trump personally or at least his campaign) remains to be investigated.  Will that detail become another clue scrutinized by Robert Mueller’s team? As a journalist I once heard being interviewed on the radio said: after a few years in this profession, you learn that if the story doesn’t include at least one of these three elements—blood, money or sex—then it isn’t a story with any real legs to it.

Trump’s got the blood part down pat. My tribe, not yours. What is “Make America Great Again” if not in some measure a dog’s whistle plea to make America white again (as many a commentator has noted)? Ditto when it comes to money and sex, and the intersection of the two. The New Yorker has reported that when Trump offered a former Playmate of the Year (Karen McDougal) money after sex, she declined, to which Trump replied: “You are special.” What photographs, video, or other kinds of evidence the Russians might own and could be using to blackmail Trump given his sexcapades, who knows. But I can say that the nature of Stormy Daniels, as evident from her photos, isn’t of somebody likely to be cowed by any of Trump’s legal shenanigans. Monica Lewinsky responded to all of the publicity that came her way with a mixture of bittersweet smiles and eyes-unfocused sadness, but Daniels will, indeed, be stormy not subdued.

To me, Bill Clinton’s ugly penchant for cheating on Hillary is rooted in a comment he allegedly made to his friend Vernon Jordan on a golf course one day: “I used to be a fat, poor kid and now I can have any woman I want.” Bill’s dalliances have always struck me as mostly a matter of that former leader wanting to see who he could woo and seduce next, as a testament to his personal powers of persuasion.  Money never much interested Bill, I believe, except as re-election funds. With Trump, however, cash and sex are more closely married than Donald is to Melania. Our current president’s idea of pillow talk? That apparently consisted of asking Daniels how much she makes in royalties from her various pornographic movies.

Pyeongchang Olympics Quagmire: The Crushing Success of Nearly Winning

One of the peculiarities of the Olympics is how the podium is structured, with the silver and bronze medalists typically standing at equal heights below the winning, gold medalist. Is that design meant to simulate a spirit of harmonious equality? Or is it actually a nod to the reality that silver medalists often feel more like they’re “second banana” than “second best” given high hopes of winning it all?

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The reaction of members of the women’s hockey team when Canada “won” the silver medal after a long history of Olympic success on the ice rink speaks to a common emotional reality. Note the downturned corners of the mouth of these players and their teary, unfocused eyes. Even more obvious was Jocelyne Larocque’s reaction: almost immediately removing the silver medal she received, only to later issue an apology for “letting my emotions get the better of me.” See The Washington Post’s coverage.

It’s not easy almost winning, as several studies have shown. Should you need evidence of that conclusion, check out:

Then again, coming in 3rd isn’t necessarily a picnic, either, as Slovenia’s Zan Kosir’s face confirms.

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Unexpected victories are among the sweetest, of course. The victory by the U.S. in men’s curling was astonishing, as the team’s jaw-dropping surprise looks confirm.

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To others, however, nothing has been more surprising than how much the U.S. athletes have struggled to reach the podium at this year’s winter Olympics in South Korea.  Theories of why America has been buried by Norway in the medal count range from “we always struggle” in events with names like Nordic Combined to having athletes this time around who are either too old to hold up physically or too young to handle the stress. What could be the way forward, at least emotionally speaking when buckling under stress is apparently a major issue? Based on my own studies of great athletes in my upcoming book, Famous Faces Decoded, as well as a previous blog on tennis stars, let me suggest a novel solution. Groom winners by having the U.S. Olympic trainers focus on developing athletes prone to disgust. A curling upper lip and a wrinkled nose are the classic signs of disgust, an emotion about rejecting what doesn’t taste or smell good: like not being a winner. My conclusion is that disgust, not anger, can propel athletes forward to victories as much as any other emotion around.

In that spirit, I noticed the reaction of Finland’s Livo Niskaen on winning gold in the 50-kilometer mass start event.  Note the raised upper lip that accompanies the whoop of joy.

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Michelle and Barack Obama’s Official Portraits: Emotive Pseudo-Realism

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The two smiles that stick in my memory and soul are not only Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile but also Barack Obama’s tender, joyful smile. From where Da Vinci’s masterpiece sits in its place of honor at the Louvre in Paris to a rented ballroom in Des Moines, Iowa, is quite a stretch. But in that ballroom in Des Moines the night that Barack won the Iowa caucuses contest in 2008, launching him toward the presidency, I watched and wondered at how he smiled as he greeted well-wishers. The smile on display that evening crinkled his eyes, vibrantly yet softly, with a conveyed sense of gratitude, wonder, and authenticity; absent was stern gravitas or over-the-top, hackneyed, thumbs-up waves to the crowd. Alongside him, Michelle Obama came across as even more subdued as well as humble and grateful.

So joining the nation in seeing the official presidential likenesses unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday was something of a shock. I applaud both the former first man and first lady choosing distinguished African-American portrait artists to depict them, breaking the former monopoly of white artists depicting white presidents in mostly a vanilla style. In Barack’s case, Kehinde Wiley has gone with his penchant for painting other African-American subjects prior to Barack in fairly regal poses.  At the National Portrait Gallery installation ceremony, Barack admitted that Wiley had tried putting him atop a horse and a throne, before settling for a formal chair nestled amid greenery.

As to Barack’s smile, the one I saw in Des Moines that January evening has long ago been eaten alive by Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who sought to obstruct Barack’s progress in office. The smile evident in Wiley’s portrait is slight and overwhelmed by seriousness. The eyebrows pinched and pulled down, the lower eyelids raised and taut, the lips pressing together firmly enough that a bulge is vaguely evident beneath the middle of the lower lip all contribute to a sense of a thoughtful, frustrated, even brooding man. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. But where that comparison Barack invited himself by launching his campaign in Springfield, Illinois a decade ago breaks down is that instead of Lincoln’s sadness, here we have disgust hinted at by a slightly raised upper lip but mostly evident from how the cheeks pouch on either side of Barack’s nose.

Why the anger shown on Barack’s face? That isn’t his most signature emotion. A joyful, eyes- twinkling smile might qualify instead, or even more so than disgust the contemptuous smirk that crept into Barack’s facial expressions repertoire the longer he stayed in the White House. Is it that anger signals being in control, as indicated by the former president learning forward in his chair rather than drifting above and away from the partisan fray, as was to a fault Barack’s natural tendency?

As for Michelle’s portrait by Amy Sherald, it’s if anything even more unexpected.  The striking white patterned gown is arguably as much the focal point as the woman wearing it. But for me, it’s Michelle’s facial expression that intrigues most. The pressed lips, the narrowed eye, the cheek pouched on the opposite side of her face: in those ways Michelle’s feelings are shown mirroring those of her husband. But that I think is only, in part, who Michelle is emotionally. Outer eyebrows raised higher would more faithfully reflect her tendency to be surprised, even a little fearful, which she fights through with a big hearty smile that isn’t as effervescent as Barack’s smile at its best: more like beer with a good head of foam in Michelle’s case, as opposed to Barack’s champagne smile.

That said, there’s this final oddity about Michelle’s portrait: she’s in repose. Her legs seem to be crossed beneath the gown, and her head is resting on the upside-down palm of her hand in a way that to me suggests some measure of slightly dainty passivity. In short, the two portraits are a relief from the usual, vanilla-flavored portraits of past first couples. But if this pair of portraits doesn’t quite come home for me, emotionally, it’s because whereas Barack is portrayed as too tense and assertive, Michelle is portrayed as not as wide-eyed, innocent, and frisky as I believe she’s remained.

The Incoming Tide: How Facial Recognition and Facial Coding Will Feed Into A.I.

I pioneered the use of facial coding in business to capture and quantify people’s intuitive emotional responses to advertising, products, packaging, and much more. So I’m a believer in Cicero’s adage that “All action is of the mind and the mirror of the mind is its face, its index the eyes.” Yes, an awful lot is in the face: four of our five senses are located there, and it serves as the easiest and surest barometer of a person’s beauty, health, and emotions. But Cicero’s adage also leads to the question: whose eyes serve as the interpreter, and how reliable are they?

An article in last Saturday’s edition of The New York Times, “Facial Recognition Is Accurate, If You’re a White Guy” raises exactly those questions. Usually, in “Faces of the Week” I focus on what I guess you could call the rich and famous. But in this case I’m showcasing Joy Buolamwini, a M.I.T. researcher whose TED talk on algorithmic injustices has already been viewed almost a million times on-line. Hooray for Boulamwini for documenting just how accurate facial recognition technology is to date. Take gender, for example. If you’re a white guy, the software has 99% accuracy in recognizing whether you’re male or female. But if you’re a black woman, like Boulamwini, then for now you have to settle for something like 65% accuracy instead.

021218-01 Joy Buolamwini (resize)

The implications of such errors are enormous. The Economist, for one, has written about the emerging “facial-industrial complex.” In airports, cars, appliances, courtrooms, online job interviews, and elsewhere, a tidal wave of uses for automated facial recognition software, emotional recognition software (facial coding), and how both will feed into artificial intelligence (A.I.) systems is well under way.  So it’s no laughing matter when, for instance, a Google image-recognition photo app labeled African-Americans as “gorillas” back in 2015.

In my specialty, I’ve doggedly stuck to manual facial coding in researching my newest book, Famous Faces Decoded: A Guidebook for Reading Others (set for release on October 1, 2018). And the reason is accuracy. A knowledgeable, experienced facial coder can exceed 90% accuracy, whereas the emotional recognition software that forms the second wave behind the identity recognition software that Boulamwini has investigated is, at best, probably in the 60% range as companies like Apple, Facebook, and others weigh in. As Boulamwini has shown, even getting a person’s gender right can be tricky. Then throw in not one variable—male or female—but seven emotions and the 23 facial muscle movements that reveals those emotions, often in combination, and you can begin to see why the task of automating emotional recognition isn’t a slam-dunk.

Add in the influence of money to be made, and credibility suffers because the big claims of accuracy never go away. Plenty of firms offering automated facial coding services claim in excess of 90% accuracy, knowing that they won’t be able to attract customers by acknowledging a lower rate.

That makes for embarrassing moments. One company claiming 90% was appalled when they asked my firm to test and confirm their accuracy. When we found it to be at maybe half that level of accuracy, they rushed to provide us with the results from an academic contest in which they placed first by achieving 52% accuracy (based on standards we weren’t privy to learning). Another company’s software we tested showed all seven emotions flaring into strong action at a certain moment in time. In actuality, however, the person’s head had merely tilted a little—with no big burst of feelings having actually taken place just then. In another instance, automated facial coding software reported that the three judges in a mock appellate hearing had been so endlessly angry that about 75% of their emoting had supposedly consisted of anger during the proceedings. If so, that would have been an astonishing rate considering that the rapper Eminem was, at 73%, the single most frequently angry person in my sample of the 173 celebrities I manually coded for Famous Faces Decoded.

I could go on and on with such examples of automated facial coding not yet being ready for prime time. The case of another firm’s software supposedly detecting emotions in a plastic doll placed in front of a web cam to watch a TV commercial also comes to mind. Meanwhile, the reactions of the three companies Boulamwini tested for the accuracy of their facial recognition software are equally telling. China-based Megvii ignored requests for comment before the NYT’s story was published. Microsoft promised that improvements were under way. As for IBM, the company claimed to be on the verge of releasing identity recognition software nearly 10x better than before in terms of detecting dark-skinned women more faithfully. What’s the old saying in Silicon Valley? If you’re not embarrassed by your initial launch, then you waited too long.