People Have Very Different Understandings of Even the Simplest Words (SIMON MAKIN, 2/01/24, Scientific American)

In 2017 Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist who directs the Climate Action Unit at University College London, ran the opening session of a conference on decision-making under uncertainty for an audience of scientists, finance professionals and policy makers. He divided them into groups of six and gave them questions and activities centered on their personal and professional experiences of risk. After a while, some hands went up. “They said, ‘We just realized we cannot agree on the definitions of risk and uncertainty,’” De Meyer says. “Even within those small groups, they ran into irreconcilable differences.”

De Meyer works to improve communication about climate change, and it quickly struck him that a major problem was how often professionals who were involved simply misunderstood one another. This, he says, is because people differ in the concepts they have even for basic terms, so what someone thinks they are saying is often not what others understand. This, he claims, explains why climate scientists struggle to get their messages across and why big financial organizations underestimate the threats of climate change. Recent psychology research shows that conceptual differences of this sort turn up everywhere and that people are usually oblivious to these disparities. Neuroscience studies demonstrate that they are underpinned by differences in how the brain represents concepts, a process influenced by politics, emotion and character. Differences in thinking that have been shaped by lifetimes of experience, practice or beliefs can be almost impossible to shift. But two steps offer a way forward: making people become aware of their differences and encouraging them to choose new language that is free of conceptual baggage.

The very term “concept” is difficult to define.


Why Harry Potter Is a Tory (BEN JUDAH, 1/05/18, American Interest)

[W]hen British readers pick up Harry Potter they instantly recognize it as that most Tory of genres. A piece of public school—and in Britain this of course means not only private but elite education—school days fiction, just with wizards on flying brooms.

Whereas in most postwar British public school fiction, such as the 1968 schoolboy insurrection movie If, the school was the enemy, administering senseless punishments and ridiculous demands, from the Philosopher’s Stone to the end, the real hero in Harry Potter is the school. The enemy, those who wish the institution harm.

But there is something deeply deferential—and utterly Tory—in how Harry takes on Hogwarts. The headmaster is practically the boy’s best friend, and he advances by doing exactly as he is told by the wise old Dumbledore. The order the school represents is nothing malevolent in the Potterverse—an enchanted Tom Brown’s School Days. There are no tie-loosening, headmaster-hating rebels for us to identify with at Hogwarts for J.K. Rowling. Only Dumbledore’s boys.

Right to the end—and this is one of the rare moments of dissatisfaction I can usually detect amongst Potterheads—Harry does the Establishment Thing and not marry Cho Chang, but Ginny Weasley, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic, but financially threadbare, noble line.

But is that enough to find Harry Potter inherently Tory?

Not until we enter the Ministry of Magic.

To me, perhaps the most blatantly Tory strain running through the Potterverse is the portrayal of Wizarding Whitehall. Nothing good can ever come of the Ministry of Magic, whose bureaucrats are badgering nincompoops with names like Cornelius Fudge and Pius Thicknesse, men who talk down to the befuddled Muggle Prime Minister, informing him how things are really run through a portrait and a fireplace in Number 10 Downing Street, like a voice of a Regency Palace emissary.

Not only are bureaucrats goofy and gluttonous, but every intervention by the Department of Mysteries and the Department for Magical Accidents and Catastrophes makes things worse. Problems, in Harry Potter’s world, can only be solved by the Wizards themselves—by the Tory Big Society of chipper public spirited Wizards. All that can be hoped for, even under Minister For Magic Hermione in J.K Rowling’s latest 2016 theatre spinoff Harry Potter And The Cursed Child is for government to be less corrupt. Magic will never come to the masses.

There is something terribly Tory too, in what Potter is fighting for, and the way he goes about it. What does he do with that extraordinary Elder Wand? What does he do with with second chance at life?

There is no magical socialism in the epilogue “Nineteen Years Later” at the end of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. There is no life’s work (and clearly no interest) in bringing the magical and muggle worlds back together for all mankind. All we see at Platform 9¾ is Harry Potter cheerfully sending off his children on the Hogwarts Express to public school. Harry has protected a venerable institution and then has simply pottered off, to live out his days in some secluded wizarding Surrey.

But what about Lord Voldemort? The hole in Harry Potter is that there is no meaningful interrogation of the system that produced Voldemort—the system of segregation and secrecy between muggles and magicians. As long as Harry Potter shows no interest in opening Hogwarts, handing everyone in Britain a wand, and closing down the Ministry of Magic, the system that produced both Voldemort, Grindelwald and the Death Eaters, the political system of which Slytherin is an inherent part, will remain.

Because as long as there are muggles and magicians, as long as there is magical blood, there will be wizards who think they are racially superior to the muggle-born, meritocratically catapulted into Hogwarts, and wizards who dream of slavery. But Potter is perfectly happy sending his son up to Hogwarts, at Platform 9¾, next to a now-pater familias Draco Malfoy.



In The Maltese Falcon, the Flitcraft story is told by Sam to his client and lover Brigid O’Shaughnessy in his Post Street room, the very apartment Dashiell Hammett inhabited while writing the book. The story he tells her is in fact about as much as we learn of Sam’s earlier life, apart from an unwise past affair with his partner’s wife. Hired by Mrs. Flitcraft to find her vanished husband, Spade locates him in Spokane in 1927, when Flitcraft is eager to explain what happened five years before:

“Going to lunch he passed an office building that was being put up—just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek….He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

The life he had known before going to lunch was “a clean orderly sane responsible affair” in which good people were rewarded with beautiful families and gulf club memberships. Now a falling beam had shown him that even good men lived “only while blind chance spared them.” A change came over him, Spade tells Brigid, “like a fist when you open your hand.”

The close call spurs Flitcraft to quickly reorder his life to the new reality. He leaves his family and job in one city and ends up in another, where Spade tracks him down and finds he has outwardly recreated his old existence, with a new job, name, and family. But that is not how it feels to Flitcraft, who is unrepentant about the adjustments he felt compelled to make. He only worries that Spade won’t understand him. “I got it all right,” Spade says to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “but Mrs. Flitcraft never did. She thought it was silly. Maybe it was.”

It was.


China needs bold, open-door policies for economic resurgence (NIGEL GREEN, FEBRUARY 6, 2024, Asia Times)

The cumulative effect of three years of economic downturn, erasing a staggering US$7 trillion of value, demands a departure from the smaller measures.

It’s time for Beijing to adopt bolder, “open-door,” internationally minded, and transparent steps to reignite growth and restore confidence in the world’s second-largest economy.

At the core of Beijing’s revival strategy must be a commitment to openness and international collaboration.

China’s economic might has flourished through global engagement, and a renewed emphasis on an open-door policy will not only attract foreign investment but also facilitate the exchange of ideas and technologies.

There is no viable alternative to the End of History.


No Slaves, No Masters: What Democracy Meant to Abraham Lincoln (Allen C. Guelzo, February 8, 2024, LitHub)

[L]incoln’s only attempt at actually defining democracy occurred, almost in passing, in a note he jotted on the eve of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and at that moment, it was more of an effort to set democracy apart from slavery:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

This is a peculiar definition, since Lincoln makes no formal attempt in it at specifying the components of democracy (like the location of sovereignty), and makes no allusion to elections, or even to majority rule. What Lincoln did instead was to draw a contrast between slavery and democracy, so as to illustrate what democracy was not, and that contrast hinged on the point of consent. A slave is someone who has no autonomy, no say in their status, whose consent is unsolicited and undesired, and with no prospect of being delivered from that status.

Consent was a key concept for Lincoln in considering both democracy and slavery. Consent was how sovereignty was exercised: his objection, in 1848, to war with Mexico over the disputed region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande was based on whether the people in that region had ever “submitted themselves to the government or laws of Texas, or of the United States, by consent.” And consent was what drew a line of separation between freedom and enslavement. “This is a world of compensations,” Lincoln concluded, “and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave.”

“According to our ancient faith,” Lincoln said in 1854, “the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed.” It was one of the Declaration’s foundational arguments that Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, and Lincoln translated that “axiom” to mean “that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.

I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” Slavery might have some justification if the slave is not a human being, and is incapable of consent. “If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him.” But a slave, plainly, is “a man.” So, Lincoln reasoned, “is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself ?” When one man “governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man” without that vital element of consent, “that is more than self-government that is despotism.”

Participatory lawmaking in universally applicable laws is the whole magilla.


THE COWARDICE OF COCKTAILS AND OTHER THINGS (G.K. Chesterton, 1932, Sidelights on New London and Newer York And Other Essays)

Cocktails are perhaps the only practical product of Prohibition. They are certainly, I should imagine, the only part of Prohibition in which America will really succeed in setting a Great Example to the world. But the way in which the Prohibitionist morality operated is obvious enough. The reason why the American millionaire does not drink wine or beer with his meals, like all poorer and better Christians, is simple if not dignified. It was summed up admirably by an American in an excellent cartoon in Life; a cartoon entitled ‘Henpecked.’ He prefers to be a Prohibitionist on public occasions; especially those highly important public occasions when he meets his wife. Hence arose, originally, the habit of the males of the party consuming hurried, secret and very potent drinks before they assembled at the table. It was necessary that the sort of drink should be one that could be gulped down quickly; it was necessary that it should be very strong for its size; and it was natural that it should be made a sort of separate science of luxury In itself. Later, of course, the case was complicated by other modern movements, and some sections of feminine society becoming fast society. But that was what determined the novelty and the nature of this remarkable sort of refreshment. It was, quite simply, a tippling husband hiding from a nagging wife. It is not a very noble origin even for a modern mode.

Now this fashion of accepting fashions from anywhere or anybody, and merely as such, has, as in the present case, produced fashions that are really inferior, even as such. America happens to be teetotal (in theory) and America happens to be very rich; and for these two rather undignified reasons we are bound to accept the dregs of its secret drinking. We are to swill the rinsings of its ridiculous cocktail glasses, like sneakish servants or schoolboys after a dinner-party; instead of drinking decently at our own dinner-table after our own dinner. These historical origins of the thing explain but do not excuse. The Cocktail Habit is to be condemned, not because it is American or alcoholic, not because it is fast or fashionable, but because it is, on a common-sense consideration, a worse way of drinking; more hasty, less healthy, even less desirable to anybody left to the honest expression of his own desires. It is not Victorian or Edwardian; it is not peculiar to Victoria any more than Vespasian; it is rudimentary human nature that it is more natural to sit still and talk, and even drink, after dinner, than to stand up and gulp before dinner.

I know it is possible to hear a feeble voice pleading, in the defence of these things, that they give a man an appetite for his meals. Perhaps the last touch is given to their degradation and destruction, by this being said in their defence. The cocktail is the coward’s drink; in the light of its actual origins in America. The cocktail is the weakling’s drink; even in the light of the excuses made for it in England. In the first aspect, it is unworthy of a generation that is always claiming to be candid and courageous. In the second aspect, it is utterly unworthy of a generation that claims to keep itself fit by tennis and golf and all sorts of athletics. What are these athletes worth if, after all their athletics, they cannot scratch up such a thing as a natural appetite? Most of my own work is, I will not venture to say, literary, but at least sedentary. I never do anything except walk about and throw clubs and javelins in the garden. But I never require anything to give me an appetite for a meal. I never yet needed a tot of rum to help me to go over the top and face the mortal perils of luncheon.

Quite rationally considered, there has been a decline and degradation in these things. First came the old drinking days which are always described as much more horrible, and which were obviously much more healthy. In those days men worked or played, hunted or herded or ploughed or fished, or even, in their rude way, wrote or spoke, if only expressing the simple minds of Socrates or Shakespeare, and then got reasonably drunk in the evening when their work was done. We find the first step of the degradation, when men do not drink when their work is done, but drink in order to do their work. Workmen used to wait in queues outside the factories of forty years ago, to drink nips of neat whisky to enable them to face life in the progressive and scientific factory. But at least it may be admitted that life in the factory was something that it took some courage to face. These men felt they had to take an anæsthetic before they could face pain. What are we to say of those who have to take an anæsthetic before they can face pleasure? What of those, who when faced with the terrors of mayonnaise eggs or sardines, can only utter a faint cry for brandy? What of those who have to be drugged, maddened, inspired and intoxicated to the point of partaking of meals, like the Assassins to the point of committing murders? If, as they say, the use of the drug means the increase of the dose, where will it stop, and at what precise point of frenzy and delusion will a healthy grown-up man be ready to rush headlong upon a cutlet or make a dash for death or glory at a ham-sandwich? This is obviously the most abject stage of all; worse than that of the man who drinks for the sake of work, and much worse than that of the man who drinks for the sake of play. And this judgment has nothing to do with prejudice or period or age or youth; but is such as any rational sort of rationalist, however young, ought to be able to see for himself. I am well aware that any number of nice people drink cocktails; that they do not always do it basely and morbidly for this reason; that they often do it more nobly and honourably, for no reason. But that does not make such rationalists very much more rational.


Civility: Reading Each Other (Sarah Skwire, January 23rd, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

In 1921 Booth Tarkington published his Pulitzer Prize-winning and now much-neglected novel, Alice Adams, which contains the most horrifying description of a dinner party since Grendel slaughtered and ate Beowulf ’s men in the mead hall. Alice Adams is just about to age out of the marriage market in her Indiana town. Her social class is marginal. She stayed at home while other local girls of “good” families went away to school, and she became something of the town belle, but did not manage to “secure a husband.” She has now attracted the attentions of Arthur Russell, a wealthy and handsome out-of-towner. Throughout the summer, Arthur and Alice have spent the evenings talking in the romantic twilight of Alice’s front porch. But now the relationship has come to the tipping point and Arthur must be invited in to dinner.

We’ve all done it, right? Dinner for the boss? For the prospective in-laws? For the man or woman we want to impress? We all know how it feels—that fear that what we have and what we are isn’t good enough. And we all begin to die a little inside when things go wrong for Alice. There’s the heavy, pretentious meal that her mother decides to serve: from canned caviar sandwiches and hot soup to larded beef fillet and Brussels sprouts. There’s the intoxicated waitress hired to make it appear that Alice and her mother don’t engage in housework. There’s Alice’s bewildered father, who can’t understand why they have to pretend to be fancy since “If they get things settled between ’em he’ll be around the house and to meals most any time, won’t he? . . . Well he’ll see then that this kind of thing was all show-off and bluff, won’t he?” There’s Alice’s mother, whose desperation to charm Alice’s suitor sends him running. And there’s the heat “like an affliction sent upon an accursed people”—that renders the heavy food, the reek of boiled Brussels sprouts, and the endless social pressure even more torturous.

The first time I read Alice Adams I was a teenager, and I thought the dinner scene was heartbreaking. It seemed unfair for Alice to have worked so hard and gotten nothing. And didn’t this Tarkington guy know anything about romance? Everyone knows the pretty girl and the handsome young man are supposed to get together at the end. I suffered for Alice, but I suffered childishly.

The second time I read Alice Adams I was in college. This time, I thought the scene was hilarious. Alice and her mother were such hopeless, desperate social climbers! I felt very sophisticated getting Tarkington’s joke.

Practicing Sympathy

Reading Alice Adams as an adult, I realized how callous I was as a college student and how sentimental I was as a teenager. Today the scene strikes me as a masterpiece of literary balance. It is tragic. I wasn’t wrong at 15. And it is hilarious. I wasn’t wrong at 20. But it took time and life experience for me to realize that Alice’s dinner party could be both of those things at once—and that when it was, it was a better, richer, more realistic piece of fiction than my earlier readings had indicated.

What I was doing with my repeated readings of Alice Adams, though I didn’t know it, was practicing what the eighteenth-century moral philosopher, economist, and rhetorician Adam Smith called “sympathy.” And I was using the humanities to do it.


How Witches Shifted from Daily Healers to Heretics and Dangerous Women Under Christian Rule (Marion Gibson, January 22, 2024, LitHub)

In early history, magic was considered to be a power innate in healers, shamans, and religious leaders across multiple cultures. It allowed them to go beyond natural abilities, to change the world in inexplicable ways. Communities would have several such magical workers, combining medical and priestly roles.

There was no clear line between their magical healing and harming, since good and bad magic were two aspects of the same force. On Monday a user of magic might bless you, on Thursday they might curse you—that was just how things were. If you felt a magically gifted person was using that force to do harm, you might vilify them as a “witch”—a user of evil magic—and you might hold a local trial and mandate repentance. You might banish or kill the witch if their crimes were unacceptable.

But witchcraft accusations would not spread widely, and, on the whole, you would not begin to believe all magic was evil. Some societies were concerned about this possibility—the ancient Greeks and Romans feared magic was inherently ungodly—but most retained a blurry notion that magic could be a force for good.

This changed in Europe during the medieval period, when a new theological science was established: the study of devils or demons, appropriately called “demonology.” By the 1400s, the Christian clergymen who developed demonology had convincingly claimed a unique insight into the workings of the cosmos and God’s will. Now, demonologists argued, witchcraft was not just good magic gone bad; it was envisioned as a career committed to wickedness, setting itself against the church.


Rebel offensive taking toll on Myanmar military’s cohesion, soldiers say (Rebecca Tan, Yan Naing and Andrew Nachemson, February 14, 2024, Washington Post)

Accounts from Myanmar army soldiers who have surrendered or defected over the past three months reveal that the military is suffering from plunging morale and overstretched logistics amid a rebel offensive that has prompted mass surrenders. […]

Myanmar’s military seized power in 2021 after ousting the democratically elected government. When protests erupted across the country, the military responded with force, and thousands of its opponents turned to armed resistance, in some cases making common cause with ethnic rebel groups. The military has sought to crush opposition with methods so brutal and indiscriminate that U.N. investigators say they are likely war crimes.

But last year, the rebels pushed the military into its weakest position in decades by capturing towns on the edges of the country and driving the junta’s forces toward the middle, analysts say.

Investigators at Myanmar Witness, an independent nongovernmental group that verifies developments in the Myanmar war, said they used open-source information to geolocate footage of five mass surrenders and weapon seizures since October. The investigators said that their efforts have only just begun and that their findings represent “the tip of the iceberg of the military’s losses.”

Researchers at the Institute for Strategy and Policy-Myanmar, a Myanmar-based think tank, are also working to verify surrenders, and Executive Director Min Zin said it is already apparent that the scale is unprecedented in the military’s history. Myanmar analysts from four other independent research institutions agreed.

“It speaks volumes about the military’s capacities that they had to accept this kind of situation,” said Richard Horsey, a senior adviser on Myanmar for the International Crisis Group.


Why are kids doing the ‘Brexit tackle’? They’re having fun at adults’ expense – and mocking our toxic politics (Lola Okolosie, 14 Feb 2024, The Guardian)

For the umpteenth time, my son, with an Ikea stuffed ball he has had since infancy, is playing football in the living room. He is joined by one of his best friends, an equally football-obsessed 10-year-old who, before slide-tackling in what can only be described as a deliberate attempt to knock my son’s legs off, shouts: “Brexit means Brexit!” Confused, I pass it off as an example of tweenage precocity: which 10-year-old is happy to quote Theresa May while playing football?

Over the next year, however, I will hear the term used again and again when my son plays football at the local park. He turns 11 and is off to secondary school. There, too, the phrase seems to have become a “thing”. One evening, as he recounts the details of how he got a painful-looking graze on his shin, he quotes the attacking player’s prelude to clattering into him: “Brexit means Brexit!” I ask, finally, why people are saying this. Nonchalantly, as he practises “skills” with the same softball, he explains that the Brexit tackle “is a tackle that doesn’t get the ball, only takes out the player”. Urban Dictionary concurs, stating it is, among other things, “when somebody hits a massive slide tackle and usually sends them flying and it hurts them servely [sic]”.

The ball was free trade and deregulation.