Fantasy landscape. Pixabay, Creative Commons license.
Fantasy landscape. Pixabay, Creative Commons license.

If you look at all the different things that are called fantasy — and I mean just in the context of fantasy literature, not sexual fantasies etc. — you start to wonder if there is anything that they all have in common or whether, in Wittgenstein’s words, they simply “form a family.” Fantasy is one of those things that gets harder to define the closer you look at it, like gender or — as Wittgenstein famously pointed out — games. In “Philosophy and Fantasy”, Laurence Gagnon gives us a definition which seems appealing at first sight: “any story might justifiably…


I have an ambivalent relationship with Malcolm Gladwell (a relationship of which he is naturally unaware). On the one hand, I love his ability to seize on apparently insignificant details (Goliath’s myopia, varieties of spaghetti sauce, the Norden bombsight) and draw interesting conclusions from them. On the other hand, it’s not a good thing that such a skillful writer and charismatic speaker manages to get things wrong in ways that a little critical reading of the data could have prevented. Gladwell attracted some criticism for his attribution of New York’s falling crime rate to Giuliani’s “No broken windows” policing when…


There is a phenomenon in anthropology known as Dunbar’s number, after its creator, Robin Dunbar, who speculated that there was a correlation between neocortex size and the maximum number of regular social contacts that a primate could maintain. Since social contact in primates is maintained primarily by grooming, I would have thought the crucial variable would be manual dexterity rather than neocortex size, but then I’m not a primatologist, so what do I know? Anyway, the idea caught on like lice on an ungroomed primate, and Dunbar proposed a number for humans based on the data from other primates. This…


Pareto’s Law, Pareto’s Principle or, more popularly, the 80/20 rule, is all over the place these days, yet few give much thought to the man who created it, Vilfredo Pareto. This is probably just as well. Pareto was a classic case of a scientist who stumbles across an interesting fact, elevates it to a universal law, speculates increasingly wildly, and eventually descends into absurdity. Pareto started with the rather obvious observation that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He then studied income distribution in a few different countries and found the same ratio…


Source: Ennui, by Frédérique Voisin-Demery

[This article is compiled from a series of posts on Livejournal I wrote in 2009. To those who say it sounds like recycled Steven Pinker, I’d like to point out that this is way before Better Angels of Our Nature came out, let alone Enlightenment Now, but I’m reprinting it (with a few minor edits) because it’s part of the same debate.]

Part 1: The Non-existent Crime Wave

In the past few days I’ve read around sixty exam papers dealing with the question of restorative versus retributive justice. Of these, I’d guess around twenty start off with a sentence like “All over the world, crime rates…


An answer to Jim Parry’s “E-sports Are Not Sports”

The word “sport” has gone through a number of meanings. When Shakespeare said “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport,” he obviously wasn’t talking about sport in the same way as the International Olympic Committee, which as far as I know does not recognise fly-swatting as a sport. While we expect that kind of thing in Shakespeare (for whom “naughty” meant “nihilistic” and “punk” meant “prostitute”), some changes in meaning are comparatively recent. When a friend of mine was applying to Oxford, the octogenarian professor interviewing him said “I see you…


Note: this is a mash-up of two posts that originally appeared on livejournal.com in 2012.

I hate forms that ask you to tick a box for your religion. Apart from the fact that there’s never a box for “Wittgensteinian fideist”, or the fact that putting people into boxes according to religion is a first step to putting them in concentration camps, focussing on what religion people are distracts from what I think is really important, which is what their religion does. My militant atheist friends would say that is simple: religion makes people stupid and obedient at best and turns…


Taijiquan “master” about to go down

The martial corner of YouTube has been busy of late commenting on a match between two martial artists, the MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter Xu Xiaodong and taijiquan (t’ai chi) player Wei Lei. The fight was over in seconds, with Wei Lei going down almost immediately and getting pummeled on the floor until the umpire ended it. Most of the online arguments were pretty silly since a practitioner of one martial art getting beaten by a practitioner of a different art says almost nothing about the relative strengths of those arts — after all, when MMA champion Conor McGregor was…


After saying “enough is enough” in the manner of an exasperated nanny dealing with naughty children, Theresa May tells us that terrorism must be fought with “British values”. Charlie Lyons has a good point when he writes “It’s not up to Theresa May to define ‘British values’” — in fact, he makes such a good point that I have uncharacteristically linked to an article in The Spectator. If there are such things as British values, they are to be determined by British people as a woolly aggregate, not the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary.

Even if we take the…


As a militant Remainer, I felt a thrill of anticipation when my Google news app came up with “The powerful forces of the pro-EU lobby have struck a blow against Brexit.” If there were blows being struck, I wanted to hear about them, despite the subtitle “Here’s how we fight back.” Anything that had Brexiteers scared had to be good news, I thought. As it turned out, there were no momentous blows, or indeed much of substance in this article by historian Nigel Jones, but it was a good example of the language of Brexiteers, and hence their mindset. This…

Robin Turner

English teacher at Bilkent University, Ankara; purveyor of magic words.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store