an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

reading matters 6

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The merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, chameleon playwright, etc

content hints – exoticism and water, the rialto, lending and borrowing, Christianity and Judaism, the original ghetto, cultural elitism, a youthful scapegrace, a friendship tested, trading without dining, a rich heiress, a father’s curse, dodgy dealings, a strange bond, mutual animus, humanity v culture, love v money, pick-a-box, lots of ducats, lords of the rings, women on top, boys being girls being boys being lawyers, an unlikely court case, mercy’s quality, no flesh without blood, disappearing and reappearing ships, lock up your daughter, fake conversion, marking the music, triple marriage, desolation, the revenger’s tragedy

Written by stewart henderson

July 15, 2020 at 1:07 pm

The bonobo world: an outlier, but also a possibility: part 1

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To say that culture is an important part of our lives doesn’t do the word justice. Culture is not a part of our life. We are a part of it.

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh.

bonobos refusing to physically distance at San Diego zoo – what are they planning?

I plan to turn the following into a book.

I think it was 1984, some 36 years ago now, that I first heard about bonobos on an episode of The Science Show, still running on Australia’s ABC Radio National. I was living in just another share-house amongst students, student-types, misfits like myself. It had been my life for several years. I wasn’t a student myself, in the formal sense. I was a sometime kitchen-hand with a patchy history of work in factories, offices, restaurants, and, briefly, a hospital. My favourite activity, my daily need in fact, was to write. In those pre-computer days I filled up foolscap journals with crabbed writing in blue ink. I wrote about the things I read, the people I met, imitations of favourite writers, and, too often, elusive, admirable, mysterious and ever-unattainable women. I still have those journals, mouldering in old boxes, covering 15 years or so before I bought my first computer.

I was ever a hopeless case when it came to the opposite sex. It wasn’t quite that they all hated or were indifferent to me. I sometimes made female friends but they were never the ones I was attracted to. In fact I rarely made friends, and my obsession with writing didn’t help. As one of my housemates once bluntly told me ‘you’re always living alone no matter how many people you’re sharing with.’

So I wrote about my failures with women and congratulated myself on my literary abilities. I was of course my own worst enemy vis-a-vis the opposite sex. Whenever a woman I was interested in showed signs of repaying that interest, I ran the other way, figuratively and sometimes even literally. There were all sorts of excuses, even some good ones. I was perennially penniless, I had a chronic chest or airways condition that meant my voice would get caught in the ‘wet webs’ as I called them, and which made me naturally anxious about my breath, and there were other problems I’d rather not go into. In fact I was intensely shy and self-conscious, but good at putting on an air of intellectual disinterestedness. This had generally disastrous consequences, as when I encountered a female ex-housemate and told her that now our share-house was all-male. ‘Oh yes, that would suit you down to the ground,’ she said with some disdain. I was mortified.

In fact I was obsessed to what I felt was an unhealthy degree with women and sex. My fantasies went back to childhood, or adolescence, when I imagined doing it with every attractive girl within my purview. Now I assume this was relatively normal, but I’m still not sure. But my thoughts on sexuality and gender went further. I recall – and all memories are unreliable, as they share most of the same neural processes as our imaginations – standing during assembly in a line with my classmates, looking up and down the line, assessing their attractiveness and overall likeability. It occurred to me that the most ‘interesting’ boys were girlish and the most interesting girls were boyish. I remember being struck by the thought and how smart I was to think it. I returned to this thought again and again.

Before I ever had a girlfriend (and I had few) I imagined an ideal, embodied by one of the pretty ones around me, with another brain inserted, more or less like my own. Someone funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, freewheeling, exhaustingly fascinating – and yes, I really did think of myself that way! And yet – I did worry that I might not be able to hold onto such a scintillating prize. And that set me thinking – such an extraordinary girl couldn’t be mine, or anyone’s. She would own herself. To maintain her interest in me, I’d have to be constantly proving myself worthy, which might be a thrilling challenge, but then – a change is as good as a haircut. What if I had to share her? My adolescent answer was – so be it. The key, if I found her so valuable, so inspiring, would be not to lose her. Not to be cut off from her. To prove myself so valuable that she wouldn’t want to lose me either, while seeking out others.

I won’t pretend that they were so clear-cut, but these were certainly the sorts of ideas swirling around in my head when I thought about love, desire and relationships as a youngster, and they hadn’t changed much – perhaps due to little actual experience – when I listened to the scientist extolling the virtues of our bonobo cousins many years later. I still remember the warm tones of his signing off – ‘Long live bonobos – I want to be one!’

Since then, my thoughts, my reading and my writings have taken a more scientific and historical turn, perhaps as something of an escape from the tribulations and disappointments of the self, and the bonobo world has always been a touchstone. Of course I don’t want to be a bonobo, anymore than the researcher-reporter on the Science Show really would’ve happily exchanged his amazing human brain for that of a rather less intelligent mammal eking out a threatened existence on the banks of the Congo River, but I have no doubt that we can learn from this remarkable species, and that it would be to our great benefit to do so.

Written by stewart henderson

July 13, 2020 at 12:07 pm

Reading matters 5

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Eichmann and the holocaust, by Hannah Arendt

content hints – the bureaucratic mind, ideological muddles, the replacing of slaughtered sub-groups with museums, the Nuremberg laws, the corralling and subjugation of the Jews, the brown shirts and the black shirts, zionist optimism, Eichmann as zionist, Eichmann as idealist, Eichmann’s gormlessness and petty pride, protecting the ‘best Jews’, an environment of death, the final solution, everyone on the same page, conspiracies of silence, Jewish denial of reality, control of deportations, policing of ghettoes, the impossibility of open dissent, failures of prosecution, failures of defence, reflections on an international criminal court, Eichmann’s final clichés, the banality of evil.

Written by stewart henderson

July 10, 2020 at 11:56 am

SARS-Cov2 and oxidative stress

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Dr Roger Seheult, just doing his job, workaholically

So I feel it’s time for me to get back to the epidemiology and immunology stuff that I know so little about, especially as it pertains to SARS-Cov2. Watching Dr Seheult’s Medcram updates again after a long hiatus, and catching up with them from the end of April, I note that he’s arguing – and I presume this is a mainstream view, as he clearly keeps an eye on the latest research – that the virus mostly does its damage in attacking the body’s endothelium, and that this in turn causes oxidative stress. The endothelium is a thin layer of cells, or a layer of thin cells, that form the inner lining of the blood and lymph vessels (one day I’ll find out what lymph actually is and does).

Oxidative stress is associated with an imbalance in the level of oxidants such as super-oxide anion and hydrogen peroxide, reduced forms of oxygen (with extra electrons). I don’t really understand this, so I’ll start from scratch. But just preliminary to that, the effects of oxidative stress are manifold. Here’s a summary from

Oxidative stress leads to many pathophysiological conditions in the body. Some of these include neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, gene mutations and cancers, chronic fatigue syndrome, fragile X syndrome, heart and blood vessel disorders, atherosclerosis, heart failure, heart attack and inflammatory diseases.

It’s known that SARS-Cov2 enters via the lungs, and does damage there, but it’s now thought that most of the damage is done in the endothelium. To understand this, Dr Seheult is going to teach me some ‘basic’ stuff about metabolism, oxidation, energy production and such. So, we start with mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles inside our cells, which have their own DNA passed down the female line. Looking into a mitochondrion, we have the matrix inside, and around it, between the inner and outer membranes, is the inter-membrane space (IMS). Our food, broken down into its essential components, carbs, fats and proteins, is absorbed into the matrix, and somehow turned into ‘two-carbon units’ called acetyl coenzyme A. This is metabolism, apparently. These molecules go through a famous process called the Krebs cycle, of which I know nothing except that it’s about more metabolism… Although now I know that it produces electrons, tied up in two important molecules, NADH and FADH2. These electrons ‘love to be given up’, a way of saying they ‘want’ to be reduced. The molecule that gives up electrons is said to be oxidised, the receiving molecule is reduced. So think of a molecule being reduced as the opposite of losing, rather counter-intuitively. The oxidised molecule is the one that loses electrons. All this is about energy production within the matrix, and the aim is to end up with a molecule I’ve heard and forgotten much about, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This molecule is the energy molecule, apparently, and the energy is produced by ‘knocking off’ one of the phosphates, according to Dr Seheult, leaving, apparently, adenosine diphosphate (ADP) plus ‘energy’ (clearly, this part needs a little more detail). So going from the diphosphate form to the triphosphate requires energy, going the other way releases energy – none of which really explains why ATP is the body’s energy source. Anyway…

Returning to the carbs, fats and proteins, they go through these mitochondrial processes to produce electrons which want to reduce stuff. So NADH goes to the membrane which separates the IMS from the matrix of the mitochondrion, where proteins can be found that are willing to accept electrons, i.e. to be reduced. The electrons are brought in ‘at the very top of the scale’ (?) and lose some of their reducing ability, so they go down to a lower state of reduction, and protons are pumped into the IMS. (I’m sure this is all true but making sense of it is another matter. It certainly makes me think of proton pump inhibitors, drugs that reduce gastric reflux, but that would be the subject of another set of posts). Then ‘it goes to another species’ by which I think Seheult means another protein, judging from the video, but what he means by ‘it’ I’ve no idea. The NADH? The wave/body of electrons? Anyway, things keep going down to a lower level, becoming more oxidised, and more and more protons are pumped out. So there comes to be a very high concentration of protons (H+) in the IMS, creating a very low PH (high acidity). Meanwhile, the electron transport chain has gone down so many levels that it can only reduce oxygen itself, which by accepting electrons turns finally into water. It’s apparently essential to have sufficient oxygen to keep this cycle going, and to keep the protons pumping, because the protons in the IMS want to move to a place of lower concentration, in the matrix. In doing this, they pass through a channel, which involves, somehow, a coupling of ADP to ATP. Without enough oxygen, this process is stymied, ATP can’t be supplied, leading to insufficient energy and cell death.

So, I think I understand this, as far as it goes. Now, if you over-eat, with lots of high-calorie fats and carbs entering the cells, you’ll likely end up with a surplus of electrons, tied up in NADH and FADH2, which can cause problems. This is where super-oxides come in.

Oxygen is the final electron acceptor in the electron transport chain, and when you add an electron to this final acceptor you get a super-oxide, an oxygen molecule with an additional electron, aka a radical. These are very reactive and dangerous. They can cause DNA damage and serious inflammation, and the body uses them to kill bacteria. If you add another electron, you get H2O2, hydrogen peroxide, and another one again produces a hydroxy radical, OH. Another electron gives water, so it’s these intermediate molecules that are called ‘dangerous species’. Cells such as neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) make these, via an enzyme called NADPH oxidase, as part of their defence against antigens, but an accumulation of these radicals is problematic and needs to be dealt with.

from Dr Seheult’s presentation, showing the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) – super-oxide, hydrogen peroxide and hydroxy radicals

One enzyme the body uses to bring down these accumulating radicals is super-oxide dismutase (SOD), which takes two super-oxides and converts them into O2 and H2O2. SOD comes in three types, related to where they reside – in the mitochondria, the cytosol and the extracellular matrix. These enzymes are powered by zinc, copper and, in the mitochondria, manganese. So what happens to the extra hydrogen peroxide created? An enzyme called glutathione peroxidase (GPx) reduces H2O2 to water by giving it two electrons. Where do these electrons come from? According to Seheult, and this is presumably ‘basic’ microbiology, the antioxidant glutathione has two forms, oxidised and reduced. The reduced form is 2GS-H, with a hydrogen bonded to the sulphur group. The oxidised form is G-S-S-G, a disulphide bond replacing the hydrogen. With the reduced form, GPx donates its extra two electrons to H2O2, reducing it to water. The glutathione system is recharged by reducing it back with NADPH, which has two electrons which are converted to NADP+ (?) Glutathione reductase is the key enzyme in that process. It might take me a few lifetimes to get my head around just this much.

Meanwhile there’s another system… Catalase, an iron-boosted enzyme, can convert two molecules of H2O2 into O2 and H2O. This occurs in organelles called peroxisomes. The major point to remember in all this is that super-oxides are harmful species that can cause oxidative stress, and the major solutions come in the form of SOD and GPx. In fact the general name for these harmful molecules – super-oxides, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxy radicals – is reactive oxygen species (ROS).

So we have to relate all this to the effects of SARS-Cov2, which enters the body through the ACE-2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme-2) receptor. According to a 2008 research paper, ACE-2, the receptor for which is blocked by SARS-Cov2, ‘confers endothelial protection and attenuates atherosclerosis’. Quoting from the paper, we find a section called ‘ACE-2 modulates ANG II(angiotensin 2)-induced ROS production in endothelial cells’. The researchers’ essential finding was that ‘ACE-2 functions to improve endothelial homeostasis’, and it seems this function is being disrupted by SARS-Cov2. As Dr Seheult puts it, SARS-Cov2 inhibits the inhibitor, that is it inhibits ACE-2, which normally acts to regulate angiotensin 1,7 (not explained in this particular video), thus allowing NADPH oxidase to keep producing super-oxides, with the resultant oxidative stress. As Seheult concludes here, subjects with compromised systems caused by diabetes, cardiovascular disease or obesity, affecting the production or effectiveness of SOD and GPx, might be relying on ACE-2 and angiotensin 1,7 to maintain some semblance of health. Are these the subjects that are succumbing most to the virus? That’s to be explored in future videos, and future posts here.


Coronavirus Pandemic Update 63: Is COVID-19 a Disease of the Endothelium (Blood Vessels and Clots)? (video by Dr Roger Seheult – clearly a hero in this time)

Written by stewart henderson

July 5, 2020 at 11:46 pm

Reading matters 4

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Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare, bit-part actor, theatrical investor and obsessive quill-pusher

content hints
– exotic locations, harsh laws and lax enforcement, whores and virgins, pre-marital sex, dubious disguises, a puppet-master duke, wise retainers, kind-hearted gaolers, a mean-spirited newbie, a much-married madam, justice v mercy, letter v spirit, high life v low life, capital punishment, malapropisms avant la lettre, gadabouts, spurned women, sunken dowries, a woman finds her voice, a man is bent by lust, the shoals of desire, fraternal betrayal, an absurd assignation, a head in a bag, from nunnery to marriage bed, sex in the dark, silent women, revealings and unmaskings, a triple coupling, a questionable ending?

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2020 at 10:21 am

three things: IQ and longevity, the Taliban and Americans, the real World Cup

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Nerissa: …. superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer

The Merchant of Venice, Act 1 , scene 2

smart Alec the turtle

Thing one

I don’t know what my IQ is, having never knowingly sat a test, but I assume it’s a number just short of infinity. So it was interesting to read, in Carl Zimmer’s book on genetics, She has her mother’s laugh, that IQ is highly correlated to longevity. Not that there’s a genetic link, at least not directly, but it stands to reason. The higher your IQ, the quicker it takes for you to ‘get’ things. This was more or less confirmed by a simple, ingenious brain processing test. Subjects were shown simple shapes flashing very briefly on a computer screen – two vertical lines spaced apart with a horizontal line sitting on top. The participants had to guess which of the two vertical lines was the longest each time. Researchers had worked out that if the images were flashed too briefly, the participants just resorted to guesswork. It required approximately 0.1 seconds for people, on average, to perceive the shape correctly. The key, though, lay in the variation of that perception. It ranged from 0.02 seconds to 0.136 seconds, and researchers found a pretty reliable correlation between accurate perception time and intelligence (presumably measured by IQ – Zimmer doesn’t say). Unfortunately it’s not quite reliable enough, apparently, for us to do away with those pesky, long-winded IQ tests and replace them snappy shape tests, but as mentioned, it does seem to confirm the intuition that intelligence has to do with sharpness and quick-wittedness. Which brings me back to longevity. Some work done in Scotland, which has turned out to be accidentally longitudinal, provides interesting evidence. In 1932 the Scottish government conducted a massive testing program of nearly 90,000 eleven-year-old students – just about the whole of the country’s kids of that age. They were all given a 71-question exam involving decoding, analogising and arithmetic among other things. Over time this ‘experiment’, or what you will, was forgotten, but the records were unearthed in 1997, and then researchers tried to get in touch, some 65 years later, with the ‘kids’ who’d been tested. They managed to gather together 101 elderly citizens in an Aberdeen hall to resit the gruelling test. They found that the score on the original test was a pretty good indicator – 73% – of the score second time around. But there was another interesting finding – the percentage of the test-takers who had scored well and were still alive in 1997 was considerably higher than those who’d scored poorly. Some 70% of the women in the top quarter of scores were still alive, compared to 45% in the bottom quarter:

Children who scored higher, in other words, tended to live longer. Each extra 15 IQ points, researchers have since found, translates into a 24% drop in the risk of death.

Carl Zimmer, She has her mother’s laugh, p296

Why is this so? Smarter people generally know what to do, and are quicker to learn what to do, to live longer, to make more, financially and otherwise, of the circumstances they find themselves in, to be safer, healthier and the like. Stands to reason.

‘all westerners are much the same to us…’

Thing two

A huge fuss is being made of allegations, probably true, of Putin offering and paying bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. My first reaction to this news was – surely the fervently anti-American and anti-western Taliban were already hell-bent on killing infidel foreigners, and many of the purest ideologues among them would be insulted by the offer of bribes to do so? Then again, many of them would’ve been laughing up their ample sleeves at the thought of being paid by the Russkies, whom they likely consider only slightly less odious and infidelious than the Yanks, to do what they were already heaven-bent on doing. For this reason, it would surely be impossible to prove that any deaths of Americans, or their coalition partners – including Australians – at the hands of the Taliban, could be sheeted home to Putin and his fellow thugs. Even if money traced to Russia appeared in Taliban bank accounts after some atrocity or other, this doesn’t exclude the possibility that the atrocity would’ve occurred in any case. Win-win for the Taliban.

Thing 3

The announcement that the real World Cup will take place in Australia and New Zealand in 2023 makes life a little more bearable, though it’s three years away and I’m not getting any younger. This competition combines two of the most life-affirming enities in life, for me at least – women and soccer. Hopefully we’ll have learned many lessons from Covid-19 by then haha, and at least some of today’s thuggish political leaders will have been placed where they can do no more harm, and we can get on with the more exciting stuff of life, like having fun.

Written by stewart henderson

July 2, 2020 at 1:25 pm

Covid-19, politics, government – some observations

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No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

Aneurin Bevan, founder of the UK’s NHS

Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva, engaged in the dangerous task of exposing Putin’s lies

Let me look at Covid-19 cases and deaths in different countries in terms of the political persuasions (and gender) of their leadership, with some obvious caveats and reservations, e.g. that correlation isn’t causation, that there are a whole host of factors influencing how well or badly particular nations are faring, that the data coming from many nations is highly suspect, etc. My statistics come from the Worldometer site, which names a wide variety of sources, and notably tends to be slightly less conservative than the WHO and Johns Hopkins sites in terms of numbers. The differences aren’t great, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the overall numbers are greater than even the Worldometer site has been able to confirm.

I’m doing this because I’ve been checking the stats on a daily basis for weeks now, and impressions have, not surprisingly, been forming about the relationship between national leadership and the impact of the virus. So here are some statistics, and some speculations on them, for what they’re worth.

The UK (I was born in Scotland) has fared worse than any other country, apart from Belgium, in terms of deaths per million. Conservative PM Boris Johnson, prior to catching the virus himself, seemed to suggest letting it run its course through the community, which of course would have led to a huge death rate, and generally the messages from the beginning were confused, and mostly of a softly softly nature, which has clearly proved disastrous. The NHS has suffered years of severe cuts under ten years of conservative government, and mixed messaging has continued to damage what has been a truly woeful governmental response to the crisis. Scotland, which has a female First Minister and a centre-left government, has a slightly lower ‘excess death toll’ than England, but it’s still high compared to most countries, and higher than those of Wales and Northern Ireland. England is, of course, by far the most densely populated of the four UK nations.

Belgium wears the shame of having the worst Covid-19 mortality rate of any significant-sized nation (of say, 5 million or more) on the planet. However, to be fair, Belgium appears to have an accounting system for the virus which is as anomalous as is that of Russia at the other end of the spectrum (a spectrum from inclusive, i.e Belgium, to exclusive in Russia’s case). This issue of accounting is too enormously complex and fraught to be dealt with here (though many are suggesting that measuring ‘excess mortality’ might be the best option), so I’ll take Belgium’s disastrous figures at face value for now. The country’s PM, Sophie Wilmès, is a member of the centrist Mouvement Réformateur, and heads a coalition government. In fact Belgium has long been so factionalised that coalition governments are a more or less permanent feature of government there, and internal squabbling in recent years has led to a lot of government inertia. Though clear information is hard to find, the lack of strong, supported central government is very likely negatively affecting the country’s Covid-19 experience.

Germany is generally regarded as the success story of Europe. It’s Europe’s largest country, and currently the 19th most populated country in the world. It is 12th overall in the number of cases, and 11th in the number of deaths. This may look bad, but we know that western Europe has been particularly hard-hit, and it’s worth comparing Germany to its neighbouring countries. Interestingly, Germany shares its border with no less than nine different countries, and in terms of deaths per million, which I think is a good guide of a nation’s internal handling of the pandemic, it is doing far better than its westerly neighbours (Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark), and considerably worse than its easterly ones (Austria, Czechia and Poland). Again I’m skeptical of some of the stats, especially in a country like Poland, which has descended into a quasi dictatorship under its all-powerful Law and Justice party, but there does seem to be a radical divide between the eastern and western halves of Europe in terms of the pandemic’s impact. Anyway, Germany’s centrist Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005, and she’s recently suffered under the description, ‘leader of the free world’ in lieu of the USA’s absence of leadership. Being a former research scientist, she’s been credited, rightly or wrongly, with having shepherded the country through this crisis better than most. Wikipedia has this to say about the country’s response:

The country’s low fatality rate, compared to fatality rates in Italy and Spain, has generated a discussion and explanations that cite the country’s higher number of tests performed, higher number of available intensive care beds with respiratory support and higher proportion of positive cases among younger people.

Italy, a country renowned for its political instability, fared disastrously early on (in March and April) in terms of cases and deaths, but has reduced the numbers greatly in recent weeks. Even so, Italy’s deaths per million is one of the worst rates in the world, five times that of Germany. Italy has in recent years developed closer ties with China than any other country in western Europe, and evidence points to the virus arriving in northern Italy via a Chinese couple from Wuhan. It’s clear that there was early skepticism and government officials were caught unawares by the magnitude of the crisis, and the rapidity of spread. The wealthy and densely populated Lombardy region has been disproportionately affected. Italy’s PM, Giuseppe Conte, has held the position for two years, making him one of the longest serving leaders in Italy’s post-war history. The nation’s volatile political history makes co-ordinated strategic planning for pandemics very difficult. This article on Italy from the Harvard Business Review, aimed at an American readership, captures the problems that face individualistic nations who favour rights over responsibilities:

Consider the decision to initially lock down some regions but not others. When the decree announcing the closing of northern Italy became public, it touched off a massive exodus to southern Italy, undoubtedly spreading the virus to regions where it had not been present.

This illustrates what is now clear to many observers: An effective response to the virus needs to be orchestrated as a coherent system of actions taken simultaneously. The results of the approaches taken in China and South Korea underscore this point. While the public discussion of the policies followed in these countries often focuses on single elements of their models (such as extensive testing), what truly characterises their effective responses is the multitude of actions that were taken at once. Testing is effective when it’s combined with rigorously contact tracing, and tracing is effective as long as it is combined with an effective communication system that collects and disseminates information on the movements of potentially infected people, and so forth.

Clearly this information-collecting, when it isn’t coercive, requires compliance and collaboration for the broader good. Libertarians are reluctant, it seems, to admit this.

Sweden‘s record on the pandemic is worth comparing to the other four countries comprising Scandinavia – Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Sweden is certainly the most populous of the five, but its deaths per million tell a grim story – more than five times those of Denmark, around ten times those of Norway and Finland, and almost 20 times those of isolated Iceland. The rate is higher than that of the USA and France, and not far below that of Italy. Currently, the centre-left PM Stefan Löfven heads a highly unstable coalition, which clearly isn’t able to provide the co-ordinated response required in a pandemic. In fact the country deliberately took a ‘relaxed’ attitude to the virus, and are now paying the price, though some of the country’s epidemiologists are still standing by the nation’s approach, astonishingly enough. Around half of the country’s fatalities have occurred in nursing homes. Apart from Sweden, all of the Scandinavian countries have female leaders. Just saying.

Russia, which has recorded the third highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world, has a bizarrely low death-rate, which can’t be accounted for from an epidemiological perspective, as I’ve reported before. Dmitry Peskov, one of Putin’s favourite arse-lickers, defended the record, saying “Have you ever thought about the possibility of Russia’s health care system being more effective?” This in fact caused a spike in fatalities, as several thousand Russians immediately died laughing. A very brave doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva, founder and head of the medical trade union Alliance of Doctors, is creating videos exposing Putin’s lies about Russia’s handling of the pandemic, showing run-down hospitals, sick and unprotected medical staff and a generally under-funded and unprepared healthcare system. She has, of course, been viciously attacked by Putin’s media thugs, arrested and generally harassed. It’s safe to say that nothing credible is coming out of Russia’s state reporting of Covid-19, and the same must be said of China, or any other state which has more or less complete control of its media. So the full truth of what is happening in Russia, and in other closed societies, will likely not come out for years.

Final remarks – from what we’ve seen so far, right-wing, limited government, libertarian-type governments do worse than strong, centralised governments, especially those led by women. Closed societies generally can’t be trusted on their reporting, so it’s virtually impossible to judge their performance vis-à-vis  the pandemic.

Next time I’ll look at some countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.


Written by stewart henderson

June 29, 2020 at 10:08 am

reading matters 3

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Will he go? Trump and the looming election meltdown, by Lawrence Douglas, Professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, Amherst College

Content hints

  • failure of impeachment, high crimes and misdemenours, rigged voting, media scum, sleepy Joe, election hoax, treason, fraud, shades of 2016, tweetstorms, dictator worship, Putin, Erdoğan, Orbán, the USA’s quaint constitution, pathological lying, Presidential authority to ban media, Trump as weak authoritarian, foreign interference, catastrophic scenarios 1,2,3, the unforeseeable, the electoral college and faithless electors, uniquely awful system, hacked elections, profoundly antidemocratic outcomes, gerrymandering, swing states, 12th amendment, enemies of the people, problems of peaceful succession, civil war, hang on, bumpy ride.

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2020 at 3:01 pm

the male and female brain, revisited

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Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

An article, ‘Do women and men have different brains?’, from Mysteries of the human brain, in the New Scientist ‘Collection’ series, has persuaded me to return to this issue – or perhaps non-issue. It convincingly argues, to me, that it’s largely a non-issue, and largely due to the problem of framing.

The above-mentioned article doesn’t go much into the neurology that I described in my piece written nearly 7 years ago, but it raises points that I largely neglected. For example, in noting differences in the amygdalae, and between white and grey matter, I failed to significantly emphasise that these were averages. The differences among women in these and other statistics is greater than the differences between women and men. Perhaps more importantly, we need to question, in these studies, who the female and male subjects were. Were they randomly selected, and what does that mean? What lives did they lead? We know more now about the plasticity of the brain, and it’s likely that our neurological activity and wiring has much more to do with our focus, and what we’ve been taught or encouraged to focus on from our earliest years, than our gender. 

And this takes me back to framing. Studies designed to ‘seek out’ differences between male and female brains are in an important sense compromised from the start, as they tend to rule out the differences among men and among women due to a host of other variables. They also lead researchers to make too much of what might be quite minor statistical differences. To quote from the New Scientist article, written by Gina Rippon, author of the somewhat controversial book The gendered brain:

Revisiting the evidence suggests that women and men are more similar than they are different. In 2015, a review of more than 20,000 studies into behavioural differences, comprising data from over 12 million people, found that, overall, the differences between men and women on a wide range of characteristics such as impulsivity, cooperativeness and emotionality were vanishingly small.

What all the research seems more and more to be pointing to is that there’s no such thing as a male or a female brain, and that our brains are much more what we make of them than previously thought. Stereotyping, as the article points out, has led to ‘stereotype threat’ – the fact that we tend to conform to stereotypes if that’s what’s expected of us. And all this fuels my long-standing annoyance at the stereotyped advertising and sales directed at each gender, but especially girls and women, which, as some feminists have pointed out, has paradoxically become more crass and extreme since the advent of second-wave feminism.

And yet – there are ways of looking at ‘natural’ differences between males and females that might be enlightening. That is, are there informative neurological differences between male and female rats? Male and female wolves? Are there any such differences between male and female bonobos, and male and female chimps, that can inform us about why our two closest living relatives are so socially and behaviourally different from each other? These sorts of studies might help to isolate ‘real’, biological differences in the brains of male and female humans, as distinct from differences due to social and cultural stereotyping and reinforcement. Then again, biology is surely not destiny these days. 

Not destiny, but not entirely to be discounted. In the same New Scientist collection there’s another article, ‘The real baby brain’, which looks at a so-called condition known as ‘mummy brain’ or ‘baby brain’, a supposed mild cognitive impairment due to pregnancy. I know of at least one woman who’s sure this is real (I don’t know many people), but up until recently it has been little more than an untested meme. There is, apparently, a slight, temporary shrinkage in the brain of a woman during pregnancy, but this hasn’t been found to correlate with any behavioural changes, and some think it has to do with streamlining. In fact, as one researcher, Craig Kinsley, explained, his skepticism about the claim was raised in watching his partner handling the many new tasks of motherhood with great efficiency while still maintaining a working life. So Kinsley and his team looked at rat behaviour to see what they could find:

In his years of studying the neurobiology underlying social behaviours in rats, his animals had never shown any evidence of baby brain. Quite the opposite, actually. Although rats in the final phase of their pregnancy show a slight dip in spacial ability, after their pups are born they surpass non-mothers at remembering the location of food in complex mazes. Mother rats are also much faster at catching prey. In one study in Kinsley’s lab the non-mothers took nearly 270 seconds on average to hunt down a cricket hidden in an enclosure, whereas the mothers took just over 50 seconds.

It’s true that human mothers don’t have to negotiate physical mazes or find tasty crickets (rat mothers, unlike humans, are solely responsible for raising offspring), but it’s also clear that they, like all mammalian mothers, have to be more alert than usual to any signs and dangers when they have someone very precious and fragile to nurture and attend to. In rats, this shows up in neurological and hormonal changes – lower levels of stress hormones in the blood, and less activity in brain regions such as the amygdalae, which regulate fear and anxiety. Other hormones, such as oestradiol and oxytocin, soar to multiple times more than normal levels, priming rapid responses to sensory stimuli from offspring. Many more connections between neurons are forged in late pregnancy and its immediate aftermath.

Okay, but we’re not rats – nothing like. But how about monkeys? Owl monkeys, like most humans, share the responsibilities of child-rearing, but research has found that mothers are better at finding and gaining access to stores of food than non-mothers. Different behaviours will be reflected in different neural connections.

So, while it’s certainly worth exploring how the female brain functions during an experience unique to females, most of the time women and men engage in the same activities – working, playing, studying, socialising and so forth. Our brain processes will reflect the particular patterns of our lives, often determined at an early age, as the famous Dunedin longitudinal study has shown. Gender, and how gender is treated in the culture in which we’re embedded, is just one of many factors that will affect those processes.


New Scientist – The Collection, Mysteries of the human brain, 2019

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2020 at 10:50 pm

the USA’s weird Electoral College system

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number of electors per state, favouring rural states

Canto: What do the words ‘electoral college’ mean to you?

Jacinta: Let me see, ‘electoral’ has something to do with processes and methods relating to elections, and a college is an educational institution, and connected words like ‘collegial’ and ‘colleague’ bring to mind teams and teamwork, in an educated sort of way. I’ve also heard about the electoral college in relation to US federal politics, but I’m not sure what it means. At a guess, I think it just means the electorate, and the regions it’s made up of, though why that would be called a ‘college’ I’ve no idea.

Canto: Well there’s this American-only phenomenon called the Electoral College I’ve been hearing about since I’ve been tuning into what has become, hopefully briefly, Trumpistan, but the term has kind of washed over me, and I’ve not thought of it as anything more than a fancy term for the electorate and its divisions, as you say. But no, a little book called Will he go?, by Lawrence Douglas, a professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, has taught me otherwise, though I’ve not completely got my head around it, so now’s the time.

Jacinta: Wikipedia tells me it goes back to that worshipped but problematic constitution of theirs. It also seeks to explain how it works, but it doesn’t really explain, at least not in its initial section, how it was thought needful.

Canto: Well, Douglas has a chapter in his book, ‘The Electoral College revisited, alas’, which opens thus:

The Electoral College is our constitutional appendix, a vestigial organ that has ceased to perform any valuable function and can only create problems for the body politic. It is a deservedly unloved part of our Constitution. Recently asked what part of the Constitution she would most like to alter, Justice Ruth Baider Ginsburg quickly answered, ‘the Electoral College – I’d like to see it abolished.’ Most Americans agree. No poll conducted over the past 70 years has found a majority of Americans supporting it. Only roughly one third of those polled in 2019 ‘would prefer to keep’ it.

L Douglas, Will he go? p 49.

Douglas goes on to argue that the USA is the only country in the world where the loser of a presidential election, based on popular vote, can actually win it by means of another system, namely the Electoral College in this case.

Jacinta: But in Australia we often have parties losing the popular vote but gaining more seats and so gaining ultimate victory, or in cases where neither party has an outright majority, it’s the party that can form a coalition with minor parties or independents that can form government.

Canto: Yes but here they’re talking about one-on-one presidential battles, no coalitions. Though such one-on-one races are just indicative of a bad political system, IMHO. And the reason parties win with a minority of votes is because the voters in some electorates are ‘worth more’ than the voters in other electorates. This imbalance was sort of deliberately created to provide more rural states with more power, so they wouldn’t be swamped at every election by the urbanites, but with the dramatic increase in urbanisation in recent decades, and the increase in productivity of those urban states, it’s become clear that the most urbanised states are effectively subsidising the rural states, while being dudded out of their share of the vote.

Jacinta: This isn’t a problem with the Electoral College, though, is it? The solution to what you’re talking about could surely be solved by a kind of independent commission on demographics, which could redraw the electorate every few years, say, on the basis of the movement of peoples….

Canto: Which would thus constantly be reducing the value of the rural vote, which would, if people considered the value of their vote to be a high priority in their lives, increase the rate of urbanisation. I’m wondering if that would ultimately be a good thing. But to return to the Electoral College..

Jacinta: Before you go on, this problem of losing the popular vote and winning the election, which has become much more of a factor in recent years in the US, is far more of a worry in these one-on-one contests, because you could have contests between, say, a centrist candidate and a far-right or far-left candidate, and if the extremist candidate manages to win the contest based on electoral boundaries rather than popular vote – which can be done more and more in the US, even with a substantial loss in the popular vote – that candidate and his personally appointed courtiers (another example of American exceptionalism) can do substantial damage to the public interest during his term, given the extraordinary powers given to one person by the system. That’s what’s happening now – though Trump is neither right nor left, nor up, he’s just down down down.

Canto: True, and if you regularly adjusted those boundaries so that they better captured one-vote-one-value, it’s probable that Trump would never have been elected. As Douglas writes, perhaps a little optimistically, ‘it seems fair to say that it is harder to convince 50% of the electorate to embrace a politics of division and intolerance than it is to convince 40%’.

Jacinta: Trump has never had 50% popular support at any time during his presidency, which provides support for that.

Canto: So the Electoral College system is little understood by even tertiary-educated Americans. Douglas suggests that its very opacity from the public perspective is a damning indictment, but it requires an amendment from the most impossible-to-amend constitution on the globe to change or dump it. In fact their constitution is hoist by its own petard in this case, as the system gives disproportionate power to less populous states, who would have to ratify its elimination. It’s a collection of electors, 538 in all, so requiring the magic number of 270 for a majority, who meet every four years to decide who’ll be the President.

Jacinta: I thought the federal election did that. So clearly the EC, if I can call it that…

Canto: Please do.

Jacinta: Clearly the EC is tightly bound to the election. I knew there were some 500-odd parts to the election, or the electorate, but I just thought that meant 500 electoral regions, a certain number in each US state, just as there are currently 47 electoral districts here in South Australia. Why would they need electors, and what are they?

Canto: To be honest, it’s confusing – when people, including Douglas, complain about the Electoral College, it seems to me they’re complaining about the electoral system, which again can be made to be highly unrepresentative of the popular vote, with safe electorates and swinging electorates, which can change as electoral boundaries change, and that can happen quite often, in Australia at least. But, the electors…. it all started with the very concept of the President, and the so-called separation of powers. In the USA they originally had the idea of a President being something like a monarch, only elected, and having to fight for re-election every so many years. But they also wanted a parliament, again like Britain, which they, presumably just to be different, called a congress, as a ‘coequal branch of government’. But in Britain, parliament has long since ceased to be a co-equal branch, it is the government. No need for a separation of powers, parliament is the power.

Jacinta: You’re right, the US congress is just another parliament, and the USA is still just a British colony – why can’t they face facts?

Canto: Anyway, back in the day, there was a huge amount of argy-bargy about this separation of powers, with constitutional conventions and various formulae and compromises, and finally they settled on this weird electoral college thing, with electors from each state ‘in the same numbers as their representatives in Congress’.

Jacinta: So a state with, say, seven electoral districts will have seven electors. For what possible reason? If one guy wins the district, he wins the seat. What more do you need?

Canto: That’s the billion-dollar question. I’m trying to get to the reasoning. In fact, your straightforward option was favoured by some constitutional convention delegates, such as James Madison, though he recognised that this might disadvantage the South, where there was a disproportionate number of slaves, and of course, they would never be allowed to vote, even if they were freed. Though I’m not sure how this situation could be resolved by an Electoral College. The whole idea of this EC seems as complicated and bizarre as quantum mechanics.

Jacinta: And as impossible to get rid of.

Canto: So, an elector for each electoral district, who was expected to be a proxy for the district, voting the way the district voted. But each state was able to choose its electors and to decide on how they chose them. You would think this wouldn’t matter, as they were required to vote the way their district voted. But get this, they weren’t legally obligated to do so – at least there was no clear law, and still isn’t any clear law, forcing them to do so, and there have occasionally been ‘faithless electors’ who’ve cast their vote for the loser.

Jacinta: Which is highly undemocratic. But I still don’t get…

Canto: Don’t bother, just thank the dogs you don’t live in America.

Jacinta: Oh well, I’m sure they do their best, the poor wee souls…

Written by stewart henderson

June 22, 2020 at 11:01 pm