Towel-snapping semiotics: How the frontal lobe comes out through the mouth

« previous post | next post »

Yesterday's Tank McNamara:

The previous day's strip:

And today's:

The lawyer's towel-snapping fixation is apparently a slightly obscure reference to a slightly obscure aspect of the Penn State sex abuse scandal. The towel-snapping business emerged as a way to explain some sounds previously attributed to a much less innocent activity, as suggested in this passage from Bob Costas's interview with Jerry Sandusky ("Jerry Sandusky to Bob Costas in exclusive 'Rock Center' interview: 'I shouldn't have showered with those kids.'", 11/14/2011):

Q: What did happen in the shower the night that Mike McQueary happened upon you and the young boy?
A: OK, we were showering, and- and horsing around, and he actually turned all the showers on, and was actually sliding across the uh the floor, and um and we were as I recall possibly like snapping a towel, horseplay.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The whole interview is here:

A less intentionally humorous reaction took place at an Atlanta television station, which brought in an expert in "voice analysis" to apply "mathematic algorithms" to determine the truthfulness of Sandusky's statements ("Sandusky Truth Test", 11/16/2011):

Voice analysis measures the frequency of the human voice as someone is speaking and unlike a polygraph test, no one has to be hooked up to wires. It can analyze a phone conversation, or as in the case today, Jerry Sandusky's interview with Bob Costas.

Lynn Robbins, the president of Voice analysis Technologies, says it is 95 percent accurate and is being used by law enforcement around the country. Robbins says it's an investigative tool and is not used to pronounce someone guilty.

Robbins says, "It works off the frequency of the human voice and analyzes a person as they're speaking. It's the way the frontal lobe of the brain communicates through the vocal cords and comes out through the mouth and it measures differences, mathematic algorithms are applied to that and it measures the differences." […]

Robbins says law enforcement uses voice analysis with sex offenders because it is very effective. She said Sandusky's interview results were very similar to those of interviews with other sex offenders.

Robbins stresses this isn't her opinion, it's the finding of a computerized analysis that attaches mathematical algorithms to the human voice.

That's from the online text, which includes material not present in the video below — and as usual, I need to insert a caveat about not trusting journalists' transcriptions of interviews.

For a discussion of how we know that these "scientific" techniques apparently perform no better than chance at detecting deception, and why I'm appalled by the nature of this industry and the ill-defined technologies that it's allegedly based on,  see "Speech-based 'lie detection'? I don't think so", 11/10/2011.

Lynn Robbins is the president of Voice Analysis Technologies, which apparently sells Nemesysco's voice analysis products. Before taking up a position selling Nemesysco products, "Her background includes both civil and military duty in domestic Air Traffic Control. Her responsibilities included operational tower control, training, FAA coordination and communications as well as the direct control of air traffic. Throughout her civilian and military careers, Lynn has consistently made measurable, positive changes in the fundamental operations of both businesses and military units. […] Lynn received her Bachelor's degree in International Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park, with specialized studies in several republics of the former Soviet Union."

TJ Ward, who was featured in the analysis of Herman Cain's statements about sexual harassment accusations in the TV News segment discussed in that earlier post, is listed as working for the same company.

Voice Analysis Technologies is apparently based in Madison WI, so I'm not sure why their personnel have recently been so popular with Atlanta-area TV news outfits.

Here's the best part of Ms. Robbins' interview again (as transcribed by the 11 Alive news site):

Robbins says, "It works off the frequency of the human voice and analyzes a person as they're speaking. It's the way the frontal lobe of the brain communicates through the vocal cords and comes out through the mouth and it measures differences, mathematic algorithms are applied to that and it measures the differences."

I'm moved to join H.L. Mencken in giving thanks for this wonderful country, where

… more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly–the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages, and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances–is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows. ["On Being an American", 1922]


  1. Dan S said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 6:43 am

    Also anatomically intriguing: the attachment of mathematical algorithms to the human voice.

  2. John O'Toole said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 7:39 am

    Minor point: I must thank the author of the usually uninteresting Tank McNamara, Jeff Millar, for introducing me to the term "hinky," which I had never encountered before. I was convinced it was a typo for "kinky," especially given the context of the, um, strip.

    [(myl) The OED glosses hinky adj. [U.S. colloq. (orig. in African-American usage and Police slang)] as "1. Chiefly Police slang. Nervous, uneasy.; 2. Suspect, questionable. Also: unreliable, not working properly."]

  3. Rod Johnson said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 9:22 am

    "NYPD Blue" was my introduction to hinky. Seemed like they used it in almost every episode.

  4. rgh said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    It is used in almost every episode of NCIS by the character Abby Sciuto:

  5. Devilbunny said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 11:58 am

    "Hinky" was also used by one of the (Chicago PD?) cops in 1993's The Fugitive. Tommy Lee Jones' character asks for clarification on its meaning. That was the first time I heard it, as a southern AmE native.

  6. Tim said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    Even if this technology worked in the first place, wouldn't it presumably need to work on a higher-fidelity recording than what you'd get over the telephone? This seems like having a computer that finds lies by detecting unconscious twitches in a person's face and making the input a VHS tape that was recorded with Vaseline over the camera lens.

  7. Brett said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    "Hinky" is one of my favorite words, and I use it a lot. I learned it some time in high school, probably from television, but I don't know what show that would have been.

  8. PTC said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

    I think I remember "hinky" from one of Kerouac's novels–maybe The Dharma Bums?–as occurring in a conversation between the Kerouac character and the Ginsberg character.

  9. PTC said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

    Just checked–yes, it's in The Dharma Bums, but there it's spelled "hincty." I assume it's the same word–the Ginsberg character is berating the Kerouac character for "coming on all hincty"–i.e., being reluctant to join in a nice healthy orgy.

    [(myl) FWIW, the OED lists hincty as a separate word, glossed as "Conceited, snobbish, stuck-up" (with a Kerouac citation); and in 2006 added a sense "Wary, worried, suspicious. Also occas.: unreliable", with a cross-reference to hinky adj. 2.]

  10. Rodger C said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    "Hincty" sounds to me there as if it means "prudish," cf. "dicty," which I associate with AAVE.

  11. KevinM said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

    As a prosecutor, I found that cops tended to use "hinky" in a very specific context: to describe an undercover investigator or cooperating witness who had started to lose his nerve or fear detection by the bad guys.

  12. Janice Byer said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    I can't resist sharing a hinky association my topic-snapped cerebrum makes between the headline and Robin Williams's description of divorce as "having your genitals torn out through your wallet".

    My frontal lobe will go sit on the naughty step.

  13. John O'Toole said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 8:02 pm

    Wow, how clear and unmistakable a fault line, though "fault" is an unwanted echo here: I don't really watch television. A reminder of how strong a vector it can be in linguistic matters.

  14. Jason said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

    How can you argue with a technique that uses "mathematic algorithms?" It's mathematics. It's algorithms. Do you, dear viewer, know anything about mathematics or algorithms? I didn't think so! But we here at voice analysis technologies do, and we proved, using the sheer mathematicatude of our algorithms, that the guy is lying.

  15. un malpaso said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 12:08 am

    Straight from our frontal lobes, through the vocal cords, through the mouth, to you. So you know it must be true!
    And, mumble mumble, something about math too!

  16. maidhc said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 4:20 am

    There was a Chicago politician back about a century ago by the name of "Hinky Dink" McKenna, but I've never heard how he earned his nickname.

  17. martinb said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 4:46 am

    The Letters page of the London Review of Books carried discussion of the words "hinky" and "hink" for months in 1998:

  18. Rob said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    Hinky was used a lot in Scooby Doo.

RSS feed for comments on this post