Your ducks may not be my ducks | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Jan 15, 2014

A few years ago, when Google introduced facial recognition to its Picasa photo-organization software, many of us experienced a kind of technological vertigo, as something we didn’t know was possible took place in front of our unbelieving eyes.

This is old news now. It’s customary these days to hear about digital facial recognition and accept it as one more truth about today, a plot device for procedurals on television or a nudge from the evil geniuses at Facebook. We’re used to it.

But we weren’t back then, when it arrived on our desktops, and it became a conversation topic for a while.

I’d identify a couple of shots of my adult daughter, for example, and suddenly the software was riffling through the pictures stored on my hard drive, pulling up photos of her as an infant. It was a marvel, really, but also kind of creepy.

After the shock, though, what became more of a marvel was thinking about how our human brains recognize other humans. Or specific animals, for that matter. Or our cars in a busy parking lot, although in my case that particular software might need an update.

It feels like a miracle, actually, if an ordinary one, which is at least the first reason a recent article drew my attention (second reason? I was avoiding doing something else).

In a Pew Research poll conducted last summer, random Americans were asked to identify a face, the face of a man. The same face, in case you were wondering. A nice face, it seems to me. Inoffensive, handsome but not movie-star pretty. Pleasant.

Slightly over half of the people sampled said they had no idea. None. It could be a corporate executive or a criminal, or me for that matter. No clue.

Another 18 percent thought they knew but were wrong. Around 2 percent of them thought it was the current vice president of the United States, although it wasn’t.

Roughly a quarter of those asked correctly identified the man as being Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC Nightly News, currently the top-rated evening network news program.

And I had a glorious moment of vindication, marching into the other room and announcing to my wife, whom I recognized immediately, “I am vindicated.”

On a side note, I should mention that in the digital age, it’s hard to present a complete vindication picture without holding a newspaper or magazine to wave around. Even an iPad doesn’t look right when you wave it.

This sweep of self-righteousness stems from my personal annoyance at generalizations that ignore numbers.

When I hear politicians or other humans begin sentences with, “Most Americans…” or “Most people…” my arm shoots up, looking for a newspaper to wave.

Here’s another example. I recently read a magazine article about movies that changed the course of history.

Now, I like movies, and I imagine that a few I’ve seen have changed the course of my personal history, if in small ways. Including “The Muppet Movie,” a story I’d be glad to tell you.

But numbers are our friends. To suggest that Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” changed the way Americans viewed their government (or that “Cider House Rules” influenced the way we think about abortion) ignores the fact that the vast majority of us didn’t see them. Vast. Majority.

So why is the anonymity of Brian Williams a story? Only 7-8 percent of us watch ANY network news, and that’s a pretty high number compared to even the top-rated cable news network.

In the world of broadcast journalism, Brian Williams is a celebrity, but that just means he’s a slightly bigger fish in a small pond surrounded by other ponds, and so on.

This is why the brouhaha over “Duck Dynasty” last month was peculiar. Phil Robertson, star of the reality show, made comments that drew the ire of people who disagreed with him.

If you recall, the story was big news for a few days, with the fate of this very popular A&E show apparently on the line. A big story that left roughly 96 percent of Americans scratching their heads and saying, “Duck what?”

We’re left, then, scrambling for commonality in a world with nothing but choices. This makes my job difficult, of course.

As soon as I start writing about music, say, or even something as common as parents and children, a lot of you switch to Police Beat or just decide not to read anything while you wait for your latte. I don’t blame you at all. Duck what?

Still, there will be glimmers of a common interest. Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences claims that their Oscar telecast has an audience of about 1 billion people.

Every year, many articles are written to show how bogus that number is, but in fact movies are very popular entertainment, and a lot of people around the world like to watch the Oscars.

And roughly 30 million Americans will be watching the Grammys at the end of this month, not an insignificant number. I’ll be among them, I imagine.

Award shows can be fun. We get to watch performances, and many of us like music and have our favorites.

It’s personal, as is the way we like to get our news, the movies we like to watch, the shows we tune in on television. We don’t need polls to tell us what we like.

And my son-in-law has been nominated for a Grammy this year, so I’ll be watching for my daughter’s face. Which I will recognize, no software needed.

I think your latte is probably ready.

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