All content on this blog from Tim McGhee has moved to the Tim McGhee Substack, and soon, Lord willing, will be found only on that Substack.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Emoji ≠ language

Why were emoji so popular, so quickly? By the time you’ve called up a linguist to answer this question, you’ve pretty much decided that the answer is “because they’re a new language.” But as the linguist being called up, I wasn’t so sure.

I was just as fascinated as anyone by emoji as a phenomenon, but linguists have a definition of what language is, and it’s very clear that emoji don’t fit in it.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Companionship > Passion

True love exists, I believe, but it is not—cannot be—passion that lasts forever.

True love, the love that undergirds strong marriages, is simply strong companionate love, with some added passion, between two people who are firmly committed to each other. …

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

An inversion of ancestor-worship

Democracy is reproached with saying that the majority is always right.

But progress says that the minority is always right.

Progressives are prophets; and fortunately not all the people are prophets. Thus in the atmosphere of this slowly dying sectarianism anybody who chooses to prophesy and prohibit can tyrannise over the people.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Waking to happy sights and sounds


“Wake not, but hear me, love!
     Adrift, adrift on slumber's sea,
     Thy spirit call to list to me.

Wake not, but hear me, love!
     A gift from Sleep, the restful king,
     All happy, happy dreams I bring.

“Wake not, but hear me, love!
     Of all the world of dreams 'tis thine
     This once to choose the most divine.

So choose, and sleep, my love!
     But ne'er again in choice be free,
     Unless, unless—thou dream'st of me.”
Source: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

Monday, January 27, 2020

What no man can suffer

We hired a sailboat and a guide and made an excursion to one of the small islands in the harbor to visit the Castle d'If.

This ancient fortress has a melancholy history. It has been used as a prison for political offenders for two or three hundred years, and its dungeon walls are scarred with the rudely carved names of many and many a captive who fretted his life away here and left no record of himself but these sad epitaphs wrought with his own hands.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Love > power

Perfectly following a list of punctuation rules may grant me some kinds of power, but it won’t grant me love.

Love doesn’t come from a list of rules—it emerges from the spaces between us, when we pay attention to each other and care about the effect that we have on each other.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Unsettling findings about happiness

In the 1990s, the two big findings of happiness research (strong relation to genes, weak relation to environment) hit the psychological community hard, because they applied not just to happiness but to most aspects of personality.

Psychologists since Freud had shared a nearly religious devotion to the idea that personality is shaped primarily by childhood environment. This axiom was taken on faith: The evidence for it consisted almost entirely of correlations—usually small ones—between what parents did and how their children turned out, and anyone who suggested that these correlations were caused by genes was dismissed as a reductionist.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The danger of democracy

The danger of democracy is not anarchy but convention.

There is even a sort of double meaning in the word 'convention'; for it is also used for the most informal and popular sort of parliament; a parliament not summoned by any king.

The Americans come together very easily without any king; but their coming together is in every sense a convention, and even a very conventional convention.

In a democracy riot is rather the exception and respectability certainly the rule. And though a superficial sight-seer should hesitate about all such generalisations, and certainly should allow for enormous exceptions to them, he does receive a general impression of unity verging on uniformity.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The arguments against Citizens United are weak

The glory of the Greeks

The Greeks have their great glory because they were the first to set Mind above Strength. In Athens the orator and philosopher were more revered than the warrior.
Source: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

Monday, January 20, 2020

Where few dared to be rich

There is no regular system of taxation, but when the Emperor or the Bashaw want money, they levy on some rich man, and he has to furnish the cash or go to prison.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Turning AI's opaqueness transparent

IBM experimented with adding Urban Dictionary data to its artificial intelligence system Watson, only to scrub it all out again when the computer started swearing at them.
Source: Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

I find this quote to be far more interesting than what McCulloch intended. Artificial intelligence is frequently portrayed as a “black box” into which humans have no way to directly peer. That is, computers have exceeded human at least in terms of being able to handle the data it used to come to its conclusions. Apparently there's more to the story.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Unexpected sources of life satisfaction

The young have so much more to look forward to than the elderly, yet ratings of life satisfaction actually rise slightly with age, up to age sixty-five, and, in some studies, well beyond.

People are often surprised to hear that the old are happier than the young because the old have so many more health problems, yet people adapt to most chronic health problems…

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The last medieval monarchy

All good Americans wish to fight the representatives they have chosen.

All good Englishmen wish to forget the representatives they have chosen.

This difference, deep and perhaps ineradicable in the temperaments of the two peoples, explains a thousand things in their literature and their laws.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Who am I, and what am I to be?

They to whom a boy comes asking, Who am I, and what am I to be? have need of ever so much care. Each word in answer may prove to the after-life what each finger-touch of the artist is to the clay he is modelling.
Source: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

Monday, January 13, 2020

Thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign

Tangier is the spot we have been longing for all the time.

Elsewhere we have found foreign-looking things and foreign-looking people, but always with things and people intermixed that we were familiar with before, and so the novelty of the situation lost a deal of its force.

Friday, January 10, 2020

A linguistic trust fall

Irony is a linguistic trust fall. When I write or speak with a double meaning, I fall backwards, hoping that you’ll be there to catch me.

The risks are high: misaimed irony can gravely injure the conversation.

But the rewards are high, too: the sublime joy of feeling purely understood, the comfort of knowing someone’s on your side.

No wonder people through the ages kept trying so hard to write it.
Source: Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Marriage and happiness

A good marriage is one of the life-factors most strongly and consistently associated with happiness.

Part of this apparent benefit comes from “reverse correlation”: Happiness causes marriage.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The romance of business

Americans are very unpunctual.

That is the last thing that a critic expects who comes to condemn them for hustling and haggling and vulgar ambition. But it is almost the first fact that strikes the spectator on the spot.

The chief difference between the humdrum English business man and the hustling American business man is that the hustling American business man is always late. Of course there is a great deal of difference between coming late and coming too late.

But I noticed the fashion first in connection with my own lectures; touching which I could heartily recommend the habit of coming too late. I could easily understand a crowd of commercial Americans not coming to my lectures at all; but there was something odd about their coming in a crowd, and the crowd being expected to turn up some time after the appointed hour.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Youth, the painted shell

Youth is but the painted shell within which, continually growing, lives that wondrous thing the spirit of man, biding its moment of apparition, earlier in some than in others.
Source: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

Monday, January 6, 2020

Gibraltar, a lonely and enormous mass of rock

Within the hour we were fairly within the Straits of Gibraltar, the tall yellow-splotched hills of Africa on our right, with their bases veiled in a blue haze and their summits swathed in clouds—the same being according to Scripture, which says that “clouds and darkness are over the land.” The words were spoken of this particular portion of Africa, I believe.

On our left were the granite-ribbed domes of old Spain. The strait is only thirteen miles wide in its narrowest part. …

Friday, January 3, 2020


Two LiveJournal threads from 2010 and 2012 discussed this new use of the tilde, in contexts like “Well, isn’t that ~ special” or “Every character on that show has a ~ tragic past ~.”

Both threads were started by people asking about the meaning of this new use of the tilde that they’d been seeing, and yet both askers correctly deciphered its meaning in their original questions.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Natural group size

Human beings ought to live in groups of around 150 people, judging from the logarithm of our brain size; and sure enough, studies of hunter-gatherer groups, military units, and city dwellers’ address books suggest that 100 to 150 is the “natural” group size within which people can know just about everyone directly, by name and face, and know how each person is related to everybody else.
Source: The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A great love of measurement

I do not think the dollar is almighty in America; I fancy many things are mightier, including many ideals and some rather insane ideals. But I think it might be maintained that the dollar has another of the attributes of deity.

If it is not omnipotent it is in a sense omnipresent. Whatever Americans think about dollars, it is, I think, relatively true that they talk about dollars.

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