an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

what is electricity? part 2 – the mystery gets murkier

leave a comment »

Canto: So we were trying to comprehend early ideas about electricity as a fluid, which led Franklin to define two ‘states’ of the fluid, ‘negative’ for having a deficiency, and ‘positive’ for having an excess. He also called the negative state ‘resinous electricity’ and its opposite ‘vitreous electricity’. Presumably he thought the fluid was in a balanced state before these different elements started rubbing against each other.

Jacinta: And they were trying to regain this balanced state, which made the sparks fly?

Canto: Dunno, but let’s return to Britain, where Francis Hauksbee (1660-1713), a lab assistant to Isaac Newton, was being inventive with air pumps and pneumatic engines, decades before Franklin’s 1840s experiments.

Jacinta: I’d ask you what a pneumatic engine is, but I suppose that’d take us way off topic?

Canto: Probably. It apparently has something to do with compressed air, and some kind of energy derived from un-compressing it, or something. Anyway, air pumps were used to create vacuums, or relative vacuums. Apparently, Hauksbee, an ingenious instrument maker, noted that glass was a really good material for viewing experiments, and in 1705 he performed a remarkable experiment with one of his air pumps and that mercurial, and very dangerous element, mercury (though ‘elements’ in the modern sense, weren’t known or at least defined at the time).

Jacinta: I suppose elements wouldn’t have been defined until the atomic theory became a thing.

Canto: Anyway I’m betting that his experiments with mercury shortened Hauksbee’s poor life (he was accepted into the Royal Academy in 1703, just as Newton became its president with the aim of reinstating its grandeur, but he was given special ‘low class’ status). He’d created a version of Otto von Guericke’s electrical machine, made of glass, with air pumped out, and some mercury inside. He rubbed the sphere to create a charge, and the mercury glowed when he put his hand on it (the globe, not the mercury). Fantastical, but nobody knew what it meant, except that it could be used as a source of night-light, which actually happened, but much later.

Jacinta: But nobody had much idea about whys and wherefores at this time.

Canto: They presumably speculated. A similar phenomenon, in large, was St Elmo’s fire (he was the patron saint of sailors), a bluish glow around a sailing ship, or more recently, around an aircraft. We know now this is a form of plasma, the ionised state of matter. During thunderstorms the voltage differentials are greatest – it requires a particular differential for it to happen, and the shape of the body around which the light is seen is an important factor. Pointy objects create a more intense field (Franklin realized this). The violet-blue light is caused by the nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere.

Jacinta: Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?

Canto: I’m never certain about anything, that’s my vocation, or just my fate.

Jacinta: Pneumatic tyres are filled with compressed air, or gas. So that helps to understand what a pneumatic engine might be, maybe.

Canto: So Hauksbee had found a way to accumulate an electric charge, and in 1745, in Leyden, Holland, they found a way to store this charge – an instrument that came to be known as a Leyden jar. Let me quote from the scientific historian, Thomas Crump:

The so-called Leyden jar was simply a substantial glass chamber, with separate layers of metal foils on the inside and outside surfaces. The inside was charged by a metal chain connecting it to a charged body, which then lost its charge to the air.

And this was apparently the first capacitor. We’ve talked about capacitors and supercapacitors before, but of course we barely understand them. In any case this Leyden jar device allowed a lot of electrostatic potential to build up between the inner and outer surfaces – enough to kill small birds who came in contact. Nice.

Jacinta: Or were forced to come into contact. I know they tried it on monks too. Presumably they couldn’t find the nuns.

Canto: Anyway they now had some control over this electricity thing, even if they hadn’t a clue what it was. They had some idea as to how to create and release this electrical charge thingummy.

Jacinta: So now we come to Coulomb?

Canto: No, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) first. I’m following Crump, for better or worse. But more importantly than people, it’s batteries we’re going to focus on now. And I’m not sure where to begin.

Jacinta: It was a term – battery I mean – first used by Franklin in 1749, but what he actually created were capacitors, devices that accumulated charge, until they were discharged. Batteries – I’m kind of guessing here – are devices that store charge more or less permanently, and can release charge in a controlled way, and be recharged in a controlled way.

Canto: And what is this thing called charge?

Jacinta: Well let’s continue to grope toward an understanding. So I’ll return to Franklin. He wrote a book, Experiments and observations on electricity, made at Philadelphia in America, published in 1751. His researches led him to believe that everything contained charge, positive and negative, but that they were almost always in equilibrium, a neutral state. Or the fluid, which could be ‘negativised’ or ‘positivised’ by friction, could be returned to balance by ‘discharging’ it.

Canto: And surely therein lay a mystery. How or why did this build-up of negativity or positivity get discharged? I just don’t understand it. Not just the discharge but the creation of the charge.

Jacinta: I suppose they – Franklin, Hauksbee and the rest – just made the observation and called it ‘charge’. From whence, ‘discharge’. Maybe you’re just overthinking it. They certainly didn’t know what was going on, they just noted this reliable cause-and-effect behaviour and sought to utilise it, and find out more about it. Anyway, keep on overthinking, it might be a good thing.

Canto: Okay, Franklin was exercised by the discharge side of things. He found that pointy objects – we now call them lightning conductors – were most effective at discharging this build-up of charge, and recreating neutrality, the safe, ‘natural’ condition. A great, practical solution for buildings. But he developed a theory of sorts, of zero-sum conservation of this thing called charge. Whatever was accumulated in, say, a Leyden jar, was restored on discharge, nothing gained and nothing lost. I think.

Jacinta: Well, here’s a quote from Crump’s book, which might unenlighten us further:

Franklin succeeded in giving Leyden jars both positive and negative charges, and showed that the force itself was stored in the glass of the jar with the charge being proportional to its surface area.

Canto: Yeah, that needs unpacking, if possible. The ‘force’ being stored, is that the charge? If so, why does he use different terms? Charge is either negative or positive, isn’t it? So he was able to give these jars either a negative or a positive charge/force, but not both at the same time, though it’s ambiguous in this quote.

Jacinta: What I think he’s saying is there’s this force, which we now call electricity, which can either be negatively or positively charged, and its strength will be proportional to the surface area of the glass jar. I don’t think he was giving the jar different charges at the same time, but how he knew that the charge was sometimes positive, sometimes negative, or what that even means, I’ve no idea.

Canto: Yes, I’m more confused than ever. Let’s try to understand Leyden jars a bit more. Apparently it was invented in 1745 by one Pieter van Musschenbroek as a ‘cheap and convenient source of electric sparks’. That’s from Britannica on electromagnetism. So, to be more precise about this first jar, it was a glass vial partially filled with water, which ‘contained a thick conducting wire capable of storing a substantial amount of charge’.

Jacinta: Presumably that ‘thick conducting wire’ corresponds to the ‘metal chain’ in Crump’s description. I don’t know what the water’s for.

Canto: And Britannica makes no mention of the ‘separate layers [how many???!!] on the inside and outside surfaces’.

Jacinta: Okay, here’s a simplified picture, which might help.

So, in this one there’s no water, but I’ve seen other pics that indicate a jar more than half-filled with water, so who fucking knows. Note that there’s one layer of tin foil on the outside and another on the inside. Note the metal rod passing through a cork into this evacuated jar, and then a wire, presumably of some kind of metal, connecting to the tin foil.

Canto: Is tin a good conductor?

Jacinta: Apparently so. Not as good as silver or copper, but better than lead. And please don’t ask me why some metals are better conductors than others. It’s so frustrating trying to learn from the internet, even when you know which sites to avoid. For example, take this statement on what I’d expect to be a reliable site:

Although Leyden Jars allowed the storage and dissipation of electricity, there were still issues present. One issue was the lack of energy from the charge. While it could only attract small objects like a bit of paper, that was all it could basically do. Also, it could only perform that function after the jar was charged, which also took lots of time.

And then this, from Britannica:

The Leyden jar revolutionized the study of electrostatics. Soon “electricians” were earning their living all over Europe demonstrating electricity with Leyden jars. Typically, they killed birds and animals with electric shock or sent charges through wires over rivers and lakes. In 1746 the abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet, a physicist who popularized science in France, discharged a Leyden jar in front of King Louis XV by sending current through a chain of 180 Royal Guards. In another demonstration, Nollet used wire made of iron to connect a row of Carthusian monks more than a kilometre long; when a Leyden jar was discharged, the white-robed monks reportedly leapt simultaneously into the air.

Canto: Hmmm. One of these descriptions is not like the other. Where’s Micky Faraday when you need him?

Jacinta: I can but do my best. Let’s get back to batteries, again. Franklin’s ‘battery’ was really a capacitor, as mentioned, a way of accumulating more electric charge, and temporarily storing it, until it was required for a sort of ‘big bang’ release, I think. You can do this with Leyden jars linked together:

The above ‘device’ was used for demonstration purposes back in the day. Franklin’s electrostatic machine, though, didn’t look anything like this. It was a mammoth device of cranks and pulleys, created with much help from his friends. The mechanisation was presumably for creating as great an accumulation of charge as possible. Crump writes that Franklin built a glass and lead battery consisting of eleven condensers connected in series – which is clearly not his electrostatic machine. And apparently it wasn’t a battery, either, at least not in the modern sense. And WTF is a condenser? Anyway, this confusion has gone on long enough. We’ll try to clear some of it up next time.

References

Thomas Crump, A brief history of science

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Hauksbee

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Elmo%27s_fire

https://www.britannica.com/science/electromagnetism/Invention-of-the-Leyden-jar

https://www.bluesea.com/resources/108/Electrical_Conductivity_of_Materials

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franklin%27s_electrostatic_machine

 

Written by stewart henderson

December 6, 2021 at 10:57 pm

What is electricity? part 1 – static electricity, mostly

leave a comment »

'Ben Franklin acquiring electricity', filched, methinks, from Reddit

Canto: So it seems we’ve been here before but we’re back at the beginning again, because we’re still largely ignorant. And sadly, even if we finally get a handle on this complex phenomenon, we’ll be likely to forget it again through disuse, and then we’ll die.

Jacinta: So let me begin as naively as possible. Electricity is this energy source, or comes from this energy source, which travels through a wire by some kind of force that excites the electrons in the wire, which then oscillate and create an energy transfer along the wire, to a connector to a light bulb or a toaster, and when a switch connects the wire to the toaster it heats up your bread. But electricity doesn’t have to travel though a wire because I think lightning is electricity, but it needs a conducting material, which in the case of lightning is probably water vapour. I’ve heard somewhere that water is quite a good conductor of electricity.

Canto: Well, all that may or may not be true but what is voltage, what is current and why are certain materials conductors, and superconductors, electrically speaking, and what is an electric field? And I’ve heard that electrons really do flow in a wire, rather than just oscillating, though I’ve no idea what to make of that. 

Jacinta: My next step is to look for experts, and to try to put their explanations into my own words, for ownership purposes. So I went to the ‘expert site’, Quora, and found quite a few contradictory or confusing responses, but assuming that the response that comes up first is some kind of popularly selected ‘best’ response, I’ll focus on Anthony Yeh’s answer. Oh by the way, the question is something like ‘what do electrons actually do in an electrical circuit?’ – though even that requires prior knowledge of what an electrical circuit actually is. 

Canto: So let’s see if we can bed down the concept of an electrical circuit. So a website called ‘all about circuits’ gives us the basics, starting with static electricity. This was probably woman’s first discovery relating to the electrickery thing. Two different materials rubbed together – glass and silk, wax and wool – created this stickiness, this attraction to each other. And then it was noticed that, after the rubbing, the identical materials, such as two glass rods, exerted a force against each other. And another observation was that the wax, after rubbing with the wool, and the rod after rubbing with the silk, attracted each other.

Jacinta: Yes, this must’ve seemed quite bizarre to first discoverers. And they found that it worked as a sort of law. If the item was attracted by glass it would be repelled by wax – that’s to say, two rubbed wax cloths would always repel each other, as would the two rubbed glass rods. Which led to speculation about what was going on. The materials didn’t appear to be altered in any way. But they behaved differently after rubbing. Seemed like some invisible, quasi-magic force was in operation. 

Canto: One of the earliest speculators that we know about was Charles du Fay (1698-1739). Note the dates – we’re really into the period inspired by Galileo, Newton and Huygens, the early days of theoretical and experimental physics. He separated the force involved into two, which he called vitreous and resinous. They were at first thought to be caused by invisible attractive and repulsive fluids. They later came to be known as positive and negative charges. 

Jacinta: But when Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) came to experiment with what became known as electricity, it was still thought of as a fluid…

Canto: But hang on – this static electricity stuff must go back way earlier. Sparks fly, and you feel the energy on your skin when you remove, say, a piece of nylon clothing. And you see the sparks in the dark. I get it from metal door-handles quite regularly, and you can actually see it – it ain’t no fluid. Surely they noticed this way more than a couple of hundred years ago. 

Jacinta: Okay let’s go back thousands of years, to Thales of Miletus, about 600 BCE. I’m using Quora again here. He noticed that rubbed amber was able to attract stuff, like leaves and other ground debris. Theophrastus, a student of Plato and Aristotle, who took over Aristotle’s Lyceum, also left some notes on this phenomenon, but this didn’t get any further than observation. William Gilbert (1544-1603), a much under-rated genius whom I read about in Thomas Crump’s  A brief history of science, wrote a treatise, On the magnet, which compared the attractive, magnetic properties of lodestones with the properties of rubbed amber. He called this property ‘electric’, after elektron, the Greek word for amber. He also built the first electroscope, a simple needle that pivots toward an electrically charged body. Gilbert was able to distinguish between a magnet, which always remained a magnet, that’s to say, an attracter of metals, and an electrically charged material, which could easily lose its charge. So we’re now into the 17th century, and very far from understanding the phenomenon. The first electrical machine was constructed by Otto von Guericke (1602-86), another interesting polymath, in 1660. It was a rotating globe of sulphur, which attracted light material, creating sparks. Nothing new of course, but a useful public demonstration model.

Canto: So we’re now getting to a period when a few enlightened folks were set to wondering. And this was when they must’ve noted the phenomenon’s small-scale similarity to lightning.

Jacinta: Yes, and so experiments with lightning were undertaken in the eighteenth century, generally with disastrous results. The fact is, though Ben Franklin did do some experimentation with kites and lightning, he mainly focused on glass and amber rods. He noted, as before, that there were two different forces, or charges, attractive and repulsive. When a rubbed amber rod was brought toward another rubbed amber rod they repulsed each other. When the same amber rod was brought toward a glass rod, they were attracted. He considered there were two opposite aspects of the same fluid (for some reason investigators – at least some of them – was still thinking in terms of fluids). The identical aspects of the fluid repelled, while the opposite aspects attracted. He decided, apparently quite arbitrarily, to name one (glass) positive, the other (amber) negative. And we’ve been stuck with this designation ever since..

Canto: Yes, I’ve heard that it would have been much better to name them the other way round, but I’ve no idea why. And also, why is all this called static electricity? Obviously that name came later, but what does it mean? We hear people saying ‘I’m getting a lot of static’, which seems to mean some kind of interference with a signal, but I’ve no idea why it’s called that. 

Jacinta: Oh shite, we’ll never get to the bottom of all this. Here’s a Wikipedia definition, which might help:

Static electricity is an imbalance of electric charges within or on the surface of a material. The charge remains until it is able to move away by means of an electric current or electrical discharge. Static electricity is named in contrast with current electricity, which flows through wires or other conductors and transmits energy

Canto: Okay, that helps. Static electricity ‘remains’ – it has to be discharged. So lightning is a discharge of static electricity? 

Jacinta: I believe so, and that spark you get from the car doorhandle is a discharge of the static electricity built up in your body. Now let’s return to the online textbook ‘All about Circuits’. It points out that Ben Franklin did have a reason for his positive-negative designation. Here’s a quote: 

Following Franklin’s speculation of the wool rubbing something off of the wax, the type of charge that was associated with rubbed wax became known as “negative” (because it was supposed to have a deficiency of fluid) while the type of charge associated with the rubbing wool became known as “positive” (because it was supposed to have an excess of fluid). Little did he know that his innocent conjecture would cause much confusion for students of electricity in the future!

Canto: Okay, I’m not sure whether this is a headfuck. When wax is rubbed with wool they attract each other. Franklin thought in terms of fluids, and he conjectured that, in the rubbing, the wool removed fluid from the wax – so wool had an excess of the fluid, and wax had a deficiency. The deficiency, which of course wasn’t really a deficiency, he termed ‘negative’ and the excess was ‘positive’. Sort of makes sense. Though why people since have felt this is the wrong way round, I don’t get at this stage. 

Jacinta: So now we come to Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (1736-1806), and I suspect we’ll be dwelling on him for a while, because ‘All about circuits’ deals with him rather cursorily, methinks. It tells us that Coulomb experimented with electricity in the 1780s using a ‘torsional balance’ (wtf?) to measure the force generated between two electrically charged objects. 

Canto: Exquisitely meaningless at this stage. Anyway, onward and downward…

References

https://www.quora.com/How-do-electrons-flow-in-a-circuit-Do-the-electrons-literally-move-or-is-there-just-a-transfer-of-energy-I-read-somewhere-that-the-direction-of-the-electrons-is-generally-unknown-Is-this-true

https://www.allaboutcircuits.com/textbook/direct-current/chpt-1/static-electricity/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_François_de_Cisternay_du_Fay

https://www.quora.com/What-were-static-electricity-shocks-believe-to-be-during-antiquity-and-the-Middle-Ages

Thomas Crump, A brief history of science, 2001

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Static_electricity

Written by stewart henderson

November 28, 2021 at 8:52 pm

the anti-bonobo world 1: the BHT

leave a comment »

somewhere in Turkmenistan

So today begins a new series about the anti-bonobo world, and I thought I’d start it with a country and a person I’ve recently learned about from a game show I was watching on a pub TV. With the assistance of a well-informed bar worker, I’ve learned that the trippingly named Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedow is the current dictator of the BHT, my own coinage for the Eurasian nation, Turkmenistan.

The Black Hole of Turkmenistan (BHT) is a landlocked country with a population of 6 million (though censuses are rare there, and outside observers argue for a population of less than 3 million!), bordered by the Caspian Sea in the west, Uzbekistan in the north, and Iran and Afghanistan in the south. My pub informant told me that its above-named Leader has a reputation as a joke version of another joker, Kim Jong-un. He’s been the BHT’s dictator since 2007, having previously served as assistant to the previous dictator, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, who’d held the job from 1985 until his death in 2006. Interestingly, Niyazov’s party from 1985 to 1992 (i.e. mostly as a ‘socialist republic’ under the USSR), was the Communist Party of Turkmenistan (CPT), but in 1992 it was changed to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which was akin to switching from the Stupid Arse Party (SAP) to the Stupid Dick Party (SDP). The new dictator has retained the Stupid Dick moniker, though he’s definitely a chip off the old bloke, who supported the 1991 attempted coup d’état against Gorbachov’s reforms.

These types are often called ‘hard-liners’, which is a euphemistic political term for those who will do whatever ‘hard’ things are needful to retain or reinforce their power. I prefer the term ‘thugs’ myself – and of course there are many of them dotted across the political landscape. Most of the head thugs – the ‘dictators’ or ‘party leaders’ – are surrounded by a band of lickspittle thugs, all of whom are male human apes. In the bonobo world they would likely have gotten their penises bitten off before they got to this stage.

So, the BHT earns its names for a number of reasons, but especially because of its impenetrability in terms of information. But while black holes are stars, metaphorically speaking, in the firmament around us, black holes on the Earth’s peel are simply disgusting blotches, as everyone would expect from a region that has suffered from total rule by two dictators in the last thirty years. North Korea is, of course, another example.

So, even if we accept the 6 million figure (they’re apparently having another census in 2022), the BHT is one of the most sparsely populated nations (it’s mostly desert), and one of the poorest and most corrupt. It does have one historical claim to fame, though, for within its current territory once lay the city of Merv (also known as Alexandria, Antiochia and Marw al-Shāhijān)the largest city in the world and a regular hangout for the polymath Omar Khayyam. That was until 1221 when the city opened its gates to the son of Genghis Khan – another chip off the old bloke – who, along with his male minions, proceeded to destroy everyone and everything in the greatest massacre of the medieval period. It’s now preserved as a world heritage site, though good luck on trying to visit it.

Returning to today’s BHT, it’s about 93% Muslim and other religions are barely tolerated. Homosexuality is illegal of course, though at least the death penalty has been abolished. Its economy is heavily reliant on its gas resources, which of course is problematic for the future – but, like all the other thugocracies that were once part of the USSR, it will receive ongoing support from Putin. Even so, the nation is leaking people at a regular rate – the majority of them heading across the Caspian Sea to Turkey.

As to those gas resources, they are spectacularly large – the fourth largest in the world, apparently representing some 10% of the world’s potential supply – something that I’m sure is front of mind for the likes of Putin, and other powerful figures. As the VisualPolitic video referenced below points out, it’s probably no coincidence that Russia and Qatar, hosts for the last and next FIFA World Cup, are the biggest gas exporters in the world. Being in possession of large supplies of oil and gas is usually a boon  for any nation – most residents of the oil-rich Middle Eastern nations are relieved from paying tax or ending up in extreme poverty, and despite COP-26 that doesn’t look like changing in my lifetime. However, Turkmenistan is a landlocked country with little in the way of international investment. LNG is transported in two ways, generally – by ship or by pipeline. For Turkmenistan pipeline is the only viable option, but given the rampant corruption there, few other nations are willing to take the risk. One country that does is China, a nation that knows a thing or two about corruption. It has sufficient funds of course, to pour largesse into the country in exchange for various guarantees regarding its gas resources, and it also has the economic and military might to ensure those guarantees are abided by.

And yet, even the most scary thugocracy won’t be able to curb the idiosyncrasies of the tin-pot dictators it deals with, and Berdimuhamedow, also known (by himsself) as Arkedan the Protector, is pretty weird. The two thugocrasies appear to be locked in a struggle as to who rips off the other most successfully. 

In any case, Arkedan the Protector has made a few unsuccesful moves with the funds flowing from China. For example, he had the bright idea of turning the country into a tourist Mecca. He built a vast airport and associated hotel region -a sort of Las Vegas in the  Karakum desert. So he clearly imagined that an influx of tourism would boost the nation’s economy. Good thinking. But then he realised that tourists might be critical of the lack of political freedom, the lack of decent education, and the general impoverishment of the citizenry. Good thinking. So he decided to severely limit the number of tourist visas into the country. Good thinking. The result of all this excellent thinking was a collection of near empty hotels surrounding a state-of-the-art-airport, which, due to the general lack of arrivals and departures, is one of the most efficiently run airports on the planet. Why am I reminded of Yes, Minister? 

Joking aside, it’s worth bearing in mind that many of us are simply lucky to be born under a government that is minimally repressive – and I should assure you that I’m no libertarian – as the most hypersocial species on the planet we owe more than we like to admit to states and their governments – for example, our education, our access to healthcare, our jobs, houses, clothes, technology, the cars that we drive and the roads we drive them on, the cities we live in, and so on. All of this is facilitated by the state, the libertarian bogeyman. I live in Australia, which, as states go, is fairly benign, though far from beyond criticism. I could’ve found myself in Turkmenistan or North Korea or the ‘democratic’ Republic of Congo. That’s why, as a hypersocial species, we should recognise we’re part of a human community and try to improve life for every member of that community. Of course, a community of almost 8 billion is almost too much to contemplate, but there but for the good or bad fortune of where we’re thrown into this community, go you and me.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkmenistan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gurbanguly_Berdimuhamedow

Why is TURKMENISTAN the World’s most INSANE dictatorship? – VisualPolitik EN (video)

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 18, 2021 at 10:28 pm

the best kind of sleep

leave a comment »

Canto: So Dr Seheult tells us that the most important sleep is in the earliest period. This is called slow-wave sleep or N3 sleep. It doesn’t last long, maybe half an hour…

Jacinta: Why is it called N3 sleep?

Canto: Well, here’s the detail – you have three stages of this early sleep. N1 is when you fall asleep. It lasts no more than ten minutes generally until you’re really there, in sleep. Then there’s N2 of course, which lasts from 30-60 minutes, your muscles relax and you begin to enter this slow-wave, also called delta-wave or delta brain activity sleep. That’s the deepest sleep of the night, at its deepest in the N3 period.

Jacinta: Well that explains the 1-2-3, sort of, but what about the N?

Canto: I haven’t been able to find that out specifically, but these are all phases of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, which are followed by the REM phase. So I think the N is just short for NREM. Anyway there are two types of sleep for maintaining good health – slow wave sleep and REM sleep towards the end of the night…

Jacinta: But don’t those two make up the whole of the sleep cycle?

Canto: Let me tell the story. Slow wave sleep is when you secrete valuable growth hormone, vital for children, in the time before midnight, according to the good doctor.

Jacinta: But I virtually never sleep before midnight.

Canto: Well you’re not alone there. In cities now, which are growing ever larger, we’re going to bed later and getting up earlier, and so sleeping less…

Jacinta: But generally living longer. So what’s the problem? I’ve heard that Hong Kong, which is about as urban as it gets, has the longest life expectancy on Earth – but that was probably measured before the China crackdown haha.

Canto: Well it’s no joke that China’s thugocracy will jeopardise everything in HK’s future, but good public healthcare and a very low infant mortality rate helps. People today can still live well with diabetes, obesity and slow-developing cancers, but they’d be even better with good sleep habits, if the rat-race allows them. But cities present us with a kind of eternal daylight, at great cost, not only in electric lighting, but in lack of sleep. Not to mention brightly lit screens that we take to bed with us…

Jacinta: Okay so what are the other benefits of slow wave and REM sleep, however delayed?

Canto: Dr Seheult describes a study showing that general sleep deprivation actually reduces the levels of antibodies produced after influenza vaccination. That’s to say, vaccination is less effective for the sleep-deprived. Another study used rhinovirus, a common cold virus. They paid students to be infected and found that those with good sleep efficiency, that’s to say, a high ratio of in-bed time to sleep time – their risk of being infected was reduced five to seven-fold, an extraordinary result. Actually this ‘extraordinary result’ finding comes up again and again in Matthew Walker’s book.

Jacinta: Yes, but it’s surely good to be awake sometimes too. But again, what is it about slow-wave and REM sleep that provides such benefits. What are the mechanisms?

Canto: Well, we’re talking about N3 sleep, the deepest sleep. This sleep phase is particularly important for memory consolidation, the stabilisation of a memory trace once it’s been acquired – meaning presumably the event itself, or its impact. It’s also called sleep-dependent memory processing. Now, how this precisely works is still being researched, but it appears to have much to do with interactions between neurons or neuronal complexes in the neocortex and the hippocampus. So here I should introduce sleep spindles, which are essential to all mammalian species.

Jacinta: They’re brainwaves, aren’t they?

Canto: Neural oscillations, indeed. They’re generated in the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), in richest quantities during N2 and N3 sleep. Wikipedia tells me this:

The density of spindles has been shown to increase after extensive learning of declarative memory tasks and the degree of increase in stage 2 spindle activity correlates with memory performance.

This is confirmed in experiments described in Why we sleep, showing that people who slept for a night between being asked to memorise certain data, like putting a name to a face, did a significantly better job than those who tried to remember the data after eight hours without sleep (from morning to evening). During the sleep period, subjects’ brain waves were recorded, and this is Dr Walker’s account:

The memory refreshment was related to lighter, stage 2 NREM sleep, and specifically the short, powerful bursts of electrical activity called sleep spindles… The more sleep spindles an individual obtained during the nap, the greater the restoration of their learning when they woke up. Importantly, sleep spindles did not predict someone’s innate learning aptitude. That would be a less interesting result, as it would imply that inherent learning ability and spindles simply go hand in hand. Instead, it was specifically the change in learning from before relative to after sleep, which is to say the replenishment of learning ability, that spindles predicted.

Jacinta: So they were correlating the number of spindles with their memorising performance, and memory here is being equated with learning. Is that right? I mean, is learning really just memorising?

Canto: Well, no, but it helps. I’m trying to memorise Newton’s inverse square law for gravity, but I know that even if I can reel it off like a favourite poem that doesn’t mean I fully understand it. Let me see G = m1.m2 over r². I’m not sure if that’s right.

Jacinta: Yeah, basically you have to know that the gravitational attraction between two bodies is equal to the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between their ‘centres of mass’. I think. Though why that happens to be the case I have no idea. Does anyone?

Canto: Because… the universe? I’m beginning to feel sleepy…

References

M. Walker, Why we sleep, 2017

https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hw48331

How to get the best sleep for your immune system | Roger Seheult (video)

https://www.oal.cuhk.edu.hk/cuhkenews_202101_life_expectancy/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526132/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_spindle

Written by stewart henderson

November 14, 2021 at 12:54 am

Posted in memory, mind, science, sleep

Tagged with , , ,

more thoughts on sleeping

leave a comment »

Jacinta: So, as I said last time, there’s tons of shite – I mean good shite – on sleep disorders and benefits and how to improve your sleep etc, on YouTube and elsewhere on the net. Why bother with social media, folks – rise above yourself and grasp the world. So I’ll start with Matthew Walker – he doubtless imparts his ideas on improving our sleep in his book Why we sleep, leaving the good dope till the end, but I’m not there yet, so I’m looking at his video ‘How to Improve Your Sleep’…

Canto: Which I’ve already watched, and I’m a man, so I’ll take over. First, alcohol as a ‘nightcap’ doesn’t work. It’s a sedative, and a sedation state isn’t the same as everyday sleep. It doesn’t have a restorative effect – it actually has a disruptive affect – you’ll tend to wake up more often in the night, and not just for wee-wee. You often don’t even remember this happening. It also blocks much of your dream or REM sleep, which is important for your mental health. Depriving rats of REM sleep apparently has quite catastrophic effects. Marijuana, that supposedly wonderful medicinal herb, doesn’t fare much better. It also blocks the dream sleep, though by a different pathway. Walker doesn’t provide too much detail in this 8-minute video, but he’s a professor of neurophysiology at a big Californian uni, and science is our god, right? So marijuana can send you to sleep quickly enough, but with little of that all-important REM sleep….

Jacinta: I can explain why REM sleep is so important…

Canto: Please, I’m not finished. Not getting the REM sleep can make you more anxious and more likely to self-medicate with Mary Jane, leading to a cycle of dependency. But there are questions around the drug – there are unverified claims that CBD oil, or cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive component (as opposed to THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol) may have benefits, but effective studies haven’t been conducted.

Jacinta: Because of a history of stupidity around marijuana. I blame Harry Anslinger and his crowd.

Canto: So can you recover sleep that you’ve lost, either over a previous night or two or a previous lifetime? Well, Walker says no, but that strikes me as disastrously pessimistic – he seems to be saying that some even small period of short-sleeping will have long-term or permanent effects, and you’ll just have to live with those effects for the rest of your life. I mean, really?

Jacinta: Yes, and short-sleeping is often related to our work patterns or the schedules set for us by our culture. Our dog sleeps whenever she wants, and so do bonobos. But kids have to be up for school at seven every morning, and it often goes on throughout our working life…

Canto: To say nothing of shift-work, which I experienced for years, and it was a living nightmare, sleep-wise. It’s ok for these smart-aleck professorial types. We dumb fucks have to earn a living with the sweat of our brows.

Jacinta: Professors sweat too. Anyway, I think this particular video doesn’t quite deliver on how we can improve our sleep. Sure we should avoid alcohol and drugs and not rely too much on alarms, but how do we deal with such problems as – well, just never falling asleep before midnight, and waking up in the night, and so on. I suppose that’s called insomnia?

Canto: Well, as many health sites put it, insomnia is a symptom, not a disease. You might need a bit of discipline. Put down your book, or switch off your phone or tablet well before midnight. Dr Seheult of Medcram fame, who’s also a sleep specialist, suggests you should organise your room, your sleeping place, so that it’s dedicated only to sleeping, not anything else, such as a workspace. Try that, for your psychology. But I’ve also found reputable health websites that disagree with Dr Walker’s claims about short sleeping. They claim that a good night’s sleep is an individual thing in terms of hours spent in shut-eye. Maybe you don’t need as much sleep as the average person. It could be that your anxiety about sleep is doing more damage.

Jacinta: There was some mention of pee earlier. Coffee’s a diuretic – so no coffee for maybe two or three hours before bedtime, whenever that is.

Canto: Difficult.

Jacinta: Self-discipline. I’m sure that bladder retention reduces as we age. I think establishing a routine would help. If you make a decision to get out of bed, say, at eight every morning, and keep to it, the front end will sort itself out, so to speak.

Canto: Well, try that and report back. I’m beginning to feel that you’re making a problem out of nothing. I mean, you worry too much.

Jacinta:: Probably. Anyway, the Better Health Channel has some suggestions for dealing with short term insomnia, and here are some that I find relevant. Avoid caffeinated drinks before bedtime. Also avoid strenuous exercises. Try not to nap during the day. Don’t go to bed if you don’t feel sleepy. And don’t spend too much time worreting over the issue.

Canto: So, should you keep on reading Why we sleep? Won’t that keep you worrying?

Jacinta: Well I don’t mind worreting. And there’s a lot to learn from the book, about how sleep actually works. That’s what we’ll get into in a future post.

References

Why we sleep, by Matthew Walker, 2017

How To Improve Your Sleep | Matthew Walker (video)

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/sleep-insomnia

Written by stewart henderson

November 8, 2021 at 11:09 pm

a post to send you to sleep, or not

leave a comment »

Häggström, Mikael (2014). “Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström

 

Canto: Anything interesting you’ve learned lately?

Jacinta: Well, there’s so much, it’s hard to keep track of it all, before it slides down the slippery slope into a past of fragmented memories.

Canto: A pasta of memories? That’s food for thought. I know you’ve been reading up on sleep, among all your other heavy reading. Tell me.

Jacinta: Yes, I’ve been reading up on feminism and misogyny as you know, which is mostly depressing, but this sciencey but very accessible book, Why we sleep by Matthew Walker, is not so much depressing as worrisome, for those of us whose sleep patterns are all over the place, like mine. He’s a big-time sleep researcher, and what he says about sleep deprivation is all bad – even for a wee bit of it.

Canto: So, those dreams of doing away with sleep, of zapping your brain for a few seconds to provide the instant reinvigoration that sleep takes eight hours of wasteful oblivion to achieve, allowing us that much more time to ruin the biosphere and all, or just to read more books and shit, those dreams are just a waste of sleep?

Jacinta: No zapping will ever replace the complexity of sleep, with all its REMness and non-REMness, let Mr Walker assure you. Sleep is a restorative and builder, which has complexly evolved with the complex evolution of our brains and bodies. And by ‘our’ I don’t just mean humans, but every complex or not-so complex evolved organism. They all sleep.

Canto: Well, there are many questions here. You’ve mentioned REM sleep, which I think has something to do with dreaming – your eyes, presumably under their lids, are rapidly moving about. Why? It doesn’t sound healthy.

Jacinta: They’re responding to brain signals, and it’s perfectly normal. More specifically, they seem to be responding to the brain’s changing visual representations while dreaming. They used electrodes in the brain to discover this – which sounds Frankensteinish but in this case they were patients with epilepsy preparing to have very invasive treatment to stop their seizures. They looked at activity in the medial temporal lobe, a region deep in the brain which includes the hippocampus and amygdala, and is involved in encoding and consolidating memories, and found fairly clear-cut connections between that activity and patients’ eye movements.

Canto: But how could they ‘see’ the eye movements?

Jacinta: Oh god, I don’t know, for now I’m more interested in sleep deprivation, which raises concerns for everything from diabetes to Alzheimer’s. And, although I haven’t measured anything carefully, my guess is that I average 6 to 7 hours’ sleep a night, and I need to amp that up.

Canto: And you’ve recently been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, so do you think more sleep can help with that? It’s usually pretty strongly correlated with diet isn’t it?

Jacinta: Less time sleeping, more time for eating, Walker writes. I’m certainly trying to lose weight, but only by eating less. I think my diet’s not too bad, less wine though. And I suppose if I slept more, which is easier said than done, I wouldn’t eat so much. I’ve found in the past that just reducing the quantity of food I ingest, without changing its make-up – in other words, being more disciplined – can take the weight off quite quickly. The key is to make it life-long.

Canto: More fibre is good, I think. For the microbiome.

Jacinta: So type 2 diabetes is generally about blood sugar levels and their regulation, or lack thereof. In a healthy person, eating a meal adds glucose to the blood, which triggers the hormone insulin, produced in the pancreas, to somehow bring about cellular absorption of the glucose as an energy source. In the case of diabetes, there’s usually a break-down in the cellular response to the insulin signal, I think, and so you become hyperglycaemic – not that this has ever happened to me, so far.

Canto: So how does this relate to lack of sleep, apart from giving you more time to guzzle sugar?

Jacinta: Walker describes a series of studies, independent from each other, in different continents, which found high rates of type 2 diabetes in people who reported sleeping for less than six hours a night on a regular basis. They controlled for other factors such as obesity, alcohol use, smoking etcetera. But of course correlation isn’t causation so they investigated further. They conducted experiments with a bunch of healthy people – no blood glucose problems or signs of diabetes. Firstly, they mildly tortured them – they permitted them only four hours of sleep per night over six straight nights. Then they tested their ability to absorb glucose, and found a 40% reduction in that ability. This would immediately classify them as pre-diabetic, and these studies, I’m assured, have been replicated numerous times.

Canto: That sounds incredible. And these guinea pigs quickly recovered? Or are they now full-blown diabetics? Doesn’t sound like mild torture to me. And do they know why a week’s sleep deprivation had such a dramatic effect?

Jacinta: Ha, well, Walker doesn’t mention the afterlife of the experimental subjects, but I’m assuming normality came bounding back after they recovered their sleep. As to the mechanism of action, Walker describes two options – sleep loss may have blocked the release of insulin by the pancreas, providing no signal for cell absorption to take place, or it may have interfered with the released insulin’s message to the cells. And though it seems that sleep loss probably had an effect on both, it was clear from biopsies taken from subjects that it was the latter, the cells’ lack of response to insulin, their ‘refusal’ to take up the blood glucose, that was the principal problem.

Canto: Just looking at the Sleep Foundation website, and they seem to get things the other way round, that diabetics are suffering from sleep loss. I must say, that, off the top of my head, I’d find being pre-diabetic easier to manage than my sleep behaviour. I mean, I can imagine changing my diet and exercise habits easily enough, but my sleep habits not so much. How do you turn off your brain?

Jacinta: Well, Mr Walker has some suggestions on that, which we’ll explore next time. And by the way, there seems to be tons of videos and websites providing knowledge and advice on the issue, which always makes me feel superfluous to requirements as a human being…

Canto: Well, try not to lose sleep over it.

References

Why we sleep, by Matthew Walker, 2017

https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-have-worked-out-why-your-eyes-move-when-you-re-dreaming

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_deprivation

https://www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-health/lack-of-sleep-and-diabetes

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 7, 2021 at 3:56 pm

me and Montaigne

leave a comment »

Montaigne’s better half

 

I have no more made my book than my book has made me

Michel de Montaigne 

Before I start on Montaigne, some remarks on the title of this essay. Many English teachers are wont to correct it to ‘Montaigne and I’, hohum, but as an English teacher myself and an iconoclast of minuscule proportions, I beg to differ. The idea is that ‘me’ is an object pronoun, and that using it as a subject pronoun (as in ‘me and Montaigne is good mates’) is simply incorrect. This is bullshit, technically speaking. There’s no such thing as correct English, or correct any other language. I’ve had run-ins with fellow teachers on this, and it’s very headache-inducing. One argument is ‘How can you call yourself an English teacher if you don’t believe in the rules?’ But the rules of grammar aren’t delivered from on high, by lofty teachers or grammarians. They emerge in a community of like-minded souls who want to communicate effectively. There are some 7000 languages (and falling) in the world, setting aside dialects within particular languages. Less than half of these have a written form that’s utilised regularly by the language-users. So they don’t have grammar books telling them what the rules are. The first English grammar book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was published in 1586, obviously long after the language started on the evolutionary path that it’s still on.

All of this is not to say that language teachers are redundant. Sticking with English, what we teach is standard English, the English that’s found in current grammar books and written in works of fiction and non-fiction currently. It has two slightly divergent forms – British and United Stater English. Now anyone who’s an avid reader of English literature, going back to Shakespeare, Chaucer and so on, and forward to Milton, Austen and Eliot (George or T S), will notice subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the language – in orthography as well as syntax. And with the spoken form we’re less structure-driven, we change our language depending on who we’re talking to, and we accompany our speech with a variety of paralinguistic features. Language is as alive as we are, it grows and changes, and in ye olde days grammar texts and dictionaries had to be renewed regularly to keep up, but now we have the magic of the internet…

But getting back to ‘me and Montaigne’, this is now acceptable in speech, and mostly in writing, because it involves no ambiguity whatsoever, and, more importantly, because it has become common usage. On the contrary, to say ‘me went for a swim’ also involves no ambiguity, but it sounds wrong, for the sole reason that it hasn’t become common usage, though it might, sometime in the future. To argue that ‘me went for a swim’ is simply wrong because me is always an object pronoun is just a statement about current usage. ‘You’ is currently used as both a subject and and object pronoun, why not ‘me’? Of course, saying ‘me and…’ is more plebeian, while saying ‘…. and I’ means you’re more likely to have a six-figure income and live in a gated community (not a gaol), but unfortunately ‘speaking the King’s English’ won’t guarantee you a place at court, so don’t worry about it.

So, getting back to Montaigne and me, I first read a selection of his essays in my early twenties, and he’s been a touchstone for me ever since. I need to thank him for encouraging me to become a writer. His mixture of me me me together with reflections on history, politics, science (insofar as there was much decent science in his time) and human behaviour really struck chords with me. I think he once wrote something like ‘I write not just to explore myself but to create myself’, though I can’t now find the reference – but the epigraph to this essay comes close enough. Anyway, I think he also wrote something like ‘whenever I learn of another’s good or bad behaviour, I think ‘how is it with me?”, and if he didn’t write that, it’s clear from his writings that this ‘egoism’ is a major focus. It’s what inspired me – a positive egoism – and I’ve followed him in trying to create a better self through reading, learning, and writing about it all.

There’s a vas deferens, of course, between me and him. He inherited a castle and a whole lotta land from his dad, who was clearly the dominant parent for him. My dad once bought me a motorbike, and to my shame I never thanked him for it. By that time my parents had separated. My mother was the head of our household, the breadwinner, the disciplinarian and influencer, and sadly for me, very much the enemy. To use the phrase of the day, I came from a broken home. The major result of the various minor traumas I experienced at home and school was an excessive hatred of being told what to do. My mother, sensing that I needed some ‘male discipline’, and with a mortal fear that I might be homosexual, tried to interest me in a manly career in the military, or the police perhaps. I would have preferred a quick, painless death. Sometimes mine, sometimes hers. All the same she was a hard-working, successful woman, who turned her children into feminists without ever saying a word on the subject.

Anyway, I read, and lived in the different countries of the past. And so it continues, though over time I’ve moved from the worlds of Hardy, Austen and Stendhal (fond memories) to the Big Issues of politics, science and How We Are to Live, and I started to write, and to like myself as a writer, while always being a bit ashamed of my hubris.

And I encountered Montaigne. Thoroughly egoistic and yet kind of self-effacing. Que sais-je?, his Socratic motto, sort of summed it up, especially as it was worn as a medallion around his neck (but perhaps this was a conceit of the artist who painted his portrait). It made so much sense to me – I loved it. Now I’m trying to mine his essays for anything faintly bonoboesque, with little success so far. Montaigne, typically for his time, was absorbed in the affairs of men, and in his essay-writing retirement he loved to consult the ancient classics, all written by men. Montaigne did marry and have children, but we know little more than that. His father seems to have been a much more significant influence on him, at least as far as he understood it, than his mother, whom he barely mentions – but then, he seems to have been the subject of his super-rich dad’s humanist experiments. He was literally farmed out as a baby to one of the peasant families his father owned, presumably to experience the sweated labour of the indigent, but it’s doubtful that he learned much since he was back in the castle by age three. Another of his dad’s brilliant ideas was to force the lad to learn Latin by having all his servants and teachers speak to him solely in that language. Then at age six he was shuffled off to a boarding school headed by the leading Latin scholar of the day. He apparently performed well in his studies, perhaps on pain of death, albeit a very humane one. So with his aptitude, and especially his connections, he became a rising star in the legal and administrative world of his day, and was a member of the French king Charles IX’s court before he was thirty. He hob-nobbed with the aristocracy, finessing the then-toxic Catholic-Protestant skirmishes, and earned the respect of Charles’ successor, Henry III, as well as the future Henry IV, France’s greatest monarch.

Now when I look at Montaigne’s life and achievements, I think ‘how has it been with me?’ But seriously, what has always attracted me in Montaigne’s writing and outlook (exemplified also in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker – I had considered using a variant of Rousseau’s title for these essays, just altering one letter in the word ‘walker’), mutatis mutandis, is its discursiveness, its apparent willingness to follow a thought into all sorts of by-ways, so that you look up from the screen – in my case – and wonder, Jeez, how did I get here?

In any case, Montaigne’s marriage is a bit of a black box, and he has little to say of women in general. The upper aristocracy in those days tended not to marry for love of course, and his relations with his wife appear to have been cordial – if overly diluted cordial. There is at least one extant letter to her (Françoise de la Chassaigne by name, of doubtless unimpeachable pedigree), a short piece enclosing, for her own consolation, Plutarch’s consolatory epistle to his wife upon the death of their young daughter (Françoise ultimately gave birth to six daughters from two marriages, but only one lived to adulthood, and none outlived her). It’s a friendly if rather formal letter, and includes the line ‘Let us live, my wife, you and I, in the old French method’. I believe the French method may refer to cunnilingus, but perhaps not in this instance.

But this merry thought brings me back to bonobos. We’re emerging from millennia of patriarchy, in which men have been instructing their female inferiors how to behave. Plutarch, in the above-mentioned epistle, praises his wife for her womanly restraint in attending to her baby’s funeral – no over-the-top female caterwauling, an obvious sign of vainglorious insincerity etc etc. For some reason it all made me think of those bonobo females biting the penises of uppity males. And of the SCUM manifesto….

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2021 at 6:20 pm

a bonobo world: the ascent and fall of man

leave a comment »

                                  devil woman, with evil on her mind

Bonobos obviously evolved from some earlier type, along with chimps, but we’re not as interested in their evolution as we are in ours, understandably enough. What wouldn’t we give to fill in the gaps in our rise – the where and when of the first use of fire, the first spoken language, the beginnings of religious practice and so on? And of course none of us will live long enough to find out if bonobos, left alone (which they won’t be), become more gynocratic or less in the distant future, let alone whether we humans will eventually manage to live for as long as some tortoises I’ve heard about.

We human apes, of course, have socially evolved, especially over the past few thousand years, as Jacob Bronowski pointed out regularly in the series so admired by Deutsch. Yet interestingly, there was a kind of evolution that Bronowski himself, and the producers of The Ascent of Man, seemed not to have arrived at by 1971. I haven’t watched the entire series, only the two episodes and other bits and pieces I’ve found on YouTube, because I’m too poor to pay for the entire series, but having watched the first episode more than once, I felt bugged by all this ‘man’ stuff. So I did a count. Bronowski utters the word ‘man’ 70 times, together with the pronouns ‘he’ (29 times), ‘his’ (23) and ‘him’ (12). The words ‘woman’ ‘she’ and ‘her’ are uttered zero times in toto by my count. In terms of imagery, only two human figures are focussed on apart from Bronowski, a male child learning to stand on two feet, and a male athlete running and pole vaulting. But of course, by ‘man’ he means ‘human’, right? And, hey, this was the beginning of the seventies, right? Which was almost the sixties, really quite close to the fifties…

I’m not even a woman but I felt like I was having my female irrelevance bashed into my face in listening to all this – a bit like a sleeping woman who only realises she’s being clouted when she wakes up. And all this man stuff didn’t suddenly end with the seventies – I’m reminded of a book, God, actually, which I read at the tail end of the New Atheism flare-up a few years ago. It was a dreadful piece of drivel seeking to prove the existence of the Judaeo-Christian god and to debunk evolution, which, against the advice of my betters, I managed to read to the end. Yet nothing in the male author’s specious arguments irritated me more than his deliberate use of ‘man’ as a generic term (though I was more irritated at the publisher, ABC books of all people). At one point, after reading the ‘man’ word about fifteen times in a couple of pages, I threw the book across the room in disgust. It seemed far more of an attack on women than on atheists.

But perhaps the title ‘The Ascent of Man’ was meant as a clever science-and-human development counterpoint to the religious ‘Fall of Man’ trope? Or at least, let’s pretend. The fall of man really was male, of course, and it was caused by woman. Or, if you like, by god, who should’ve left that spare rib alone. Not that this little fable was necessary to create a viciously misogynistic society, as witness the ancient Greeks (with apologies to the Spartans). Still it did a fine job of making life hot for women, long before the witch-burning frenzy of the fifteenth,  sixteenth, seventeenth  and eighteenth centuries (to be precise, the last woman known to have been burnt to death as a witch was Barbara Zdunk in Poland in 1811, and the first known execution of a witch, recorded by Demosthenes, was of Theoris of Lemnos, and her family, some time before 323 BCE, though it’s likely that witch-hunting, torture and execution predates this). Since all the early Christian writers and power-wielders were men with natural sexual desires, and since they’d gotten into their collective heads a fear and hatred of sexual desire as a straying from the endless and more or less brainless contemplation of the divine, women, the ‘daughters of Eve’ (though women were generally supposed, at least by the elites who pretended to understand such things, to be the carriers of the human seed without contributing to it) became the collective scapegoat. Basically, women were encouraged to be the objects of men’s desires, and exploited as such, and then blamed for it. Here’s the early Christian writer Tertullian, as memorably quoted by Beauvoir in The Second Sex:

And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?

As many feminist writers have pointed out, the exploitation of, and the ill-treatment, murder and general public opprobrium of sex workers of all varieties has never really abated, despite the so-called sexual liberation that began decades ago. What these religious and conservative types would think of bonobo shenanigans is an interesting question, but not particularly relevant for the future of humanity, whether it’s headed upwards or down. For the future lies with those who are open and attentive to the behaviour of our relatives. Bonobos’ use of sex isn’t obsessive, or particularly excessive. What is excessive and obsessive is our fear of sex, and our need to control it, to hide it, to wrap it in bonds of ownership, to weaponise it. We’re so  absurdly uptight about it, so incapable of normalising it as a need, a feeling, an appetite, a social bond, a pleasure.

The fall, indeed. We’ve fallen for so many myths about sex. When will be able to rise above all that, and be kinder to each other? Not until women are on top, I’m pretty sure.

References

The Ascent of Man, Ep. 01 “Lower Than the Angels” (YouTube video)

Roy Williams, God, actually, 2010, ABC Books & HarperCollins

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theoris_of_Lemnos

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Zdunk

Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers

Written by stewart henderson

October 11, 2021 at 9:32 pm

a bonobo world: on puncturing the masculine mystique

leave a comment »

‘They need to touch materials with their hands. They need to form materials, need to make things with their own hands out of wood, clay, iron etc. They need to own tools and handle tools. Not doing it, not being permitted to do it, does something to men. They all know it.’

Sherwood Anderson

‘A man who can’t handle tools is not a man’

Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman,  by Arthur Miller

 

It’s often pointed out by feminist writers that women do more work than men and get little acknowledgement for it. The work of nurturing children, especially in early infancy, and the unpaid work of maintaining the family – remembering important dates, events and tasks – while, also, these days, pursuing her own career. In less affluent countries, their burden is often greater, as they work for a pittance outside the home, and for nothing, economically speaking, inside it, while ceding ‘head of the household’ status to men. Marilyn French detailed the systemic discrimination against working women thirty years ago in The war against women, and given the heavy patriarchal culture women still labour under in those parts of the world dominated by  the major religions, progress has been painfully slow. Here in the WEIRD world, however, there are some positive signs. It’s still overwhelmingly patriarchal even now that the WEIRD nations have largely recognised the artificiality of the ‘masculine mystique’. However, that recognition is an important step toward gynocracy.

Let me explain what I mean by the masculine mystique, since I’ve just thought of the term (so I need to explain it to myself). In Susan Faludi’s 1999 book Stiffed, a humane rendering of the quandary many men have found themselves in as the WEIRD world has become post-industrial, she quoted Sherwood Anderson and Arthur Miller on masculinity and tool use. The idea being mooted was that man was the tool-maker and tool-user, and deprived of those skills and opportunities, he felt emasculated.

This was about mastery. Without their sense of mastery, especially an exclusive mastery, one not shared by females, men weren’t really men. This masculine mystique needs to be punctured. In fact it has been punctured, but it needs to deflate quite a bit more.

Chimpanzees use tools. Bonobos too, but far less so, sad to say. One particular tool shown in a video I recently watched was a thin stick for poking into termite mounds and collecting a tasty and doubtless nutritious meal. The video presented adult chimps showing their expertise in this task, while the children fumbled and failed. Only later did I wonder – were those adult experts male or female? The commentator didn’t say, and surely this was unsurprising, surely all adults had learned this skill. Though chimps live in a largely patriarchal society, there’s surely no division of labour such that the females are expected to keep the forest clearing tidy, mind the kids and wait for the male to bring home the termites. And yet we’ve only recently come to terms, even in the WEIRD world, with female engineers, mechanics, scientists, entrepreneurs, truck-drivers and a whole lot more. In other words, throughout our history, we’ve been much more patriarchal and frankly misogynistic in our division of labour, and its spoils, than chimps have ever been. The upper classes have intoned from on high that ladies should be powdered, manicured, stupidly shod and generally decorative, and those notions are far from having been laid to rest.

Let me offer another example, a favourite of mine. In the early seventies, I attended a youth camp in the Adelaide Hills. We were kicking a soccer ball around, and one of the camp leaders beckoned to a couple of female watchers on the sidelines to come and join in. They were reluctant and giggly and seemed almost deliberately hapless, swinging and missing the ball and landing on their rumps, and giggling all the more. I was irritated, as I’d seen this before, girls almost proud of their lack of co-ordination, a kind of learned helplessness. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and I was attending an impromptu housewarming for people a generation or two behind me. It was during the day, and the young people, about a dozen of them, trooped outside to a vacant lot behind the house, with a soccer ball. I watched them from an upstairs window. They formed a circle, kicking the ball between them. There were as many girls as lads, but there was no difference in the skill level, it seemed to me. They were all able to trap the ball, bounce it up to their heads, and pass with power and accuracy. I was amazed, and even became a bit teary. These were young girls I knew, but I didn’t know they were into soccer. And maybe they weren’t particularly. Maybe they were just brought up in a generation that had broken from that long history of patriarchal expectation or demand. They had no interest in being ladylike women, at least not all the time.

What has happened? The first women’s World Cup was held in 1991, and the past few of them have received blanket coverage. Tennis really led the way, and then golf, and now women are becoming heroes in many athletic and sporting contests, with motor sports as the next challenge. It seems that, in sporting prowess at least, the trickle-down effect may actually be real.

And this particular trickle-down can also be viewed as the trickling away of the masculine mystique, the near superhero of Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, the culmination of human can-do physical prowess. In many respects, the competencies required for the challenges in our future – the problems of global warming, reduced biodiversity, the exploitation, suffering and slaughter of other species, the reduction of poverty in our own – are not so much the competencies wrapped up in the masculine mystique package. They’re more like the competencies associated with creating unity, inclusivity, teamwork, as well as a more reflective, and dare I say sensual understanding of the world we have come to dominate, and, in our masculine way, to domineer. We can still be the can-do species, but what we have to do requires a different approach, a greater appreciation of the complexity of the world we’ve come to dominate, and which is now suffering from that domination. In a sense we’ve become the ‘earth-mother’ of the planet – we’re preserving other species in zoos and nurseries (good word), we’re waking up to our damaging habits, we’re looking for solutions that won’t entail more damage. All of this requires as much ingenuity as we’ve ever applied before. Warfare, competitive advantage, insularity and breast-beating human supremacy are not what is needed. We need something a lot more bonoboesque – a sharing of ideas, responsibility and passion, for each other (all others), and our world. And maybe, with all our failings, we’re inching towards it.

Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2021 at 12:05 am

a bonobo world: monogamy, heavy culture, gynocracy

leave a comment »

“our ancestors established the rule that all women, because of the weakness of their intellect, should be under the power of guardians”

Cicero,  Pro Murena

 

Boudica of the Iceni – to the life

Having been brought up in a disastrous monogamous relationship has given me a lifelong bias against monogamy – I should make this important admission from the start. Of course, I’ve since witnessed many successful and happy monogamous pairings, but I can’t help feeling that social pressures (and religious pressures, but those are gradually weakening in the WEIRD world) and long-term cultural expectations are acting as a kind of cement to relationships that could have been more open.

The recent dithering of our Australian federal government in finally legalising same-sex marriage (largely due to the composition of our federal parliament being significantly more religious than the general population) had me thinking in something of a blooming, buzzing confusion. My initial reaction was – what do they want to get married for? When I realised that one important reason was that marriage was supported by law in various ways – spouse inheritance for example – as well as being an important form of public recognition in the face of naysayers, I relented. But still – monogamy as the ultimate legal achievement?

As a teenager in the late sixties and early seventies, I felt energised by the sense around me that so many social mores were being up-ended. Dress codes became degendered, colour was in for everyone, and free love was in the air (up there just beyond my reach). It didn’t last, of course – no hippy parliamentarians, judges, business leaders in the nineties, or very few. Men in blue or black ties, women (the few who achieved such prominence) in stupid shoes, it all seemed horribly retrograde – one step forward and two steps back. Currently, there’s a lot of talk about community values – perhaps underlined by the current pandemic – but the hard shell of the nuclear family, with one or two parents, and the occasional grandparent – shows no sign of cracking.

As mentioned previously, I read Children of the Dream in my youth, hoping to find an alternative to nuclear family monogamy, long before I discovered bonoboism. The kibbutz world, though, had little about it that was organic or evolutionary. It was a devised, top-down socialist thingummy, and its ruling shibboleth – ‘from each according to her ability to each according to her need’ had an element of enforcement about it, while bonobos appear to have arrived at a similar system without a conscious thought. And there were/are other problems with the kibbutzim. It was essentially monocultural, though gentiles were allowed in, if they toed the line. Multiculturalism, and multicultural interaction and exchange, it seems to me, must be an essential feature of a successful human community in the modern world. In fact Israel is a country that shrieks failure in this regard – a failure that was essentially intended from the formation of the new state of Israel – to the despair, I should add, of many Jews with better intentions.

To continue on this theme of culture, I like the idea of the light culture/heavy culture distinction. I was born into a Scottish culture transplanted to Australia – about as far away from Scotland as the globe allows (though culturally not so much). This allowed me to dip in and out of the shallows of Scottish culture more or less at my leisure. My mother occasionally mentioned the hope of one of her offspring learning highland dancing or bagpipe-paying, but nothing came of it – though I wish I’d kept the kilt I was gifted at age thirteen or so, and had the chutzpah to wear it to school, and beyond. In any case, our move to Australia further lightened a culture that was already blended into a more generalised WEIRD world. This is important, as not all cultures are equally valuable – a controversial claim for some, but argued eloquently, for example, by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape. I recently met a friendly New Zealander at an art event, a man who, by his features, I recognised as of Māori origin. When I mentioned this, he became almost aggressively negative. He wanted nothing to do with that culture, he’d come to Australia to escape all that. Of course I didn’t press him on any details, which left me free to speculate wildly. The Māori male has become a stereotype of macho toughness, a stereotype much-promoted by non-Māoris, according to Waikato University’s Professor Brendan Hokowhitu. However, stereotypes generally have some basis in truth. My first experience of Māori maledom was a bantering conversation in an Adelaide pub, which led to him grabbing my arm tightly and pushing his staring, tattooed face into mine. I was quite sober and quite sure I hadn’t said anything to offend any reasonable, or reasonably unreasonable person. I should also add that, physically, I’m a rather flimsy male specimen. However, I didn’t want to be humiliated, so I simply stared back at him, and waited for his whole-body erection to subside, which it eventually did. After which I managed to skedaddle with a modicum of dignity, only cursing that I hadn’t notified the bar staff of his behaviour.

This was heavy culture, it seemed to me, of the most physical type. Another quite different example, came to me via a highly intelligent young student whom I was tutoring on Zoom recently. She lived in Australia but English was her second language and I was helping her with its connotative aesthetics vis-à-vis essay-writing. In one essay she described returning to India for a holiday, and the culture shock she received, as a near-adult, in being confronted by her extended family’s adherence to the caste system. As a member of the Brahmin caste, and as a person who’d experienced years of relative egalitarianism in Australia, she was well placed to recognise the casual injustice, and the blindness to it, in her extended family’s behaviour. She tried to confront her elders about it, but of course as a teenager she lacked the status and the articulacy to be effective, and was only too happy to return to a future in Australia.

It seems to me that heavy cultures are invariably patriarchal, and monogamous, often punitively so for women. We can’t always blame religions, which are generally born into a patriarchal culture, which they then reinforce. Perhaps the most patriarchal culture in human history was that of the ancient Greeks, often described as the culture that gave birth to democracy, a ridiculous claim given its dependence on slavery and its treatment of half the population, or potentially half, since female infanticide was almost compulsory among them. Archaeologists digging up bones from that era have noted the overwhelming preponderance of adult male bodies over females, largely the result of an unofficial, and rather self-defeating, ‘no female child’ policy. The Romans were no better – no ancient Roman female, apart from the odd goddess, has ever been recognised for her sagacity or prowess in anything, as far as I’m aware. The Romans were apparently shocked, on occupying Brittania, to find that certain women there, such as Cartimandua and Boudica, wielded actual power over estates and armies. Tacitus, Caesar and Cassius Dio are, unfortunately, the only writers to have presented these women to the world, and being Roman, are highly unreliable sources. Boudica in particular has become a woman for all ages since her time, with portraits of her reflecting the shifting social attitudes towards powerful women through the centuries. It’s quite likely, though, that the Romans’ prurient interest in the warrior women of Britannia exaggerated their power and their numbers. With territorial disputes often descending into warfare, men would surely have been at the helm during much of Iron Age Britain. The epigraphic evidence is limited mostly to militaristic inscriptions, and there is a weighting of archeological evidence from the Romanised aristocracy at a later date. We have little idea of the lives and status of Briton women before the Roman ascendancy.

Of course we don’t need prior examples of somewhat more gynocratic cultures to mold our own, though it would help to inspire. We also need to be aware of what we’re up against, as if it hasn’t long been obvious. In Afghanistan, as I write, the new government appears to be cutting girls off from all but the most elementary education. How Greek can you get? And this is only the news that’s speaking loudest to us at present. Lack of opportunity for women at the highest level is a commonplace for virtually every country on the globe. And the fewer women there at that level, the harder it tends to be for them. And yet…

References

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/17/taliban-says-classes-resume-afghan-boys-no-mention-girls

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 18, 2021 at 8:00 pm