Category Archives: History

AI-powered Facial Analysis is Pseudoscience: A Reflection on Physiognomy

I have recently joined the many people who have wondered what can be read from the face of another person, otherwise known as physiognomy. Aristotle considered it possible to infer character from features, at least for passions and desires. Opinions have oscillated over time, physiognomy enjoying certain respectability in the 18th century, before descending to the realm of pseudoscience in the 19th.

The advent of artificial neural networks in recent decades has revived the question of whether there might be a kernel of truth in the assertion that aspects of a person’s personality and character could be inferred from their appearance (see. e.g., Richard Wiseman, Roger Highfield, Rob Jenkins 2009 article in New Scientist, “How Your Looks Betray Your Personality.”

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Drinking Straw—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

My earliest recollection of drinking straws was the discovery that I didn’t need them. When I was growing up, my family owned a small restaurant in Southern California where one of our featured items was milkshakes. I used to make my own. I liked them very thick because of the texture and strong ice cream flavor. Sometimes they were so thick that they wouldn’t pass through a straw no matter how hard you might try.

I also didn’t use straws for soft drinks, because I liked to drink them with a lot of crushed ice so that my epicurean palate could be titillated by the flavor of the drink and the prickling of the ice all at the same time.

These were my preferences as a pre-adolescent; however, when I became a teenager, my priorities began to change. This was in the 1950s when television and the cinema were rife with scenes of young amorous couples dreamily looking into each other’s eyes while languorously sipping a milkshake through two straws in the same glass.

I still don’t particularly like drinking straws, but I recognize they do have their uses. And have been serving and disturbing mankind almost from the dawn of time. This is why I believe the drinking straw very much deserves a place on the list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

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Umbrella—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

I grew up in Los Angeles and lived there until the age of 23. In all that time, I don’t recall ever owning an umbrella. I probably did, but I just don’t recall it because Los Angeles, like the rest of Southern California, has very little (too little) rainfall.

I then moved to Mwanza, Tanzania, on the southern shore of Lake Victoria. There I also never owned an umbrella because the weather was even better than in Los Angeles. Year-round, the sky was always a brilliant blue, with never a grey day in sight. During the short monsoon (rainy) season, you would occasionally see a small white cloud peak its head above the horizon. At that moment you would set your watch because you knew that about two hours later it would be pouring down in buckets, then after another couple of hours, the sky would once again be cloudless and brilliantly blue.

I now live in Brussels, Belgium. This little kingdom bordering on the North Sea bears a reputation of being very rainy. When a friend of mine who used to live here returned to the U.S., he would occasionally call. The first words out of his mouth were always, “Is it raining in Belgium? And If not, why not?” This is very much stretching the truth. Nevertheless, living in Belgium without an umbrella would be entirely unthinkable.

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Playing Cards—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

When I was a kid, I had a passion for card tricks. One day someone showed me a card trick based on a mathematical formula. It was astonishing. He gave me the formula for doing it, but didn’t tell me how it worked, so I set about trying to figure it out for myself. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t see where the formula came from. I even asked a couple of high-powered students at CalTech (California Institute of Technology) for help. They said “Sure. Give us a couple of days and we will get back to you.” I never heard from them again.

Many years late, I did figure it out. I was extremely proud of myself, not because I had solved a very complex problem but because I had solved a very easy one. It just didn’t look easy when I first saw it, and for many years thereafter.

Card tricks still fascinate me, especially those based on mathematical formulas. I will tell you about this one a bit later in this blog. But first I would like to establish why playing cards themselves justly deserve a place on the list of what I like to call “Extraordinary Ordinary Things.”

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