an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

an interminable conversation 5: the RET, Mike Cannon-Brookes, and Big Gas issues

leave a comment »

Jacinta: So I’ve heard of this thing called the Renewable Energy Target (RET) – in fact I first heard about it years ago but I’ve paid little attention. Tell me more.

Canto: There’s a government website, the Clean Energy Regulator site, which purports to explain everything. Here’s the briefest statement about it:

The Renewable Energy Target is an Australian Government scheme designed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in the electricity sector and encourage the additional generation of electricity from sustainable and renewable sources.

Of course they have much more to say, in positive-speak, about it all, but a wee footnote at the bottom caught my attention:

In June 2015, the Australian Parliament passed the  Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2015. As part of the amendment bill, the Large-scale Renewable Energy Target was reduced from 41 000 GWh to 33 000 GWh in 2020 with interim and post-2020 targets adjusted accordingly.

I believe the ultra-conservative Tony Abbott was PM in 2015, and the Fossils were calling the shots, as Marian Wilkinson’s The Carbon Club relates. Anyway, it’s a certificate system based on megawatt hours of power generated, and the rather pathetic target was apparently reached, based on approvals of large solar and wind installations, in the second half of 2019.

Jacinta: That’s something perhaps, but the IPCC wasn’t particularly impressed. The Clean Energy Council’s website, Ecogeneration, has boosted the achievement, describing the RET as ‘the most successful emissions reduction policy of all time for Australia’s electricity system’. But it hasn’t had any competition! And ominously, Kane Thornton, CEO of the Clean Energy Council, is quoted as saying ‘the industry doesn’t need new subsidies, we just need certainty’, etc etc, which contradicts everything I’ve heard from Saul Griffith, Mike Cannon-Brookes and others… we’ve been subsidising the fossil fuel industry forever, haven’t we? It’s rebuilding our manufacturing base that needs subsidising. Renewable energy has already become the cheaper option, but we have no EV manufacturing here and only one PV manufacturer.

Canto: Interesting Mike Cannon-Brookes interview in the Financial Review, which introduces the term ESG to me. This stands for Environmental, Social and Governance, perhaps in that order, as factors to be considered in any investment. Which all sounds v positive. And he’s very positive about ESG, which is a positive thing.

Jacinta: Yeah, apparently he’s a billionaire. How the fuck do people become billionaires? Why is it ever allowed?

Canto: Yeah, obviously it’s not just about working hard, like the Congolese in the diamond mines, and various slave populations over the centuries, whose only reward was death. Nature just ain’t fair. Herr Cannon-Brookes is co-founder of a company called Atlassian, which I’ve never heard of. Nor have I heard of their major products, such as Jiro and Trello, which are used by ‘teams’, but I don’t think they play soccer.

Jacinta: Sounds like they’re in the business of business, which is certainly none of our business.

Canto: Yeah, it’s probably all about digital environments. We’re about 40 years out of date. We need to stop reading books, paper is so 20th century.

Jacinta: Anyway, getting back to renewable energy …

Canto: Well this interview with Cannon-Brookes, he sounds pretty sincere, for a billionaire. They’re just people I suppose. If a bit weird. He’s very positive about renewables, and running his business that way, and pretty honest about the issues – like offloading the problem onto others, as he admits to having done, and facing that issue squarely. You know, like Australia exports coal and gas, and doesn’t take responsibility for the emissions. Like Norway.

Jacinta: They don’t have to take responsibility, the way the current system works. Apparently, as of July 2020, Australia became the world’s biggest gas (LNG) exporter, overtaking Qatar. That’s from the Climate Council. It’s hard to keep track of all these organisations. Anyway, Australia was exporting about 80 million tonnes of LNG per year two years ago. According to the latest, it was 77.7 MT (in 20-21 financial year). The article said it has ‘retained its crown’ as the world’s largest exporter. Shouldn’t that be a dunce’s cap?

Canto: So many people are late in getting with the program. By the way, China has taken over from Japan as our number one LNG buyer – adding to our problems with that fascist government. In any case the argument would be – and I’ve heard it stated in a public forum – that we owe our wealth as a nation to these exports, and by extension, to our trading relation with China. .

Jacinta: Well, it’s interesting that the price of gas is rising domestically. Presumably this has something to do with so much of our gas going offshore? And renewables, though growing, are hardly ready to fill the domestic energy gap, right?

Canto: So this is all new stuff to get my head around, but a ‘Bloomberg Green’ video linked below has it that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has produced an interim gas report, a forecast for 2023. It predicts that the supply of gas for next year will fall short of demand by about 56 petajoules – 3% of total demand. This doesn’t sound like much, but with rising gas prices… Anyway the ACCC is recommending that the federal government bring into force the ‘Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism’, pressuring LNG exporters to reserve some of those earmarked exports (70 to 75 percent of production) for the domestic market. Now, some 11% of those exports aren’t covered by long-term contracts – they’re available for those as bids for them, and there might be a few countries bidding, considering the global situation.

Jacinta: Hmmm, sounds like a seller’s market, with impoverished buyers, including domestic ones. So the idea is that the government can intervene to force gas exporters to sell some of their stuff here, with reduced profits?

Canto: Yes, but whether they do is a question. The video goes on to talk about Australia’s new emissions reduction target of 43% on 2005 levels by 2030, with the aim of net zero emissions by 2050. Interestingly, the Bloomberg economist says that while it’s good news to get clear targets after years of nothing much, the targets are still a bit weak. Most notably, only 3% of passenger vehicles sold last year were EVs, and with no manufacturing here in the foreseeable future, the chances of EVs reaching 89% of sales by 2030 – Labor’s target – are surely minuscule.

Jacinta: Yes, but all the other cars purchases would be overseas-made vehicles, wouldn’t they?

Canto: Hmmm, so there might have to be legislation to favour EV imports, as well as plenty of infrastructure… And a turnaround in public attitudes, which I don’t presently see.

Jacinta: Returning to gas, the Australia Institute, which appears to be a left-leaning public policy think tank, has a critique of our gas exporters in another, very brief, video. It just advises turning our backs on gas tout de suite. Forget reserving gas for the domestic market – which might involve something more or less in the form of a bribe to the exporters. Instead, electrify everything, of course. More pronto than pronto, to make up for a lost decade of relative inaction. They describe it as a gas export crisis, in which domestic prices are soaring because so much of our gas is going offshore. A win-win for the gas companies.

Canto: So, is this the situation? Gas companies are in the business of profit. They sell gas overseas, even at the expense of the domestic market, because they can, because they’re owned by private individuals, they can sell to the highest bidder. And If this means gas is scarce domestically, and in high demand, because we’ve become dependent on gas, we haven’t been weaned off it, the gas companies can make another killing on the domestic market? They’re holding us to ransom, so to speak?

Jacinta: Oil and gas companies in the US as well as in Australia are making huge profits currently, due to scarcities caused by war, embargoes and such…

Canto: The Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism was designed to ensure sufficient domestic supply, but it’s not very efficient, and the domestic supply target is too low. Some state governments, notably Western Australia, have a higher domestic reserve, but of course what we need is to switch to renewable-based electric as quickly as possible, to get out from under the control of the fossil fuel barons.

Jacinta: Are gas companies subsidised here?

Canto: Do koalas shit in the trees? Renew Economy has a scathing article about this, posted today. It describes companies like Santos recording super-massive-record profits this year, and the term ‘war profiteering’ is mentioned. This has also been at the expense of the domestic market. Here’s a quote:

Santos categorically stated its project would not affect the domestic market because it would not buy gas out of the domestic market. But that is exactly what it has done. Santos bought large volumes of gas out of the domestic market in the first half of 2022, forcing domestic prices above export prices in the last six months. These actions have generated super profits, gouged from domestic gas consumer and forcing up domestic electricity prices to unaffordable levels. Santos has broken its approval conditions and IEEFA calls on the government to cancel their export licence.

The IEEFA, for our info, is the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Bruce Robertson, who wrote the Renew Economy article, has a similar piece on the IEEFA website. The thing is, the domestic reserve could be raised, and made non-negotiable (it isn’t at present) without having much of an effect on these windfall profits. As it is, gas companies are largely ignoring existing reserve requirements. The ACCC has the capacity to prosecute but apparently has no intention of doing so. They’re also doing nothing to tackle these companies’ collusion re price-fixing and tax avoidance. There’s something rotten about all this. Clearly we’re not going to wean ourselves from gas as quickly as we should, but we certainly shouldn’t be pumping up and sending off ever more of the stuff.

Jacinta: Well, yes, considering that the aim is to electrify everything, and people are starting to get on board with this, that means no new gas fields, so what are these companies going to do with these massive extra profits, other than line the pockets of CEOs and their immediate underlings?

Canto: Well, there will still be offshore markets for the foreseeable, so keep on despairing. Two months ago, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an opinion piece by Tony Wood of the Grattan Institute, arguing for a ‘windfall profit tax’ considering that some importers are paying ‘more than four and up to 10 times the contract prices’. The Federal Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, isn’t interested. And so the rich get richer, for the time being….

References

https://www.cleanenergyregulator.gov.au/RET/About-the-Renewable-Energy-Target

Marian Wilkinson, The Carbon Club, 2020

RET reached ahead of 2020 target

https://www.afr.com/policy/energy-and-climate/mike-cannon-brookes-on-esg-agl-and-why-australia-needs-no-more-gas-20220616-p5au3b

What the frack? Australia overtakes Qatar as world’s largest gas exporter

https://www.upstreamonline.com/lng/australia-remains-worlds-top-lng-exporter-but-it-could-lose-its-crown-this-year/2-1-1147625

Santos windfall: Australia is swimming in subsidised gas and we’re giving it away

https://ieefa.org/resources/why-government-must-break-eastern-australias-gas-cartel

https://www.smh.com.au/national/all-australians-should-share-in-record-profits-from-overseas-gas-sales-20220608-p5aryk.html

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2022 at 11:16 pm

Amazing internet, female science communicators and fighting global warming: an interminable conversation 4

leave a comment »

from Renew Economy – SA doing quite well

 

Jacinta: As I’ve said many times – or at least I’ve thought many times – the internet is surely the greatest development in human history for those interested in self-education. Can you think of anything to compare?

Canto: Not really. The printing press was important, but literacy rates were much lower when that came out – which makes me think that universal education, which includes literacy of course, must be up there. But of course it was never really universal, and I suppose neither is the internet, but it appears to have penetrated further and wider, and much faster than any previous technology…

Jacinta: Universal education was more or less compulsory, and so very top-down. Not self-education at all. The internet gives every individual more control…

Canto: And most choose to stay within their own social media bubble. But for those keen to learn, yes the internet just gets more and more fantastic. 

Jacinta: And the trend now is for spoken presentations, with bells and whistles, rather than reams of writing, which can be off-putting…

Canto: Well, our stuff is pretend-speak. We don’t do videos because we’re both extremely ugly, and even our voices are hideous, and we haven’t a clue about bells and whistles. 

Jacinta: Sigh. Consigned to obscurity, but we must perforce mumble on into the vacuum of our little internet space. Even so, I’d like to enthuse, however impotently, about the many excellent female science presenters out there, with their vodcasts or vlogs or whatever, such as Australia’s Engineering with Rosie, as well as Kathy loves physics and history, Sabine Hossenfelder and Dr Becky. And I’ll keep an eye out for more.

Canto: But of course we still love books. The most recent read has been Saul Griffith’s The Big Switch, a call to action on renewables, particularly here in Australia. 

Jacinta: So with a change of government, Australia is now going to try and catch up with the leading nations re renewable energy and generally changing the energy landscape. So it’s time to turn to the Renew Economy website, the best Australian site for what’s happening with renewables. First stop is the bar graph that’s long featured on the site. It shows that the eastern states, Queensland, NSW and Victoria, are the problem states, still heavily reliant on coal. Victoria is arguably worst as it relies on brown coal for about two thirds of its supply. 

Canto: And the other two states use black coal, but they’ve developed a lot more solar than Victoria. They are, of course, a lot sunnier than Victoria. What’s the difference between the two coals, in environmental terms? 

Jacinta: Black coal, aka anthracite, is generally regarded as a superior fuel. It contains less water than brown coal, aka lignite, and more carbon. You have to use quite a lot more brown coal – maybe 3 times as much – to extract the same amount of energy as anthracite. According to Environment Victoria,

Brown coal is pulverised and then burned in large-scale boilers. The heat is used to boil water and the steam is used to drive turbines that generate electricity. When brown coal is burnt it releases a long list of poisonous heavy metals and toxic chemicals like sulphur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. By world standards these pollutants are poorly monitored & controlled, and they impose a staggering health cost of up to $800 million every year.

I’ve left in the links, which are to other Environment Victoria articles. Clearly this website isn’t government controlled, as it castigates heavily subsidised ‘boondoggle’ projects intended to keep the brown coal afloat (very problematic for mining). These projects have apparently gone nowhere. However the site does mention the ‘recent’ announcement of an electric vehicle manufacturing plant in the Latrobe Valley, providing at least 500 jobs. But since the article isn’t dated, I don’t know how recent it is. PLEASE DATE YOUR ARTICLES. 

Canto: Yeah, and please do your research Jazz. That plant, announced in 2018, was scrapped last November. Apparently it was announced ahead of the 2018 election. And over-hyped, as it was never guaranteed that the ‘promised’ 500 jobs would be created. Politics. 

Jacinta: Sad. Manufacturing has been in a sorry state in Australia for years. As Saul Griffith points out, we rely largely on the raw materials – crushed rocks – we export to keep our economy going, but if we could switch to other crushed rocks for the growing renewable energy economy we would be even better off. Further, if we added value through processing this material at home, we might be even better off financially, and we wouldn’t have to import those processed materials as we do now. Our two biggest imports are petrol and cars. If we could produce that stuff here we wouldn’t be paying for another country’s production costs, according to Griffith. Though I’m not quite sure if it’s that simple. 

Canto: So you’re talking essentially about manufacturing in Australia. The Reserve Bank (RBA) has an interesting article on this topic, and here’s a quote from the opening summary: 

Manufacturing output and employment have fallen steadily as a share of the Australian economy for the past three decades… the increase in the supply of manufactured goods from low-cost sources abroad, exacerbated by the appreciation of the Australian dollar during the period of rising commodity prices, impaired the viability of many domestic manufacturers and precipitated the closure of some manufacturing production over the past decade. While the recent exchange rate depreciation has helped to improve competitiveness of Australian producers, so far there is only limited evidence of a recovery in manufacturing output and investment.

Economics isn’t my strong suit, but I think I understand what ‘exchange rate depreciation’ means. Something like the exchange rate has swung a bit more in our favour (for home-grown manufacturing) than it was before..

Jacinta: But wouldn’t the exchange rate between us and other countries vary greatly from country to country? Or maybe they take an average, that’s to say of the countries we tend to trade with?

Canto: I suppose so. The article goes on to say that manufacturing hasn’t declined so much as commodity exports have increased. Commodities being raw materials, mostly. And by the way, this article is from the June quarter of 2016, and I suspect things have gotten worse for this gap between manufacturing and commodities. So, not so out-of date re trends. It claims that ‘over the 2000s, strong Asian demand for Australian commodities led to a sharp increase in the terms of trade and an appreciation of the Australian dollar’. 

Jacinta: Well, we all appreciate the Aussie dollar…

Canto: Appreciation just means a rise in value. An increase in the terms of trade means an increase in the trading price agreed by any two countries, for example Australia and China, our big bogey man trading partner. Here it might mean beneficial terms of trade for Australia specifically. So basically, manufacturing has stagnated, and declined as a percentage of total output, which includes commodities. Manufacturing industries as an employer have declined quite sharply – as I can personally attest to. I’ve worked in five different factories in my life, all of which have since closed down – for which I take no responsibility. 

Jacinta: So there would be a lack of skilled workers in manufacturing, unless… do we make solar panels here? And what about the old car factories we had here – Mitsubishis and Holdens, remember? Though I presume making EVs would require a whole different skill-set, and besides, wouldn’t it be largely automated? 

Canto: Well, in February – that’s 2022 – the Australia Institute posted a highly optimistic media release entitled ‘Australia ready to become sustainable EV-making powerhouse: new research’. And with the new federal government elected in May, this hope, expressed in a report from the AI’s Carmichael Centre, Rebuilding Vehicle Manufacturing in Australia: Industrial Opportunities in an Electrified Future, may actually be realised, at least partially. But before I explore that report – solar photovoltaic manufacturing in Australia. A recent (early July) Guardian article reports that ‘China controls over 80% of the global photovoltaic (PV) solar supply chain, with one out of every seven panels produced worldwide being manufactured by a single factory’. And China is actually increasing production, so as to dominate the market. Diversification is urgently required. Meanwhile, Australia is suffering a labour shortage in the field. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that ‘one in three installation jobs in Australia – including electricians and installers – were unfilled and at risk of remaining unfilled in 2023’. Tindo Solar is our only home-grown PV manufacturer, and is expanding its output, but clearly this is dwarfed by China’s production. Also there’s a problem with expending production here because, currently, it actually creates more carbon emissions. We need to ‘create renewables with renewables’, which local experts are saying is now more cost-effective than ever. So, back to the report on vehicle manufacturing in Australia. It’s a job trying to access the full report, so I’ll rely on the media release. It describes our country as ‘uniquely blessed’ to rebuild our car manufacturing capabilities, retooled to EVs, but this will require essential government input – a view very much consistent with Griffith’s. Here are some of the recommendations from the report:

  • Establishing an EV Manufacturing Industry Commission
  • Using tax incentives to encourage firms involved in the extraction of key minerals – primarily lithium and rare earths – with local manufacturing capabilities, especially emerging Australian EV battery industries
  • Introducing a long-term strategy for vocational training, ensuring the establishment of skills to service major EV manufacturers looking to set up operations Australia
  • Offering major global manufacturers incentives (tax incentives, access to infrastructure, potential public capital participation, etc) to set up – especially in Australian regions undergoing transition from carbon-intensive industries
  • Introducing local procurement laws for the rapid electrification of government vehicle fleets

Jacinta: So, as Griffith points out, we need to do some lobbying for this ourselves. Here in SA, we have a sympathetic state government as well as a federal government keen to make up for lost time, or at least saying all the right things. Where do we start? 

Canto: The Clean Energy Council has a website that encourages everyone to get educated (they cite a number of resources such as Renew Economy and ARENA), to spread the word, and of course to actually invest in renewable energy, which we, as impoverished public housing renters, aren’t in a great position to do, though we are trying to get our Housing Association to explore renewable options, and to lobby the government in our name. 

Jacinta: I think I’m starting to feel more optimistic…

References

Saul Griffith, The big switch: Australia’s electric future. 2022

Difference Between Black and Brown coal

Nem Watch

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-10/electric-vehicle-factory-deal-in-latrobe-valley-collapses/100608074

Australia ready to become sustainable EV-making powerhouse: new research

Click to access bu-0616-4.pdf

https://www.carmichaelcentre.org.au/rebuilding_vehicle_manufacture_in_australia

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/jul/08/australia-could-see-a-solar-cell-renaissance-if-global-supply-chain-is-diversified

https://www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/herenow/get-involved

Written by stewart henderson

August 6, 2022 at 7:29 pm

more oxytocin fantasies: an interminable conversation 3

leave a comment »

not sure if this measures a significant difference

 

Canto: So, as it turns out, the bonobo-oxytocin connection is all the rage on the internet. I mean, there are at least two articles on it. Here’s a quote from a PubMed article called ‘Divergent effects of oxytocin on eye contact in bonobos and chimpanzees’:

Previous studies have shown that bonobos and chimpanzees, humans’ two closest relatives, demonstrate considerable behavioral differences, including that bonobos look more at others’ eyes than chimpanzees. Oxytocin is known to increase attention to another’s eyes in many mammalian species (e.g. dogs, monkeys, and humans), yet this effect has not been tested in any nonhuman great ape species.

Jacinta: Hmm, so how do they know this? Presumably they’ve dosed subjects with oxytocin and measured their eye contact against controls?

Canto: No no, they know that bonobos have more eye contact than chimps, simply from observation. So they might infer from this that bonobos produce more oxytocin naturally than chimps…

Jacinta: So do women produce more oxytocin than men I wonder? I presume women make more eye contact than men.

Canto: Well in this study they dosed both bonobos and chimps with oxytocin, and the effect – more eye contact – was greater in bonobos than chimps. In fact, chimps even tended to avoid eye contact when shown images of conspecifics.

Jacinta: So, it’s a matter of interplay between this hormone/neurotransmitter and social conditioning?

Canto: Maybe, but you’d think that an increase in this supposedly touchy-feely hormone would act against social conditioning. Isn’t this the point of that drug, ecstacy? That it reduces social inhibitions…  But presumably nothing is ever so simple. Being poor, I only have access to the abstract of this paper, but another abstract, which looks at the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on chimps, describes them as neuropeptides, just to confuse matters. The abstract also refers to about a dozen brain regions, as well as specific oxytocin and vasopressin receptors, so it gets pretty complicated.

Jacinta: Okay, vasopressin… from Wikipedia:

Human vasopressin, also called antidiuretic hormone (ADH), arginine vasopressin (AVP), or argipressin, is a hormone synthesised from the AVP gene as a peptide prohormone in neurons in the hypothalamus, and is converted to AVP. It then travels down the axon terminating in the posterior pituitary, and is released from vesicles into the circulation in response to extracellular hypertonicity (hyperosmolality). AVP has two major functions… etc etc

Canto: Okay thanks for that, let’s stick with oxytocin for now. It’s produced in the hypothalamus, a smallish region buried deep within the brain, just below the larger thalamus and above the even smaller amygdala. It releases and manages a variety of hormones. Brain signals are sent to the hypothalamus, exciting it to release oxytocin and other hormones, which are secreted into the bloodstream by the posterior pituitary gland….

Jacinta: Can you tell me what oxytocin is actually made of? Its structure? The term ‘hormone’ is just a black box to me.

Canto: Okay, here’s a diagram of oxytocin to try and make sense of:

It’s a polypeptide. A peptide is basically an amino acid chain. FYI:

An amino acid is an organic molecule that is made up of a basic amino group (−NH2), an acidic carboxyl group (−COOH), and an organic R group (or side chain) that is unique to each amino acid. The term amino acid is short for α-amino [alpha-amino] carboxylic acid.

Jacinta: So these are coded for, ultimately, by genes?

Canto: Yes, we’re heading backwards here, but each amino acid is encoded by a sequence of three of the four base pairs in our DNA. Anyway oxytocin, among other things is sometimes given to women while in labour. It helps with the contractions apparently. I’ve also heard that the recreational drug ‘ecstasy’, or MDMA, works essentially by releasing oxytocin.

Jacinta: It just so happens I’ve found an interesting 2014 paper published in Neuropsychopharmacology, my new favourite journal, called ‘Effects of MDMA and Intranasal Oxytocin on Social and Emotional Processing’, and here’s a quote from the abstract:

Oxytocin produced small but significant increases in feelings of sociability and enhanced recognition of sad facial expressions. Additionally, responses to oxytocin were related to responses to MDMA with subjects on two subjective measures of sociability. Thus, MDMA increased euphoria and feelings of sociability, perhaps by reducing sensitivity to subtle signs of negative emotions in others. The present findings provide only limited support for the idea that oxytocin produces the prosocial effects of MDMA.

Canto: That is interesting. If that finding can be replicated, I’d say forget the MDMA, dose people with oxytocin. A small but significant increase in feelings of sociability might just be enough to transform our human world.

Jacinta: Hmmm. Small but significant – that sounds a mite contradictory.

Canto: Not the same as significantly small. That slightly significant dose, administered to Messrs Pudding and Pingpong and their enablers, might’ve saved the lives of many Ukrainians, Uyghurs and advocates of multiculturalism, democracy, feminism and other wild and woolly notions. And it doesn’t really transform characters, it just softens their edges.

Jacinta: Yes it’s a nice fantasy – more productive than butchering the butchers, a fantasy I occasionally indulge in. But not workable really.

Canto: Why not? We dosed petrol with lead, and look at how that worked out. It certainly had an effect. In Japan they still use radium baths (at very low levels) for health purposes, even claiming it as a cure for cancer. I’m not sure if oxytocin baths can ever be a thing, but if so I’m sure there will be early adopters.

Jacinta: Well, it’s good to think positively. Oxytocin is often thought of as a bonding hormone between mother and child. The key would be to ensure it facilitates a more general bonding: to cause Mr Pingpong, for example, to see Uyghur, Tibetan, Yi, Limi, and all the other non-Han ethnicities in China as his sisters – or lovers even, revolting as that would be to those peoples.

Canto: Better than being their oppressors and exterminators.

Jacinta: Slightly. But I wonder, quite seriously, if, assuming such a dose of bonding could be effectuated, we could still function as the sometimes rational, problem-solving, highly creative species we indubitably are. Would there be a price to pay for all that oxytocin? And how would this affect all those other hormones and neurotransmitters and all their myriad effects? Humans are notorious for causing extra problems with their solutions, e.g lead, DDT, etc etc.

Canto: Well, there’s no need to worry about the fallout from this solution as yet. I just googled Putin and oxytocin together and came up empty. Obviously we’re way ahead of the curve.

Jacinta: Haha, it’s not a curve these days, it’s a pivot. Get with the program!

References

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33388536/

https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/oxytocin/

https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/molecule-of-the-week/archive/o/oxytocin.html

https://www.britannica.com/science/amino-acid

https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-JRTB-11551

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 4, 2022 at 10:38 pm

leadership, thugs, hormones, bonobos, oxytocin and the future: an interminable conversation 2

leave a comment »

just a bunch of female leaders, circa 2018

Jacinta: So, in pointing out that, according to the democracy index, female leadership and some of the best democracies go together, I didn’t mention the fairly obvious chicken-and-egg issue. Does quality governance lead to more female leadership, or does female leadership lead to better quality governance?

Canto: Isn’t this called a synergistic effect? So it’s not quite chicken-and-egg. Or is it?

Jacinta: No matter, you’re right. The term’s generally used in science – here’s an overly-complicating definition from one scientific paper:

Synergistic effects are nonlinear cumulative effects of two active ingredients with similar or related outcomes of their different activities, or active ingredients with sequential or supplemental activities.

You need to learn that – it’ll be in the test.

Canto: The idea being that female leadership and good governance result in more than the sum of the two parts.

Jacinta: Well, when I wrote about the democracy index, I found that the countries near the top of that index, the best democracies, were top-heavy with female leadership, by which I meant Prime Ministers and Presidents, but I didn’t look more closely at the social make-up of those countries – the predominance of female business leaders, scientific team leaders, the percentage of women in other political or governmental posts and so forth. I made the perhaps reasonable assumption that those countries are also leading the world in every kind of leadership position for women.

Canto: To be fair, researching all those things for each country would be quite a job. We don’t get paid for this shit. I think we can at least assume that those Nordic gals are pretty formidable. Northern European countries feature heavily in the top twenty. Even the UK gets in there.

Jacinta: Australia squeezes into the top ten. And will only improve with the new diversity in government after the recent election. And the most women in our parliamentary history.

Canto: So, as this female empowerment continues apace, at least in the WEIRD world, what will this human world look like, in the 22nd century?

Jacinta: Well, it could be – and this wouldn’t surprise me – that the macho world, run by Mr Pudding, Mr Pingpong and their enablers, and possibly their successors, will do catastrophic things before the turn for the better, because out of catastrophes – the two world wars of the twentieth century, the holocausts in Europe and Africa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – come rude awakenings and changes for the better – the United Nations and a whole host of NGOs such as Amnesty International (1961), Médecins Sans Frontières (1971) and Human Rights Watch (1978), as well as various international defence and common interest groupings.

Canto: Yes, China and Russia – that’s to say their governments – are the scary ones, simply because they can do the most damage globally, though dog knows many African, Middle Eastern and Asian thugocracies are doing terrible things today.

Jacinta: Getting more female leadership into those countries that everybody pays most attention to – such as those with the greatest destructive ability (the USA, Russia and China) – that would be absolutely key.

Canto: The three countries most fond of interfering with other countries. Funny that.

Jacinta: What’s the point of having all that power if you can’t use it to push others around? Old Drivelmouth in the USA is a perfect example. Not to mention the Taliban, etc etc etc.

Canto: So you want female empowerment so you can push blokes around?

Jacinta: Ah, touché. Yes, there’s some truth to that – after all, we’ve had millennia of being pushed around by blokes. But I don’t want to resurrect the Society for Cutting Up Men, though I must say I’m glad that manifesto was written.

Canto: We need extremists so we can feel superior to them?

Jacinta: Haha well we can just about get rid of men, once we’ve drained them of sperm. Think of black widow spiders and such. There’s a strong argument that the basis of all life is female – turning Aristotle’s views upside-down. Anyway, we’re a long way from taking over the world, unfortunately.

Canto: And such a possible world makes me think of bonobos again, where the male life isn’t too bad at all. If you accept your place.

Jacinta: Would you be happy with that?

Canto: Well, no I wouldn’t be happy to be a bonobo after my life as a human, I’d want to do all the human things – sex of course, but also exploring where we came from, what makes us tick, how the self-animating came from inanimate matter, how the universe came to be, how we can solve all the problems we create for ourselves, and enjoying all the beautiful and amazing things, like birds and bushes, music, the sea breeze, the tastes of various cheeses, a good whisky, laughs with friends and so on. As long as my female overlords allow me these joys – and I know they would – I’d be happy as a bonobo with a perpetual hard-on.

Jacinta: Haha, I’m not sure if that’s the best definition of happiness. The spicy variety is more like it. And of course you’re right, human life is potentially much more varied and complex than bonobo life. The real point is that the potential is more likely to be realised, for more people, with less macho thuggery and more female-led community. And here’s another point: hierarchy isn’t a bad thing, or rather, it’s an unavoidable thing, because we’ll never be equal in skills and knowledge, due to age, experience and upbringing. And there will always be challenges to existing hierarchies, and changes to them. It’s a matter of how we manage those changes, and females are generally better at that. As to why, that’s a good question. Maybe it’s hormonal. In any case, that’s a generalisation, which admits of exceptions.

Canto: But those hierarchies are much harder to shift in those complex communities called nations, where there are entrenched classes, such as the Party in China, or the Military in Burma, or the Theocracy in Iran, or the Billionaire CEOs in the USA. These people tend to live as far from the great unwashed as possible, often in gated communities or their equivalents, even on physically Higher Ground, as Robert Sapolsky and others have noted.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a good point. I was thinking recently of Nixon and his crimes, and of the USA’s ludicrous and shocking Presidential pardoning system, exposed even more in recent times. Nixon was merely ‘persuaded’ to resign, and would have spent his retirement in one of those gated communities, full of backslapping commiserators, and I have few expectations of Trump experiencing anything worse. Anyway, what we need is a society, and a political system, in which this kind of scum doesn’t rise to the top in the first place. I wonder if there have ever been any brutish alpha females in the bonobo world. It’s unlikely, but there may have been the odd one-off.

Canto: You mentioned hormones. You know, I’ve never really understood what they are. I recall Sapolsky warning us against over-simplifying – assuming that testosterone is the male hormone or the aggression hormone, and that serotonin is the relaxing hormone, mostly associated with females…

Jacinta: Serotonin’s a neurotransmitter. You might be thinking of oxytocin, which is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone, apparently. Or, more likely, oestrogen?

Canto: Yes, I’ve heard of them all, but I don’t know what basket to put them in. Is a neurotransmitter a wave or a particle? Are hormones like cells, or molecules of some kind? Amino acid chains, like so much else in the body? We should do a whole self-educating conversation on that topic.

Jacinta; Absolutely. Anyway, we need more of an oxytocin-soaked society – without the downsides of drug induction, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with our sciencey rationality too much. Here’s something from a typical popular medical website about oxytocin:

Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is involved in childbirth and breast-feeding. It is also associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” because levels of oxytocin increase during hugging and orgasm. It may also have benefits as a treatment for a number of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and intestinal problems.

Canto: Hmmm, doesn’t it just immediately make you think of bonobos? I bet they have no problems with their intestines.

Jacinta: Well it does make me fantasise about a touch of biochemical engineering, just to help the feminising process along. Whadya reckon?

Canto: Interesting. That’s for a future conversation.

References

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/synergistic-effect

Melvin Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, 2015

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, 2018

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22513-neurotransmitters

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/275795

Written by stewart henderson

July 31, 2022 at 10:12 pm

bonobos, humans, sex, kids, community and work: an interminable conversation 1

leave a comment »

just being cosy

 

Canto: We need to face the sex issue, which is such a problematic one for humans, and far less problematic, it seems, for bonobos.

Jacinta:Yes, they don’t need a Me Too movement, coz the males are already scared of them. I mean the boss females.

Canto: Well it’s not just the males hitting on the females. In bonobo societies, it’s males on males, females on females, old on young, kids on kids, but with a minimum of fuss and bother, it seems to me. And it’s not all the time, I don’t want to exaggerate anything. There are no nymphomaniacs, whatever that means.

Jacinta: A pejorative term. The male equivalents are called studs.

Canto: Well, not always. Sometimes called sex addicts. And paedophiles of course. Suitable cases for treatment. And I remember a group calling themselves ‘sluts on bikes’, seeking to retool the term for their own benefit somehow. I think there’s a lot of confusion or uncertainty out there, about whether an overdeveloped interest in sex is good or bad. And of course there’s a big issue about sexual victims, which doesn’t seem a problem for bonobos.

Jacinta: Not a major problem, but the females appear to keep the males in line, if they go too far. After all much of the sexual stuff is just mutual masturbation.

Canto: Yeah, nowadays, human males – and maybe females – get off on porn, or their own fantasies, wanking in the safe confines of their bedrooms, imagining touchy-feelies rather than experiencing them. It’s quite sad. Bonobos don’t have that problem.

Jacinta: It’s certainly true that there are plenty of sexually unsatisfied human apes around. But maybe if they weren’t so aware of sex – especially the hypersexuality of porn – they wouldn’t be so obsessed with what they’re missing out on. Take orangutans. They’re mostly isolated, and I doubt if they spend much time masturbating…

Canto: Ah but they do spend some time on it. If the Gizmodo website is to be trusted, masturbation has been observed in at least 80 types of male primates, and 50 types of female primates, including orangutans. And I don’t quite trust that male-female disparity.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s odd. And the point is that the crotch area is the most erogenous zone for all mammals, surely – and then some. And it doesn’t require fantasising about sexy other members of your species. Think of the first time you masturbated…

Canto: I really can’t recall the first time….

Jacinta: It’s highly likely you found your pubes rubbing against something, and it felt, well, stimulating, so you rubbed some more. Nothing directly to do with sex, for us or for other mammals. When a dog starts humping your leg, it’s not actually humping, or thinking of humping, presumably.

Canto: So it’s all about chemicals, fireworks in the brain, or something? A dog humps your leg because he’s excited, and humping gets him more excited. But it’s the old chicken and egg – does it start with the humping or the excitement?

Jacinta: Well I suppose the main point for us is that masturbation is natural and common for many species, given the evolution of erogenous zones, especially the zone associated with reproduction. But I’m more interested in another phenomenon – reproduction. In spite of their interest in sex, bonobo females are unable, it seems, to produce more than a few offspring in their lives. According to Wikipedia, the most offspring produced by a human female, that we know of, is 44, 43 of whom survived infancy. That’s a woman in Uganda, whose last child was born in 2016. There are recordings of greater numbers in previous centuries, but they’re insufficiently verified. And this woman, Mariam Nabatanzi, wasn’t just showing off, she had a rare condition that caused hyperovulation. Her births included 3 sets of quadruplets, 4 of triplets and 6 of twins, and she might’ve added to the number but a procedure she underwent in 2019, at age 40, put a stop to it all.

Canto: Elon Musk would’ve been proud of her.

Jacinta: Yeah, well, I wonder if he’s helping pay Ms Nabatanzi’s food bills, though hopefully her unwonted fame would help with that. It’s interesting that both Franz de Waal and Jane Goodall mention, in the beautifully photographed Deutsche Welle documentary referenced below, that the ability of humans to reproduce rapidly compared to other primates has been a vital factor in our dominance of the biosphere, with its positive and negative impacts. De Waal suggests that this high reproductive rate is somehow due to the family structure we’ve developed, with the father helping out the mother, not so much directly as indirectly, as material provider and support. But I think this claim needs more support or more fleshing out.

Canto: Yes, it seems to fly in the face of what we know about bonobo culture, where the mother seems to be helped out by other females, and males, in a tight-knit community. Or is this an exaggeration? I recall reading that this community care, or extended family care, occurs in corvids as well. I don’t know how many chicks the average crow gives birth to in a lifetime. Anyway, it seems that the long intervals between births in chimps and bonobos is more psychological, or cultural if you like, than physiological. The mothers do much of the caring and feeding, and it’s exhausting. Humans have bottle-feeding for instance, and anyone can be in charge of that. I did it for my little brother when I was a kid, and even learned to change nappies. Human mothers are sometimes back at work weeks or even days after giving birth.

Jacinta: Which would require other carers. Maybe we’re not so selfish as we think. But then again, in the WEIRD world we’re having fewer children, and as other regions become more well-off they’re having fewer children too.

Canto: Except for Elon Musk.

Jacinta: Crows generally lay a clutch of 2-7 eggs every nesting season – that’s one clutch every year. About 40 percent of all the corvid species are co-operative breeders, a much bigger percentage than other bird species. Crows’ lifespans can vary wildly – some can live for more than twenty years, and of course it’s hard to say how many offspring they produce in a lifetime, never mind how many of their chicks survive to adulthood. But returning to humans and bonobos, both species make a habit of having sex for fun, though with bonobos it’s more of a standard thing – they don’t have killjoy religious figures or ’empowered’ celibates spoiling the party.

Canto: We’re certainly a long way from public sex. Even nudist colonies now seem a distant memory, and they were about as sexy as an old fart’s farts.

Jacinta: Well, that’s a bit rough. We’re just so much more diverse than bonobos, you can’t compare. Everything from lifetime vows of celibacy to sex dungeons, about which I know nothing.

Canto: We’ll explore them, no doubt. But of course bonobos, when they’re not eating and sleeping, have a lot of time for play. They’re not trying to create the next exciting technology or to quantise gravity or to become the richest entrepreneur in the jungle or to take over their neighbours’ territory or whatever. All play, even sexual play, and no work can be a bit mind-numbing perhaps. A bit of your old Freudian sublimation isn’t such a bad thing.

Jacinta: How about getting AI to do all the smart stuff and we just play?

Canto: Ahh, now you’re talking about the future, beyond where we’ll be, unless those longevity diets really kick in…

References

https://gizmodo.com/9-animals-that-masturbate-other-than-humans-1723592357

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

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 27, 2022 at 8:48 pm

feminism in China? Must be too busy holding up half the sky…

leave a comment »

Chinese feminists, happily out there, but sadly not in China

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not just religion that’s providing a brake to the progress of female empowerment. The Chinese ‘Communist’ Party, which seems to be religiously opposed to religions of all kinds, with their popes and patriarchs, hasn’t benefitted from this opposition by promoting any of its female citizens to leadership positions.

I say ‘communist’, because  there’s surely no organisation on the planet that’s less communist than the thugocracy that currently rules China, and has done for the last seventy-odd years, since Mao bludgeoned his way to power. If we take communism to mean the dictatorship of the proletariat, clearly it will only happen when ‘prole’ and ‘dictator’ mean the same thing – that’s to say, never. And it’s a sad irony that any nation with any reference to communism in its title has always engaged in the most brutal – and very macho -authoritarianism. So basically I’ve come to consider both communism and fascism as synonymous with thugocracy.

So Mao’s statement that woman hold up half the sky was just patronising claptrap, apparently. Xi Jinping, the unutterably worthless bag of scum that is China’s latest dictator (I’m sorry, but I always get emotional where thugs like Mr Pudding and his Chinese mate – can’t think of a nickname just yet – are concerned. My anti-authoritarianism goes back to earliest childhood and is deeply ingrained), is suppressing the equality of women as part of his corruption campaign. It doesn’t seem to be phasing outspoken women in China, most of whom are destined to outlive the scumbag. Still, for the time being, they’re being muzzled, their Weibo accounts suspended, and their harassment by Party goons adds another layer to the harassment they’ve lately been experiencing on campuses and in workplaces.

These are backward steps for women in China. It was the fascinating Empress Dowager Cixi, one of China’s most under-rated political leaders, who first banned foot-binding back in 1902, a ban that was overturned, probably because it was instituted by a woman, but later reinstated. Even so, China was at the forefront of women’s rights in the early twentieth century. A researcher on women’s rights in China, Emeritus Professor Louise Edwards of the University of NSW, points out that early progress in equality and supportive legislation came from within the system rather than from grassroots activism:

If you were working in the state sector in China, as a woman in the 1950s, you had access to maternity leave, breastfeeding leave — these kinds of protections were way ahead of Australia at the time.

But the Party has become more repressive and ‘anti-western’ since the events of 1989, and especially since the rise of Mr Pingpong (okay this needs a bit of work). Clearly the Party has become more macho (there has never been a woman on the politburo standing committee, in its almost 70-year history), so feminists have had to work from outside that framework, and are more of a threat, and therefore more ‘western’. It’s all rather predictable in its stupidity. So China has dropped down the rankings for gender equality, temporarily. But Mr Pingpong will be dead meat soon enough (actually, not soon enough), and women will rise again, inevitably. The arc of the moral universe may be long, but it bends toward justice, in spite of these pingpongy, Mr Puddingy gremlins in the works. In fact, once Pingpong is out of the way, hopefully without being able to secure another fascist to replace him, feminism will likely burst into the public sphere with a vengeance, as identification with feminism is increasing big-time in China. Lu Pin, the founder of Feminist Voices, an influential media outlet shut down in 2018, remains confident about the future. An ABC article, linked below, quotes her:

Today, more young people than before agree that they are feminists. Today, the debate on feminism in Chinese society is unprecedentedly fierce.

Again, it’s a matter of nature eventually overcoming oppressive cultural artifice, but meanwhile the attitude of the Party towards increasing sexism and male brutality is to downplay the violence and to avoid at all costs any mention of feminist values and aspirations. It’s a very backward move considering that, by the 1970s, Chinese women, who in ancient China often didn’t even have their own names, formed the largest female workforce in the world. The one-child policy, introduced in 1979, led to abortions and abandonment of female infants, and a noticeable gender imbalance problem into the 21st century. Although the policy has since been relaxed, women are reluctant to become ‘baby factories’ for the Party, given the lack of support for child-rearing, and the current patriarchal fashion.

China’s first ever law dealing with domestic violence was enacted in 2016, over 40 years after Australia’s Family Law Act (1975) defined and legislated against domestic violence. However, it appears that the law is largely a well-kept secret. Frida Lindberg, in an article on women’s rights and social media for the Institute for Security and Development Policy (a Swedish NGO), writes this:

Despite the Anti-Domestic Violence Law, domestic violence cases have nevertheless continued. Some argue that the law is ineffective due to low public awareness about the issue and punishments that are too lenient. In addition, the law has been criticized for promoting family harmony and social stability, a principle that stems from Confucianism, as this seems to contradict the law’s principle of preventing domestic violence.

Lindberg’s article shines a light on current obstacles to female participation and progress in the Chinese workforce, obstacles that many WEIRD women now in their sixties and seventies (my generation) experienced regularly four or more decades ago. But of course the social media issue is new. Weibo and other social media sites became a vital outlet for women after the treatment of the so-called feminist five were muzzled, at least partially, after street protests in 2015 over domestic violence and the lack of public facilities for women. Unsurprisingly there was a backlash against feminist posts, which many in the movement saw as a good thing – any publicity being good publicity –  but the Party decided to put a stop to the argy-bargy, removing many social media accounts of prominent feminists in 2021. It also appears to be lending support to anti-feminist nationalists, who have been trolling outspoken women for anything they can find, including sympathy for Hong Kong and for oppressed minorities. The Party has used the excuse of ‘disrupting social order’ to harass and shut down whistleblowers who’ve posted about sexual harassment, but the number of views these posts garnered argues for a groundswell of concern about the issue, one way or the other. Feminists have fought back by coding their messages to avoid censorship, but this obviously has its limitations for attracting public attention, and is usually identified and reported by the ‘nationalists’.

So, it’s a ‘watch this space’ situation, or rather, watch this region. Having taught scores of Chinese women over the years, I know all about their intellect, their passion and their power. In his book Asia’s reckoning, the Australian journalist Richard McGregor described the irony of how conformist Japan has become a liberal democratic country of sorts, while the more liberal and individualist Chinese are saddled with the Party and its goons. It’s surely a temporary situation, but just how temporary is temporary?

References

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-08/feminism-in-china-internet-crackdown-erase-womens-voices/100165360

Click to access Lindberg.-2021.-Womens-Rights-in-China-and-Feminism-on-Chinese-Social-Media.-1.pdf

Richard McGregor, Asia’s reckoning, 2017

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 23, 2022 at 6:43 pm

Australia, religion and the appeal of eternity

leave a comment »

 

The latest Australian census figures are out, and as always I zoom in on religion and our quite rapid abandonment of….

It’s not that I’m against religion exactly, I recognise it as an attempt to understand our world, before science came along. Often to understand it as story. The story of how the world formed, and who formed it. Religions, I notice, are always about personae, doing Very Powerful things. Creating the heavens and the earth, plants and animals, and of course humans. For some kind of moral purpose, which we must constantly try to discern, from the signs and stories of the creators. And some humans are better at pinning down this purpose than others, and they become elevated as intermediaries between the creators, to whom we owe everything, and our benighted selves, tossed on the waves of godly caprice, which only seems like caprice, because the gods have a higher purpose which even the most blessed and spiritual of mortals can only partially comprehend.

Anyway, the census. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), ‘A question on religion has been included in all Australian censuses since 1911. Answering this question has always been optional but is answered by nearly all respondents’. In that first census, over 100 years ago, pretty close to 100% of Australians described themselves as religious – essentially meaning Christian. And things hadn’t changed that much by the 1971 census, when still a vast majority – 87 to 88 percent – described themselves as Christian, and the number of people who dared admit to any other religious belief was virtually zero. But by the seventies, the hodge-podge of regulations that made up the White Australia Policy had been dismantled, so that by this latest census (2021), religious beliefs other than Christianity were being admitted to by just over 10 percent of respondents.

But Christianity has fared particularly badly over the past fifty years, as the graph above shows. I first started paying serious attention to this trend away from Christianity after the 2006 census, and from memory, I gave a talk to the SA Humanist Society after the release of the 2011 census, noting the trend, particularly the fact that the abandonment of Christian belief was accelerating. However, I predicted, at least to myself, that this trend would soon start to ‘plateau’. My reasoning was partly based on the breakdown of Christianity into denominations. Not a complete breakdown, from my very basic research. The ABS broke it down into Catholicism, Anglicanism and Other Christian, and it was very clear that Anglicanism was fading most quickly, and Catholicism most slowly. It seemed to me that Anglicanism, which, unsurprisingly, had been the most practiced Christian religion in the early censuses, had suffered in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries due to its reforms and increasing liberalism (though of course it has its conservative faction). Considering that religion is supposed to be about the eternal values of the creator, unchanging since our creation, rather than about values that simply change with the times – what some call social evolution – it may have caused many Anglicans to lose faith in religion altogether, or even to switch to something more ‘eternal’, such as the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. My prediction was that Anglicanism would continue to lose support until it bottomed out, in the fairly near future, and that Catholicism would also start to level out, what with all those cultural Catholics who built their social lives around the Church. And there was also the popularity of those Big Church evangelicals and Pentecostals, the ‘Charismatics’ that I kept hearing about.

So I was taken by surprise by the 2016 census, which saw the biggest drop in the Anglican religion of any previous census, as well as a more substantial drop in Catholicism than anticipated. The ‘other Christian’ category had also dropped, and the no religion category had risen to just over 30%. These figures upended my expectations completely, so I was more open to what the 2021 census would bring. Even so, a jump from 30% non-religious to 39% in five years is pretty amazing – but rapid change has been the norm in modern times, at least in the WEIRD world. Today we talk in terms of generations – the baby boomers, the millennials, generations X,Y and Z, and it’s all a bit hard to parse. I don’t think the generation of the 1740s would have had much difficulty in dealing with gen 1760, except of course to complain about their youthful foolishness, as Aristotle was wont to do.

So, as you can see from the graph, ‘no religion’ is pretty well certain to replace Christianity as the largest religious category in the next census, while owing to our increasingly multicultural mix, other religions will continue to rise, though not substantially. Interestingly the largest jump in religious presence since the 2016 census is that of the Yazidis, a largely Kurdish-speaking religious group from northern Iraq and surrounding regions, fleeing from persecution by the so-called Islamic State. Though it only ‘took off’ in the 12th century, its origins are apparently pre-Islamic and pre-Zoroastrian, later tinged with Sufi and Islamic influences. So, I learn something new every day.

Of course, the cultural make-up of Australia is changing, but slowly. We could do with expanding our immigration program, and behaving in a less hostile and cruel way towards refugees. I’m not religious of course, but bringing into the country a wider variety of religio-cultural groups might tend to water down the influence of the very male Judeo-Christian god that has been worshipped in this country for so long. Even if these new religions have their own patriarchal features, as most do, the divisions between them might tend to dilute the patriarchy of Catholicism, the Christian religion that has always most concerned me. Catholicism began to challenge Anglicanism as the most practiced, or at least believed in, denomination in Australia in the post-war period, though there was always a large Catholic presence, particularly Irish-Catholic, before that. It continues to be the most persistent denomination, but it will clearly never be the politically dominant influence it was in the 1950s. Even so, it’s noticeable that the religiosity of our political leaders, our parliamentarians, in terms of numbers, is greater than the general population – just as the average age of parliamentarians is greater than the general population.

As mentioned, the above graph clearly shows that the biggest religious category in the next census will be ‘no religion’. And that category will continue to grow over the next decades, and even the immigrants with their different religious varieties may go the way of the majority.

But us oldies may not, or will not be here to witness what happens. What will these developments mean for the nation? How will it have changed our politico-social landscape after we have passed? That’s the sad thing, life is very addictive, and we don’t want it to stop. We always want to know what happens. No wonder eternal life is so profoundly appealing.

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 16, 2022 at 10:46 pm

What is a heat pump?

leave a comment »

from How Stuff Works

Canto: So We’ve been reading, inter alia, Saul Griffith’s practical and informative little renewable energy tome, The big switch, in which he mentions, inter alia, heat pumps and their relative efficiency. He may have explained heat pumps somewhere, but I was adrift at the time. Can you inform me?

Jacinta: Well, instead of rifling through the book, which unfortunately doesn’t have an index, let’s google it. Australia’s largest electricity generator has a piece boosting heat pumps, which may sound biased, but Griffith boosts heat pumps too, so I’m presuming it can be trusted. The humble heat pump, as it’s described, isn’t a new technology, and is a proven winner in terms of energy efficiency, for example in reverse-cycle air-conditioning. Particularly so for heating. It ‘gathers heat from outside and warms it to a higher temperature, then moves it from one place to another’.

Canto: It gathers heat from outside. Easier said than done, surely. Presumably it sucks?

Jacinta: Well apparently there’s more than one type of heat pump technology, and this article mentions two – air sourced, and ground sourced (geothermal). And as they point out, it may seem counter-intuitive to think you can extract heat from outside, whether from the air or from under the ground, in the depths of winter. But heat is energy, and even in the winter there’s a lot of that energy around. Anything above absolute zero contains energy, and there’s surprisingly little difference between winter and summer heat energy.

Canto: Well I notice they highlight this statement about your standard heat pump:

It uses a compressor and liquid or gas refrigerant (the stuff that’s in your fridge) – a substance that absorbs heat from the environment – to concentrate heat and move it around to warm your house.

Now that’s something that needs explaining.

Jacinta: Well, off-hand, I understand that heat tends to disperse, when it can, from a compressed high-energy state to a low-energy one, something to do with a law of thermodynamics…

Canto: I suppose heat pumps come under the umbrella of HVAC systems – heating, ventilation and air-conditioning. But do all air-conditioning systems work with heat pumps?

Jacinta: Well I don’t think so – there’s evaporative air-conditioning, which I think’s quite different.

Canto: So a heat pump just is a reverse-cycle aircon? How, exactly, does it do the cooling? Or the heating for that matter.

Jacinta: Just off the top of my head, the cooling works just as the heating does, but in reverse. It sucks the hot air from the room and chucks it outside. And then, uhhh, brings colder air in somehow, or cools it in that big box, somehow like a refrigerator…

Canto: Brilliant. So now I’m reading How Stuff Works on heat pumps. And of course you’re on the right track, it’s all about heat transfer, so it doesn’t require energy for burning..

Jacinta: Or freezing?

Canto: Uhhh, it requires energy, of course, but it’s pretty energy-efficient. They’re particularly good in moderate climates like ours (In Adelaide), because you don’t have to transfer large amounts of heat from outside or inside to make life comfortable.

Jacinta: It’s pulling and pumping. You pull heat from the outside, or inside depending on the season, and pump  it into the inside, or outside.

Canto: Yeah, I get that, but what’s the mechanism?

Jacinta; Well, sucking air in is pretty simple, our mouths do it all the time, and think of a vacuum cleaner, which does it more powerfully, but generally for shorter periods. Aircons just require a gentle, longer-term suck.

Canto: Very technical.

Jacinta: That’s probably why the emphasis is on the pumping. Now, I’m talking about air-source heat pumps in particular, because that’s what we have in our home – on the wall, with another box outside. What they call a split system. So, I’m going to quote at some length from How Stuff Works, and then we’ll try to break it down, if necessary:

One of the most common types of heat pumps is the air-source heat pump. These take heat from the air outside your home and pump it inside through refrigerant-filled coils, not too different from what’s on the back of your fridge. The air source variety is pretty basic, and you’ll find two fans, the refrigerator coils, a reversing valve and a compressor inside to make it work.

The key to allowing the air-source heat pump to also cool is the reversing valve. This versatile part changes the flow of the refrigerant so the system can operate in the opposite direction. So instead of pumping heat inside your home, the heat pump releases it, just like your air conditioner does. When the refrigerant is reversed, it absorbs heat on the indoor side of the unit and flows to the outside. It’s here that the heat is released, allowing the refrigerant to cool down again and flow back inside to pick up more heat. This process repeats itself until you’re nice and cool.

Canto: Hmmm, that sort of makes sense, the hot air inside is made to flow through these ‘refrigerant filled coils’, but what exactly is this refrigerant? Didn’t they use to use freon or something, which damaged the ozone layer? And this doesn’t exactly sound like a split system. It sounds more like an all-in-one.

Jacinta: Yeah so not all reverse cycle aircons are split systems. Apparently split systems are easy to install and work pretty efficiently. I can’t easily find how they compare with all-in-ones but I suspect they’re pretty similar, efficiency-wise. Another type of reverse cycle aircon is ducted., which can warm or cool several rooms at once through various ducts. The refrigerant most used nowadays is puron, a HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) known to be non-damaging to the ozone layer. It’s become the standard refrigerant since 2015, but our aircon is surely older than that. Freon, the culprit you mentioned, hasn’t been used in new air-conditioning systems, at least in the USA, since 2010. Freon is a HCFC (hydrochlorofluorocarbon), apparently much naughtier than HFCs. Of course, I’ve no idea what our system uses.

Canto: Okay, last question. I don’t think we’ve answered how the pump thing works.

Jacinta: Well I suppose it does so just as mysteriously and simply as it sucks. We suck air in with our mouths and noses – or we suck in oxygen, and how we separate that gas from all the others is another story – and we pump out carbon dioxide. All without the slightest effort, apparently.

Canto: So we’re actually heat pumps? And we’re pumping out CO2 at an alarming rate, eight billion of us. We’re the principal cause of global warming!

Jacinta: Haha, I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complex…

Written by stewart henderson

July 13, 2022 at 8:23 pm

the shipping industry – a bit of a global warming headache

leave a comment »

Ok, that’s sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, particulate matter and non-methane volatile organic compounds

I’ve been alerted, by a brief piece on a New Scientist podcast, and then by some passages in Tim Smedley’s book Clearing the air: the beginning and end of air pollution, about some pretty disturbing stats on the polluting and greenhouse impact of the world’s shipping industry – a factor we don’t often consider when we attempt to reduce our personal environmental impact. We tend to focus on the products we consume, the cars we drive, the homes we heat, the plane trips we take and so forth. But once it’s pointed out to us it becomes obvious. We’re the recipients of a vast global trading network involving foodstuffs, appliances and gadgetry of all sorts, as well as bulk supplies of crude oil, iron ore and a host of other raw materials, brought to us by more or less massive marine vessels.According to an article in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), goods weighing 11 billion tonnes were shipped across our oceans in 2019, a 3-billion tonne increase from a decade before. And the increase is expected to … increase. So how are these vessels powered? To quote from the C&EN article,

“The shipping industry uses more than 300 million tons of fossil fuels every year, roughly 5% of global oil production,” says Camille Bourgeon, a specialist in air pollution and energy efficiency in the marine environment at the IMO [the International Maritime Organisation – an agency of the UN]. In 2018, global shipping activity emitted roughly 1.05 billion t of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accounting for about 2.9% of the total global anthropogenic CO2 emissions for that year, according to the IMO’s 2020 greenhouse gas study.

What’s worse is that for decades the shipping industry has been using the lowest grade, most noxious fuels, ‘the stuff no-one else wants’, as one maritime engineer describes it. This ‘residual fuel’ is also called HFO, for ‘heavy fuel oil’, which the oil industry has been more than happy to provide to the shipping industry rather than having to get rid of it some other, more expensive way. And when you’re out in the middle of the ocean, who’s going to check your emissions? The fuel used has seriously high sulphur content, and once ships come into port, the cargo is offloaded onto diesel trucks and then often onto diesel locomotives. Here are some of Tim Smedley’s opening remarks on the industry:

[Shipping] is easily the transport sector with the worst history. Shipping emissions contribute nearly 15% of NOx [nitrogen oxides including nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, some of the worst air pollutants] and 13% of sulphur dioxide emissions globally, and these numbers are increasing. Due to growing populations and consumer spending, more and more supertankers set sail every year. Since 1985 global container shipping has increased by about 10% annually, with only brief dips for each recession.

There seems to be no stopping this growth, and about a quarter of this transport is fuelled by crude oil. As Smedley points out, this ‘gives us the headache-inducing fact that a quarter of all shipping emissions come from shipping the fuel needed to produce the emissions’.

As mentioned, sulphur dioxide is a major constituent of HFO. On the website of Aeroqual, a company that provides air monitoring systems, I found this disturbing claim – the sulphur dioxide of HFO is 2700 times higher than that of road fuel. Sulphur dioxide emissions have been dropping for years in developed countries – a 76% decrease in Europe between 1990 and 2009 – leaving shipping as the primary source.

As also mentioned, ports are some of the most atmospherically noxious places on the planet. Most of them use diesel-powered machinery for off-loading and transportation. Diesel emissions significantly increase cancer risks according to a host of epidemiological studies, and various engine improvements have barely kept up with improvements in emissions monitoring, which have highlighted further dangers. But the diesel issue probably requires a whole new post.

The shipping industry, setting aside all those smelly and sick-making ports, and the sulphur dioxide problem, is a major contributor to greenhouse emissions, releasing over 3% of our carbon dioxide, a percentage that is set to rise in the aftermath of the covid pandemic. A website called ship technology sets out a plan to address the issues, which reminds me of the plans regularly emanating from the IPCC, requiring targets which seem to be seldom met by the major emissions culprits. The plan includes improved ship-to shore data feed technology, exhaust emission technology, behavioural change such as slow steaming (yes, that just means slowing down) and more preventive maintenance, and alternative fuels such as LNG, hydrogen and even solar. LNG is the most touted alternative fuel due to requiring fewer alterations to shipping infrastructure, though it’s surely an interim solution.

The IMO has been rather defensive about its role as the shipping regulator, and the degree of progress made in reducing emissions. Certainly it’s a difficult industry to police, with many nations and companies involved, including military vessels worldwide, which have other priorities, to put it mildly. But it’s clear that shipping officials are feeling the pressure. As one of them put it:

“… can shipping reduce more greenhouse gas emissions? I’m sure it will. But it’s difficult to say how much particularly not knowing the consequences from regional regulations. There seems to be a wish to require unrealistic emission reductions in order to collect money from ships.”

These remarks make me wonder whether money is being collected from land-based greenhouse emitters, and if not, why not? Interestingly, the same official has this to say in the industry’s defence:

“When discussing short-term measures, the figure over the next 10 years will bring the shipping carbon intensity reduction in 2030 to more than 40%, below the year 2008. This is a remarkable achievement by a sector that is, and will remain, the most efficient mode of transportation”.

This appears to be saying that the most efficient form of transport in the shipping sector is, and always will be, shipping. Or maybe I’m reading it wrong. In any case, they’re on the case, which is great. Must remember to have another look in 2030.

References

https://cen.acs.org/environment/greenhouse-gases/shipping-industry-looks-green-fuels/100/i8

Tim Smedley, Clearing the air: the beginning and the end of air pollution, 2019

https://www.aeroqual.com/blog/ship-pollution-port-air-quality

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

https://www.ship-technology.com/analysis/guidelines-and-goals-reducing-shippings-emissions/

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 10, 2022 at 1:29 pm

exploring spermatogenesis

leave a comment »

Canto: So If Charles Darwin was alive today, he’d be gobsmacked at the facts derived from the ‘random variation’ end of his theory of natural selection from random variation. I’m talking about genes, DNA, genetic recombination and all that we know about meiosis and mitosis, spermatogenesis and oogenesis, genomics and epigenetics, mitochondrial DNA, ribosomes, mRNA, proteins and the like, none of which I’m particularly knowledgeable about – but surely even what I know about it all would make Darwin’s head explode.

Jacinta: Yes, and of course Darwin did all his studies on phenotypes, a term he would never have heard. He studied pigeons, finches, barnacles, fossils and a wide variety of plants. But he was never able to ‘crack the code’ of random variation. Why did offspring differ from parents? Why did those offspring vary from the utterly dysfunctional to the super-functional? For a time he considered pangenesis, his coinage, as a solution. This involved ‘gemmules’ inherited from both parents, blended together and somehow modified by the environment, presumably in a Lamarckian way. So Darwin never quite cracked the code of inheritance as we understand it today, but the work with plants which occupied his last years – allowing him to avoid the acrimony around human origins surrounding the publication of On the origin of species – produced important results for the understanding of plant reproductive biology. Take this quote from the Smithsonian magazine:

Darwin designed highly rigorous experiments and made predictions—which turned out to be correct—using his theory of natural selection. For example, he predicted that the myriad floral adaptations he saw existed to ensure that flowers were outcrossed, or fertilized by individuals other than themselves. He then tested this hypothesis with over a decade of pollination experiments and found that self-pollination leads to lower fitness and higher sterility. Inbred plants, like inbred animals, don’t fare well, at least over time—a phenomenon that’s now known as inbreeding depression.

Canto: Right, but let’s not get bogged down in the history of reproductive biology and the birth of genetics here, as it’s hard enough for me to comprehend meiosis and mitosis, gametes and zygotes and all the rest, as we understand it all today. We’ve previously written about meiosis, but I want to understand, or to begin to understand, in this post, how the process of producing gametes is so different in male and female mammals.

Jacinta: Okay, so we’re talking about gametogenesis. The male gametes are called sperm, the female gametes are called eggs, and so have two forms of gametogenesis, spermatogenesis and oogenesis. In this post I’ll focus on the male, saving the best for another post. So sperm is formed in the testes…

Canto: The ballsacks?

Jacinta: Uhh, well, the sack is just the sack, also known as the scrotum. Inside, you’ll find a testicle, hopefully. And as you well know there are, ideally, two of them. That is, two sacks, each with its testicle. And a testicle is about as complex as any other piece of biological machinery – a lifetime’s learning worth. Take this illustration, courtesy of ken hub.com:

Note the seminiferous tubules above. That’s where the sperm is formed, first by the mitotic division of a spermatogonial stem cell…

Canto: Eh what? How did they get in there?

Jacinta: Okay let me try to understand this for myself, but I may get more and more bogged down. It all begins at the beginning, during the early stages of male foetal development. The primordial germ cells differentiate in the testis, in these seminiferous tubules… But let me first fast forward to the end of the process and describe a complete, mature sperm cell or spermatozoon. That’s an active, motile sperm – plural spermatozoa, or just plain sperm. It’s divided into three parts, essentially, the head, the midpiece and the tail. At the head we find the acrosome and the tightly packed nucleus. The midpiece contains the mitochondria. which provides energy for the sperm’s motility, and the tail is essentially the flagellum, the sperm’s outboard motor, so to speak.

Canto: Okay, so that’s the end product – get back to the spermatogonial stem cells and the seminiferous tubules.

Jacinta: Fine. Spermatogonia are undifferentiated male germ cells, or sperm cells. It’s hard to find a simplified, but not overly simplified, explanation of how pluripotent or totipotent stem cells become germ cells, or any other cells for that matter, but it begins in the embryo. A cell signalling process in the embryo induces a small, transient proportion of the cell mass, the primitive streak, to become primordial germ cells (PGCs), along with other cells. This process is called gastrulation, in which the embryo begins to differentiate into distinct cell lineages. For the PGCs, according to a paper cited in Wikipedia, ‘The specification of primordial germ cells in mammals is mainly attributed to the downstream functions of two signaling pathways; the BMP signaling pathway and the canonical Wnt/β-catenin pathway’. This is essentially about regulatory proteins, I think.

Canto: This is getting too complicated for me. How come that second pathway is canonical?

Jacinta: See, you are paying attention. That Wnt/beta-catenin pathway gets a lot of attention in scientific papers, because we know that its deregulation is a problem in serious diseases and cancers. Basically these pathways are essential for embryonic development. The terms ‘canonical’ and ‘noncanonical’ are terms of art used to describe the standard production of Wnt proteins for development or homeostasis, and less well-known, or later-discovered pathways. I think. Anyway, let’s get back to spermatogonia, of which there are three types – A dark, A pale and B. The A dark spermatogonia are the reserves, and they don’t generally go through the mitosis process – they remain dormant. The A pale cells (so called because they have pale nuclei compared to the A dark cells) undergo mitosis to become the type B cells, which grow and develop to become primary spermatocytes, a process called spermatocytogenesis, truly. All of this occurs, as mentioned, in the seminiferous tubules of the testes, and begins at puberty.

Canto: Okay so how do these primary spermatocytes differ from spermatozoa, or how do they become spermatozoa?

Jacinta: The primary spermatocytes are diploid cells, so they need to undergo meiosis to become gametes. After meiosis 1, two haploid cells are formed, called secondary spermatocytes. And of course, being diploid cells undergoing that first process of meiosis, there’s this crossing over or recombination that occurs, shuffling the deck so to speak. And this is followed by meiosis 2, replicating the haploid cells, and so forth. But you ask how the spermatozoa are formed as an end product, so I need to take us back to those tubules in the testes. They’re packed with particular cells called Sertoli cells, and just outside the tubules are Leydig cells, which produce testosterone. Anyway, once these sperm cells have developed further they travel up to the epididymis via the rete testis, where they continue to mature, ready for ejaculation. They reach the rete testis, and presumably also the epididymis, by means of peristalsis, which you’ll know about from the intestines and other parts of the body.

Canto: Sort of. You think you know about stuff until you find out what you don’t know, which is overwhelmingly vast. Mais, continue..

Jacinta: So the last transformations, making them those mobile little tadpole-like critters, occur in the epididymis. But returning to those tubules. There are lots of Sertoli cells in there, and the sperm is developed in the gaps between them, strangely enough, but they acquire nutrients from those cells to help them along. Their journey between the cells takes them from the outer membrane of the tubule to the lumen. At the beginning of this journey they’re called spermatogonia. They’re going to go through this differentiating process to finally become spermatozoa. Now I’ve already partially described the first step, when a spermatogonium divides by mitosis, into two cells, one of which is kept in reserve, the Ad or ‘dark’ cell. The Ap or ‘pale’ cells continue on the pathway between the Sertoli cells towards the lumen, somehow becoming B cells – don’t know how that happens, but it involves mitosis, perhaps with nutrients from the Sertoli cells. I think, because the process of mitosis is continuous, those reserve cells are left behind all along the pathway. Or maybe not. But that pathway is obstructed along the way by ‘tight junctions’ between the Sertoli cells, which create separate compartments as they open and close before and behind the sperm cells (which are now called primary spermatocytes) like locks in a canal. Now these compartments, called basal and lumenal compartments, aren’t empty, they’re full of chemicals, signalling proteins and such, a different mix for each compartment, which add to the spermatocyte’s development. So the sperm grows as it travels along this pathway, accumulating more cytoplasm. And the junctions close very tightly after the sperm moves through, to prevent leakage into the next chemical environment. Now, somewhere along this pathway between the Sertoli cells, the primary spermatocyte is ready to divide into two secondary spermatocytes via meiosis, a very different form of cell division from mitosis.

Canto: Yes, meiosis has those two parts, ending with four haploid cells from one diploid cell, and genetic recombination to make us all unique.

Jacinta; Okay, moving right along, so to speak, those four haploid cells are now called spermatids, and they continue to mature in the lumen. They’re still not motile, they’re rounded cells at first, but they go through lots of changes, to the conformation of the DNA, for example, with histone proteins being replaced by protamines. We’re now entering the final processes, known as spermiogenesis, which I think occurs after transportation to the epididymis. The cytoplasm is removed, the acrosomal cap is formed, and the other structures I mentioned at the outset, the mitochondrial spiral and the fibres that form the flagellum, all take shape. This whole process, from spermatogonia to spermatozoa, takes about 65 days.

Canto: Okay, that’s enough of all that, I don’t particularly want to learn about seminal fluids and ejaculation at this point, fascinating though that might be – I’m more interested in the female stuff, the generation of eggs, known as oogenesis.

Jacinta: So that for you to detail in a future post.

References

https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/charles-darwins-theory-pangenesis

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/charles-darwin-botanist-orchid-flowers-validate-natural-selection-180971472/

https://sciencing.com/difference-female-mammals-male-mammals-8092368.html

Spermatogenesis | Reproductive system physiology | NCLEX-RN | Khan Academy (video)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germline_development#Germ_line_development_in_mammals

https://www.biologyonline.com/dictionary/spermatid

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2022 at 3:21 pm