an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

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

Interferons – they’re there to help

leave a comment »

some human interferon looks something like this, according to someone

When I first heard of interferon (singular), I thought it was a drug, some sort of miracle drug being touted as a cure-all. I had no idea. Recently I’ve heard that it, or they, are part of our innate immune system, which is different from our adaptive immune system, though what the differences are I have no idea. Again. So, it’s learning time.

Wikipedia vastly increases my knowledge with its first sentence on interferons (duh, I wonder why people don’t use it more):

Interferons … are a group of signaling proteins made and released by host cells in response to the presence of several viruses. In a typical scenario, a virus-infected cell will release interferons causing nearby cells to heighten their anti-viral defenses.

Host cells are the cells of larger organisms (such as ourselves) that ‘host’, willingly or not, viruses and other bugs, or organelles, whatever. Signalling proteins are explained, somewhat, in the second quoted sentence.

Anyway, interferons belong to the larger class of proteins known as cytokines, which I’ve heard of in relation to the ‘cytokine storm’, a reaction or over-reaction to viruses such as SARS-Cov2, but they do more than just signal, they interfere, as the name suggests. In fact they have multiple functions, such as ‘upregulating antigen presentation’. An antigen, as I almost recall, is a molecular structure, part of a pathogen that can be bound by an antigen-specific antibody. Antigen presentation is – well it’s too complex to explain here, though I feel I need to arm myself with as much immunological knowledge as possible against the misinformation out there.

So IFNs, as they’re known, come in 3 types, alpha, beta and gamma, based on the receptors through which they signal. They form part of the innate immune system, generally speaking, but there are in fact complex interactions between the innate and adaptive immune systems which immunologists are still trying to work out. I should point out here that my first understanding of interferon was no doubt based on a breakthrough in the eighties when interferons were created in the lab to treat certain types of cancer, and later in the treatment of hepatitis, multiple sclerosis and other conditions, though many of these interferon medications have been superseded by newer treatments with fewer side-effects.

My question arose through watching a Medcram video – update 128 – ‘innate immunity, interferon and Covid-19 in children’. I’ve used these updates in the past to reduce my general ignorance of immunology, virology and the like, but I’ve not watched any for a while. So, having just perused the Wikipedia article on IFNs and finding it way too complex for my small brain, I’ll base the rest of this piece on Dr Seheult’s Medcram presentation.

So, the innate and adaptive immune systems are presented pictorially. The innate system starts with a myeloid progenitor cell. These cells are described in ScienceDirect as ‘the precursors of red blood cells, platelets, granulocytes…’ and a bunch of other cells. In the Medcram pictorial, arrows from the myeloid progenitor cell lead to five other cell types – mast cells, basophils, neutrophils, monocytes and eosinophils. Arrows from the monocytes then lead to macrophages and dendritic cells. What do these have to with IFNs? I’m trying to find out.

Mast cells are types of granulocyte, and they contain granules ‘rich in histamine [which induces inflammation] and heparin [which prevents blood clotting]’. They play an important protective role in the immune and neuroimmune systems.

Basophils are also granulocytes, and a type of white blood cell (leukocyte). They’re the rarest and largest type of granulocyte, and are an inflammatory agent.

A neutrophil is ‘a type of immune cell that is one of the first cell types to travel to the site of an infection. Neutrophils help fight infection by ingesting microorganisms and releasing enzymes that kill the microorganisms. A neutrophil is a type of white blood cell, a type of granulocyte, and a type of phagocyte’ (National Cancer Institute – USA).

Eusinophils ‘are a variety of white blood cells (WBCs) and one of the immune system components responsible for combating multicellular parasites and certain infections in vertebrates’ (Wikipedia).

A monocyte is ‘a type of immune cell that is made in the bone marrow and travels through the blood to tissues in the body where it becomes a macrophage or a dendritic cell. Macrophages surround and kill microorganisms, ingest foreign material, remove dead cells, and boost immune responses. During inflammation, dendritic cells boost immune responses by showing antigens on their surface to other cells of the immune system. A monocyte is a type of white blood cell and a type of phagocyte’ (National Cancer Institute).

Now to return to the Medcram video, which tells me that the innate immune system includes macrophages and killer T cells (which are also part of the adaptive immune system). These combine to phagocytise, or ingest, viral or pathogenic material. This innate immune system is generally very strong in childhood and gets weaker with age. Interferon is a product of this innate system. Dr Seheult cites a recent article from Nature Biotechnology with the revealing title ‘Pre-activated antiviral innate immunity in the upper airways controls early SARS-Cov2 infection in children’. I’m fascinated with the idea of ‘pre-activated’ immunity here. As far as I know vaccines pre-activate immunity to viruses or pathogens by presenting the immune system with a part of that pathogen, or a protein unique to it. But with children, how is their immune system pre-activated? In any case, the article explains that ‘children displayed higher basal expression of relevant pattern recognition receptors [involving interferons] in upper airway epithelial cells, macrophages and dendritic cells, resulting in stronger innate antiviral responses upon SARS-Cov2 infection than in adults’. This finding highlights the importance of interferons and of perhaps trying to maintain their prevalence in older subjects. The article described children presenting in emergency with severe Covid19 as having an impaired IFN response, though the molecular mechanisms for this, and for the protective effects on those children with mild or no symptoms, were unknown.

So the article explains that higher levels of genes coding for RIG-1, MDA5 and LGP2 in the epithelial cells of the upper airways were found in children, but not in adults. RIG-1 is a pattern recognition receptor (PRR) of the innate immune system, responsible for type 1 interferon responses. MDA5 and LGP2 are members of the same family of PRRs. The key being more innate immune cells in that region in children, exhibiting strong antiviral action against SARS-Cov2. This is apparently what is meant by ‘pre-activated’, because these primed cells were already in the upper airways (i.e the nose) of children. However, there appears to be a narrow window of opportunity before viral reproduction, which is especially intense with SARS-Cov2, shuts down this innate immune response. The paradox, it seems here, is that SARS-Cov2’s proteins  can effectively shut down interferon production, but at the same time the virus is highly sensitive to interferon. Anyway, it seems that if we can step up IFN production, assisting the body’s innate immune system, this may enable us to resist the virus (along with vaccination, effective mask wearing and physical distancing of course). One way to do this is by raising the core temperature of the body (inducing hyperthermia). At a core temp of 39 degrees celsius, the amount of IFN released from lymphocytes after mitogen stimulation (i.e inducing mitosis) increases ten-fold from just a degree or so below, at least in vitro. This may sound crazy, but the benefits of induced fever have been proven in various treatments for various infections, including viral infections, in the past, along with other ways of boosting the immune system (vitamin D, zinc and selenium) mentioned previously by Dr Seheult and other experts.

Science science science science science science. Don’t use social media to find out about SARS-Covid19 and its treatment. Never never never never. There are dozens of reputable scientific sites that will inform you, in the USA and in every other country – at least the WEIRD ones. Knowledge is power. Get informed.

References

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

https://www.webmd.com/drug-medication/interferons-guide#1

Innate Immunity, Interferon, and COVID 19 in Children: Update 128 (video)

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/immunology-and-microbiology/myeloid-progenitor-cell

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

https://www.healthline.com/health/basophils

https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/neutrophil

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

https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/monocyte

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RIG-I

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MDA5

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

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 6, 2021 at 10:12 pm

capitalism, bonobos and feminism

leave a comment »

really?

I’ve been getting stuff in my Youtube feed from Chris Hedges and Richard Wolfe, for some reason. Noam Chomsky comes up too, of course. And because I’m writing about bonobos and a dream of a female dominated society, I’ve grabbed a book from our shelves by Clementine Ford, Fight like a girl, just one of many feminist texts waiting around for my consumption. And the above-mentioned individuals all have one obvious target in common – capitalism.

So what is capitalism? I’ll try to give my take. Capitalism isn’t a political system, except in the broadest sense. And it isn’t a system, or a behaviour, limited to humans. Birds seek to capitalise, bees seek to capitalise, even the plants and the trees seek to capitalise. Sometimes individually, sometimes in collaboration. The exploitation of solar energy, for example, is pure capitalism, capitalising on a more or less free resource. Shocking. As the most hypersocial of all species, we collaborate in capitalising, to the benefit of some of our own, to the detriment of others. Feudalism was essentially a capitalist system, the primary capital being land, or territory. It wasn’t a fair system – humans have never been fair, any more than any other species has. They’ve sought to optimise opportunities, for themselves and their rellies or in-group. It’s hardly surprising that we only really conceived the concept of human rights in the 20th century, after a few hundred thousands of years of existence as a species. It took two brutal world wars and the threat of being obliterated by a nuclear holocaust to bring us to our collective senses. Human rights are of course an artifice. We’re not created equal, we’ll never have equality of opportunity, and we’re only free to be human, which is quite a limitation. If you think we’re free to do whatever you want, try it and you won’t last long. In this we’re no different from elephants, hyenas and other highly social species.

The political pundits mentioned above rage a lot against capitalism, and prognosticate its overthrow in tomorrowland. What will replace ir? That’s a bit more vague, but they have faith in the young and the oppressed, who they consider a lot nicer than their overlords. Now I have to admit I haven’t met too many capitalist overlords, but I’ve met a few proles and strugglers, and I’d describe them as a mixed bag. In fact, that’s how I’d describe everyone I’ve met, including myself. This is surely why every state that has tried to institute ‘socialism’, some kind of fake equality sent down from above, ends up devolving into dictatorship. There’s a great line from Immanuel Kant, which roughly translates as ‘from the crooked timber of humanity, nothing was ever made straight’. It follows that no political system fashioned from crooked timber will ever be more ‘true’ than its rough constituents – but timber is valuable for all that.

The bonobo world isn’t free of violence, hierarchy or, if we can call it that, capitalism. It simply seems, from all observations, rather less violent, hierarchical and exploitative than the chimp world, out of which we appear to have grown, at least until recently. Now, after, it seems, eons of male-dominated human societies, which have mixed ingenuity and inventiveness with warfare and oppression, we are, at least in the WEIRD world, talking about female empowerment, and witnessing effective female leadership in government, science, business and other human affairs. We’re witnessing, I think, feel and hope, the start of something big. Leaving the sexual stuff to one side – though I wouldn’t mind a bit on the side – bonobos have learned to live within their means, to support each other in child-rearing, foraging and play. Humans are, of course, far more ambitious, and our hypersociality has brought about a biosphere-transforming dominance of the planet, for better or worse.

We’re recognising, now, the dangers posed by our own dynamism. ‘Disposable’ plastics everywhere, mountains of abandoned clothing and other rubbish, the consumption of millions of years of transformed carbon-based life-forms in the form of fossil fuel, the destabilisation and contamination caused by fracking, the deforestations and thoughtless reforestations that are destroying essential, age-old habitats, the warming and volatilising of our atmosphere and oceans, all of this is being increasingly brought to our generally limited attention. Ambitious solutions are being sought, fixes that will enable us to continue our rapacity regardless. Others suggest that we should pull our collective head in and live within our means. But how will we ‘begin infinity’ if we do that? By terraforming other planets and starting the same thing over again?

The current usage of terms such as capitalism and socialism, even of conservatism and liberalism, tend to get in the way of our future needs. There are no magic solutions to how we might negotiate our hypersocial future. Jess Scully’s book Glimpses of Utopia is excellent and highly recommended, my only slight quibble is with the title – there are no utopias in the real world. The book’s subtitle – ‘real ideas for a fairer world’ – is far less catchy but a more accurate description of the book’s contents. Scully recounts collective solutions to problems of housing, decision-making, taxation and financing in such far-flung countries as Iceland, Taiwan, Australia and India. They aren’t all being led by women of course, but they’re a great antidote and counter-example to the top-down, know-it-all macho thugocracies that have failed so miserably in dealing with the current pandemic – a failure whose history has, of course, yet to be written, and will, I’m sure, prove to be more devastating than we currently realise.

I need to point out that I have no dewy-eyed admiration of the superior capacities of human females – or of bonobo females, for that matter. Both genders are no doubt as diversely repellant as they are diversely inspiring, on an individual level. I’m impressed, though, with the ‘natural experiment’ presented to us by bonobos and chimps in negotiating their collective existence and their habitat. As we’ve come to question patriarchy only in the past 150 years or so, and to undermine it, to some small degree, in the last few decades, we’re seeing suggestive signs that female leadership in sufficient numbers – and we’ve yet to experience those numbers, and are in fact far from having that experience – makes a real difference in well-being, inclusivity and support. Will it diminish human creativity? To believe so assumes that creativity is dependent on competition, but the fruits of creativity rely on communication and collaboration – and in any case there’s no reason to believe that female humans are less competitive than males – just a little less murderously so.

So this is the point – bonobo society isn’t utopian, and overthrowing ‘capitalism’, or human behaviour, isn’t going to lead to utopia, or anything other than another capitalist arrangement. It’s just that bonobo society is happier, calmer, sexier and less destructive than chimp society, and this is clearly connected to the position of females in that society. Who doesn’t want that?

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 3, 2021 at 12:12 pm

more on nuclear fusion: towards ignition!

leave a comment »

 

I recently wrote about and tried to get a handle on the nuclear fusion facility, ITER, being built in southern France, but I barely mentioned the importance of magnets, and I didn’t mention another essential feature or factor in nuclear fusion – called ignition. That’s because I’m still a learner after all these years. But some news broke recently regarding a completely different experimental fusion facility in the USA, which uses lasers rather than magnets to control and focus the energy, which, as previously described, needs to be – a lot.

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California is designed, it seems, to try and achieve exactly that – ignition. The term is kind of self-explanatory, as when you ignite something you get a burst of energy, seemingly more than you put into the igniting, like when you strike a match. But ignition in nuclear fusion is a really difficult thing to achieve, which is presumably why they had to build a whole national facility around it. They’ve been trying to achieve it for decades.

I did write that to achieve fusion – ignition? –  required temps of around 150,000,000 celsius, and obviously to sustain such temperatures requires a fair amount of energy, ten times that at the sun’s centre. Did I get that figure wrong? Pressure comes into it too (there’s a direct proportionality between temperature and pressure at any given volume).

I’ve found a great video explainer of the ignition breakthrough, presented by Anton Petrov, and a recent New Scientist podcast (no 81) also discusses it. So basically the possibilities of nuclear fusion as an energy technology have been on the cards since the development of the H-bomb in the late forties and early fifties. The energy required to set off an H-bomb, and for subsequent neutron bomb technology, was derived from nuclear fission. So that’s a lot of energy to make more energy. Since then, the aim, the holy grail, has been to find a way to create ignition, an energy output that is greater than, and preferably much greater than, the energy input. This is, of course,, essential for real-use thermonuclear energy. A number of technologies for creating thermonuclear fusion have proved successful, except insofar as the input-output ratio is concerned. Out of all these experiments chasing this elusive ignition, two models seemed most promising. Firstly, the toroidal fusion reactor (eg ITER), which is a magnetic confinement reactor, in which super-heated plasma is spun very quickly around a magnetically confined chamber, to create higher-than-the-centre-of-the-sun energy/temperatures. A number of these reactors, or tokamaks, have been built around the world and have successfully created fusion, but not ignition.

The second model is very different. It’s called inertial confinement fusion, and  it uses tiny hydrogen pellets. The idea came from observation of the H-bomb: a small enough hydrogen pellet would require a minimum energy of 1.6 megajoules (million joules) of energy to initiate an explosion – essentially, an ignition. This energy could be provided by lasers. Now this process is complicated – it’s not  simply a matter of fusioning hydrogen into helium because, as described in my previous post about ITER, there are isotopes involved. These isotopes (deuterium and tritium) are used to overcome the electrostatic repulsion which would normally occur when using proteum, the common form of hydrogen. This repulsive force between protons is known as the Coulomb force. The attractive force between protons and neutrons, called the nuclear force, acts against the electrostatic repulsion force, and this helps in overcoming the Coulomb barrier, and facilitating a fusion energy greater than that inside our sun, where plasma particles may not fuse at all over long periods. We’re basically looking at creating a more efficient kind of fusion, which requires the kinds of temperatures and pressures found inside much larger stars than our sun.

The key to the elusive status or point known as ignition is a concept called the Lawson criterion. Wikipedia describes it thus:

The Lawson criterion ….compares the rate of energy being generated by fusion reactions within the fusion fuel to the rate of energy losses to the environment. When the rate of production is higher than the rate of loss, and enough of that energy is captured by the system, the system is said to be ignited.

We haven’t achieved ignition yet, but it seems another baby step has been taken. One of the researchers at the NIF has described it as a ‘Wright brothers moment’, which has led to a bit of head-scratching. Basically, what was achieved at the NIF was a ‘momentary’ ignition – very momentary, and still only releasing some 70% to 80% of the energy input. Yet this was the most significant achievement in 60 years of work – a proof of concept achievement, which is built on previous experiments yielding increasing levels of energy. The process involved almost 200 super-amplified lasers confining and directing energy at a tiny hydrogen pellet for a period of 3 nanoseconds. That’s 3 billionths of a second. This required excruciating accuracy, coordination and timing, with everything – the lasers, the amplifiers, the pellet, the hohlraum chamber (holding the pellet) and so forth, being executed precisely. The precision level has improved markedly in recent times, leading to this breakthrough moment (after all, the ‘Wright brothers moment’ wasn’t exactly the first commercial passenger flight). The 1.3 megajoules released in this most recent ignition experiment was some 25 times what the facility could muster only three years ago. So there doesn’t seem far to go.

And yet. The energy input required is enormous. The lasers would need to fire more or less constantly – machine-gun-like – to produce the output required for human use (the current record of 1.3 megajoules has been described as ‘just enough to boil a kettle’. So we’re talking orders of magnitude, not just for the laser energy but for the hydrogen pellets, which need to be produced en masse at a teeny fraction of current costs. And so on.

This not to minimise the achievement. The publicity already being generated augurs well for the future of a technology that has for so long failed to live up to expectations. Those at ITER and other labs around the world will receive a great fillip from this, not to mention some small mountains of cash. Looking forward to it.

References

movements in nuclear fusion: ITER

Major Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion After Decades of Research (Anton Petrov video)

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

https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5idXp6c3Byb3V0LmNvbS84MTQwMzUucnNz/episode/QnV6enNwcm91dC05MDU0NjU3?hl=en-AU&ved=2ahUKEwiasaDm3NryAhUGeH0KHVAaDZMQjrkEegQIBRAI&ep=6

Episode #841

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 31, 2021 at 5:19 pm

a bonobo world: sex, at last

leave a comment »

Japanese women discuss exploitation in the sex industry

Decades ago I was attending a session at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival, a discussion with the author of a fairly sexually explicit and popular novel. During question time, someone came out, in ‘a voice peppered with petulance’ (a favourite phrase of an old friend), with this query: Why this modern obsession with sex? After all, he opined, the sexual act is trivial and perfunctory, it’s over in minutes, it’s of no greater significance and of probably lesser value than teeth-cleaning. Why not focus on more important matters?

The author and other panellists seemed non-plussed, to say the least, and certainly didn’t find any memorable rejoinder to this attack upon the source of all animal life. I myself was both amused and enraged – amused, because I’d immediately recognised the questioner as a history lecturer at the nearby University of Adelaide, where I was then a student. As it happened, a friend of mine had been dating the lecturer’s daughter, but he’d given up on her, telling me that she was the most sexually indifferent person he’d ever met. A chip off the old bloke, apparently. 

But I was angered and a little shocked at the panellists’ meek reaction to this – misunderstanding? – of the sex act. This obliviousness? This lifelessness? This lack of imagination? My mind spluttered to comprehend such a different mind. I spent the next few days thinking up a series of responses. ‘Well, if you’d care to read Jared Diamond’s pleasant little book Why Is Sex Fun? you might …’ (actually that book hadn’t been written then). ‘Have you never heard of The Joy of Sex? We had that book kicking around our house in the seventies, how about yours?’ ‘Well sex may be perfunctory for you, but many species put a helluva lot of energy into having it – far more than into keeping their teeth clean. Australia’s little antechinuses actually fuck to death when the time is ripe. And what about octopuses?….’

Anyway, trying to convince the odd oddity of the pleasures of rumpy-pumpy is probably a waste of time. Today there’s a massive sex industry catering for the converted and perverted, and it doesn’t seem to have led to the fall of civilisation. At least, not yet. 

Today’s online sex video industry (I eschew the term ‘pornography’) is clouded in myth and misinformation. For example, just how exploitative/life-affirming is it, compared to say, other service jobs such as bar or barista work? What does it mean for the status of women? And of course – just how ‘big’ is it? In the following posts, I’ll explore this minefield as best I can. 

First, let’s look at the question of the bigness of the business. As anybody who has ‘looked into it’ knows, anyone, young or old, with an electronic device, can access more sex video material than they could consume in a lifetime for absolutely free, to the point that one would have to question the sanity of anyone who would bother paying for the stuff. So my first question would have to be – how do these businesses make any money at all? 

From what I can gather, the sex video industry (which for brevity’s sake, I’ll call the SVI) is mostly divided into two spheres of production, Euro-American and Japanese. At least those are the two areas I’ll be focusing on – I suppose anyone, in any country, can put their own videos online, as long as they don’t have a heavy-handed government to deal with. 

I note that most articles I’ve looked at use the term AVI – for adult videos – bur as a teacher for many years of NESB young people, and also as a former foster carer, I can categorically state that non-adults are accessing sex videos online in large numbers. These sites used to ask viewers about their age, a kind of autumnal fig leaf, but this has since died of shame. Of course, there is the question of SVI performers, and the concern that young people, whether above or below the 18-year-old divide, are really giving free consent to have their bodies and antics gawked at. This is a vital issue given the given the rise of child sexual exploitation via social media in recent times.

But to return to the mainstream SVI, I’m not so much interested in how lucrative, or not, it is, as in how popular it is. First, I want to look at the Japanese industry, which, it strikes me, is less extreme, more accepted by the community, and generally more story-driven and certainly more eccentric and comedic than its Euro-American counterpart. This isn’t to say there aren’t disturbing elements, including a lot of fake-rape scenes, in a nation where rape stats are only one twenty-seventh those of the USA. In fact, reported cases of rape in Japan reduced by some 50% in the decade between 2003 and 2014, though they have increased slightly since then, probably due to a widening of the legal definition of rape in 2017.  

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get reliable data on the Japanese SVI. One website, for example, claims that about 14,000 sex videos are produced annually in Japan, compared to about 2000 in the USA, but provides no references. Still, it’s pretty clear that Japan has a massive sex video market, probably the biggest market in the world – certainly for its size.

To me, the most interesting feature of the Japanese SVI is that it appears to be less hidden, more mainstream than the Euro-American. It’s more ‘ordinary’, with scenes taking place in basic homes and hotel rooms rather than in the ‘palatial’ seaside residences of, presumably, Los Angeles or San Francisco. Many of the young women look like any attractive youngsters you might find in any shopping mall, and don’t feel the need to be tizzied up with ‘pornstar fingernails’ or revealing outfits. In fact, some are also in J-pop bands or mainstream movies. The atmosphere in these videos seems collegial, with a lot of beforehand-chit-chat and laughter. Yet, there are signs throughout of a male-dominated society, not so much in the role-playing – the female stars are often teachers or office managers, as well as ‘schoolgirls’ or bewhiskered cosplay cuties – as in certain giveaway behaviours, such as putting their hand in front of their mouths and giggling shyly when, presumably, asked a sexual question in interviews (I don’t understand Japanese). This may seem a minor thing, but in fact it’s endemic in Japanese SVs, and not found in other cultures. The noise they often make during intercourse  – squealing like a stuck pig, if I may be so blunt – is also something of a problem. It just doesn’t happen with Euro-American performers, and it’s surely not a sign of empowerment. It also tends not to be such a feature with veterans of the industry. 

The story-lines of Japanese sex videos are mostly absurd and somewhat formulaic. There’s the time-stop vids, the bus or train frottage leading to full-blown sex vids, the classroom-rape vids (whether of teacher or student), the vids of the kids having sex on the sofa while the family is chatting, oblivious, at the dining table in the same room, and so on. All good dirty fun, no doubt, but though the Japanese SVI world is almost mainstream, it still involves the compartmentalism that bedevils the human approach to sexuality, where there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. Is this compartmenting, or closeting, of sex, absolutely necessary to human civilisation? Opening the closet would surely reduce the exploitative aspect of the business – and allow us to examine just how exploitative it is, compared to say, the gig economy that many young (and older) people have to negotiate today. That’s an issue worth exploring.  

References

https://www.statista.com/statistics/864883/japan-reported-cases-rape-and-forcible-indecencies/

https://www.quora.com/Why-does-Japan-have-such-a-big-porn-industry

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

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/japan-porn-industry-preys-young-women-113928029.html?_fsig=agO9hQSFSs0hFQMNGJpBIw–&guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAALzI-DHcjFzVb52FKmkx_tAu21KNRP60E0o6Dy3BWkf5IYShInY8XWZDAVbzL7z1vHXkT7LeHtbOLJhDlGNtAykE7h2zbTCWFM9ceEVoW0d-zArmS6W2Zyiv06ZtKO9Wx092okhIV5CAP3UTpP8GBXjNfOnpLPByie1afoWV5V15

Written by stewart henderson

August 25, 2021 at 6:51 pm

bonobos, religion and feminism

leave a comment »

bonobos, promoting the common good

Yuval Noah Harari argues in Homo Deus that religion has lost, or is losing, its political clout, and is largely a force of the past with little impact on the future. This is largely true, but more so in WEIRD countries. Catholicism still has a firm grip on many South American and African countries, and I don’t see any Islamic nations Enlightenment in the offing – but you never know.

During the ‘New Atheism’ fervency of a decade and more ago, I became quite engaged in the issues. I’ve never believed in any gods, but I’d avoided really thinking about Christianity’s ascendancy in the UK and Australia (I have dual nationality). The decline of the religion even before New Atheism had made it all quite easy to ignore, but the new polemics excited me enough to read the new texts – The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and assorted others. Perhaps more importantly, I actually read the Bible, and, through my blog, wrote my own exegesis of the gospels and other New Testament writings, compared Jesus to Socrates, and other fun things. It passed the time. And I’m sure the movement hastened the drift away from religion in the WEIRD world.

For these essays, though, I’m thinking of how religions have impacted on the females of our species. Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism, in particular, have had a congealing affect on male and female social roles, especially, it seems, among the poorer classes in the cultures those religions dominate.

There’s a lot that I could say about religions, but in a nutshell they grew, initially, out of a desire to understand and control the world as humans saw it. That’s why, in my view, they’re in competition with science, which grew out of exactly the same desire, but which has turned out to be phenomenally more successful in fulfilling that desire. So religions are in wholesale retreat, especially in the WEIRD world.

Let me elaborate. The world to early human apes was full of mysteries, as it is to bonobos, chimps and other smart creatures, who might take note of such sights as waterfalls, volcanic eruptions, lightning fires, and even, perhaps, slow changes like the growth of a tree from a seedling. Also regular occurrences such as the change from day to night, seasons, the movements of the sun, moon and stars. But human apes would likely go further than a sense of wonder and awe. They would come to wonder what, and why. And lacking any handy explanations they would turn to inventing them – and those whose inventions seemed most convincing, and who seemed most familiar with the forces at play, either through delusion, calculation or conviction, might attain a power of sorts over the group, something seen as innate and special, and perhaps passed down to offspring. The forces and vagaries of wind and water, heat and cold, of food abundance and scarcity, might seem to be manipulable by the powers and spirit of these chosen few, the adumbrations of religious figures, shamans, a priestly caste. And given that, apart from a few notable exceptions – some ancient Greeks and the odd Egyptian and Chinese – science as we know it is a very recent phenomenon, religions held sway for ages, not only explaining and ‘controlling’ the powers of nature, but inventing plausible enough stories for how it all began and who to thank or blame for it all.

If this just-so story about the origins and purpose of religion has some truth to it, then it follows that religion has a conservative element. This is how the world began, these are the forces that created it, and this, that and this is what they want from us, in payment for the life they’ve given us. It’s unchanging, and we need to maintain our roles, eternally. For example, the Judea-Christian origin story has woman as almost an afterthought, man’s helpmeet, shaped from a supernumerary rib. The Islamic creation story is altogether more vague, but both myths took shape within highly patriarchal societies, and served to maintain those societies largely unchanged for centuries, until we began to find better explanations, at an accelerating rate.

Still, we’re left with the legacy of those religions and, for example, their views on leadership. It strikes me that some of the Catholic hierarchy would rather be burned at the stake than allow women to become priests, and I doubt that there are too many female Imams. There are debates of course, about whether restrictions on female leadership roles are cultural or religious, or indeed about whether culture and religion can be separated, but they often work together to maintain a perennial status quo.

Until, of course, they don’t. Modern science has knocked us off our pedestal as the darlings of the gods, and has reframed what used to be our whole world as a tiny planet revolving around a bog-standard star on the outskirts of a fairly nondescript spiral galaxy in one of possibly countless universes. It’s been a bit of a downward spiral for our sense of specialness, and it’s all been quite sudden. We can pat ourselves on the back, though, for having brought ourselves to our senses, and even for launching ourselves into the infinity of progress – a world of particle colliders, tokamaks, theory-of-mind-AI, quantum computers and space tourism and much else beyond the horizon. And yet, the old patriarchy is still largely with us. Men in suits, or in uniforms, leading the military, dominating the business world and manipulating the political arena. There’s no good reason for it – it’s simply tradition, going back to early culture and religion. Some of these cultures seem incorrigible in spite of their new-found WEIRDness. Will Japan, for example, ever transform its male business and political culture? When will we see another Chinese woman in the Politburo? As to Russia’s Putin and his strong man allies – when will this kindergarten club grow up?

With the success and growth of modern science has come great international, and inter-gender, collaboration. I can think of no greater model for our future development. With the current pandemic, too, we’ve seen follow-the-science politicians, many of them women, emerging with the greatest credit. Co-operation among women has always been powerful, but too little recognised. I would like to see more of this co-operation, especially in the service of keeping men in their place. It works for bonobos. I truly feel that a bonobo culture, but with human brainpower, would make the human world more exhilarating, in its compassion, in its sexiness, in its sense of connection with the biosphere and all its delicate mechanisms, than any other cultural change we can make. I actually think it will happen – though sadly not in my lifetime.

Written by stewart henderson

August 18, 2021 at 8:24 pm

movements in nuclear fusion: ITER

with one comment

the world’s biggest clean energy project? ITER in southern France

Geographical, the magazine of the UK’s Royal Geographical Society, had an article in its April 2021 edition entitled ‘Caging a Star’, all about the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project in Provence, France. Thermonuclear fusion has of course been talked up as an ultimate solution to our energy needs for decades, to the extent that it’s become something of a joke, but in the meantime, practical movements are underway. In fact, they’ve been under way for a long time. An international contract was signed in 1986 to implement research on fusion, though it took another twenty years to agree on the site for ITER. The project now involves 35 countries – largely WEIRD ones (Western Educated Industrial Rich Democracies), producing 85% of global GDP. It’s a long-term project, certainly, but it’s being taken seriously, and construction is happening, big-time.

With the IPCC having recently come out with its 2021 report, nations are looking to their targets and feeling concerned – some more than others (wake up Australia). Boštjan Videmšek, the author of the Geographical article, assesses the current situation in stark terms:

70% of all CO2 emissions pumped into the atmosphere are created through energy consumption; 80% of all the energy we consume is derived from fossil fuels. The EU has formally pledged to start producing half of its electric energy from renewable resources by 2030. By 2050, the bloc’s members are planning to hoist themselves into a fully carbon-neutral society. But, given current trends, this seems like wishful thinking. Renewable energy resources simply won’t be enough for the task.

The ITER project came out of the closet, so to speak, in late July 2020, when the heart of the project, the tokamak, began to be assembled onsite – though construction of various elements of the program have been going on for years. A tokamak is a toroidal or doughnut-shaped chamber, controlled by huge, powerful magnets, in which hydrogen plasma is manipulated to produce energy according to Einstein’s mass-energy equation. We all know, I hope, that fusion is constantly happening in the sun, and in all suns throughout the universe, and that its energy is essential to our existence, but ITER’s scientists are hoping to improve on the sun’s processes. Hydrogen collisions inside the sun don’t always result in fusion – the fusion process is quite slow. Recognising this, researchers looked to isotopes of hydrogen to speed up the process. Hydrogen’s most common form, consisting simply of a proton and an electron, is called protium. However, there are two other isotopes, deuterium and tritium, containing an additional one and two neutrons respectively. The best form of fusion reaction for producing energy is DT fusion, using deuterium and tritium. This produces more energy, at a lower temperature. The problem is with the tritium, a highly radioactive and unstable isotope, which is both rare and expensive, at about US$30,000 per gram. The rarity, though, is related to low demand, and there is potential for ITER to produce its own supply of the isotope.

Of course, none of this is expected to be ready in the near future. ITER is essentially a proof-of-concept project for future power plants, and is expected to spend a decade in testing, finalising in around 2035. Those future power plants are already ready and waiting, at least in terms of design. The key to achieving fusion is a sufficiently high temperature (150,000,000 degrees celsius!) and high particle density, for an optimum fusion rate. Containment of the volatile plasma will also, of course, be an issue. ITER’s experiments will also be about capturing and utilising the energy produced. As Videmšek describes it:

The idea is that heat will build up along the sides of the tokamak, where it will be captured by the cooling water circling the reactor. As in a normal power station, the heat will be used to produce steam and – by way of turbines and alternators – electricity. The water will eventually be released with the help of vast cooling towers. These have already been put in place…

The science itself, as researchers told Videmšek, is straightforward enough, but the infrastructure, the international nature of the project, the politics and the funding can all provide obstacles. The siting in Provence has helped, as France has successfully embraced nuclear fission technology for decades, and the project is a boon for the Provençal economy. And of course there’s the global warming issue. The IPCC has just released its 6th Assessment Report and, among other findings, has confirmed what we here in Australia have experienced regarding extreme weather events:

Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).

The report argues that, ‘unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades’, this scenario of extreme weather events will continue into the foreseeable future. These deep reductions, it seems, are a matter of political will, not to mention recognition of the crisis, which is clearly not universal. The way that many nations, including some of the most powerful and impactful on climate, have dealt with the clear and present threat of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, doesn’t provide much cause for optimism. If the ITER project, mostly funded by EU nations, goes off without a hitch over the next few decades, it may just put another nail in the coffin of our self-destructive exploitation of fossil fuels. Better late than never I suppose…

References

Boštjan Videmšek, ‘Caging a star’, in Geographical, April 2021

https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/#SPM

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 15, 2021 at 7:19 pm

the evolution of reason: intellectualist v interactivist

leave a comment »

 

 

In The Enigma of Reason, cognitive psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber ask the question – What is reason for? I won’t go deeply into their own reasoning, I’m more interested in the implications of their conclusions, if correct – which I strongly suspect they are.

They looked at two claims about reason’s development, the intellectualist claim, which I might associate with Aristotelian and symbolic logic, premises and conclusions, and logical fallacies as pointed out by various sceptical podcasts and websites (and this can also be described as an individualist model of reasoning), and the interactionist model, in which reason is most effectively developed collectively.

In effect, the interactionist view is claiming that reason evolved in an interactionist environment. This suggests that it is language-dependent, or that it obviously couldn’t have its full flowering without language. Mercier and Sperber consider the use of reason in two forms – justificatory and argumentative. Justificatory reasoning tends to be lazy and easily satisfied, whereas it is in the realm of argument that reason comes into its own. We can see the flaws in the arguments of others much more readily than we can our own. This accords with the biblical saying about seeing motes in the eyes of others while being blind to the bricks in our own – or something like that. It also accords with our well-attested over-estimation of ourselves, in terms of our looks, our generosity, our physical abilities and so on.

I’m interested in this interactionist view because it also accords with my take on collaboration, participatory democracy and the bonobo way. Bonobos of course don’t have anything like human reason, not having language, but they do work together more collectively than chimps (and chimp-like humans) and show a feeling towards each other which some researchers have described as ‘spiritual’. For me, a better word would be ‘sympathetic’. Seeing the value in others’ arguments helps to take us outside of ourselves and to recognise the contribution others make to our thinking. We may even come to realise how much we rely on others for our personal development, and that we are, for better or worse, part of a larger, enriching whole. A kind of mildly antagonistic but ultimately fulfilling experience.

An important ingredient to the success of interactionist reasoning is the recognition of and respect for difference. That lazy kind of reasoning we engage in when left to ourselves can be exacerbated when our only interactions are with like-minded people. Nowadays we recognise this as a problem with social media and their algorithms. The feelings of solidarity we get with that kind of interaction can of course be very comforting but also stultifying, and they don’t generally lead to clear reasoning. For many, though, the comfort derived from solidarity outweighs the sense of clarity you might, hopefully, get from being made to recognise the flaws in your own arguments. This ghettoisation of reason, like other forms of ghettoisation, is by and large counter-productive. The problem is to prevent this from happening while reducing the ‘culture shock’ that this might entail. Within our own WEIRD (from Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic countries) culture, where the differences aren’t so vast, being challenged by contrary arguments can be stimulating, even exhilarating. Here’s what the rich pre-industrialist Montaigne had to say on the matter:

The study of books is a languishing and feeble motion that heats not, whereas conversation teaches and exercises at once. If I converse with a strong mind and a rough disputant, he presses upon my flanks, and pricks me right and left; his imaginations stir up mine; jealousy, glory, and contention, stimulate and raise me up to something above myself; and acquiescence is a quality altogether tedious in discourse.

Nevertheless, I’ve met people who claim to hate arguments. They’re presumably not talking about philosophical discourse, but they tend to lump all forms of discord together in a negative basket. Mercier and Sperber, however, present a range of research to show that challenges to individual thinking have an improving effect – which is a good advert for diversity.  But even the most basic interactions, for example between mother and child, show this effect. A young child might be asked why she took a toy from her sibling, and answer ‘because I want it’. Her mother will point out that the sibling wants it too, and/or had it first. The impact of this counter-argument may not be immediate, but given normal childhood development, it will be the beginning of the child’s road to developing more effective arguments through social interaction. In such an interactive world, reasons need to much more than purely selfish.

The authors give examples of how the the most celebrated intellects can go astray when insufficiently challenged, from dual Nobel prize-winner Linus Pauling’s overblown claims about vitamin C to Alphonse Bertillon’s ultra-convoluted testimony in favour of Albert Dreyfus’ guilt, to Thomas Jefferson’s absurdly tendentious arguments against emancipation. They also show how the standard fallacious arguments presented in logic classes can be valid under particular circumstances. Perhaps most convincingly they present evidence of how group work in which contentious topics were discussed resulted in improvements in individual essays. Those whose essay-writing was preceded by such group discussion produced more complex arguments for both sides than did those who simply read philosophical texts on the issues.

It might seem strange that a self-professed loner like me should be so drawn to an interactionist view of reason’s development. The fact is, I’ve always seen my ‘lonerdom’ as a failing, which I’ve never tried very hard to rectify. Instead, I’ve compensated by interacting with books and, more recently, podcasts, websites and videos. They’re my ‘people’, correcting and modifying my own views thorough presenting new information and perspectives (and yes, I do sometimes argue and discuss with flesh-and-blood entities). I’ve long argued that we’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet, but Mercier and Sperber have introduced me to a new word – hypersocial – which packs more punch. This hypersocial quality of humans has undoubtedly made us, for better or worse, the dominant species on the planet. Other species can’t present us with their viewpoints, but we can at least learn from the co-operative behaviours of bonobos, cetaceans, elephants and corvids, to name a few. That’s interaction of a sort. And increased travel and globalisation of communications means we can learn about other cultures and how they manage their environments and how they have coped, or not, with the encroachments of the dominant WEIRD culture.

When I say ‘we’ I mean we, as individuals. The authors of The enigma of reason reject the idea of reason as a ‘group-level adaptation’. The benefits of interactive reason accrue to the individual, and of course this can be passed on to other receptive individuals, but the level of receptivity varies enormously. Myside bias, the default position from our solipsistic childhood, has the useful evolutionary function of self-promotion, even survival, against the world, but our hypersocial human world requires effective interaction. That’s how Australian Aboriginal culture managed to thrive in a set of sub-optimal environments for tens of thousands of years before the WEIRDs arrived, and that’s how WEIRDs have managed to transform those environments, creating a host of problems along with solutions, in a story that continues….

Reference

H Mercier & D Sperber, The enigma of reason, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

August 13, 2021 at 3:28 pm

What is yeast?

leave a comment »

Canto: So we’re going to explore yeast now, for practical purposes. Using a bread machine, I’ve been trying to make, not so much a perfect loaf as an edible one. With beginner’s luck, my first loaf turned out as perfect as this little machine made it, but that has been followed by three failures.

Jacinta: To be fair, none of those failures was inedible, they just didn’t rise satisfactorily.

Canto: Yes, to varying degrees, and the principal and perhaps only culprit, I suspect, was the yeast.

Jacinta: So we need more detail, and then we’ll investigate yeast.

Canto: So I followed the instructions – first some 200-250 mls of lukewarm water, then some butter, salt, sugar, then some prepared flour for a linseed loaf, then some ‘bread improver’, then yeast, all in correct proportions according to a recipe, into the pan of the bread machine, switch to the desired setting, and after 4.5 hours approximately, out came a pretty-well perfect loaf. So, it can be done.

Jacinta: Proof of bread machine concept perhaps, but the experiment needs to be replicated. I believe that in science this doesn’t happen enough, because there’s little kudos in replicating someone else’s experiment – or, in this case, even your own. 

Canto: Well, although I cannot live on bread alone, my desire to replicate the experiment was definitely based on my stomach. So my next effort was perhaps a week later, and I repeated all the steps, or so I believed, but what came out was a shrivelled, concentrated lump. More or less edible as you say, but far from optimal. In fact, a failure. So I went back over my steps and realised I’d forgotten to warm the water. I was thinking the yeast, which I’d taken from the fridge, might’ve needed some warming to get started. 

Jacinta: Well, that’s a hypothesis. So what about the next attempt?

Canto: Well, to be honest, I didn’t try again for some months. But what with the state being in lockdown recently, out of sheer boredom, more or less, I tried again. This time I did all the required steps correctly… well, not quite – I forgot the bread improver.

Jacinta: And I told you it wasn’t a really necessary ingredient, though now I’m not so sure. 

Canto: Yes, because this effort was the most disastrous. The bread didn’t really rise at all – it was flat as a very dense pancake. Or not quite – it was about an inch and a half thick – about as compressed as all those ingredients could be. And that was when I really started thinking about yeast. I’d used the same yeast, from a package I’d opened before the first bread-making attempt. I couldn’t see any use-by date, and I knew that yeast was some kind of living organism. Maybe it was now dead yeast? 

Jacinta: Right. Are we ready to explore yeast in a general way now? 

Canto: Well not quite. So I tried again, this time using a new yeast package – vacuum sealed, but kept in the fridge. So, cold. I did it all correctly this time, but again without the bread improver. Need to know what ‘bread improver’ actually is. Anyway, it kind of half-worked, it definitely rose, but only by half of the tin. So, either the cold state of the yeast, or its only half-aliveness, perhaps, or the lack of bread improver, was responsible. More experiments required. 

Jacinta: Right. And again, the last experiment did result in edible, indeed tasty bread, but a little too compressed. Which brings us to yeast, which is a single-celled egg-shaped fungus, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (‘sugar-eating fungus’). There are some 20 billion cells in a gram of yeast. These cells derive their energy from the consumption of sugars – remembering that you’ve added brown sugar to the mix (but maybe not enough?), and there is sugar in the pre-mixed linseed flour that you used. Flour contains maltose, a kind of starch, which binds two glucose molecules together. It’s important in brewing. So when the yeast consumes the sugars in your mix, it releases useful end products, such as carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. The released carbon dioxide gas becomes trapped in the dough and causes bubbles, which expand as the CO continues to be released, causing the dough to rise. And according to my source:

The ethyl alcohol (and other compounds) produced during fermentation produce the typical flavor and aroma of yeast-leavened breads.

Canto: I haven’t particularly noticed this aroma, but the mention of fermentation is interesting.

Jacinta: Yes, Louis Pasteur did a lot of work on fermentation, in the narrow sense of the byproducts, or end-products, of yeast activity, for example noting that carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol weren’t the only by-products, and it was later also found that other glucose-consuming organisms and tissues, for example muscle tissue, also engage in a form of fermentation, which we call glycolysis. 

Canto: Right, so there are many types of yeast – for example ‘baker’s yeast’ and ‘brewer’s yeast’. 

Jacinta: Oh yes, there are many forms of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, the general term for both brewers and bakers. It’s a good source of B vitamins (but not B12), and it’s a favourite ‘superfood’ for those who believe in such things…

Canto: Okay, what is ‘bread improver’?

Jacinta: Well, it’s more yeast. And according to one site: 

It usually also contains emulsifiers, which help to make the loaf soft and fluffy. It may also contain an enzyme which can improve the texture of the bread as well as help it to last longer, or asorbic acid (vitamin C), which can help the dough to rise.  

So it’s likely that using the bread improver would help. Make sure you use it next time. Although  observing use-by dates is probably important for these things. There’s of course a lot more to say about the biochemistry of yeast and the processes of glycolysis and fermentation, and their importance for the energy pathways of all sorts of organisms including humans, but that’s the thing. You start with one simple question and it eventually leads you to how the whole world works. Or at least the living world. But that leads you eventually to the non-living, matter and all that matters. So that’s enough for now.

References

What is Yeast?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/maltose

https://www.britannica.com/science/fermentation

https://www.healthline.com/health/brewers-yeast#side-effects

https://www.bestrecipes.com.au/baking/articles/bread-improver/xpkotf0j

Written by stewart henderson

July 30, 2021 at 11:51 am

Posted in bread, glycolysis, yeast

Tagged with , , ,

a bonobo world 62: more species, and then back to the point of it all

leave a comment »

male aggression – it’s everywhere

Canto: Okay, let’s look at other cetaceans. There are 89 species, so we can’t cover them all. There are toothed and baleen types, but all dolphins and porpoises are toothed. There are river dolphins and oceanic dolphins, and in terms of size, cetaceans range widely, so that we have names like northern right whale dolphin, southern right whale dolphin, false killer whale, pygmy killer whale and various types of humpback dolphin as well the humpback whale. So it might be that they’re as culturally various as humans. I’ll limit my examination, then, to four or five well-known species, with no pretence that any of them typify the whole.

Jacinta: Yes, when we talked about dolphins before, it was the common bottle-nose dolphin, right?

Canto: Essentially yes, and I’ll pick some of the best known cetaceans, avoiding those most endangered, because they’ll probably be the least studied in the wild. First, the humpback whale, which is a rorqual. Rorquals represent the largest group of baleen whales, and of course humpback whales are an iconic and fairly well researched species, as whales go. And one immediately interesting fact is that the females are on average slightly larger than the males.

Jacinta: Size usually matters.

Canto: And they can live up to 100 years. But let’s talk about sex, or courtship as the Wikipedia article on humpbacks charmingly describes it. You’ll be happy to know that humpbacks are polyandrous – that’s to say, females mate with many males during their breeding season. This is generally seen as the opposite of polygyny – one male mating with many females. In fact polyandry is more often seen in insects than in any other life forms. Humpbacks have even been known to have it off with other species. Wikipedia calls it hybridisation. There’s apparently a humpback-blue whale hybrid out there.

Jacinta: I assure you that when females rule the world – in nevereverland – any attempt to employ ‘euphemisms’ for fucking will be punished by instant castration.

Canto: Well you’ll also be amused to know that males fight over females.

Jacinta: How very unsurprising. But at least they sing, which almost compensates.

Canto: Yes, males and females vocalise, but the long, complex and very loud songs are produced by males. It’s believed that they help to produce estrus in the females.

Jacinta: The correct term is fuck-readiness. 

Canto: In fact, researchers only think that because only males produce the complex songs. It’s a reasonable inference, but it could be wrong. Some think that the songs might be used to prove the male’s virility to the female, to make him more attractive. This supposedly happens with birdsong too.

Jacinta: Trying to think of human equivalents. Rocks in the jocks?

Canto: Oh no, too chafing. Being a good cook helps, I’ve found. But what with the obesity epidemic, that’s a balancing act. Anyway, those humpback boys put a lot of energy into their songs, which sometimes last for over 24 hours. Animals of one population, which can be very large, sing the same culturally transmitted song, which slowly changes over time. All interesting, but probably not much of a model for us. I can barely swim.

Jacinta: Well yes, it’s hardly sing or swim for us, but let’s turn to other cetaceans. What about blue whales?

Canto: Well it’s interesting to find that most websites don’t even mention their social life – it’s all about their ginormity, their big hearts, and their feeding and digestion. It took me a while to discover that they’re solitary creatures, which I suppose is common sense. Hard to imagine a superpod of blue whales out in search of a collective meal. They do sometimes gather in small groups, presumably for sex, and of course there’s a mother-calf relationship until maturity. As with humpbacks, the females are a bit larger than the males. What would that be about?

Jacinta: Well, some researchers (see link below) have discovered that male humpbacks favour the largest females, so there’s presumably sexual selection going on. And of course, they fight over the biggest females.

Canto: Well you can’t blame them for being macho. It be nature, and what do please gods.

Jacinta: Oh no, let’s not go there. Anyway, the largest females produce the largest and presumably healthiest offspring. They also found that the older females make the best mothers, which I’m sure is generally the case in humans too, mutatis mutandis. 

Canto: So in conclusion, these mostly solitary creatures, whether they be cetaceans or primates, can’t be said to be patriarchal or matriarchal, but the males still manage to be more violent, or at least more cross with each other, than the females.

Jacinta: But it doesn’t have to be that way, hence bonobos.

Canto: Yes, but that makes me think. I hear that bonobos use sex to ‘ease tensions’, among other things. Tensions hints of violence, or at least anger. I’m wondering if that anger comes mostly from the males, and if the use of sex to dissipate that anger comes mostly from the females.

Jacinta: That’s a good question. There’s a site, linked below, which sort of looks at that question. It cites research showing that female bonobos gang up on male aggressors. The researchers found an absence of female-on-female aggression (perhaps less so than in the human world). According to this site – which may not be wholly reliable, as it’s really about humans and nightlife behaviour – female bonobos bond in small groups for the specific purpose of keeping males in line. How do they know that? They might be arguing from girl nightlife behaviour. I mean, who’s zoomin who?

Canto: The general point though is that among bonobos, males are more aggressive than females. Which isn’t to say that females can’t be aggressive, and not just in a defensive way.

Jacinta: This website also mentions something which is the general point of all our conversations on bonobos and humans and sex and well-being. It’s worth quoting in full:

Anthropological data analyzed by neuropsychologist James Prescott suggests societies that are more sexually open are also less likely to be violent. The key to understanding this correlation, however, is that it’s the society as a whole that is more sexually open and not just a small percentage of individuals.

Canto: That’s a good quote to get us back to humans. We need to look at this matter more closely next time. And the next and the next.

References

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

https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna29187881

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

https://www.upworthy.com/female-bonobos-shut-down-violent-males-heres-what-humans-can-learn-from-them

Written by stewart henderson

July 26, 2021 at 8:13 pm