Saturday, November 30, 2002

Bugs and Features: Eugene Volokh links to the "checkershadow illusion" with the comment that it provides a "useful lesson in self-skepticism."

I beg to differ. I'd say it provides a useful lesson in just how smart your brain is--smart enough to give you the truth when light and shadow conspire to trick you. Check out the link so that I don't have to explain it all. Now consider: what's more useful to you? To know that one square is white and the other black, and that they are differently illuminated, or to know that the exact shade of grey is the same?

Physics Today had a fascinating article on vision last July, and I was frankly amazed at the power of the mind. A white card illuminated by green light is perceived as white, while a green card illuminated by white light is percieved as green--even if the spectra from both sources are the same. Similarly, a grey card in bright light and a white card in dim light are perceived as grey and white, even if the total light reflected is the same. Actually I had noticed this phenomenon before in the context of photography--I was curious why a neutral grey card always looked grey, even in very dim or very bright light--and it was interesting to see that someone had tackled the problem systematically.

So rather than doubting my eyes, I'm more inclined to thank them for getting me accurate information despite tricky lighting.

UPDATE: It wasn't Eugene, it was Philippe DeCroy, and I'm a dumbass for not seeing that.
Bad Ideas and Bad Arguments: As is my habit, I got into a late-night political discussion with my aunt while at my grandparents' for Thanksgiving. She works at the Nature Conservancy--I'm not clear on exactly what it is she does there--and has the politics one would expect for someone working there.

But here's what gets me every year--she knows what she's talking about. I mean really knows. I have her beat on, say, self-defense law, but she can talk circles around me on anything faintly related to environmentalism--a subject on which I am better informed than most environmental activists.

This reminded me of an easily-forgotten fact: just because some, or even most, of your political opponents are willfully ignorant buttheads doesn't mean they're wrong. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club generate a never-ending supply of lies and worthless scare stories. Their idealistic young canvassers show up at my door and parade their total (and I mean total) lack of knowledge on a weekly basis. But it's logically fallicious to conclude that their ideas are wrong just because their arguments have the intellectual nutritional value of newspaper cooked in dishwater. (It would be similarly foolish to use my spelling as a gauge of my correctness).

My aunt agrees with many or most of the environmental movement's concerns and agendas, and she actually knows enough to back it up. It's worthwhile to remember that sometimes people do the right thing for the wrong reasons.
Why I love Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday--much better than Christmas, for instance. No gifts, no shopping, just family and food. I'm lucky enough to enjoy a traditional New England feast every year, with turkey and cranberry sauces, stuffing, brown bread, potatoes, squash--straight out of Norman Rockwell, who lived not far from where my grandparents live. And, of course, the table is surrounded by relatives whose exact relation to me I can never remember.

But what I love most about Thanksgiving is how American it is. Anybody can play--religion is optional, ethnicity doesn't matter. All that counts is that you be grateful for what you have, which, frankly, all Americans ought to be. Palistinians can and do sit down with Jews; Indians just off the boat (that's a figurative boat--more like a 747, these days) can whip up a tandoori turkey, Ukranians can indulge in pig fat (ugh!) and everyone can be glad he isn't where he used to be, even as we all induge in a little nostalgia for either the old country (in the case of immigrants) or some gauzily filmed fake past, in the case of long-time residents.

This WSJ article drove the point home for me.
Slaughter and dinner: I am extremely suspicions, ethically speaking, of people who "don't want to know" where their meat comes from. Frankly, I regard it as a kind of cowardice. Killing and gutting animals is not pleasant, but it is no less essential to a meal of animal flesh than seeds are to a meal of vegetables. I've been trying to write a long, properly eloquent essay about this for some time, and someday I'll post my thoughts here. For now, I'll say this: anyone who eats meat ought to, at least once in their lives, kill and gut an animal themselves. Think of it as the duty you owe to the animals you eat.

Here's Susanna What's-her-name on the issue.
Harry Potter: I finally saw the second Harry Potter film; herewith my review.

This film suffers from the same malady as the first, that is, it isn't a complete work in and of itself. It is totally dependant on the books. That sounds dumb--isn't any movie based on a novel dependant on the books? No--a properly made movie is a complete work of art all by itself, whereas the first two Potter movies were difficult if not impossible to understand for those who haven't read the book. Ironically, they got that way by trying to be too faithful to the book--the movie is filled with details and extraneous scenes which do nothing to advance the plot or develop the characters--they're just there so that kids won't say "They forgot [whatever}!"

This excessive inclusiveness leaves no time whatsoever to develop the truly important themes or characters. The poverty of the good-hearted Weaslys vs. the wealth of the evil Malfoys is barely acknowledged. The depth of the Malfoy's evil is showing only by the really creepy guy who plays Lucius Malfoy beautifully. Why does everyone suspect Harry of committing the attacks? Come to think of it, does everyone suspect him? if you blinked, you might have missed it. Sure, the flying broomsticks are exciting--but the long Quidditch (sp?) scene does almost nothing for the plot, but lots for the overly long running time (my wife almost fell asleep). Ditto the flying car scenes--we don't have any way of knowing that that car ought to get Ron Weasly's dad in big trouble at work, where his job is to prevent the bewitching of everyday objects such as, ahem, cars.

And, as a final point, this film may have been too scary for younger fans.

Overall, both Harry Potter films are very poor as films. What they are is dramatizations of the books. If you haven't read the books, don't bother with the film--too much is missing and they won't make much sense. If you have read the books, don't bother with the films--leave it up to your imagination.

Here's looking forward to The Two Towers, which promises to be far, far better.
Hey, I'm back: I was in MA for Thanksgiving, visiting my grandparents, my Alma Mater (Williams), and a couple of friends. I also made a stop at Harvard Law, where my wife and I have applications in. I'm not sure I want to move to gun-hating Boston, but having "Veritas" on the ol' diploma never hurt anyone. Of course, I need to get accepted first.

I tend not to announce my absences too openly because I'm a security paranoic. Also, Sitemeter shows that I have some visitors from Down Under, and we all know that no one can scrounge like a digger. But with my little friends out of the safe and back on my belt where they belong (I had my SureFire with me--that's still legal, right?), I'm a happy camper.

With a cold.