an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Vive les bonobos: Afghanistan heroes and villains, and wondering why

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Jacinta: War is hell. The innocent suffer. Rape has always been a part of it. It’s generally been a masculine ‘endeavour’. They can mostly be avoided through negotiation and a modicum of goodwill. Please comment, with reference to the current controversy regarding Ben Roberts-Smith and Australia’s involvement in the invasion of Afghanistan – Operation Slipper (2001-14) and Operation Highroad (2015-21). 

Canto: Well, having read parts of Justice Anthony Besanko’s judgment on Roberts-Smith, whose case I hadn’t been particularly following, I get the impression of a hubristic psychopath of the type that is attracted to the military, but should be prevented from joining the military, or the police, or any other authoritarian organisation, any organisation that has sometimes dubious power over the citizenry of their own or any other country. But this takes me to the much broader issue of Australia’s involvement in the invasion of Afghanistan, essentially at the behest of the US government. 

Jacinta: Yes, that’s the wider issue. We’ve been reading a lot of history – of Scotland, of England, of the civil war of 1642-49, which embroiled Scotland as well as England, of the thirty years’ war of 1618-48, of the Greek war of independence (1821-1832), and of the French revolution (1789-99), altogether too much war, and we’ve found that, although the instruments of warfare have become ever more refined and destructive, the sorts of atrocities practised as a matter of course by Edward I, the soi-disant ‘hammer of the Scots’, the Catholic League army in Magdeburg, and Robespierre, the ‘virtuous terrorist’, have diminished considerably in the WEIRD world, partly because of the altogether too-powerful weaponry available to us, but mainly due to the global networks developed, the education systems, the whole gamut of WEIRD developments that are transforming our world, highlighted by the likes of Peter Singer and Steven Pinker, so that we would be more wary, today, of the sorts of colonial depredations that had such dramatic impacts on the native or first nations people of Australia and the so-called New World. 

Canto: Well that’s a good intro to the Afghanistan invasion, which was clearly a response to the September 11 attack in the USA. At the time the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan, and the claim is that they refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attack. So the US invaded the whole country. 

Jacinta: Which raises a number of questions – is/was the Taliban to be equated with the Afghan nation, and was the Taliban in league with Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organisation – in other words, was there sufficient reason for invading a foreign country, a country much divided into tribal groups…

Canto: Yes it’s not at all clear that the Taliban would’ve been in a position to ‘hand over’ Bin Laden, even if they wanted to. But  I don’t want to go into the machinations too much, because I also want to emphasise war as a human catastrophe that generally envelops innocent citizens, as you say, but one of the important events that preceded the invasion was the assassination of the northern alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the major  opponent of the Taliban. This ‘clarified’ the situation in Afghanistan from a US perspective, as the Taliban were likely providing cover for al-Qaeda operations. As to how much control the Taliban had over the Afghan people in general, that’s an open question. 

Jacinta: I suspect that the US miscalculated on more than one level – as they so often do. They imagined that if they changed the style of government to something a bit more WEIRD, if not entirely democratic, they’d render it safer, less likely to be a springboard for further attacks. And they imagined – and it would take a lot of imagination – that at least some proportion of the population would welcome them as liberators from what they probably saw, from their WEIRD mindset, as their nasty brutish and short lives. 

Canto: A wee bit of historical research should’ve disabused them of that second notion. As you remember, our own response to the invasion was to buy a book on the history of Afghanistan. John Griffiths’ Afghanistan: a history of conflict was published in late October 2001, only weeks after the September 11 attack. It drew heavily on previous work, Afghanistan: Key to a continent, and maybe it was written as a primer and a warning to those involved in the invasion.

Jacinta: Something tells me Ben Roberts-Smith didn’t read it. Anyway the region was dominated by Persia for a couple of thousand years, and was spectacularly conquered by Alexander the Great, but shortly after he dropped dead the Maurya Empire of northern India came conquering – a rare invasion from the east. They brought Buddhism, briefly, though they did leave behind the famous rock-carvings of Bamiyan which stood imposingly tall in the desert for around 1400 years until the silly Taliban blew them up. 

Canto: Yes, Buddhism did seem to last longer in that region, just west of Kabul. It wasn’t until around 1000 CE that Islam ‘was forcibly made the religion of Afghanistan’ (Griffiths).

Jacinta: United by religion they might’ve been, but the people have many different ethnic identities – there are the Mongol Hazaras of west-central Afghanistan, remnants of the devastating invasions of Genghis Khan, his son Chagatai, and Tamerlane in the 13th and 14th centuries; the Tajiks of the north, descendants of eastern Iranian/Persian peoples; the Uzbeks, a Turkish people found mostly in the north, and  the Pashtuns or Pathans, the country’s largest ethnic group, mostly in southern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan, which also has a large Pashtun population.

Canto: And it’s also fair to say, I think, that the people of Afghanistan, and of Pakistan, identify first with their ethnic group and second with their nation. 

Jacinta: Okay, so enough of all that, let’s get back to war, invasion and war crimes. Australia was only involved because our conservative PM John Howard went ‘all the way with the USA’, what with the old ANZUS alliance, which New Zealand dropped out of in the eighties…

Canto: Lucky NZ, good move. So the question is, how prepared were Australian forces, not so much for the warfare, but for handling a diverse and proud people, with generally a vastly different culture from their own, when those people expressed confusion, to say the least, about people arriving, armed and uniformed, from across vast oceans, speaking a foreign language, for the purpose of expunging terrorists from their ranks, apparently, and perhaps also bringing about the downfall of their national government?

Jacinta: Well put. And I suspect the answer would be something like ‘Uhh, gee, uh, well, uh, dunno.’

Canto: Now, now, you’re insulting our well-oiled and educated Australian military. But the point is, there needed to be a lot of ‘cultural training’ for an operation like this to have any chance of success, surely. Which brings us to a couple of pieces written on this blog more than two years ago, regarding the so-called 30% rule for improving the culture of organisations, notably the military. Current data suggest that the figure for women in the Australian military is around 19 to 20 percent and gradually rising, and as we go up the ranks, the percentage falls, as one might expect. 

Jacinta: Roberts-Smith was deployed to Afghanistan six times, from 2006 to 2013, and I’ve no idea whether he served under, or had command over, any women at that time – in fact I’m happy not to think about the bloke at all – but what I’ve read about some of the goings-on there, and the so called ‘code’, a sort of warrior code of silence, that he and others tried to impose on their ‘mates’, suggests to me the kind of macho claptrap that has stained human history for millennia. A 70% rule, rather than a 30% one, might be the best solution. 

Canto: What exactly was the Afghan ‘thing’ anyway? A war? An invasion? An occupation? It was never really clear – to those performing the action, never mind those on the receiving end. 

Jacinta: I doubt if Roberts-Smith had much idea, or gave the question much thought. It appears he saw it as an opportunity to act on all his tough-guy training. And perhaps psychopathy lies at the bottom of it, as some have suggested. 

Canto: Yes, I’m torn between turning away and wanting to know more. Feels ghoulish, like suddenly coming upon a horrific road accident. 

Jacinta: In her interesting opinion piece in the Financial Review last week, Laura Tingle wrote of the problems of ‘military jingoism’ and so drew attention, albeit obliquely, to the real question – why exactly we were in Afghanistan in the first place. But no mention of the maleness of it all, unfortunately….


a bonobo world etc 27: male violence and the Myanmar coup

a bonobo world 29: the 30% rule and Myanmar

Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2023 at 8:24 pm

How are the Maldives faring under global warming?

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Lily Beach Spa and Resort, Maldives. Book Now!

Jacinta: So we’re reading Adventures in the Anthropocene, by science writer and intrepid traveller Gaia Vince, which we picked up at Adelaide Writers’ Week earlier this year. She was a speaker, probably from a remote location, but I didn’t hear her talk….

Canto: Yes, but we’re certainly interested in the topic – global warming, problems, possible solutions, and the female and male heroes trying to effect those solutions. We bought two of Vince’s books – Adventures in the Anthropocene, published in 2014, and Transcendence, in 2019. And at last we’ve gotten round to reading them, in order of publication. We’re about halfway through the first book, which is divided into sections of concern and interest. The first section, “Atmosphere”, deals with the cause of the problem, human changes to our atmosphere, increasing CO2, methane, chlorofluorocarbons and such. The next sections, “Mountains”, “Rivers”, “Farmlands” and “Oceans” treat of glacial melting, dammed, over-fished and polluted rivers, drought-affected and nutrient-depleted soils, and rising sea levels, among other things…

Jacinta: Which brings us to the Maldives, a group of numerous tiny-teeny low-lying tropical islands in the north Indian Ocean, between the Arabian Peninsula and India, regarded as ‘canaries in the coalmine’ for global warming. The smallest and most geographically dispersed nation in Asia, it’s apparently been a getaway place for the super-rich, but most of the local population are dirt poor, and heroin addiction is rife, or at least was ten years ago. Vince met with the island nation’s then President, Mohammed Nasheed, a climate activist who’d taken over from some more or less corrupt characters, and was soon to be ousted by same. My further reading tells me that he’s still active in Maldivian politics, in spite of its brutal nature – corruption in the country has drawn criticism from human rights organisations, and caused its withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Nations in 2016. It has since been reinstated… 

Canto: Yes, the Maldives is surely the oddest nation on earth. It has about half a million inhabitants (tiny for an Asian country – if that’s what it is), spread over a territory of 90,000 square kilometres, of which only 300 square kilometres is land! It features a vast mountain range, entirely under water, and overall it’s the world’s most low-lying nation. Apparently the tiny islands are separated by large distances, but navigation between them is near-impossible due to all the coral reefs surrounding them. The marine ecosystems there are among the richest and most diverse on the planet.

Jacinta: Politically it’s been very up and down. It’s a Moslem nation, and to be honest, there haven’t been too many Moslem nations with great democratic, open-society credentials. Wikipedia relates plenty of cloak-and-dagger stuff, with timely, or untimely, depending on perspective, intervention from India. 

Canto: It was part of the British Empire/Commonwealth for a period, after colonising efforts from the Dutch and the Portuguese. Their National Day relates to the extirpation of the Portuguese, who’d tried to impose Christianity on the islands. The Brits agreed to a protectorate system which allowed for Home Rule, apparently. 

Jacinta: In 1953 one Mohamed Amin Didi became the Maldivian President. He was a progressive, who promoted the education of women, and tried to deal with addiction issues on the islands. He was more or less beaten to death for his efforts. 

Canto: Yes, the history of the region is a sorry saga, but let’s focus more on the present. There are various predictions as to when the islands will disappear completely under rising seawater, and this will of course depend on the rate of warming, as well as mitigation processes on the islands themselves.

Jacinta: Yes, it seems that Maldivians are at the mercy of the rest of the world’s emitters. But here’s an interesting quote from Wikipedia: 

In 2020, a three-year study at the University of Plymouth which looked at the Maldives and the Marshall Islands, found that tides move sediment to create a higher elevation, a morphological response that the researchers suggested could help low lying islands adjust to sea level rise and keep the islands habitable. The research also reported that sea walls were compromising islands’ ability to adjust to rising sea levels and that island drowning is an inevitable outcome for islands with coastal structures like sea walls.

Canto: Hmm, I can visualise that idea of tides moving sediments to build up the land – more than receding tides might remove sediments – but I can’t imagine it making a big difference. But what would I know?

Jacinta: Yes, and as to sea walls, they’re of course an artificial solution – which isn’t necessarily all bad, but they’re generally seen as short-term solutions, designed or financed by the rich to keep their coastal properties intact. I believe the most recent IPCC report, every word of which seems to be scrutinised and questioned by various governments, refers to some proposed solutions as ‘maladaptations’ without being too specific. In any case, natural solutions such as mangroves don’t work everywhere…

Canto: And rising sea levels cause other problems, such as contamination of underground aquifers in low-lying islands and coastal areas. 

Jacinta: Representatives from these regions – the Maldives and the Marshall Islands for example – are arguing that, for the foreseeable, there’s no alternatives to sea walls, and they should be paid for largely by the world’s principal emitters, which sounds reasonable to me. 

Canto: There’s another issue – the concrete generally used to build these walls also contributes to global warming. So here’s an apparent solution, or at least a partial one. Cement, the essential binding ingredient of concrete, is made from clinker, ‘a residue produced by firing limestone and clay in a furnace heated to 1,450°C’,  a temperature achieved by burning fossil fuels. Cement-making causes about 7% of annual CO2 emissions. According to the PreventionWeb site, there’s a solution:

One of the biggest challenges facing the construction sector is reducing concrete’s carbon footprint while keeping the benefits of a cheap and durable building material. One way to achieve this is by replacing cement with recycled industrial waste, such as granulated slag from steelworks and pulverised ash from coal power plants (essentially, the residue that can be scraped out of the bottom of furnaces).

Our newly designed low-carbon concrete mixes use both of these recycled materials. In fact, it was possible to use up to 60% steel furnace waste in the mixes without the concrete losing its compressive strength, which is crucial for ensuring the structure holds up. The resulting mixes had a 40% smaller carbon footprint than traditional concrete.

Jacinta: Not bad. And I suppose engineering solutions, if that’s what this is, are important for mitigation while we tackle the actual emissions problem.

Canto: Well this is tackling the emissions problem too, kind of. Anyway lots of piecemeal solutions do add up. 

Jacinta: Hmmm. And apparently they’ve been building new islands in the Maldives and elsewhere. Not floating islands, that would rise with the tides, which some enterprising individuals have created, but massive things upon which to build new tourist resorts and high-rise buildings. Lots and lots of sand apparently. It’s already happening. Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!


Gaia Vince, Adventures in the Anthropocene, 2014

Gaia Vince, Transcendence, 2019

Scientists warn seawalls can make rising waters worse in the long run

Maldives’ man-made islands offer answer to sea-level rise


Written by stewart henderson

June 5, 2023 at 8:40 pm

Beauvoir, Stendhal, bonobos and the past

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Canto: So, having read The Second Sex recently, I’m pondering over her essay on Stendhal, a writer I was a little obsessed with in the 1980s, in the years of my fading youth…

Jacinta: Right, so near the middle of that book Beauvoir wrote five little essays on five writers, treating of their treatment of women, from the most misogynist to – Stendhal. So the first four, in order, were Henry de Montherlant, D H Lawrence, Paul Claudel and Andre Breton. 

Canto: Yes and she mentions Stendhal with affection in Memoirs of a dutiful daughter too, so it transports me back to my discovery of Stendhal’s work in the early eighties, and then, in the late eighties, my decision to write my French Honours thesis on Stendhal’s work, which led me to read and reread more or less all of his oeuvre, as well as much literary criticism, including, if I’m not much mistaken, Beauvoir’s essay. 

Jacinta: And in that essay, she points out that Stendhal is more invested in the female characters than the males. His writing career is bookended by Lamiel, his unfinished last novel, and Armance, his first written work of fiction, which uses physical impotence effectively to disguise the emotional difficulties faced by the male lover, Octave…

Canto: Well I’ve been reading critiques, by women, of Beauvoir’s treatment of Stendhal’s treatment of women, and it all becomes a bit abstruse, but surely nobody wold doubt that Stendhal has a view of women that is very much out of synch with his time. But what most interests me, is the personal nature of his interest. Because I identify with it. I very much recall his account, in Vie de Henri Brulard, of his writing the names in sand, or was it dirt, of the women he loved (whatever that may mean), and who never returned his feelings. And watching the waves, or was it the wind, wash those names away. Stendhal was always a ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ writer, whose writing became most taut when emotionally charged. Few writers have had greater emotional impact on me than Stendhal, no doubt because I too have been a terrible failure in love, or lust, or whatever it is that brings bodily closeness, of the kind that bonobos manage so effortlessly. 

Jacinta: Culture, and religion, and its aftermath, have left us with a legacy that makes physicality, so basic to other mammals, an arena replete with problems. The very process of writing illustrates this. Bonobos don’t write, or talk, they don’t put off spontaneity. If they’re spurned, as Stendhal was spurned by those he obsessed over, they find someone else, without giving up on their first choice. And if they’ve proved themselves, they might succeed in their first choice next time, without giving up on their second choice…

Canto: But maybe there’re bonobo versions of Stendhal, and myself, who don’t succeed in their first second or third choices… 

Jacinta: Bonobo society is clearly inclusive. It’s not just about sex, but about closeness. That’s what makes for less violence and more collaboration. In the primate world, our world, greater female empowerment makes all the difference. 

Canto: No bonobo left behind. But we have become ‘literate’, spectacularly, which has led to our science and complexity, Shakespeare and Newton and music and quantum mechanics and longevity and so many understandings of the universe and neutrinos and the butterfly effect and complex feedback loops… 

Jacinta: And still there is warfare – involving the rape and murder of women – a feature of every example of warfare over the last 5000 years and more – and invariably perpetrated by men. Men men men men men men men. 

Canto: What about Thatcher and the Falklands? 

Jacinta: Complex, but initiated by the aggression of Argentinian males, and of course there are aggressive women… 

Canto: Well getting back to Stendhal and Beauvoir, let me offer this quote from Beauvoir’s essay for our commentary: 

Music, painting, architecture, everything he cherished, he cherished it with an unlucky lovers’ soul; while he is walking around Rome, a woman emerges at every turn… by the regrets, desires, sadnesses and joys women awaken in him, he came to know the nature of his own heart; it is women he wants as judges: he frequents their salons, he wants to shine; he owes them his greatest joys, his greatest pain, they were his main occupation; he prefers their love to any friendship, their friendship to that of men; women inspire his books, women figures populate them; he writes in great part for them. ‘I might be lucky enough to be read in 1900 by the souls I love, the Mme Rolands, the Melanie Guilberts…’ They were the very substance of his life.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Vintage Books, p261)

Jacinta: Sad. Mais touchant, tout de même. It seems like it’s both a joy and a torture. Joy in remembrance and contemplation, but suffering in the presence of their indifference, or disdain, or discomfort. And that’s how you feel? But then you have me. But of course you am I. Am you. Am I?

Canto: Haha, well it’s more like how I used to feel, before I became a dried out old husk. I could tell some comically sad tales of my youth, but now I think of these things in a more abstract way. And admiring the example of bonobos as the human way of the future is about as abstract as it gets, so I feel very comfortable about it. And I talk to myself a lot, but I’m not even sure any more if my imagined interlocutor is female. 

Jacinta: Ah, the way we were. So, all passion spent, you can focus on more important things like war and peace, global warming, artificial intelligence, female empowerment, wealth inequality, the WEIRDening of the world… 

Canto: And, of course, bonobos. I really would like to be one. Just for one day. 


Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter, 1958

Stendhal, Vie de Henry Brulard, 1890

Stendhal, Love, 1822

Written by stewart henderson

June 1, 2023 at 8:44 pm

Dorian Gray – random notes 2

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Great art? Pig’s arse, my dear Basil

Continuing with the preface:

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the art is new, complex and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. 

Listening to this on audiobook (in an upper-class American accent for Christsake! – but more of that anon) makes me think of some ancient upper-crust fin-de-siècle roué bombastically holding forth in front of a bunch of sniggering teenagers in some mock-Etonian art class. First what he’s pompously saying is that an art viewer reveals herself in her opinion of the work. Bien entendu! As to what diversity of opinion shows, it seems to me it shows that people are diverse, art or no art. And the sentence that follows is equally meaningless. But perhaps one shouldn’t scrutinise things that don’t stand up to scrutiny. 

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless. 

So ends the preface. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of a very useful thing, more useful even than the printing press, and arguably as useful as the invention of writing. Tim Berners-Lee and his accomplices sent out their World Wide Web to entangle the globe and transform human communications like nothing before it. Can we forgive Berners-Lee? I should note that Berners-Lee has serious misgivings about the social media world the internet has given rise to, and is looking to solutions, which of course is a good thing, though I’m not too optimistic, crooked timber and all. As to the supposed uselessness of art, that’s an old issue. It may be of no practical use, but advancing beyond the purely practical is what distinguishes us, our ancestors and our Neanderthal relatives etc from the rest of the mammalian world. Or maybe not. Many other animals do seemingly useless things which appear to contribute to their wellbeing. Wilde bypasses the complexity, as usual. 

Chapter 1

The aesthetics of the parasitic upper-class: roses, lilac, pink-flowering thorn, Persian saddle-bags, honey sweet and honey coloured laburnum, tussore silk curtains and birds – Japanese effect, elaborations on the effects of Japanese art, straggling woodbine.

The ‘dim roar of London’ is mentioned. Late 19th century London was the centre of investment capital. Investments in the midlands factories of the industrial revolution (dark satanic mills) and the north, but above all from the colonies, with their slave and semi-slave labour. See James Hawes’ The shortest history of England for analysis of the north-south (rich-poor) divide, which goes back to pre-Roman days. 

Lord Henry described as ‘languid’, of course. Indolence does that to you. The ‘opium-tainted cigarettes’ wouldn’t help.

In-talk comparing ‘the Grosvenor’ with ‘the Academy’

witticisms (Lord Henry) Oxford (Basil Hallward)

‘… only one thing in the world worse than being talked about…’ seemed very amusing and true to me, when young. Wanted to be talked about, and probably still do. 

‘if old men are capable of any emotion…’ (Wilde wrote this in his mid thirties)

Obsession with male beauty – his descriptions of men in the way heterosexual men dwell on physical descriptions of women. Mixed with Greek classicism – Adonis. ‘ivory and rose leaves’, etc.

Narcissus – ‘Beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face’. Thinking makes you look ugly (Henry), and all learned men are hideous. No such thing, then, as A Beautiful Mind…

In the Church, they don’t think. Same at 80 as at 18. Keeps them attractive. (Yes, mostly true!)

Dorian must be a ‘brainless, beautiful creature’ (Henry).

Fatality about people of distinction (Basil) – better not to be different. Ugly and stupid have the best of it. (Basil – but this is puerile)

I’ll limit myself mostly to this first chapter, as there are so many other things to focus on. Many first chapters can be used to summarise the whole, as major themes tend to be outlined. 

Plenty of cynicism, especially from Lord Henry, whom we’re told in passing is a young man, so his world-weariness is an affectation. Whether Wilde portrays him as a figure of fun or his own mouthpiece is hard to say. Perhaps both. 

All of the beauty mentioned, apart from that of Japanese art, and certain flowers, is male beauty. Women get a mention, for their ugliness and poor taste and false view of themselves (their ridiculousness). Intellectual talk disguises while revealing the fact that Wilde’s men are attracted to youthful beauty – in both women and men. An unspoken truth. Women, not so much – but then Wilde clearly has no interest in the thoughts of women, his world is entirely male. 

Al this makes me long for Simone de Beauvoir, whom I’m intently reading. Her mind and writing make me fall in love with her. So utterly the opposite of Wilde. In The second sex, she treats of five male writers and their treatment of women, from Henri de Montherlant (the most misogynist) to Stendhal (feminist avant la lettre – and a huge favourite of mine). I wish now she had chosen Wilde as one of those writers, I would’ve loved her analysis, I’m sure of it. And it may well have been sympathetic, given his quite extreme homosexuality, if that makes sense. She was always tolerant of, and even drawn to, extremes. 

But thinking of Wilde’s attraction for pretty young men, it’s not unreasonable to see the novel as his masturbatory fantasy. He has clearly a horror of ageing, which he disguises as mockery. 

Basil’s rapturous speech about Dorian is essentially a confession of love/lust, wrapped of course in twaddle about the Ancient Greek sense of form, and ye olde ‘muse’ concept, the beautiful being whose very proximity makes you see with brightened eyes (tho’ there might be something in that). A ‘romance of art’. 

Basil and Harry seem to represent two opposed positions, the Idealist and the Cynic, neither of which seem tenable or convincing. There’s a closedness, a perfunctory element in both.   

‘It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue’ (Henry). There goes philosophy. 

“It is a sad thing to think of, but there is no doubt that genius lasts longer than beauty. That accounts for the fact that we all take such pains to over-educate ourselves. In the wild struggle for existence we want to have something that endures, and so we fill our minds with rubbish and facts in the silly hope of keeping our place. The thoroughly well-informed man, that is the modern ideal. And the mind of the thoroughly well-informed mind is a dreadful thing, It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.” Oh dear, no more op-shops and second-hand bookshops for me then.

Henry mocks and despises class talk about the ‘value of thrift’ (from the rich) and the ‘dignity of labour’ (from the idle). Being both rich and idle he values his lack of hypocrisy. He has to value something, after all. 

Additional notes

On Sybil Vane, an important figure. Very likely given this name because ‘Vanity, thy name is woman’ (a regular misquote from Hamlet). Sybil, the first name, can of course contain many allusions, but it was also a popular name at the time. Vane is young, beautiful and poor, but also a very talented actress, playing complex Shakespearean heroines – Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia, Portia, Rosalind, Beatrice and Imogen (from Cymbeline), and apparently doing a brilliant job – thus highly intelligent. On meeting the magnetically attractive Dorian Gray, who declares his love for her, she falls for him so hard that she instantly loses her actorly skills and performs so badly that she’s more or less booed from the stage (frailty, thy name is woman?) Some have analysed Sybil as a sort of corollary to Basil, the artist who, having painted Dorian’s portrait, and been intimately touched by the man himself, has nothing left to give, but I’m not entirely convinced. Sybil, the person rather than the artist, is presented as a shining light in an impoverished world – and Wilde really despises that world, as if poverty indicates stupidity. The description in Chapter 4 of the theatre in which Sybil performs, and of the people performing, is truly stomach-churning in its mockery. Since I’m limiting myself to chapter 1 I’m spared from analysing it. But here’s a revealing quote from Lord Henry on being told by Dorian of this ‘genius’ actress: 

“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals….. I am analysing women at present, so I ought to know. The subject is not so abstruse as I thought it was. I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women, the plain and the coloured. The plain women are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. Our grandmothers painted in order to try and talk brilliantly. Rouge and esprit used to go together. That is all over now. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied. ”

This is presumably meant to be amusing. The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1891. Two years later women were first given the vote, in New Zealand. Ten years after that, and three years after Wilde’s premature death, the suffragette movement, braving much outrage, contempt and abusive treatment, was launched in Britain.

But returning to Dorian, he went out one night and found himself heading ‘eastward’, to the poorer part of the city. I won’t provide Wilde’s contemptuous and contemptible account, but here’s a description of the area at the time:

In the last decade of the nineteenth century London’s population expanded to four million, which spurred a high demand for cheap housing in areas that became known as slums. These were very similar to the rookeries of the previous century. The East End of London was one of these areas. They became notorious for overcrowding, unsanitary and squalid living conditions.


James Hawes, The shortest history of England, 2020

The Grosvenor Gallery- Final Project

Click to access 16_East_End_of_London,_guided_reading.pdf

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2023 at 9:12 pm

The Dunning-Kruger effect – what does it really mean?

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Canto: So we’re going to pick up on something else from the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (SGU), same episode in fact (931), because it’s interesting, and I’ve referred to it before, perhaps not accurately.

Jacinta: Yes, this is the thing, as autodidacts and dilettantes we learn, or try to learn, by putting things we read or hear into our own words, an attempt to own the knowledge, to make it ours – for as long as we remember or retain it. So, the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is generally, or at least by us, described as ‘we tend to think we’re smarter than we really are, because we’re not smart enough to recognise those that are smarter than we are’, or something like that. 

Canto: So Dr Steven Novella, who may or may not be smarter than us, has looked into this effect for us, not for the first time, on the SGU. And we’re going to do our own job on his job. 

Jacinta: So to paraphrase Novella’s account… Well, first, here’s a definition from the Decision Lab website:

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence. By contrast, this effect also causes those who excel in a given area to think the task is simple for everyone, and underestimate their relative abilities as well.

Canto: Hmmm. I get the first part, but the second part, that’s interesting. A maths whizz – or should that be wiz, short for wizard? – is so good at simultaneously equationising, or so practised at it –  that she underestimates others’ lack of knowledge/practise. We all think others are more or less like us, whether we’re dumb or smart?

Jacinta: Well here’s how Novella puts it. Dunning and Kruger observed that if you give people, say, a knowledge test, and then asked them two questions – first, how do you think you went? – say as a percentage – and second, how do you think you went, compared to others, or what percentage of others do you reckon you beat in the test? They found that mostly people were accurate predictors for the first question – that’s to say on how many questions they got right – but there was a tendency for those who did very well to underestimate their result, and for those who did very badly to overestimate. But when asked about how they did compared to others, everyone, whether they did well or badly, thought they were above average. 

Canto: Right, so that means, for those who did badly, and even failed, they thought they were above average. And that’s the key finding – that’s the effect. 

Jacinta: Yes, but Novella chose to talk about this because some mathematicians recently have questioned, or claimed they’ve debunked, Dunning-Kruger. And this seems to be a matter of interpretation. Dunning and Kruger claimed that the statistics show that ‘your relative lack of knowledge impairs your ability to assess your own knowledge’. The new analysis claims – and this might seem like hair-splitting – that this is an invalid inference. The alternative explanation is that everybody just thinks, or assumes, they’re above average. A kind of in-built cognitive bias that’s an evolutionary adaptation.

Canto: But of course, it can’t be true, statistically. 

Jacinta: Well, of course. But it’s been a regular finding that most of us think we’re more physically attractive, better drivers, and generally smarter, which is statistically impossible. 

Canto: So in the end, unsurprisingly, this effect is just part of the larger effect, that we have a higher opinion of ourselves or our various abilities or capabilities, if only slightly, than is justified by objective testing.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s like when people say ‘I can’t dance to save myself, I’ve got two left feet’, but they don’t quite believe it, they just think dancing is beneath them, and if they put the effort in… 

Canto: Well maybe, but with Dunning-Kruger it’s like, you don’t know what you don’t know. And with smart people it might be not knowing quite how much smarter you are than others. 

Jacinta: So, although there’s no cure, it’s always worth bearing in mind that you know less than you could know about any topic, and that there’s no skill you have that couldn’t be improved…

Canto: And then you get old and everything starts to fall apart….

References (episode 931)

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2023 at 5:13 pm

Posted in Dunning-Kruger

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stuff on nuclear energy, fossil fuel emissions and the future

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Top 10 Countries with the Highest Greenhouse Gas Emissions (in million metric tons, 2019 data):*
  • China — 9,877.
  • United States — 4,745.
  • India — 2,310.
  • Russia — 1,640.
  • Japan — 1,056.
  • Germany — 644.
  • South Korea — 586.
  • Iran — 583.

Jacinta: So we heard recently, on an SGU podcast, that more CO2 was pumped into our atmosphere in 2022 than in any previous year, in spite of more people and governments being on board with combatting global warming than ever before.

Canto: Yes, depressing but unsurprising, with the population continually rising and, more importantly, more of the global population catching up with the WEIRD world. We can only hope that the increase in CO2, and greenhouse gases generally, will slow, and soon be reversed, as will the population. I mean, the population needs to stabilise, like ZPG, and the greenhouse effect needs to be reversed.

Jacinta: Well what the SGU has highlighted is that Germany, and not just Germany, is closing nuclear power plants much more readily than fossil fuel production, or fossil fuel imports, because… why?

Canto: Because of the overblown reaction to the Fukushima disaster, which, if cool heads prevailed, should not have affected a country that doesn’t tend to be hit by tidal waves, that doesn’t suffer from the ‘managerial capture’ and the problems in nuclear safety management that plagued the Japanese nuclear industry…

Jacinta: But there’s also the long lingering concerns about nuclear energy, in Germany and globally, as I recall from the days way back in the 1980s when there were big protests about our uranium exports here in Australia, which I must admit to being involved in. Fears about nuclear radiation were at quite a height then, what with the Maralinga tests in South Australia, our state, in the 1950s and 60s. The blast sites were still found to be highly contaminated in 1985.

Canto: So – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima – three nuclear incidents from which we’ve learned a heap. And from all the testing done in the Pacific, by the USA and France, and maybe others. The USA’s last test there was done in 1962. They continued doing stuff in Nevada till 1992. The French kept on testing at Mururoa until 1996, but as we know, the protests just kept growing and growing, and it all seems to have ground to a halt.

Jacinta: Never say never. So the Green Party in Germany were very anti-nuclear, and they forced an agreement with the government in 2000 to phase out nuclear energy by 2022. Later, Angela Merkel’s government managed to extend the phase-out date to 2034, but then Fukushima happened, and the date was put back again to 2022. They were on track to do that, but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine delayed it slightly. They’ve just closed the last nuclear power facility.

Canto: So, according to the SGU, Germany’s energy production spread in 2010 was 60% fossil fuels, 23% nuclear and 17% renewables. In 2022 it had changed to 51% fossil fuels, 6% nuclear and 43% renewables, which isn’t bad, but clearly if they hadn’t abandoned nuclear, that might’ve reduced the fossil fuel load by another 20% or so.

Jacinta: Lies lies and damn statistics. Shoulda-coulda-woulda. So, seriously, as Steve Novella points out in his SGU rant, we should be focussing on phasing out fossil fuels – coal first, as the dirtiest, then oil, then gas – and keeping nuclear going as a fairly long stop-gap in the medium term.

Canto: They’ve got a whole transcript of the podcast online, I’ve just discovered. And one of the points Novella makes is that you have to look at the path to achieving zero emissions. Germany already has the nuclear infrastructure, as do other European countries, such as Sweden (which almost went the way of Germany), so rebooting its nuclear facilities would be far less costly than starting from scratch as we’d be doing in Australia, where there’s absolutely no appetite for nuclear…

Jacinta: And we’re perfect for solar and storage, and offshore wind. Anyway, as a result of Germany’s decision it’s the third highest CO2 emitter in Europe, behind Poland and the Czech Republic, and the figures are extremement revealing. Germany releases 385 grammes of CO2 per kWh, compared to nuclear-powered France, at 85, and Sweden, which has a lot of hydro, at 45 – the lowest in Europe.

Canto: Tasmania, which is all hydro, boasts about its negative emissions, since it exports a proportion of its energy.

Jacinta: Italy is up at 372, having got rid of its nuclear generators.

Canto: Hell in a hand-basket.

Jacinta: So they describe nuclear as a bridging technology…

Canto: But what do they do with all the waste? Radioactivity and all?

Jacinta: Good question. A quick search turns up this:

Over 60,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel are stored across Europe (excluding Russia and Slovakia), most of which is in France. Within the EU, France accounts for 25 percent of the current spent nuclear fuel, followed by Germany (15 percent) and the United Kingdom (14 percent).

That’s from a ‘World Nuclear Waste Report’ in 2019, from an organisation called Focus Europe. They say that only Finland has ‘a permanent repository for the most dangerous type of waste’.

Canto: So, all the more reason to focus on renewables, but wth nuclear being a part of the mix for the foreseeable,  storage is a big issue, and then there’s the Ukraine situation. ..

Jacinta: And a controversial situation in the Balkans, on the Croatia-Bosnia border, but you go first.

Canto: Well, we’re talking about the Zaporizhzhia plant in south-eastern Ukraine. The World Nuclear Association  is presenting a timeline of all the distressing events from the start of the invasion to the present. Interestingly, Russia captured Chernobyl at the beginning of their invasion, but then thought better of it. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chernobyl became the site of the Battle of Chernobyl and Russian forces captured the city on 24 February. After its capture, Ukrainian officials reported that the radiation levels started to rise due to recent military activity causing radioactive dust to ascend into the air. Hundreds of Russian soldiers were suffering from radiation poisoning after digging trenches in a contaminated area, and one died. On 31 March it was reported that Russian forces had left the exclusion zone. Ukrainian authorities reasserted control over the area on 2 April.

The whole Chernobyl debacle – it’s on the way to Kyiv, near the border with Belarus – is a prime example of Russian incompetence in this ‘special military operation’. As to Zaporizhzhia in the south-east, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the situation is very murky, with Russia claiming it has complete control of it and Ukraine emphatically denying this claim. It has been regularly shelled, presumably by the Russians, and nearby residents have been evacuated recently.

Jacinta: Yeah, here in Australia we never think of warfare being a threat to the nuclear industry, it goes to show, you never know. Of course power supplies will always be a target in war, but it’s extra problematic with nuclear power – why we shouldn’t rely on it, unless we went the bonobo way pretty damn soon re our social evolution… Yes, the Croatia-Bosnia issue is all about waste dumping. It’s not about warfare or anything, just increased tensions, and the general nimbyism that goes with all this, if that’s not being too dismissive. It’s Croatia that’s building the waste facility near the Bosnian border, and the worries are about public health, local agriculture and their river systems.

Canto: So to get back to the fossil fuel issue, because of increased energy demand overall – and that’ll continue for a good while – we’re releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere, at increasing rates, even while our percentage of energy demand that’s met by fossil fuels is going down. So, fat chance of reaching our targets – generally considered as no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures by – whenever. Others are giving up on that and talking about 2 degrees, which many consider more or less catastrophic.

Jacinta: They say that currently 75% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. Uhhh, that’s not an exact figure. And some fossil fuels are worse than others, as we’ve said.

Canto: And at this rate, our emissions will almost double by 2050. And battery electric, and hydrogen, will require more fossil fuel emissions to produce. Nuclear could be an option there, but it’s unlikely everyone’s going to get on board with nuclear.

Jacinta: And, as Steve Novella points out, all of these new renewable energy projects – wind and solar in particular – are involved in a backlog to get onto the grid. There just isn’t enough grid electricity to cover new projects, and upgrading the grid to cope with varied, and variable, forms of energy, is a major, time consuming project in itself. And that’s leaving aside all the political machinations going on, the vested interests and so forth. We’ve just recently allowed fracking to go ahead in the Northern Territory, and so it goes…

References (episode 931)


Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2023 at 8:23 pm

The picture of Dorian Gray – random notes 1, the preface

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not Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray – that’s to say the 1945 movie featuring George Sanders as the supine rather than sublime aristocrat Lord Henry Wotton – was one of the more memorable and enduring experiences of my childhood. Or I should say, one moment in the film was – I don’t remember much else about it. No prizes for guessing that moment, when, in what I assume was the final scene, the evergreen Dorian comes face to face with the hideously transformed portrait of his life of ‘sin’. And I’m sure the revelation was accompanied by a deafening score of drums, cymbals and shrieking banshees, for a nice Irish touch. The image of the hideous portrait is still seared on my mind.

So much so that, fifty-odd years on, I’d half-convinced myself that I’d actually read the book. I’m fairly well-read, if I say so myself, and I have read and seen productions of a couple of Wilde’s mildly amusing plays, so I find it hardly surprising that I remember, quite vividly, books that I haven’t read, just as I have no memory whatever of books that I have. 

Anyway, now that I’ve read about half of Wilde’s only completed novel, I’m absolutely sure I’ve never read it before. I’m also absolutely sure that I’ll never read it again – though I will finish it, for my sins. 

So here’s my first quick condemnation of the work. I know that Wilde was imprisoned, with hard labour, for his homosexual activities, and that this punishment completely broke him. It was, of course, a horrific injustice to someone who did nobody any harm. However, had Wilde been punished in the same way for writing The picture of Dorian Gray, I might’ve felt some sense of justice… Too soon, perhaps? 

So, the opening scene of the novel is florid and luxurious. It features Lord Henry Wotton, an entitled parasite-about-town, whom we later learn is a young man, though he talks in a been-there-done-that tone throughout the book, with a penchant for ‘artless’ apothegms such as ‘I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible’, ‘Conscience and cowardice are really the same things – conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all’, and ‘Beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face’. None of these supposed pearls of wisdom stand up to more than a moment’s scrutiny, though they do occasionally merit a chuckle or two. They are directed at Basil Hallward, an artist, who is putting the final touches on the portrait of a young man, Dorian Gray, whose good looks have for some reason (I wonder…) had a profound effect on Basil. 

This opening chapter presents some of the main themes – the wonderment of youthful male beauty, the apparent tediousness and shallowness of all women, and general contempt for the working class. 

Often there’s an attempt to ‘shock the bourgeoisie’ – ‘The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties’.

But I’ll begin at the beginning, a very good place…

First sentence in preface. ‘The artist is the creator of beautiful things’. A narrow definition, smugly presented. Not sure what an artist is, or whether art can be precisely defined, but to be handed a cut and dried definition immediately gets my back up. I refuse to swallow it. 

‘To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim’. More of the same. Art doesn’t have an aim, but artists do, though they may not find that aim easy to define. They may think of it more as an impulse to express, to represent or create something of importance to themselves, hoping or believing it may be of some value to others. 

‘The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things’. Presumably Wilde is referring here to an art critic, who of course uses language, while the artist uses a variety of media. Generally I don’t dispute this definition. The word ‘impression’ is essential, but I still find in the definition an attempt to constrain, and to lecture. 

‘Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming’. These sorts of remarks are Wilde at his worst. They are at best meaningless. What is a beautiful thing? An opalescent sky, perhaps, or a baby’s laugh. If someone finds ‘an ugly meaning’ in such things I wouldn’t find this ‘corrupt’ or ‘charmless’. I might find it strange, or sad perhaps. Or that they have a different taste, or mindset. 

‘This is a fault’, Wilde goes on. ‘Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated’. Is that all there is to being ‘cultivated’? It’s not a term I tend to use, but to be a ‘good’ person you need to consider fairness, kindness, sympathy, understanding. Some people, and other animals, and plants, and so forth, are not  easily describable as beautiful, but they may have value, either inherent or utilitarian. So, our ‘cultivation’ needs to extend beyond the beautiful. 

‘They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty’. It seems that Wilde is enamoured of those who go around contemplating beautiful things. While everyone else has to work for a living. 

‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.’ I’ve never read Mein Kampf or the Malleus Maleficarum, their reputation persuades me that it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience, as I’m quite squeamish by nature. I’m pretty sure, though that what would turn me off would be ignorance, bigotry and ridiculous argumentation. So in this respect, maybe I’m in agreement with Wilde – I’d find the works to be badly written above all. The thing is, though I don’t much think in terms of morality or immorality, if I were asked my opinion of the morality or immorality of those books – if pressed to give a response, I would say, yes, I think they are immoral, because I do think it immoral to treat a whole gender or ethnicity as suspect or inferior. So, ultimately, I think Wilde is wrong.

But worse than all the questionable content is the preachy, ‘I know what’s what, so shut the fuck up and pay attention’ tone. Of course it’s meant to be shocking, but it strikes me more as the empty posturing of the parasitic class. 

‘The 19th century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The 19th century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.’ The first sentence may be true enough, as Caliban is described by Prospero as filth, savage and hag-seed (reliably? – think of how many of the first European arrivals described our Australian natives), and the second sentence may also has its element of truth, but it’s all really a fancy way of saying that some don’t like to see themselves portrayed ‘warts and all’, and others do like to see themselves so portrayed, and are angered by romanticised fakery. Perhaps more importantly, this is the first of a number of Shakespeare references. The more Shakespeare’s language has become, due to the passing of time, obscure and mysterious to the masses, the more it is prized and referenced by the parasitic class. 

‘The moral life of a man forms part of the subject matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid’. What ‘the perfect use of an imperfect medium’ is, is anyone’s guess. I’ve always assumed that all is imperfect, that perfection is an ideal, not a real, and when Lou Reed sang of a Perfect Day, he really meant a very very pleasant one. And that’s a perfect use of the term. As for desiring to prove anything, I’m not sure that even scientists are trying for that. They’re generally trying to find out, to work out what causes what, why things act the way they do, how things came to be the way they are, and what will happen next. As for ‘ethical sympathies’, whatever in the world this may mean, Wilde first writes that no artist has them, then castigates those who do. So his meaning seems hardly worth bothering about. As for the final sentence above, artists are people, people can be morbid, or have morbid feelings, when creating art, or washing dishes, ergo…

‘Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril’. 

So what is Wilde on about here? But I should perhaps get over Wilde’s pontificating, because isn’t it just mock pontification? Who knows. Good to know that vice, virtue and presumably everything in between, and the rest, are fair game for artists. Who would’ve thunk it? And interpreting art is perilous – so true. It might even lead to fisticuffs. Anyway – opinions (if that) dressed as truths for fun and profit. 



Written by stewart henderson

May 17, 2023 at 5:05 pm

sex and gender in bonobos, humans, etc

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So there’s been a lot of talk lately about trans people, whatever that may mean, and whether or not they should be taken seriously. It seems to relate to the ‘woke’ issue, for some people, and it has become a hot button issue for the most divided and tedious nation in the WEIRD world. All of this has to do with sex and gender, it seems to me, and I’ve had many thoughts on this topic ever since I was a kid, over fifty years ago.

I’ve written about this before, briefly, but I want to go into it in more detail now. I was around eleven or so, pre-pubescent, in primary school, year 5 or 6. It was school assembly, and we were standing in line outside the school buildings, listening to some headmasterly homilies. I was at the back of the two lines for our class, one for girls, one for boys. It was probably towards the end of the year, because I was very familiar with my classmates, at least by observation. As I looked at them this day, I considered which ones were the most, and least, attractive, and why. I knew nothing about sex at the time (unlike most eleven-year-olds today), but I knew about physical attraction – and attraction generally. My thoughts ran along lines which I still feel proud of to this day, though no doubt I’ll exaggerate their sophistication, as is the way with memories.

I decided that the prettiest kid in the class was a boy, and I was ‘turned on’ by the naughtiness of this thought. I also noted that of the two prettiest girls, one was much more attractive to me than the other, not because of her physical appearance, but her manner – perhaps her air of gravity, her intelligent expression, the clothes she wore, her way of walking. And then there were girls I was attracted to, but not physically. They were fun, good sports, approachable. And on further reflection I noticed that the kids who least interested me were the ‘girlie’ girls and the ‘tough guy’ boys, and that the kids in front of me could all be put on a spectrum from most masculine to most feminine, regardless of their actual genitalia. Which led me to wonder – where was I on this spectrum?

It so happens that throughout my school years I was the shortest kid in my class, male or female, and skinny with it. A less masculine male could hardly be imagined. I never considered myself homosexual though. By the time I fully understood the term, the blokes my age were developing face fuzz, which was a total turn off.  That didn’t stop me from falling in love with Bowie at sixteen – the music, that is, and the in-your-face androgynous persona. This tended to make me persona non grata in the socially conservative working-class  environment of my childhood and early youth.

All of this is to say that I was highly sensitised to issues of sex and gender from an early age. Some years later, well into my twenties, a certain family kerfuffle came to my attention. A married cousin had a daughter, aged about six or so, who insisted on keeping her hair short and refused to be dressed in a dress. I encountered her once or twice, and she seemed morose, withdrawn, smart, and yes, kind of masculine, if that makes sense for someone so young. My mother seemed worried, as did other family members, but the mother not so much. There was talk of doctors, of taking a firmer line, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Nobody asked my advice of course, but I would’ve argued for letting the girl, or boy, be what they wanted to be. I was thoroughly fascinated, however. But I soon lost touch with family, became as solitary as an orang-utan, and know nothing of the outcome.

Returning to modern times, people talk today of the LGBTQIA+ community, and I can probably work out what each letter signifies, but only just. It seems to me that if there is a problem here, it’s a problem of categorising and compartmentalising – maybe of working out which ‘tribe’ you supposedly belong to. I myself have never been particularly tribal, so it all just flies over my head. And anyway, is there a community here, a community of difference? I hope so, but I’m doubtful.

I’ve mentioned orang-utans, but it’s the far from solitary bonobos I’m really interested in. Opposites attract, they say. Recently I’ve been pondering sex and gender in our primate cousins, and other mammals. Does our pet dog know she’s a girl? Does our pet cat know he’s a boy? We call our pets such things to eternally infantilise them, but  that’s another story. Let’s consider bonobos – when, if ever, do they learn that they’re male or female? And when do we humans learn the same? For humans, it seems straightforward – we have language. One of the first things a child learns is that they’re ‘a pretty/naughty/clever girl, or boy, as the case may be. This sort of makes up for the fact that we rarely get to go about naked and notice the difference in each others’ genitalia – unlike bonobos. But our bonobo and chimp cousins are smart and complex – they know the difference between the one who nurses and protects them and the adults who are sometimes friendly but at other times indifferent or hostile. They might not conceive it in terms of gender, but they might discern a pattern. And of course hormonal and developmental differences both between and within the two sexes will play their part. So they too have ‘gender issues’, if we can call it that.

It’s often said that sex is biological, gender is cultural. That, of course, is way too neat, and too hard to prove, because every single family in which a child is brought up is a micro-culture of sorts, and every child has a slightly different genetic and epigenetic inheritance. The problem again is our tendency to compartmentalise. What is more important, as bonobos might teach us, is acceptance of variety and difference.

Another obvious difference between bonobos and the only clothed apes, is of course, clothing, covering, hiding our ‘naughty bits’. It’s a topic I tend to be squeamish about, being human, but it needs to be addressed. We wear clothing for a whole variety of reasons – for keeping protected and warm, to display solidarity with our tribe, to be fashionable and attractive, to show contempt for fashionable elites, to avoid being arrested for indecent  exposure, and so on. We certainly learn from very early on that it’s ‘rude’ and ‘uncivilised’ to go about in the altogether. It’s interesting to note that the term ‘savage’, used regularly by Europeans well into the 19th century, precisely coincided with the degree of covering used by the indigenous populations they encountered. The more covered they became, the more civilised and intelligent they became in our minds.

It’s also worth noting that, until recently in the WEIRD world, clothing and other visible accoutrements have been used to distinguish the two sexes – hence the concept of cross-dressing, which now seems dated. In my own youth my hair was long and bushy, and it seemed to me that most of the girls’ hair was shorter than the boys’, which I found titillating. At the time I thought it was revolutionary, and went along with free love and the dissolution of marriage, but sadly it turned out to be just another turn of the fashion wheel.

And yet, not quite. Or not at all. Some of us might be slaves to fashion, but the percentage has considerably reduced. Gone forever are the days, revealed in 100 year-old photos and newsreels, when men were obliged to wear more or less lookalike homburgs, and women cloche hats. Jeans, t-shirts and casual jackets are as commonplace now as they were fifty years ago, and casual apparel has maintained its non-binary style in that time. Fashions may go in cycles but they never return to the same place. Marriage is still popular, but it’s not what it was when my dad were a lad.

So at a time when sexual identity and politics are being fought over to a degree that I find laughable, it’s a relief to turn to the bonobo world. Bonobos females tend to engage in same sex acts a lot more than males do, according to research by the Max Planck Society, and this activity creates more lifelong bonds than occurs with mixed-sex pairs. The research suggests that this has to do with increased oxytocin levels after these interactions. Oxytocin, the so-called ‘feel good’ or ‘love’ hormone is often associated with the bonding of mother and child.  These increased levels didn’t occur after male-female sex. Interestingly, and very surprisingly (and rather disappointingly to me) male-male sex is rare among bonobos. Considering that some 75% of bonobo sex has no reproductive purpose (compared to 99.999% of human sex, according to my own extensive research), this seems to me a missed opportunity. Then again, this female-female bonding appears to be the key, not only to female dominance, but more importantly that species’ lack of aggression compared to chimps and humans. Obviously the answer for us humans is to ban male homosexuality on penalty of death, and encourage the female version with prizes and worldwide fame for the loudest and longest orgasms.

Okay, I was a bit drunk when I wrote that.

There’s a lot more to be said, though, about how bonobos have broken the aggression habit, or how they’ve targeted aggression to reduce aggression, and so to become less aggressive overall. I’ll explore that in my next post.



Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2023 at 7:54 pm

bonobos and capitalism?

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Jacinta: The theme of capitalism has been playing in the back of my mind lately…

Canto: Really? Can you hum a few bars?

Jacinta: Well it’s a theme with many variations, so it’s hard to know where to start….

Canto: With bonobos? Are they capitalists?

Jacinta: Well, that’s the point, capitalism can be defined very broadly and inclusively, which would leave the anti-capitalists – people who define themselves as socialists or communists – with not much ground to stand on.

Canto: You mean like capitalising is what we all do to survive and thrive, like capitalising on balmy weather to spend a day at the beach?

Jacinta: Yes, but even the negative aspects of it might be inescapable, like capitalising on other living things for our food, by, uhh, eating them. Even vegetarians can’t avoid that.

Canto: But by eating the fruit of the tree, you’re not killing the tree. You’re even helping the tree to multiply, so long as you spit the seeds out, on fertile ground.

Jacinta: Yeah vegetarians always do that. But that’s sort of a good example of how hard it is to be ethical capitalists. Trees, like every other living thing, have evolved to multiply, so, in the most amazingly complex but non-sentient way, they cover their seeds, carrying their offspring, in tasty wrappings for insects and birds to peck or consume so that the seeds fall down or are blown away or shat out, and one in a few thousand ends up in the right spot to grow into another tree, just as one of a gazillion spermatozoa ends up in the right spot to grow another mammal. We humans, though, have taken capitalism to another level. Earlier states or civilisations, developments out of agricultural society, depended very much on the labour of slaves, or serfs, or villeins, in a system that more or less fossilised landed aristocracies. But it was a thoroughly capitalist system that worked, to the extent that it grew the human population, establishing us more than ever at the top of the food chain.

Canto: But surely most modern anti-capitalist thinkers have a much narrower view of capitalism. Does Marx have anything still to offer? Neo-Marxism?

Jacinta: I don’t know – but whenever I encounter a self-professed socialist or communist, and I occasionally do, I always want to ask them if they believe in democracy.

Canto: Well there are people, and parties, that call themselves social democrats. I assume that’s a kind of ‘soft socialism’, with the aim of convincing, or ‘educating’ the populace into viewing socialism, or at least a less hierarchical employer/employee system, a more distributed ownership of the means of production, a taxation system that favours the more disadvantaged, a quality education and healthcare system that favours the same, should get their vote every time, or more times than most.

Jacinta: Yes and there are political organisations like the Chinese Communist Party, which isn’t really a party at all, which give communism a bad name, if it ever had a good one. And there are thinkers who seem to define themselves as anti-capitalists, who seem to take the view that if we can only change the system, as so many young people are keen to do, and become less rapacious and more keen to care and share, the human world will be so much better.

Canto: And yet they never mention bonobos. That’s a shame. We get caught up with these ‘isms’, including conservatism and liberalism, and they box us in and make enemies of others. Bonobos have a society, but it would be silly to call it leftist or rightist, capitalist or socialist. Yes they capitalise on available resources, and they socialise with each other for fun and comfort and sex, which is also a form of capitalism, broadly speaking, but again labelling it this way seems a bit dumb.

Jacinta: Yes, to me, the key is to develop a sort of humanism which is more like bonoboism with all the big-brained human stuff thrown in. Modern science seems like that to me, I mean the practice. That community has its spats, as do bonobos, but mostly its collaborative and supportive. They need more sex perhaps, but, you know, sublimation and all that.

Canto: Yes, that’s interesting. There’s some hierarchical elements in the scientific community, with team leaders and stuff, but the focus isn’t so much on power, as it so often is in politics, the focus is on improvement – better data, better tools, better theories, better results, better connections.

Jacinta: Yes it’s generally a relief to turn to science, especially as an antidote to US-style politics, which is so absurdly divided. I think the social media world has very much exacerbated that situation. People have gotten stuck in their bubbles, and there’s so much hate talk, it’s exhausting.

Canto: So getting back to capitalism, I agree that it’s inescapable, and the key is what we call ‘mixed’ capitalism, and the disagreements are or should be about the degree of regulation, the degree of taxation, the degree of exploitation (of people, resources, land and so forth). That means coming together on boring things such as wage indexation, healthcare, education, housing, environmental protection, interest rates, crime and punishment and the like. Imagining that we can change the system in some holistic way by implementing a particular ideology just ignores ye olde crooked timber of humanity….

Jacinta: Our current federal government, cautiously centre left, seeking to be collaborative and so getting hit from both sides (but not too hard), seeking to mend fences with our neighbours, with some success, and looking to tackle a number of difficult issues re housing, global warming, our overdeveloped service economy and neglected and dying manufacturing sector – this new government has many challenges, as all governments do, but it has more women in it than any previous government, and many smart independent members. Collaboration across the political spectrum has never been more of a possibility, it seems to me, than ever. This is something that a diverse, active population needs, and will hopefully support, for a while. An opportunity worth capitalising on.




Written by stewart henderson

May 9, 2023 at 12:16 am

Vive les bonobos: what is woke?

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So the term ‘woke’, which appears to come from the USA, or has gained much of its popularity there, is a bit of a mystery to me. It seems to be a four-letter version of ‘politically correct’ or PC, if perhaps more extreme. I know that the term PC was much in vogue in the 90s, and I recall reading Pinker, in The better angels of our nature, making the reasonable enough claim that political correctness is the small price we may have to pay for living in a civil society. So, taking that on board, I’m prepared to be accepting of wokeness…

So here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

Woke is an adjective derived from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination”. Beginning in the 2010s, it came to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism, and has also been used as shorthand for American Left ideas involving identity politics and social justice, such as the notion of white privilege and slavery reparations for African Americans.

So given this explanation, and its association with the political left in the USA, it’s no surprise, given the extreme ideological divides there, and to some degree here in Australia, that it has become the right’s new dirtiest word. Criticism of the term has also come from the other side, as some in the African-American community have complained of cultural appropriation. I do find such complaints, which occur not only in regard to language, but also dress, music, cuisine etc, a bit tedious myself. Language, music, food habits and so on tend to spread, adapt and change. They don’t have borders, thankfully.

Wikipedia presents a rich, and quite moving (to me at least) account of the term’s proud history, featuring Leadbelly, the race horrors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and its wider usage in recent times. It seems to me that this widening usage, and the slangy tone of the word, helps to unite people in being alert to every kind of oppression everywhere, in terms of race, class, gender and lifestyle. A kind of monitory democracy (see previous post) emanating from the underclass, for the most part. And its allies, sometimes mocked, or self-mocked, as ‘social justice warriors’. The moderately conservative socio-political commentator David Brooks wrote that “to be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures”.

So I need to adjust my understanding. it’s not so much about ‘political correctness’, or ‘ideological soundness’, an older term. It’s not so much about watching our own language and ideology and eliminating its elements of prejudice, dismissiveness and mockery. Or about the elite being aware of their privileged status and trying to be more inclusive and ‘generous’. It’s a term born of and owned by the underclass and spreading out to its sympathisers and fellow-travellers.

It’s also a more divisive term than ‘political correctness’, mocked more or less gently by the likes of John Howard in the 90s. That’s because politics itself has become more divisive, not to say toxic, in the USA, the birthplace of the ‘woke’ meme. To the point that legislation is invoked in conservative states to prevent the woke critiques of elitist institutions and practices from gaining traction within the education system and society in general.

One important element of the woke mission, to me, is its critique of ‘American exceptionalism’, about which I’ve written from time to time. The complaint list bears some comparison to the Australian situation, but there are obvious differences. Here are its main issues in regard to race:

a belief that the United States has never been a true democracy; that people of color suffer from systemic and institutional racism; that white Americans experience white privilege; that African Americans deserve reparations for slavery and post-enslavement discrimination; that disparities among racial groups, for instance in certain professions or industries, are automatic evidence of discrimination; that U.S. law enforcement agencies are designed to discriminate against people of color and so should be defunded, disbanded, or heavily reformed…

In Australia, of course, the ‘people of colour’ are also the original inhabitants, with up to 60,000 years’ knowledge of how to survive and thrive on one of the world’s most inhospitable continents. For many decades before the 1960s there was an active governmental policy of ‘soothing the dying pillow’, a concept still seriously advocated by the likes of Shiva Naipaul on visiting the country in the 1980s, but by then attitudes were changing, and more and more articulate indigenous voices were being heard. Currently, an Aboriginal voice to Federal and State Parliaments through the Australian Constitution is being mooted, and a referendum on the matter will be held later this year. It is more than likely to succeed, which will further enhance the status of our indigenous people. As the Indigenous Desert Alliance puts it:

The Voice will enable Indigenous communities to have a direct line of communication with Government, allowing us to offer practical solutions to the unique challenges we face. This is vital for the voices of Indigenous people living in Australia’s desert regions who represent less than one percent of the Australian population but are looking after one third of the Australian land mass.

In the USA, where woke has gone to die, if the alt-right (and not just them) have their way, the First Nations people have also had a rough time of it from the European colonists of the past few hundred years. The warfare, slaughter and dispossession started early, culminating in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. I recall as a young boy reading a history of ‘the wild west’ I received as a Christmas present, and shedding tears at the carnage and betrayal these people experienced over many decades. I was still ignorant at that time about the treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples.

Needless to say, then, I’m not impressed with the way many people have apparently declared war on ‘woke’ for political purposes. Staying with the USA, a nation that incarcerates more of its own people, per capita, than any other democratic nation, and by a long way, a nation that has the most absurdly lax gun laws in the world, a minimum wage that is less than half that of Australia’s, and considerably greater wealth inequality, as well as a political system screaming out for reform, as I’ve pointed out in many previous posts – that the USA’s conservatives feel that fighting ‘wokism’ is the ‘real issue’ to focus on, is one of many indications of that nation’s apparently permanent ill-health. That’s to say, in the USA there’s plenty to be woke about, but the state of wokeness is probably a sign of good health everywhere. Reading about the history and development of the term, and of the call to Stay Woke, it strikes me as a proud and moving call to recognise injustice and structural inequality, especially in those who suffer from it. So why the negative reaction?

One of the claims of conservatives is that much wokism is mere ‘performative activism’, presumably insincere and self-serving, unless practiced by true sufferers. This would suggest that only victims have the right, or the moral authority, to complain, and not their associates. It’s essentially an ad feminam/hominem argument, and so  fails, as it ignores the injustice an sich. Another more general criticism is that of self-righteousness or holier-than-thouism. Again this tends to distract from taking woke criticisms seriously, when in fact structural inequality is everywhere, though the structures may change over time from, say, landed aristocracies and their semi-enslaved tenants, to scions of business heavyweights in their hilltop gated communities and the great unwashed down below.

The USA’s anti-woke movement, which unsurprisingly holds sway among the wealthy and established elites, is  seeking to take legislative action against such developments as ‘critical race theory’, which presumably seeks to enlighten young students on the slave trade and other injustices, in the way that my ‘Wild West’ book enlightened me about the dispossession of native Americans and the attempted suppression of their culture. Their idea, in keeping with US jingoism, is that everything has turned out for the better in the best nation ever to have existed in the multiverse.

However, having said that, I do bristle against some of the more extreme examples of wokeness. I’ve written previously about the obsession with the ‘horrors’ of blackface – a person darkening/blackening their skin to impersonate someone, perhaps a hero of theirs, with different levels of melanin and tyrosinase (see below). I’ve also been taken to task by a very woke-to-woke teenager for using the word ‘nigger’ in a second order way, and many years ago I was told that, as a male, I couldn’t be a feminist. Perhaps some females still think that way. To me, these are minor aberrations that I refuse to take seriously. More disturbing, of course, is the hypocrisy of various capitalist enterprises using woke ‘virtue signalling’ while continuing with exploitative practices to maximise shareholder profits. What needs to be highlighted in criticising these enterprises is their practises rather than their signalling.

Unfortunately, anti-wokeism seems to be eclipsing wokeism in the popularity stakes at present. We need to recognise that issues around political correctness are far less important than issues of real disadvantage, exploitation and ethnic discrimination. That makes woke a favourite four-letter word for me, going into the future.


some thoughts on blackface, racism and (maybe) cultural appropriation

Written by stewart henderson

May 5, 2023 at 5:14 pm