an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Australia Day? Hmmm…

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too black and white?

Canto: Okay, so today marks the day, 235 years ago, when British arrivals in what is now known as Sydney Harbour hoisted a British flag and declared that the land they were now standing on belonged to Britain. And this day has been commemorated ever since as Australia Day. These arrivals – a collection of convicted criminals, their minders and British government officials – had no idea of the extent of this ‘southern land’, the eastern coast of which had been mapped in around 1770 by Captain Cook, nor did it greatly concern them that the land was inhabited by other humans. The descendants of those earlier inhabitants are of course still with us, and many of them are still rather miffed about the events of that day, and its commemoration.

Jacinta: Interesting times for the Brits. Their colonies in North America had rebelled rather nastily. In fact, that’s why they were ‘down under’. They’d lost the American War of Independence a little over four years earlier, and the northern regions – Canada today – were too politically unstable for the British government to offload their felons. Having a whole new territory to call their own seemed an irresistible proposition. But I’m wondering – exactly how much did they know? You had Abel Tasman encountering what’s now Tasmania almost 150 years before, but managing to miss the mainland, and then there was Dampier…

Canto: Actually Tasman came up with one of the first names for the southern land – New Holland. He was Dutch of course. Or it might have been one of his compatriots – the Dutch were around the place in numbers at that time. Willem Janszoon was the first back in 1608, and then there was Torres, hence the Strait. But he was Spanish. On his second voyage, from Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, Tasman mapped much of Australia’s north and north-west coast. William Dampier used his maps in his own little trip to the west coast around 1699-1700, and himself charted the coast from Shark Bay to Broome, so, yes, the Brits did have a fair idea of the extent of this land. But getting back to Australia Day…

Jacinta: Well, yes, they must have had a fair idea of the enormity of their proposed acquisition, as well as the difficulty of maintaining such a claim to land so far from home. 

Canto: And they didn’t even call it Australia at the time. It was generally known as New Holland still. So the Dutch must surely have been miffed as well. 

Jacinta: Anyway there wasn’t much in the way of international law, or any sense of internationalism, in the eighteenth century, and it’s easy for us to be holier-than-thou when talking about the past. It’s another country, on dit. 

Canto: Well even so, the day has earned an alternative moniker, Invasion Day. What thinks thou?

Jacinta: Well I thinks it’s complicated, as always. I do think we should change the date, but to call it an invasion is a bit harsh. What Putin has done in Ukraine, I’d call that an invasion. Also what the USA did in Iraq (with the help of Australian forces). I’d say that what the Brits did in 1788 and subsequent decades was colonisation. You might call it illegal colonisation, but of course there were no legal avenues.

Canto: Like what Britain did throughout the world in its Empire days. 

Jacinta: And the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Italians, Belgians… And there have been attempts to make them pay for the damage done, but we can’t expect too much can we?

Canto: Others have suggested that we – I mean Europeans – brought civilisation to benighted peoples. Or, to be more even-handed, that they ultimately might have brought more good than harm.

Jacinta: Well, anyway, Aboriginal people have a good argument – a very good argument I’d say, for objecting to the celebration of Australia occurring on January 26, because the landing of the first fleet was a disaster for a culture that had established itself here, no doubt with great difficulty at first, over tens of thousands of years. 

Canto: Yes it raises the question, what was this land like, in terms of climate and resources, 50,000 years ago? Probably a dumb question considering the enormity of the land-mass. 

Jacinta: Yes and I’ve often wondered how long the first ‘Australians’ have been here, I’ve heard so many conflicting estimates, and also it’s sometimes hard to tabulate with the out-of Africa story for H sapiens. 

Canto: You’re not kidding. Estimates of the Aboriginal presence here are all over the map. Australia’s National Museum, which is presumably reliable, says this:

Aboriginal people are known to have occupied mainland Australia for at least 65,000 years. It is widely accepted that this predates the modern human settlement of Europe and the Americas.

And I recall an Aboriginal elder (though he looked rather young) disputing the date with a sympathetic scientist, insisting that his people have been here since ‘the beginning of the world’. I’m not sure if he meant 4.6 billion or 13.8 billion years ago. 

Jacinta: Another site, an indigenous one I think, claims their presence could date as far back as 120,000 years, but no evidence or dating techniques mentioned. As to the other question – when H sapiens first left Africa, here’s something from a National Geographic article: 

Though it is unclear when some modern humans first left Africa, evidence shows that these modern humans did not leave Africa until between 60,000 and 90,000 years ago. Most likely, a change in climate helped to push them out.

So if these dates can be trusted – and I remain skeptical – the 65,000ya date for arriving in Australia is plausible. 

Canto: So getting back to Australia/Invasion Day, what is to be done?

Jacinta: Well, to me, the screamingly obvious solution would be to celebrate the day when Australia ceased to be a colony and became an independent nation. That was 1901 I think…

Canto: Would this be acceptable to first Australians? They didn’t exactly have much in the way of rights in 1901.

Jacinta: Did anyone have rights before the 1948 Declaration? People are always screaming about rights these days, they don’t seem to realise how recent the concept is. 

Canto: Hang on – Olympe de Gouges, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman (September 1791)..

Jacinta: Yeah, yeah, off with her head. And the ‘divine right of kings’, and droit du seigneur. It’s a human invention, and relatively recent, and easily manipulated, obviously. But still useful, admittedly. But we digress… I think the establishment of an independent Australian government (Federation), that’s a national occasion to celebrate, I think – but that occurred on January 1, when we’re traditionally blethered. Not being a nationalist of any kind, I wouldn’t be waving a flag around on the day, whatever date they choose. But I’ll take the holiday thanks. 
 
Canto: Wikipedia has an interesting article, ‘Australia Day debate’, which sets out various proposals for alternative dates. One that sticks out for me is May 9, though it might be a bit obscure. It celebrates our new capital, Canberra, with the opening of the old Parliament House there in 1927, and the new one in 1988.  
 
Jacinta: Yes, obscure is the word. But why politicians – who always seem to be more conservative than the general public – baulk at changing the date, which is obviously about British ‘ownership’ of a super-massive piece of real estate, is beyond me. It’s obscene, to be honest. We can recognise our history, and weigh the good and bad elements, without using that date for our founding as a nation. After all, it just isn’t. It’s the date of the founding of a penal colony on the other side of the world, with obviously disastrous consequences, at least in the short term, for its earliest inhabitants, about which we knew nothing at the time except that they were, ‘unfortunately’, in the way…
 
Canto: Well, as you say, politicians tend to be a conservative, ‘don’t rock the boat’ lot. Look at their opposition to same-sex marriage which was so out of kilter with the general population. It’s just a matter of chipping away…

References

https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/evidence-of-first-peoples

https://www.nla.gov.au/faq/who-was-the-first-european-to-land-on-australia

http://www.workingwithindigenousaustralians.info/content/History_2_60,000_years.html

https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/their-footsteps-human-migration-out-africa

Written by stewart henderson

January 28, 2023 at 12:01 pm

Human origins far from being resolved – it just gets more fascinating (part 1)

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yeah – a few ‘awkward’ species missing from this group

Canto: So we’d all like to solve the riddle – or many riddles, of human ancestry, but the problems are manifold, it seems.

Jacinta: Yes, we’re not just talking about Homo sapiens, or H sapiens sapiens as some would put it, but the whole Homo genus, including neanderthalenis, denisova, floresiensis, naledi, heidelbergensis, rudolfensis, erectus and habilis, and I’m not sure if I’ve got them all.

Canto: Yes and there are lumpers and splitters, but I’m talking even further back, to Paranthropus and the Australopithecines. I watched a DW doco recently that piqued my interest, making me wonder at what date, round-about, did the Homo genus emerge, and what genus did it emerge from?

Jacinta: Well this is a problem for all species and genera really. Think of our favourite apes, the bonobos. In the book Who we are and how we got here, which is all about the new science of genomics and how it’s transforming our understanding of human populations , David Reich wrote of –

a new method to estimate the suddenness of separation of the ancestors of two present-day species from genetic data… When they applied the method to study the separation time of common chimpanzees and their cousins, bonobos, they found evidence that the separation was very sudden, consistent with the hypothesis that the species were separated by a huge river (the Congo) that formed rather suddenly one to two million years ago

D Reich, Who we are and how we got here, p46

Which is all very fascinating, but one to two million years is rather a long time frame.

Canto: Yes, in the DW doco the time frames were also rather flexible – which I suppose needs must. Australopithecines were described as emerging perhaps 3 million years ago and disappearing 2 million years ago, with the Paranthropus genus preceding them by about a million years – or was it the other way around?

Jacinta: And other types are mentioned – often from the most meagre remains. SahelanthropusOrrorinArdipithecus, and Danuvius guggenmosi, beloved of Madelaine Böhme among others.

Canto: Well D guggenmosi was an interesting but isolated find, dating to around 11.6 million years ago, and of course the remains are fragmentary so there are arguments about its bipedalism and other features. It was a tiny ape, quite a bit smaller than bonobos, the smallest of the extant great apes. Böhme is arguing, I believe, that these discoveries (three specimens were discovered) could push the chimp-human last common ancestor (CHLCA) back a few million years. The CHLCA date is usually given as between 6 and 7 million years ago, but Wikipedia is, currently at least, being more open to a wider range:

The chimpanzee–human last common ancestor (CHLCA) is the last common ancestor shared by the extant Homo (human) and Pan (chimpanzee and bonobo) genera of Hominini. Due to complex hybrid speciation, it is not currently possible to give a precise estimate on the age of this ancestral population. While “original divergence” between populations may have occurred as early as 13 million years ago (Miocene), hybridization may have been ongoing until as recently as 4 million years ago (Pliocene).

Chimpanzee–human last common ancestor, Wikipedia Jan 21 2023

Jacinta: Interesting, and it suggests a lot of work still to be done, and that’s just in relation to the Homo genus. I’d certainly be interested in pursuing the evidence and the debate in future posts, but for now I’m wondering about the immediate ancestors of our species.

Canto: Well, the book Who we are and how we got here tries to sort all that out through the study of population genetics and genomics, though much of it, so far, deals with migratory populations over the last tens of thousands of years…

Jacinta: Homo heidelbergensis has struck many palaeoanthropologists as the likely common ancestor of both H sapiens and H neanderthalensis. The Smithsonian dates the species to about 700,000 to 200,000 years ago, but there’s also this from their website:

This species may reach back to 1.3 million years ago, and include early humans from Spain (‘Homo antecessor’ fossils and archeological evidence from 800,000 to 1.3 million years old), England (archeological remains back to about 1 million years old), and Italy (from the site of Ceprano, possibly as old as 1 million years)

Canto: So yes, again, lumpers and splitters, and we’re no experts. From the term Homo antecessor I’d conjecture that they’ve been hailed as direct antecedents…. but other specimens, named H cepranensis, and H rhodesiensis, as well as H heidelbergensis, are in the mix, and the remains are often hard to identify and date, with DNA and the proteins made from them being tricky to isolate from warmer climes…

Jacinta: The Australian Museum gives us this interesting info about H heidelbergensis versus H antecessor, in describing the largest find of specimens:

  • The remains of at least 6 individuals found at the site of Gran Dolina, Atapuerca, in Spain. They lived about 800,000 to 1 million years ago in Europe and are the oldest human remains found in that continent. Although many experts consider these remains to be part of an early and variable Homo heidelbergensis population, the discoverers believe the fossils are different enough to be given a new species name Homo antecessor.

Canto: I’m wondering about that Morocco specimen that has recently, no doubt controversially, been reclassified as H sapiens, though it dates from 320,000 to 300,000 years ago, pushing the age of our species back by a hundred thousand years or so.

Jacinta: Yes you’re talking about the finds at the Jebel Irhoud site, and it’s complicated, because most researchers don’t identify that region as the birthplace of H sapiens. They mostly agree that the species was ‘born’ in southern and Eastern Africa. The Smithsonian seems to me a bit confusing and unconvincing on this point:

The remains of five individuals at Jebel Irhoud exhibit traits of a face that looks compellingly modern, mixed with other traits like an elongated brain case reminiscent of more archaic humans. The remains’ presence in the northwestern corner of Africa isn’t evidence of our origin point, but rather of how widely spread humans were across Africa even at this early date.

They’re saying that the oldest human remains found are in north-west Africa, but humans probably originated in south-east Africa, though we haven’t got specimens from there that are older than 260,000 years, at most. Hmmm.

Canto: The paucity of the fossil record is probably to blame. But then – Homo naledi. I’ve just watched John Hawks giving a talk on naledi in 2017 – Hawks is a hero of mine, I used to follow his website regularly – and he talked of more and more discoveries in that diabolical underground cave system called – maybe ironically? – Rising Star, in South Africa. They now have more fossil remains of naledi than of any other ancient Homo apart from neanderthalensis. And they’ve managed to narrow the dating from about 320,000 to 240,000 years ago, from memory. So they may well have lived alongside the earliest H sapiens.

Jacinta: Complexifying the picture in ways some find fascinating, others frustrating. And they were much smaller and smaller-brained, right? Like floresiensis, another mystery. So there will be questions about how ‘advanced’ they were. Is there evidence of tool use? Of fire? And remember, it’s not brain size that matters so much but brain organisation. Think of corvids – tool users, problem solvers, complex family systems, brains the size of a walnut but packed with as many neurons as some monkey species.

Canto: Yes, I agree, we can’t make too many assumptions based on size. Bonobos females are smaller than the males but much smarter, right? But one major difficulty about the naledi lifestyle is that we know nothing about it. It seems these remains were placed, or dropped, in the cave after death. And as far as I know, we have no trace of naledi above-ground, which is kind of bizarre.

Jacinta: Okay, so I’m watching the ever-reliable North 02 vid on naledi. They first thought these remains were probably well over a million years old, due to various features, especially skull size, though there were plenty of anomalies, but they were eventually able to date some of the teeth, using electron spin resonance and uranium-thorium dating, and yes, your dating is about right. As to skull or brain size, smaller than habilis and quite a bit smaller than erectus, but actually larger than floresiensis, which clearly tells us, doesn’t it, that there hasn’t necessarily been this enlargement of brain size over time for all members of the Homo genus.

Canto: Yes, interesting – floresiensis, do we know anything of their lifestyle, tools, decorations…?

Jacinta: The most recent dating of floresiensis has them living until about 50,000 years ago at the latest. So much more recent than naledi. The cave where they were found yielded over 10,000 stone artefacts similar to those associated with the much larger-brained H erectus, from whom they may have learned a few things. With a brain quite a bit smaller than that of H naledi. Surely a cautionary tale.

Canto: Right – and they’re not even looking at brains, they’re looking at skulls, and making possibly unwarranted assumptions.

Jacinta: Okay so there’s a lot more to say on this topic – about Homo naledi alone, never mind the many other species or pseudo-species, so we’ll have to turn this into an ongoing series. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of very smart people, which has made me feel quite dumb and shallow on the topic – no Dunning-Kruger effect for me at least.

Canto: Well, even as dilettantes we’ve come up with some reasonable skeptical queries – about brain size, and more on that next time, about tool use or the lack of evidence for it, and the lack of evidence of anything re H naledi outside of Rising Star. So, next time…

References

How did humans come to be? DW documentary

D Reich, Who we are and how we got here, 2018

M Böhme et al, Ancient bones, 2020

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimpanzee–human_last_common_ancestor

https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-heidelbergensis

https://australian.museum/learn/science/human-evolution/homo-antecessor/

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2023 at 6:35 pm

exploring clogged ears

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Canto:  So we were going to have another go at Bayesian probability and reasoning. Even though I think I already understand it from last time…

Jacinta: Well actually the piece I wrote on this blog in August 2019 does a pretty good job of explaining it, but we easily forget…

Canto: So onto more pressing matters. I’ve developed a big hearing problem, as a result of a bacterial infection which cleared up soon enough with the help of antibiotics. These infections are a regular problem for me, as I have a chronic condition, bronchiectasis, which means my upper airways have a high bacterial load, and so I’m quite convinced that antibiotics have been a life-saver for me. But this time one of the symptoms was a blockage of some kind in my left ear, which appears to be behind the ear-drum. My regular doctor and an audiologist could find nothing visible – no build-up of wax for example. My doctor wrote something about glue ear, with a question mark, to the audiologist – so I need to research this condition. And there’s also a problem with my right ear – a perforated ear-drum, and quite a large one according to the audiologist. So the right ear problem has clearly been with me for a long time – I knew my hearing wasn’t the best – and is perhaps getting worse, but the sudden blockage to my left ear has caused something of a crisis. Just at the time this infection occurred I was asked to return to work at Eynesbury College, but I had to refuse, as my hearing was so bad. All of this happened in November, but I won’t be seeing the Otolaryngologist (a new term to me) until February 21st which is vraiment frustrant. 

Jacinta: So we’re going to have a look at glue ear, common childhood complaint, and similar issues. By the way, otolaryngology is a shortened form of the term otorhinolaryngology (ear-nose-throatology), of course, and it’s the oto (Greek for ear) that we’re concerned about here:

Glue ear is caused by blockage of a small tube in the ear, called the Eustachian tube. When fluid is trapped inside this tube, fluid builds up in the middle ear cavity (called an effusion) and this can slowly get thicker. This often happens after a head cold. Glue ear can happen after repeated middle ear infections.

Canto: This sounds just like my problem, and I was worried precisely about this thickening, which is what I feel is happening, and I fully expect that, like glue, it’ll be much tougher to remove when it hardens. So why must I wait? Anyway, the blockage is the immediate problem, it makes my voice sound loudly in my ear, and if I’m eating something crunchy, the sound is like ice crashing down from Antarctic cliffs. When I’m talking one-on-one with someone I try to arrange it so they’re talking into my right ear, the one with the perforation.

Jacinta: Mmmm, well let’s learn more about the inner ear, the Eustachian tube and such. Glue ear is most often associated with children, but some one in three sufferers are adults. There are a variety of causes, and symptoms – it’s sometimes just referred to as a clogged ear. I can’t find much reference to your symptom of having an amplified voice….

Canto: I’m told sometimes to speak up, because apparently I’m lowering my voice because it sounds so loud in my head.

Jacinta: Yes, well here’s something:

Autophony is the unusually loud hearing of a person’s own voice. Possible causes are: The “occlusion effect”, caused by an object, such as an unvented hearing aid or a plug of ear wax, blocking the ear canal and reflecting sound vibration back towards the eardrum.

Canto: Autophony. Eureka! But none of those causes fit my situation.

Jacinta: Well, here’s something from another website that’ll be more helpful:

Autophony is the perception that your voice is too loud or echoing in your ears. Autophony also refers to the perception of all other sounds coming from your body, such as breathing or arterial noises. Typically, autophony results from a middle ear infection, such as tuba beante. Other causes may include eardrum occlusions, serous otitis media, open or patulous Eustachian tube, or Minor’s Syndrome.

Canto: Yes, that gives me plenty of material for research. So, first, a two-part YouTube piece taken from the over-slick US show The Doctors features someone who seems to have my problem intermittently, and worries whether she’ll be able to ‘go on’ if it becomes permanent like mine has – at least temporarily. She was finally diagnosed with patulous Eustachian tube dysfunction (I suspect this is not my problem though). Their resident otolaryngologist explains that the Eustachian tube starts at the back of the nasal cavity – though I tend to think of it from the other end, in the middle ear starting from behind the tympanum…

Jacinta: Patulous in the medical sense means wide open or distended. I’m not quite sure if I can picture this, does it mean that this airway – and it is an airway if you think of it as coming in through the nasal cavity – is distended just as your bronchial airways are distended due to your bronchiectasis?

Canto: Well, that’s a thought. Could it be an extension of my bronchiectasis? And not a problem of fluids at all? The otolaryngologist explained that this client’s Eustachian tube is ‘in open position more than normal, so all those sounds – chewing, breathing, etc, is going right into [her] Eustachian tube and is being transmitted in turn to the middle ear space’. So if this is my problem – another development of my bronchiectasis…

Jacinta: Don’t mean to scare you but bronchiectasis is described as a condition that can tend to worsen over time….

Canto: Yeah thanks. Our TV otolaryngologist describes helpful treatments that might close down this airway – drops (sounds unlikely) – oestrogen drops through the nose, and other preparations, or surgery to manipulate the opening, ‘injecting something to try to close it down’, all of which sounds eminently vague.

Jacinta: If it is fluid, and it’s thickening, I’m sure they have some means of thinning it down…

Canto: Well I’ve heard from someone – yes, a doctor friend – that they have a procedure which punctures or perforates the eardrum, drains the fluid (I’m not sure in my case) and then leaves a little plug to keep the drum open, but just a wee bitty.

Jacinta: Okay, on it…:

  • Grommets are tiny ventilation tubes that are put inside the eardrum to prevent a build-up of fluid.
  • They are needed if someone has a lot of ear infections that have caused ‘glue ear’.
  • A person will need to go to a hospital to have grommets put in. They need minor surgery under general anaesthetic.
  • Grommets usually fall out by themselves after 6 to 12 months.

Canto: Yeah that sounds like it. So we’ve dealt long enough with the left ear, how about the right one?

Jacinta: A large perforation, you say? Here’s the Mayo Clinic:

A hole in the tissue that separates the ear canal from the middle ear.
A perforated eardrum may be caused by loud sounds, a foreign object in the ear, head trauma, a middle ear infection or rapid pressure changes, such as from air travel.
Symptoms include sharp ear pain that subsides quickly, drainage, ringing in the ear (tinnitus) or hearing loss.
The condition usually heals on its own within a few weeks. Antibiotics, an eardrum patch or surgery may be necessary.
Canto: My doctor mentioned a surgery involving skin grafts, but they aren’t always successful, they don’t ‘take’. Also I’ve never had sharp ear pain. Occasional non-painful tinnitus, that’s all. And I don’t think there’s ever been any head trauma or foreign objects… But ultimately I’d like to have both ears fixed if possible. I may have to lose an arm and a leg to do it though….
Jacinta: To be continued…

References

https://www.otovent.co.uk/what-is-otovent-for/glue-ear-in-adults/

https://www.healthline.com/health/why-does-my-ear-feel-clogged#tube-blockage

https://www.amplifon.com/uk/ear-diseases-and-disorders/other-hearing-problems/autophony

https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/b/bronchiectasis.html

https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/grommets

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ruptured-eardrum/symptoms-causes/syc-20351879

https://www.emedihealth.com/ent/ear/clogged-ears-causes

Written by stewart henderson

January 16, 2023 at 8:11 pm

Is/was the Covid 19 pandemic overblown?

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Jacinta: So clearly Covid-19 fatigue is becoming a worldwide phenomenon, and I’m not talking about long Covid. Mask-wearing here in Australia has reduced almost to pre-Pandemic levels, and I’m beginning to hear more claims that it was never really that much worse than the flu, and that the world has suffered more from lock-downs and other restrictions than from the virus itself. This is a bit shocking, so it’s time to evaluate these claims, for what they’re worth.

Canto: Well we haven’t been keeping tabs on this lately, but in the first year of the pandemic we regularly visited the Johns Hopkins and Worldometer sites to keep track of the global and nation-by-nation statistics on SARS CoV-2. Returning now, I find that Worldometer provides an overall death toll so far of a little over 6.7 million. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center has almost exactly the same figures…

Jacinta: And how does this compare to flu figures? Someone asked. 

Canto: Actually, this is not a simple question. For a start, people may die with a particular illness or infection but not necessarily of it. And death certificates can often be ambiguous on this matter. This also allows ‘Covid skeptics’ – and there have long been plenty of them – to distort the figures any way they can. Death certificates are used by the UK’s Office for National Statistics:

The ONS uses data from death certificates to count deaths from Covid-19 and all other causes. This is distinct from public health measures, which include deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test. We use the term ‘due to Covid-19’ when referring only to deaths with an underlying cause of death of Covid-19. When taking into account all of the deaths that had Covid-19 mentioned anywhere on the death certificate, whether as an underlying cause or not, we use the term ‘involving Covid-19’. This is also the same for flu and pneumonia. 

Jacinta: Yes, this is good policy, as it puts Covid-19 and flu etc on the same footing. But mightn’t it be the case that, due to the prevalence and greater public face of Covid-19 in these times, medical authorities would be more likely to attribute cause of death to Covid-19 than to anything else, just because the patient tested positive? I mean, why test for anything else when they’re sick and Covid-positive? 

Canto: Hmmm, well why indeed – if they’re sick and have the symptoms of Covid, trying to reduce those symptoms would be the medico’s first duty. After all, Covid-19 is a far more deadly disease than flu.

Jacinta: But not everyone agrees, apparently.

Canto: Yeah, and not everyone agrees that the Earth is an oblate spheroid – so what? You asked about deaths from Covid v flu. Looking at the data from the UK is a good idea, because both the flu and pneumonia are more prevalent there than in Australia. 

Jacinta: And yet interestingly the relaxed restrictions and reduced mask-wearing that occurred from mid-22 resulted in our worst – most deadly – flu season in five years. Influenza was considerably reduced in Australia in the winters of 2020 and 2021, obviously due to those restrictions. 

Canto: Well we’ve asked, by someone sceptical of the fuss and perhaps the over-reaction to this pandemic, to look into it more deeply, though this is probably a task way beyond our powers. We’ve been given a reference to start us off, an essay by John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine, epidemiology and population health at Stanford – at least he was at the time of writing the essay, back in March 2020, only 2 months into the pandemic. 

Jacinta: Yes I remember there was something of a furore around this essay, a lot of blowback as the Yanks say. I never read it, but we did do a lot of reading and listening vis-a-vis SARS-CoV2 in the first months of 2020. 

Canto: That’s right – the Medcram coronavirus updates, delivered by Dr Roger Seheult and designed, as the name suggests, for medical students, were always our first port of call. I watched over a hundred of them on YouTube, and educated myself pretty well on the structure of the virus, its method of action within the body, from the lungs into the epithelial tissue and the bloodstream, the ensuing cytokine storm, and of course the method of transmission from person to person. It was quite an education. 

Jacinta: When Ioannidis wrote his piece there were 68 recorded deaths from Covid-19 – according to his own figures. 

Canto: yes, here’s a quote from the essay: 

Some worry that the 68 deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S. as of March 16 will increase exponentially to 680, 6,800, 68,000, 680,000 … along with similar catastrophic patterns around the globe. Is that a realistic scenario, or bad science fiction? How can we tell at what point such a curve might stop?The most valuable piece of information for answering those questions would be to know the current prevalence of the infection in a random sample of a population and to repeat this exercise at regular time intervals to estimate the incidence of new infections. Sadly, that’s information we don’t have.

Jacinta: And Johns Hopkins puts the total number of US deaths from Covid-19 at 1,097, 660, as of January 10 2023 – far worse than Ioannidis’ most catastrophic scenario. And yet, Ioannidis has never backed down from the claim that the world is over-reacting. One has to wonder how many people would have to die before he changed his mind. 

Canto: Maybe he wants to argue that many of these people didn’t ‘really’ die of Covid-19 – that they would’ve died anyway. Now that’s a hard thing to prove. We all die, after all. 

Jacinta: And interestingly, the USA’s death toll is about 16% of the global toll, though the USA has only about 4% of the world’s population. Does this mean the USA’s response has been a big failure, or are they attributing more deaths to Covid-19? 

Canto: The USA has suffered way more deaths from Covid-19 than any other country, and it jumped to the lead very early on. In that period there was huge criticism about how the Trump administration had gutted the CDC and the FDA, and of course Trump’s response to the outbreak was to mock mask-wearing and to compare it to the flu – ‘it’ll be gone in weeks’. That’s when his approval rating – already much lower than his disapproval rating – really tanked, and he started talking – in April – about the November election being rigged, but only if he lost!

Jacinta: Well some thugocracies like Russia and China can’t be trusted on their figures, but getting back to Ioannidis, in his March 2020 essay, he seemed to be concerned more about the under-estimation of figures rather than the opposite:

Given the limited testing to date, some deaths and probably the vast majority of infections due to SARS-CoV-2 are being missed. We don’t know if we are failing to capture infections by a factor of three or 300. Three months after the outbreak emerged, most countries, including the U.S., lack the ability to test a large number of people and no countries have reliable data on the prevalence of the virus in a representative random sample of the general population.

Canto: Yes, and the ability to test clearly improved in most developed countries over time, but Ioannidis still wasn’t satisfied. And how do you measure a country’s ‘ability to test’? Clearly you can’t force everyone to be tested – not even the Chinese Testosterone Party can do that – because they’ve allowed too many people to exist. Even a ‘no child policy’ would take too long to improve the situation, they need another Mao-style ‘great leap forward’ to do the job. But that only killed 70 million at most, a mere drop in the bucket…

Jacinta: Yeah well, back to the topic. Ioannidis talks about an ‘evidence fiasco’, but surely he’s being unrealistic – we could never expect to test everyone, and so of course plenty of unsymptomatic carriers, especially the young, would pass through the net and unsuspectingly pass on the virus. That’s why physical distancing and mask-wearing became a high priority as we learned how the virus was being transmitted. 

Canto: Of course it must be remembered that Ioannidis wrote this essay (referenced below) at the very outset of the pandemic. Even so, his predictions were way off. He projected case fatality rates from the Diamond Princess outbreak onto the general (US) population:

Projecting the Diamond Princess mortality rate onto the age structure of the U.S. population, the death rate among people infected with Covid-19 would be 0.125%. But since this estimate is based on extremely thin data — there were just seven deaths among the 700 infected passengers and crew — the real death rate could stretch from five times lower (0.025%) to five times higher (0.625%).

Please note that Ioannidis’ projected worst-case scenario, adjusting for the higher age range of the Diamond Princess crew, was 0.625%. According to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins and the WHO, the USA’s current case fatality rate is about 1.1%, almost twice Ioannidis’ worst case projection. Of course, Ioannidis can’t be blamed for his under-estimation in the early stages of the pandemic, but it’s rather surprising that he hasn’t modified his views in line with ongoing evidence. So, unfortunately, he has become a beacon for contrarian views about the impact of and response to Covid-19. Even the highly-regarded Scientific American magazine defended Ioannidis in a brief November 2020 article that it later apologised for as an ‘opinion piece’ containing a series of factual errors. 

Ioannidis doubled down on his claims of an over-reaction to the pandemic, appearing on various news networks throughout 2020 to express caution and to question the measures taken to prevent spread, but he was arguing against a growing consensus. The Washington Post put it this way in December 2020, after a terrible year in the USA:

… as the pandemic enters its deadliest phase, Ioannidis is losing the argument over how to combat covid-19. Among epidemiologists, consensus now exists that it was inaction, not overreaction, that helped create the worst public health crisis in a century. The uncontrolled spread of the virus has led to overrun ICUs in South Dakota and makeshift morgues in Texas. States and countries are locking down in a bid to preserve lives as vaccines start to roll out. Even Sweden, which resisted tough restrictions through the spring, is now reversing course to avert catastrophe.

So, of course we can’t compare what happened with restrictions, lockdowns and mandatory mask-wearing with what might have happened had we continued with business as usual and relied on herd immunity (that’s to say, the development of natural immunity without vaccines), but it’s surely worth listening to those who work in the field of virology and immunology. And within those circles there appears to be broad agreement. Here’s what the Mayo Clinic has to say:

There are some major problems with relying on community infection to create herd immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19:

  • Reinfection. It’s estimated that getting COVID-19 results in a low risk of another infection with a similar variant for at least six months. However, even if you have antibodies, you could get COVID-19 again. Because reinfection can cause severe medical complications, it’s recommended that people who have already had COVID-19 get a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Health impact. Infection with the COVID-19 virus could lead to serious complications and millions of deaths, especially among older people and those who have existing health conditions. The health care system could quickly become overwhelmed.

Vaccines

Herd immunity also can be reached when enough people have been vaccinated against a disease and have developed protective antibodies against future infection. Unlike the natural infection method, vaccines create immunity without causing illness or resulting complications. Using the concept of herd immunity, vaccines have successfully controlled contagious diseases such as smallpox, polio, diphtheria, rubella and many others.

I should also add that the pandemic, for all the suffering caused, has led to a marked improvement in the time-frame for effective vaccine production, and of course a breakthrough in the form of mRNA vaccines, which has been something of a revolution in immunology. 

I’ve not properly answered the question – are there more deaths from flu than from covid? A 2021 article from the British Medical Journal answers precisely that question, again quoting the ONS:

Data from the Office for National Statistics show that in England and Wales the number of deaths from influenza was 1598 in 2018 and 1223 in 2019. This is way below the annual deaths from covid-19, which at the current rate of around 800 deaths a week in England and Wales equates to more than 40 000 a year.

That’s a huge difference, despite all the caveats mentioned above and repeated in the BMJ article. But unfortunately people will believe what they want to believe. 

References

A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-ioannidis-affair-a-tale-of-major-scientific-overreaction/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2020/12/16/john-ioannidis-coronavirus-lockdowns-fox-news/

https://www.bmj.com/content/375/bmj.n2514

Americans who turn to the White House for coronavirus news tend to think the media’s pandemic coverage is overblown

Written by stewart henderson

January 13, 2023 at 1:08 pm

me little mate Stevie Pinker and me

with one comment

the famous and the nutso famous

 

So this piece is not in dialogue form, though I still see myself as a female-type male (rather than a male-type female), trying to transcend gender in ‘rising above myself and grasping the world’ as Archimedes putatively put it. Sometimes the dialogue form stimulates my slow-acting mind to some sort of thesis-antithesis-synthesis delusionary state that’s temporarily satisfying – like when my mind tells me she’s made of truth (I believe her though I know she lies). And I’ve always ‘liked’ Chekhov’s apparent remark that the best conversations we have are with ourselves, though again, what really best shakes us are our communications with others, in writing or, even better because always more hard-hitting, in person. I’m not sure where I’m going with this except to say that my reading is a kind of communication, if only one way. And sometimes I feel a real itch to communicate back, in spite of nobody listening…

I’ve read a number of books by Steven Pinker – let me see, I was introduced to his work by a young philosophy tutor about eighteen years ago, when, as a volunteer at my local community centre, I happily joined its philosophy group’s weekly meetings. The tutor assigned Pinker’s The blank slate as the book to be read and discussed. I found the book’s general thesis – that the idea we’re born as a blank slate is a dangerous myth, in political, educational and other contexts – to be congenial enough, and Pinker’s overall mode of thinking struck me as sensible, rational and positive, if some of the wordiness and smart-aleckiness grated a bit. But after all, wasn’t I sometimes guilty of same? At least in my head.

So later I read other Pinker books – The language instinct and The sense of style (I was an ESOL teacher for a couple of decades), as well as The better angels of our nature and Enlightenment now. And all of this stimulated me and grated with me in no doubt unequal levels. After all, I’ve continued to read him.

And so to Rationality, his most recent book. But first I’d like to look at Pinker’s academic and general background as it compares to mine, which should be amusing if nothing else.

Pinker was born in September 1954, while I was born in July 1956, so we’re pretty much contemporaries. He was born in Montreal, Canada to a ‘middle-class Jewish family’ (I quote from Wikipedia), and I was born in Dundee, Scotland, to a working-class family. His father was a lawyer. My father was an unskilled labourer and factory worker. His mother ‘eventually became a high-school vice-principal’. My mother eventually became a teacher of mental-deficiency nursing (an occupation that has since become largely obsolete due to the de-institutionalisation of the intellectually disabled, if that’s the current term). Pinker’s grandparents ’emigrated to Canada from Poland and Romania’ in the 1920s, and owned a small business in Montreal. Wikipedia doesn’t specify whether these were paternal or maternal grandparents. I know very little about my own grandparents – our family emigrated to Australia when I was five years old, so I only have vague memories of my paternal grandparents, and none of my maternal ones. There was little discussion of the extended family when I was growing up, but I believe my paternal grandfather was a shipwright in Dundee, which sounds pretty impressive, and my maternal grandfather was a coal-miner.

So, education. Pinker graduated from Dawson College in 1973. So he was then nineteen. Dawson College gets its own Wikipedia article (harrumph) which tells us that it ‘became the first English-language institution in the new CEGEP network’. CEGEP comes from the French Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel, though it has become a word of its own in the Canadian lexis. So, as a Québécois Canadian, Pinker must have had early exposure to French, as did I to a much lesser degree. When I was a ten-year-old my older brother, who shared a bedroom with me and was learning the language at high school, used to teach me at night before lights out, and I absorbed these dribs of French like a sponge. But more of that later.

Nothing is mentioned of Pinker’s primary education, so I can dominate that period with my own experience. I did spend a brief time at school in Dundee, and my principal memory was of someone shouting about throwing stones at the Catholics. I rushed to the school fence with everyone else, and craned to see the kids passing by outside, trying to discern their Catholic features. On the ship coming out to Australia I joined a makeshift class of kids my age, with my mother as the teacher. On arrival in South Australia, we were housed at Smithfield Hostel, north of Adelaide, the state’s capital (where I currently live). I attended Smithfield primary school for a year, where my principal memories were of being shouted at for forgetting my books, and being sent to the headmaster for some misdemeanour (I didn’t go, being too scared, and hid in some bushes outside before returning to class).

The rest of my primary schooling was at Elizabeth Downs primary from grade 2 to grade 5, and Elizabeth Fields primary for grades 6 and 7. Elizabeth was a newly built town, named for the Queen, centred mostly around the car industry. General Motors Holden was building a factory there, and when it was finished, my father got a job on the assembly line, for a while at least. The town was built about 18 miles north of Adelaide, and has since been absorbed as a northern suburb of that city. The Elizabeth Fields primary school made headlines in the state newspaper, about a decade after my period of attendance, for being the most violent and dysfunctional primary school in the state, which came as a shock to me – my memories of the place are pretty bland. It might’ve been a hatchet job.

From the age of 12 I was sent to Elizabeth West High, which I attended until I dropped out at age 15. I have a story to tell about that. At the end of my last primary year, we all sat a test, and on the first day at the new high school – it had only been running for a couple of years – a crowd of kids my age gathered in a quadrangle to be ‘streamed’ into eight first-year classes. We all had been previously asked, probably at the time of the test, to name which language we wanted to learn, French or German, so that we’d be streamed into F1, F2, F3 or F4, or G1, 2, 3 or 4. I chose French of course, and my name was called first for the F1 class. This rather shocked me and made me wonder, but I wasn’t too surprised to be in F1, as I’d been a ‘straight A’ student (apart from Art and PhysEd) in grade 7, without putting in much effort. Then, a week or two into the year, another boy told me excitedly – ‘do you know you got the top marks? I was in teacher’s office and all the tests were on his desk, and I got to look at them – yours was at the top…’ Looking back, I suppose they were IQ tests, or something like. Anyway, I loved my first year of high school – it was a very cheeky, smart-alecky class, which brought me out of my shell a little. I even had girls flirting with me. I felt I’d really made it. I topped the year in French and English, but was well down the list in other subjects, and by second year, even my favourite subjects were suffering. At home, my parents’ relationship had become increasingly toxic, and I was becoming something of a teenage runaway. At fourteen, I was put on a fifteen-month bond, with a group of friends, for stealing. I spent a lot of time at the local library, and developed a passion for nineteenth century English lit, reading the whole of Thomas Hardy’s oeuvre, as well as Dickens, Austen, Eliot and the Brontës. My two older siblings, now at university, filled the house with books – Nietzsche, Freud, and the new feminists – Germaine Greer, Eva Figes, Betty Friedan. I began to hate school and often wagged it with friends, or just stayed home, filling my head with music and philosophy or at least the philosophy contained in fiction – I read Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy and The Outsider, The Plague, The myth of Sisyphus, and 1984. Animal Farm, one of the school’s set texts, was a particular pleasure, in a sense, as was Huxley’s Brave New World.

Meanwhile, my formal education was going down the tube. I was caned by the headmaster (a repulsive brute) for not doing some homework (or probably a lot of homework), and when on another occasion I was slapped across the face by same for chewing gum while he was chiding me, I left the building never to return.

So this was around 1972, a little before Pinker graduated from Dawson College. I got work, first on a pig farm in Nuriootpa (ok that lasted one day, but it felt like weeks), then at Wilkins Servis, a washing machine factory. Then at Atco Structures, building temporary school classrooms. In 1973, I somehow managed to land a job as an accounts clerk at Iplex Plastics, makers of PVC pipes, where I lasted nine months and became wealthy enough to to create my own record collection, becoming a lifelong fan of David Bowie and looking to get out of a house that was driving all its inhabitants crazy.

Pinker, meanwhile, had become a student of McGill University in Montreal, and was perhaps going through his own crises. Anyway, by the time he’d graduated in 1976 (with a BA in psychology) I’d spent seven memorable days in prison for ‘insufficient means of support’, in between working at another washing machine factory (Simpson-Pope), a small family foundry (Ellis wireworks) and a very depressing hospital (The Home for Incurables, later renamed the Julia Farr Centre, to the relief of all), which for all that I found to be one of the most rewarding jobs of my young career. My parents had separated by this time and in 1976-7 I lived for a few months with my father then my mother in the inner suburbs of Adelaide.

In 1977 or 1978, from memory, I was invited to moved in with a social worker I’d met at a youth camp. He’d taken a shine to me, it seems. He was about 8 years older than me, homosexual and a wee bit eccentric. He never wore clothes inside the house, sometimes answering the door naked. A more important connection for me, though was the other tenant, a visual arts student, ‘ages with me’, as the Scots say. He was smart and exploratory and through him I met a crowd of more or less interesting students, and began to feel I’d found my ‘scene’ at last.

It was while living with these two, and later with a maths and philosophy PhD student who introduced me to geeky science types who seemed even more congenial than the often anti-social arts crowd, that I started keeping a journal. That was about 1979. I kept the journal until 1995 when I bought my first computer. Or I should say journals, about 14 foolscap books covered in tiny inked print, presenting ideas, memories and tales of very varying quality no doubt. Two ‘self-obsessed’ individuals  in particular influenced my turn to diary-writing, or made me feel justified in the indulgence – Michel de Montaigne and Franz Kafka.

So this takes my life to 1979-80. Pinker went to Harvard University, I believe in 1977. Wikipedia tells us that Harvard ‘is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and one of the most prestigious and highly ranked universities in the world’. So he was doing okay, and no doubt working hard. He graduated with a PhD in 1979, after engaging in ‘doctoral studies in experimental psychology’. We’re then told he ‘did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a year, then became a professor at Harvard and then Stanford University’.

So, presumably he was at MIT in 1980. That was an interesting year for me. The federal government had introduced CAEs (Colleges of Advanced Education) in the late sixties (they died in the nineties) as something intermediate between universities and the TAFE (Technical and Further Education) system, and for some reason I was advised or impelled to enrol in one of them. I know that during much of my early twenties I was proud of my ‘autodidact’ status as a smartarse who’d opted out of formal education at fifteen, but I was also feeling the pressure. I hadn’t worked since my last factory job, as a slinger at a metal pipe factory, in late 1977, and going to college would at least keep the government off my back, and it might even lead somewhere. So I enrolled in a course called ‘Communication Studies’ at Hartley College, which involved classes in anthropology, philosophy, mathematics and I forget what else. I recall not ‘getting’ the maths stuff, though both anthropology and philosophy piqued my interest (I’d been reading bits and pieces of philosophy for years). I recall two proud moments – when the sociology lecturer called me into his office to discuss my essay on the potlatch system – which to my amazement he’d never heard of – and when the philosophy lecturer, who was also the senior administrator of the college – also called me in to commend an essay of mine and told me he could recommend for me a transfer to the Flinders University philosophy department at the end of the year.  However, when I blurted out that I was failing in all my other subjects, his interest cooled quite noticeably.

So I dropped out of Hartley College at the end of the year. But the 1980-1982 period was interesting for me housing-wise and in other ways. We’d been turfed out of our rental accommodation in early 1980, and spent a few months squatting and being moved on, until in mid-1980 I was accepted as a tenant in a very swish multi-bedroomed home set back from the road in a beautiful garden with a driveway lined with hibiscus bushes. And due to a sudden move-out of tenants after I moved in (hopefully not my fault), I soon found myself the inheritor of a huge furnished bedroom with an ensuite bathroom. The other tenants were mostly students, and the environment salubrious beyond my deserving. And as I soon became the most long-standing tenant, I was treated with unwonted deference by the others, which tickled me greatly. I also picked up a job in a nearby restaurant, my first paying job in about four years…

But, back to the other bloke, with his 1979 PhD. In 1980 he was presumably either a Harvard professor or just shy of becoming one. Not bad for someone around 26 years of age. And in 1982, while I was still working as a kitchen hand… well let me quote from the Wikipedia summary of his academic activities and movements over the next couple of decades :

From 1982 until 2003 Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, was the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Science (1985–1994), and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (1994–1999), taking a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1995–96.

Pinker was particularly interested in ‘cognitive linguistics’ at this time, methinks, which I also became somewhat interested in in the nineties. Generative grammar, and the way children pick language up so effortlessly, by and large, learning the exceptions along the way, does seem to suggest some sort of innate capacity. His first book was Language learnability and language development, published in 1984, and subsequent works  promoted a ‘nativist’ view of language acquisition, no doubt influenced by Chomsky’s work, but this is all controversial and much disputed, and I don’t feel expert enough to hold a solid opinion on the matter.

Meanwhile, back in Adelaide, we were turfed out of the share-house in mid-1982, for which I blame the tenants (not including me of course!) rather than the landlord – shameful behaviour I’d rather not go into. I soon found further share accommodation though, and continued my restaurant job well into 1983. And so it went, with lots of reading and writing and amateur discussion. I should mention that my reading, in 1981-2, of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in particular a central section in which Hans Castorp reflects, with a lot of time on his hands, on the origin of life and even of matter, had a strangely exhilarating impact on me, and from that time on I became more of a non-fiction than a fiction reader, starting I think with Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and each monthly issue of Scientific American. 

My peripatetic housing situation continued through the 80s and 90s, but, feeling that time was running out, I applied in 1985 for mature age entry to university, and received offers from Flinders and then Adelaide University, where I began as an arts undergraduate in 1986, breezing through with a degree majoring in French language and literature in 1988. I did actually start a biology class in my first year – presumably dumbed down for arts students – but I found that it took up all my time, and I kept botching up the lab work, so I gave it up, a decision I’ve always regretted.

In 1989 I accepted an offer to do honours French, while realising that it was all going nowhere in terms of earning a living. There was also the obvious fact that my French writing wasn’t of high quality, and that I could only dream of visiting that country to improve my usage, if in fact it would do so. Even so, I planned to write my thesis on the work of Stendhal, a writer of romantic inclinations, come moi, though I try to hide it, and a feminist avant la lettre, and also, like me, a writer more or less completely unknown in his lifetime, though he expressed some confidence that his time would come…  So the major pleasure of my honours year lay in acquainting myself with all of Stendhal’s works, major and minor.

I say my honours year – but I should say that I dropped out well before finishing (quelle surprise!), considering it all a bit pointless, again. In 1990 I began a post-graduate Diploma of Education, but my experience of ‘prac teaching’ turned me off teaching as a career – though later, when I started teaching English to adults, a much more interactive process (and not driven by a particular syllabus), I enjoyed it very much.

So we’re into the nineties now. Pinker was teaching at MIT and had written or co-written works on cognition, language and learning. Meanwhile, as mentioned, I dropped out of my one-year post-grad course near the end – in fact, this time I would’ve finished but for a very serious financial crisis which forced me to find work. So I spent the last couple of months of 1990 working at another factory, this time Griffin Press, the largest book printing and binding facility in the Southern Hemisphere, owned by one Rupert Murdoch. I worked there pretty well non-stop until mid-1993, loading bound but uncovered hardbacks onto a conveyor belt. I worked a permanent afternoon shift, from 3pm till near midnight, but sometimes, in the pre-Christmas period, I worked thirteen or fourteen hours straight, and I used some of the money to pay for undergraduate studies in English Lit, which I attended, somewhat listlessly, in the mornings. I’d discontinued English studies after the first year of my undergraduate course, considering it all too easy-breezy. Now I decided that I’d work towards an English honours degree… I mean, why not?

Some time in 1993 I was helped by a friend to jump from the then-ailing Griffin Press into a temp office job for the government’s Department of Social Security. And then, in 1994, I commenced full-time English Honours at the University of Adelaide.

Meanwhile, Steven Pinker was fully establishing himself as a writer of works for the common, albeit educated reader. The first of these was The Language Instinct published in 1994, which, inter alia, argued that language is a uniquely human trait. I (or we) may have more to say on that in another place. There’s been much controversy about the issue for decades.

I completed my honours year but not with great success. I had to support myself on my dwindling savings, and I couldn’t afford one of those new-fangled items called ‘word processors’ or ‘computers’, which most of my fellow-students had bought. Moreover, I couldn’t type to save myself, or my thesis (this was the first piece of typing I was asked, or forced, to do in my ‘academic career’).

So, I missed getting a first-class honours by a percentage or two, and I was again at a loose end as 1995 rolled around. Having kept journals for over 15 years by this time, I naturally fancied myself as a halfway talented writer, so I wrote what I deemed to be a wittily begging letter to The Adelaide Review, a local arts and politics rag, suggesting a few diverting or enlightening topics I could discourse upon. To my surprise I received a positive response, and I duly wrote a little piece on my childhood in Elizabeth, which was duly published some time in 1995 or 1996. I was now a ‘published writer’, and things started to run smoothly for a while. I added more to the piece until I had the makings of a novel, which was accepted by the only publisher  I approached and in 1997, after an endless editing process, my worst-selling novel In Elizabeth was published. I thought this was a new beginning, but it turned out to be the beginning of the end.

So I’ll try to be more brief, as I’ve gone on too long. In Elizabeth received some local publicity, I had my face plastered on the cover of the weekend magazine section of the local paper, but reviews were scarce, and mixed. Our principal national paper, The Australian, carried an article which dismissed my work briefly and attacked Wakefield Press, the publisher, at some length, for promoting inferior writers. This so shocked me that I could hardly get out of bed for a few days. I was later told by the head of Wakefield Press that the reviewer was miffed because Wakefield had rejected his poetry collection. Even so, Wakefield rejected my second novel, Sextet, explaining that they’d henceforth be focussing on non-fiction. Which in fact turned out be true. Apparently the lack of sales for In Elizabeth was the deciding factor?

So I tried another publisher, Text Publishing, a rather elite Melbourne-based outfit, and to my surprise the book was accepted within weeks. I had a charming phone conversation with the senior editor who found the work witty and insightful and looked forward to working with me. But then a couple of weeks later, I received another call from her, apologising profusely. The CEO had come back from holiday and, in his wisdom, reversed the decision. I didn’t have the heart to try another publisher, and thus ended my literary career.

A few words about Sextet. It told the tale of a shy, sex-obsessed young man who had the grand idea of geeing up his life by writing letters he hoped would be found amusing, charming and enlivening, to six different young women he more or less knew, and whom, as far as he knew, didn’t know each other, in the hope of captivating at least one heart, and the delightful body that went with it. And of course it all ends in tears, as far as I can recall. And of course it wasn’t remotely autobiographical.

So that MS remains archived in a box somewhere, rendered largely obsolete by the modern social media world.

We’re now into the late 90s, when I entered into a rather stormy but more or less permanent relationship with my current partner, did some further study in TESOL, and started teaching English to immigrants and foreign students in various locations, as well as doing a seven-year stint in the 2000s as a foster carer, feeling that my unhappy childhood experiences would be of use in handling sometimes difficult kids. Not sure if that turned out to be true.

I don’t know if much more needs to be said about Pinker, who I last left in the 90s, and who has since become a high-profile public intellectual in the manner of Dennett, Dawkins, Harris et al, and has published increasingly ambitious works about the general tenor of society and where it is and should be heading. Having read his earlier Big Books, I’m currently half-way through Rationality, and have become stuck on the matter of Bayesian inference/probability/statistics, which I’ve written about before, and which always strikes me as both more simple and more complicated than my curious intellect allows. I’ll let Canto and Jacinta mull over it yet again in an upcoming post.

References

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

https://ussromantics.com/category/gambling/

https://ussromantics.com/category/bayesian-probability/

what is Bayesian inference?

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2023 at 3:36 pm

Posted in biography

Tagged with

do bonobos love each other?

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Fly with me, lift me up to my feet, set me free from this skin I’ve been too long in

Leddra Chapman, ‘Picking Oranges’

I got to know that your heart beats fast, and I got to know I’m the only one for you. What have I become? I’m a fucking monster, when all I wanted was something beautiful. My love, too much. Your love, not enough

Meg Myers, ‘Monster’

It wasn’t that I didn’t wanna hold your hand, I just knew if we held tight once, we would never let go. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to call you mine – but, you’re not mine

Liza Anne, ‘Watering Can’

right… but why only two?

Canto: So bonobos have been called the ‘make love not war ‘ apes, a joke moniker in a way, but I’ve been thinking about that in an attempt to be more serious about love, fellow-feeling and all that stuff, in bonobos, humans, and other species.

Jacinta: Yes, the idea of ‘true love’, which involves some kind of eternal monogamy, and is seen as peculiarly human, and sells ye olde penny romances, is still with us, and whole governments are raised around it – the couple, the nuclear family and such. Of course, in the WEIRD world, there are increasingly diverse ‘household arrangements’, but they still generally involve separate, enclosed households. Ye olde hippy free love encampments, if they were anything other than an imaginary figment, seem as distant now as our connection with bonobos. A while back we read Ferdinand Mount’s 1982 book The Subversive Family: An Alternative History of Love and Marriage, a fairly well-reasoned defence of marriage and monogamy, and its glorious survival in spite of the free love mini-revolution, but of course he didn’t mention bonobos or speculate about the domestic arrangements of australopithecines.

Canto: Mount was – still is – a lifelong conservative, so his history was always going to be tendentious, and as you say, limited to more recent times, so it didn’t really address how we came to be monogamous, if that’s what we are. And just to set the scene with our loving cousins:

Bonobos do not form permanent monogamous sexual relationships with individual partners. They also do not seem to discriminate in their sexual behavior by sex or age, with the possible exception of abstaining from sexual activity between mothers and their adult sons.

Wikipedia entry: bonobo sociosexual behaviour

 

Jacinta: Conservatives wouldn’t be too happy about that sort of indiscriminate behaviour among humans, but they’d be hard pressed to argue that bonobos are ‘immoral’ or selfish, or dysfunctional and a behavioural threat to the well-being of their own society.

Canto: No, they’d probably just argue that they’re not humans and we have nothing much to learn from them. We’re 8 billion, after all, and they’re just a few thousand. We win! But I don’t think our success has much to do with our domestic arrangements. It presumably has more to do with the enlargement of our prefrontal cortex, and the causes of that, which were presumably numerous and incremental, may have also brought about an increasing division of labour along patriarchal lines.

Jacinta: Certainly our history, at least since it has been recorded, has been overwhelmingly patriarchal. Hunting as a largely male activity, as I believe it also is in chimps, could be kind of brutalising, as it’s a kill-or-be-killed activity at its worst.

Canto: Meanwhile bonobos have been evolving in their own way over the past few million years. Or not. I mean, they’ve been content to stay in the forest, in a pretty lush part of the Congo, consuming a very largely vegetarian diet, not exactly requiring a lot in the way of muscles and physical prowess. And get this, again from Wikipedia:

Bonobo clitorises are larger and more externalized than in most mammals; while the weight of a young adolescent female bonobo “is maybe half” that of a human teenager, she has a clitoris that is “three times bigger than the human equivalent, and visible enough to waggle unmistakably as she walks”

As they say ‘exercise makes the clit grow longer’. Dunnit?

Jacinta: Well, it’s true, bonobo females engage in genito-genital rubbing more than males do, and this seems to form the basis of female group dynamics, which has led to female dominance. Unfortunately in humans, clothing creates a major barrier to this activity, at least in public.

Canto: Ahh, the terrible price of civilisation. But what I’m interested in is the effect of female dominance. Yes, it’s mediated to a large degree by sexual play, and a general closeness, which we don’t seem to have the maturity to adopt, so obsessed have we been with sexual possessiveness and jealousy, to the point of stoning people – sorry, women – for adultery. Death by drowning was the punishment back in Hammurabi’s day, almost 4000 years ago. Under Ancient Greek and Roman law, women could be executed for adultery, while the men would rarely get more than a smacked bottom.

Jacinta: Actually, stoning is still a punishment, for both genders, in countries that apply strict Shari’ah law. But in the WEIRD world, where no-fault divorce is increasingly accepted, adultery has faded as an issue. And generally we’ve become more relaxed about sexuality in all its varieties, and more sceptical about ‘love’, of the everlasting and exclusive type.

Canto: Yes, and yet… love, whether it’s a human invention or not, or whether it’s just hormones – it really hurts. You develop this ridiculous passion for someone, her movements, her smile, her vitality – though she has as much interest in you as in a rotten egg. Or she takes a general interest but backs off when she senses your need. And that’s just ‘unrequited love’. Even when it’s a mutual passion it can sooner or later turn to shit. The quotes above are just three of thousands that could be mined from songs, stories, legends and our own lives. Great expectations, dashed, sublimated, given up on, nursed in solitude. A tension between the cult of individuality and its freedoms and the love that loves to speak its name, where those individuals go together like a horse and carriage, like fire and ice, Batman and Robin, Venus and Mars…

Jacinta: Well, humans do tend to overthink these matters, or over-feel them perhaps, what with our heightened sensibilities. And our civilisations have tended to push us towards exclusive ‘love relations’, and the concept of ownership:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Exodus 20:17)

So it’s not just that we’ve fallen for the myth of true love and the ideal partner – our society has created a monogamous reproductive norm, and for a good few millennia (not really so long in human history, but we know hardly anything about our sociosexual behaviour beyond the last 10,000 years or so) we’ve fallen in with it – leaving aside sultans, random monarchs and the odd billionaire entrepreneur. Our homes have, over time, become designed to largely rule out even extended family togetherness. Bonobos don’t have homes and they’re not particularly territorial….

Canto: Well, to change the subject, I’m interested in that description of bonobo clitorises. It sounds wild -so to speak. And of course it sounds very much like a penis. It all makes me think of the whole penis envy malarky of Freudian psychotherapy. Not a problem for bonobos, clearly. If we get our social evolution right, our female descendants in the non-foreseeable future (if that makes any sense) will be waggling those clits about most merrily.

Jacinta: Hah, makes a change from current-day ‘clitoridectomy’ aka FGM.

Canto: Well, they could give em a trim, like modern-day circumcision. Or have em shaped and coloured, like orchids….

Jacinta: Lovely. Interestingly, Simone de Beauvoir touches on this in The Second Sex, probably influenced by the penis envy ideas of the time. Writing of woman:

her anatomy condemns her to remain awkward and impotent, like a eunuch: the desire for possession is thwarted for lack of an organ to incarnate it. And man refuses the passive role.

No organ permits the virgin to satisfy her active eroticism; and she does not have the lived experience of he who condemns her to passivity.

the second sex, trans. C Borde & S Malovany-Chevallier, vintage books 2011

 

But in the WEIRD world, things have changed, or are changing, and hopefully girls are much more expert at playing the organ. Though, unlike bonobos, it’s largely done in solitude.

Canto: But do bonobos love each other, or just each others’ organs? It’s probably as uninteresting a question as What’s this thing called, love? 

Jacinta: Well, that’s it, bonobos just get it together, not just for sex, but for safety in numbers, for huddling and cuddling, for play, for warmth, food-sharing and back-scratching. I doubt if they wonder if it’s really love, or how selfish or selfless they’re being. It’s their life – one of community rather than pairing off – as long as they can be left to get on with it.

References

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

https://www.britannica.com/topic/adultery

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family: an alternative history of love and marriage, 1982

Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Written by stewart henderson

January 2, 2023 at 12:20 pm

Exploring the future of nuclear fusion

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Canto: So, with Christmas cookery and indulgence behind us, it’s time to focus on another topic we know little about, nuclear fusion – or I should say human-engineered nuclear fusion. Ignition has recently been achieved for the first time, so where do we go from here?

Jacinta: Well I listened to Dr Becky the astrophysicist on this and other topics, and she puts the ignition thing into perspective. So it occurred back on December 5 at the National Ignition Facility in California. As Dr Becky explains it, it involves ‘taking 4 atoms of hydrogen and forcing them together to make helium’, which is slightly lighter than the four hydrogens, and this mass difference can, and in this case has, produced energy according to special relativity. Of course fusion occurs in stars (not just involving hydrogen into helium) and it can potentially produce huge volumes of clean energy. But there’s a big but, and that’s about the high temperatures and densities needed for ignition. Those conditions are needed to overcome the forces that keep atoms apart. 

Canto: Yes they used high-powered lasers, which together focus on heavy hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium – to produce helium. And this has been achieved before a number of times, but ignition specifically occurs when the energy output is greater than the input, potentially creating a self-sustaining cycle of fusion reactions. And the difficulties in getting to that output – that is, in creating the most effective input – have been astronomical, apparently. They’ve involved configuring the set of nearly 200 lasers in the right way, using ultra-complex computational analysis, recently guided by machine learning. And this has finally led to the recent breakthrough, in which an energy input of 2.05 megajoules produced an output of 3.15 megajoules…

Jacinta: 1.1 megajoules means ignition, though it’s nothing earth-shattering energy-wise. It’s apparently equivalent to about 0.3 kilowatt-hours (kWh) – enough energy for about two hours of TV watching according to Dr Becky. And also this was about the energy delivered to the particles to create the reaction, it didn’t include the amount of energy required to power the lasers themselves – approximately 300 megajoules. So, good proof-of-concept stuff, but scaling up will be a long and winding road, wethinks. 

Canto: Another favourite broadcaster of ours, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, also covers this story, and provides much the same figures (400 megajoules for the lasers). She also points out that, though it’s a breakthrough, it’s hardly surprising given how close experimenters have been getting to ignition in recent attempts. And she is probably even more emphatic about the long road ahead – we need to ramp up the output more than a hundred-fold to achieve anything like nuclear fusion energy at economically viable levels. 

Jacinta: I’m interested in the further detail Dr Hossenfelder supplies. For example the NIF lasers were fired at a tiny golden cylinder of isotopes. There must be a good reason for the use of gold here. She also describes the isotopes as ‘a tiny coated pellet’. What’s the coating and why? She further explains ‘the lasers heat the pellet until it becomes a plasma, which in turn produces x-rays that attempt to escape in all directions’. This method of arriving at fusion is called ‘inertial confinement’. Another competing method is magnetic confinement, which uses tokamaks and stellarators. A tokamak – the word comes from a Russian acronym meaning ‘toroidal chamber with magnetic coils’ – uses magnetism to confine plasma in a torus – a doughnut shape. A stellarator…

Canto: Here’s the difference apparently:

In the tokamak, the rotational transform of a helical magnetic field is formed by a toroidal field generated by external coils together with a poloidal field generated by the plasma current. In the stellarator, the twisting field is produced entirely by external non-axisymmetric coils. 

Jacinta: Ah, right, we’ll get back to that shortly. The Joint European Torus (JET) holds the record for toroidal systems at 0.7, which presumably means they’re a little over two thirds of the way to ignition. 

Canto: A poloidal field (such as the geomagnetic field at the Earth’s surface) is a magnetic field with radial and tangential components. Radial fields are generated from a central point and weaken as they move outward.

Jacinta: PBS also reports this, citing precisely 192 lasers, and a 1mm pellet of deuterium and tritium fuel inside a gold cannister:

When the lasers hit the canister, they produce X-rays that heat and compress the fuel pellet to about 20 times the density of lead and to more than 5 million degrees Fahrenheit (3 million Celsius) – about 100 times hotter than the surface of the Sun. If you can maintain these conditions for a long enough time, the fuel will fuse and release energy.

Canto:  So the question is, does nuclear fusion have a realistic future as a fuel?

Jacinta: Well, did the internet have a realistic future 50 years ago? We’ve had a breakthrough recently, and the only way is up. 

Canto: Yeah the future looks interesting after I’m dead. Still, it’s worth following the progress. Back in February The Guardian reported that JET had smashed its own world record, producing ’59 megajoules of energy over five seconds (11 megawatts of power)’. Whatever that means, it wasn’t ignition – it might’ve been the .7 you mentioned earlier. Creating a mini-star for five seconds was what one experimenter called it, which I think was in some ways better than the current effort, in that it created more energy in absolutes terms, but less energy than the input. 

Jacinta: Perhaps, but what they call ‘gain’ is an important measure. This recent experiment created a gain of about 1.5 – remember just over 3 megajoules of energy was put out from just over 2 megajoules of input. It’s a start but a much bigger gain is required, and the cost and efficiency of the lasers – or alternative technologies – needs to be much reduced. 

Canto: Apparently deuterium and tritium are both needed for effective fusion, but tritium is quite rare, unlike deuterium, which abounds in ocean waters. Tritium is also a byproduct of the fusion process, so the hope is that it can be harvested along the way. 

Jacinta: Of course the costs are enormous, but the benefits could easily outweigh them – if only we could come together, like bonobos, and combine our wits and resources. Here’s an interesting quote from the International Atomic Energy Agency:

In theory, with just a few grams of these reactants [deuterium and tritium], it is possible to produce a terajoule of energy, which is approximately the energy one person in a developed country needs over sixty years.

Canto: Really? Who will be that lucky person? But you’re right – collaboration on a grand scale is what this kind of project requires, and that requires a thoroughly human bonoboism married to a fully bonoboesque humanism….

References

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/what-a-breakthrough-in-nuclear-fusion-technology-means-for-the-future-of-clean-energy

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/dec/13/carbon-free-energy-fusion-reaction-scientists

https://www.iaea.org/bulletin/what-is-fusion-and-why-is-it-so-difficult-to-achieve

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-60312633

Written by stewart henderson

December 29, 2022 at 6:26 pm

Imagining a Bonobo magazine, then back to harsh reality – Taiwan, Iran, Cuba, the UAE

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Jacinta: I have this fantasy of going back in time to my younger self, a few decades ago, knowing what I know now (so that I could invest in companies I now know have been successful, and wouldn’t have to work ‘for the man’). I’d start a magazine promoting female empowerment, highlighting female high achievers in science, art, politics and business, and I’d call the magazine Bonobo. It would of course be ragingly successful, promoting the cause of women and bonobos in equally dizzying proportions…

Canto: Yeah, and I have this fantasy of going back to pre-adolescent days and changing sex. Gender reassignment and all that, but I’d definitely be a lesbian.

Jacinta: And later you’d land a plum job, working for Bonobo. But returning to the 21st century, and I’m disappointed to hear that Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s President, recently resigned as chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party, due to its poor showing in recent local elections. The opposition Kuomintang, a party with a pretty dubious history, tends to be pro-China – that’s to say, the Chinese Testosterone Party – so I’m not sure what’s going on there. I’ve read that the elections were fought mostly on local issues, but it’s still a worry. We might do a deeper dive on the topic in the near future. I read about Taiwan’s new democracy in Glimpses of Utopia, by the author and Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, Jess Scully, and it sounded exciting – I recall one Taiwanese commentator saying something like ‘because we’re a new democracy we’re not hidebound by tradition [unlike the USA with its revered and hopelessly out-dated constitution etc etc], we can be more innovative’. But the forces of conservatism are always there to drag us back.

Canto: And speaking of conservatism, or more like medievalism, how about Iran?

Jacinta: Well I don’t feel optimistic, at least not for the near future. Of course the enforcement of the hijab is pure oppression, but these male oppressors have been in power since 1979, and before that the Shah had become increasingly oppressive and dictatorial, so one kind of quasi-fascism was replaced by an ultimately more brutal religious version. The recent protests were sparked by the death of a young Kurdish woman in custody, but unrest has been brewing for some time, not just over the hijab and the disgusting treatment of women, but the increasingly dire economic situation.

Canto: Meanwhile Iran is supplying drones to Russia, to help them kill Ukrainians. WTF is that all about?

Jacinta: Well mostly it seems to be about the fact that both nations have an obsessive hatred, and I suppose fear, of the USA. So ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. That’s how the New York Times puts it, though I’d say it’s not just the USA, it’s democracy and ‘western values’. Iran and Putinland have worked together before, to decimate the opposition to that Syrian dictator, Whatsisface, for whatever reason. Interestingly, though the Iranian dictatorship’s support for Putin is another cause of domestic dissent – the Iranian people tend to favour the underdog, unsurprisingly.

Canto: And many of the most seasoned experts believe this war – essentially between Putinland and NATO, but with most of the victims being Ukrainians – could drag on for years. Putin is stuck with a predicament of his own making, having gotten away with similar behaviour in Chechnya, Syria, Georgia, and of course Ukraine back in 2014. This time has been disastrously different, but he won’t let go before killing as many Ukrainians as he possibly can. And having created a macho thugocracy, it’s likely his main adversaries within Putinland are those even more thuggish than himself.

Jacinta: Yes, all claims that he’s about to flee the country, or that he has testicular cancer of the brain or whatever, are nothing more than phantasy. Still, as we’re a little younger than he is, and imbibing a less toxic atmosphere, it will be a joy to witness his last end.

Canto: It’s funny but of all the current crop of malignant male ‘leaders’, the one that, for some reason, fills me with the most uncontrollable rage is Xi Jinping. I’m not sure why. I’m clearly not cut out to be a diplomat, my fantasies are way too nasty.

Jacinta: Hmmm. Possibly because he, and the Chinese thugocracy in general, are much more low key and business-like in their campaigns of oppression and mass-murder. Xi, of course, is an admirer, or pretends to be, of old Mao, the greatest mass-murderer of his own people in the history of this planet. I can hardly imagine Xi flying into a Hitlerian rage about anything. It makes him see all the more inhuman. I’ve been hoping, without much hope, that the USA – the only country Xi might be a little afraid of – would elect a female leader in the very near future, and that she would then slap him about in a well-publicised heads-of-state meet-up.

Canto: Haha, now that’s a fruitier fantasy I must say. So what about the USA, supposedly our ally? Are we supposed to accept their hubristic jingoism – with a pinch of salt? Clearly we want to be on their side against the different varieties of thugocracy on offer, but this obsession with dear leaders instead of parties and policies and negotiations and compromises and dialogue, it’s pretty tedious. Maybe we need female leaders to slap sense into all these partisan screamers….

Jacinta: There are plenty of female partisan screamers actually. With female leadership it’s a matter of degree. There are publicity hounds who make a lot of partisan noises, but most of them are male. Many of them are female of course, and I have no illusions about that, but all the evidence shows that by and large women are more into mending fences rather than smashing them, but that’s not what gets the publicity.

Canto: I do feel inspired, in a small way, about the Australian situation, arrived at recently, with a substantial increase in female representation in parliament. This has been ongoing, but the May Federal election has boosted female numbers substantially. 38% female representation, the highest in Australian history. Compare that to 27% in the US Congress, and 35% in the UK Parliament – another all-time high.

Jacinta: Well here’s a story, from the Washington Post:

New Zealand made history — or herstory — this week as female lawmakers became the majority, narrowly outnumbering their male counterparts in Parliament for the first time. On Tuesday, Soraya Peke-Mason was sworn in as a lawmaker for the Labour Party, tipping the country’s legislative body to 60 women and 59 men.

That was posted in late October. And there were more surprises, for me at least:

Only five countries share Wellington’s achievement, with at least half of lawmakers being women, among them Rwanda, where more than 60 percent of its lawmakers are women, Cuba (53 percent), Nicaragua (51 percent), Mexico (50 percent) and the United Arab Emirates (50 percent), according to data from the [Inter-Parliamentary Union]. The countries that fall just short of 50 percent include Iceland, Grenada and South Africa.

Canto: Well, that’s surprising, even shocking. We don’t think of many of those countries as being enlightened or particularly pro-female.

Jacinta: Yes we’ll have to do a deeper dive. I have heard good things about the UAE, I think, but not so much about Cuba or Nicaragua. Think of Latino machismo and all that. So I’ve been reading a piece on Cuba from a few years ago, and plus ça change… or I could say, lies, damn lies, and statistics. Here’s a couple of quotes:

As far as power dynamics go, the machismo mentality ensures that men receive the upper hand. All you have to do is walk down the street to see machismo at work. Catcalls, or piropos, and other forms of (non-physical) sexual harassment are unavoidable for women, even on a five-minute walk. This culture of machismo is deeply embedded in Cuban society and indicative of deeper, institutionalized gender inequalities as well.

And forget all that apparent parliamentary representation:

In actuality, employed women in Cuba do not hold positions of power—either political or monetary. The Cuban Congress, although elected by the people, is not the political body that truly calls the shots. The Cuban Communist Party—only about 7 percent of which is made up of women—holds true political power. Markedly, the systems of evaluating gender equality in other countries around the world aren’t universally applicable, as women are much less represented in the true governing body of Cuba than we are led to believe. In addition, the professions that are usually synonymous with monetary wealth and the power and access that come with it (doctors, professors, etc.) do not yield the same financial reward here. Doctors and professors are technically state-employed and, therefore, earn the standard state wage of about $30 per month. This means women employed in these traditionally high-paying fields are denied access to even monetary power as a form of establishing more of an equal footing with men.

Canto: Yes, cultural shifts happen much more rarely, or slowly, than we always hope….

Jacinta: So now to check out the UAE, where I expect to find my hopes dashed once more. But it seems the UAE definitely stands out, at least a bit, in one of the world’s most ultra-patriarchal regions. The website of the UAE embassy in Washington has a puff piece in which it proudly references the 2021 Women, Peace and Security Index, in which the UAE is ‘ranked first in MENA [the Middle East and North Africa] and 24th globally on women’s inclusion, justice and security’. However, it’s a Muslim culture, and culture rarely shifts much with the political winds, as DBC Pierre eloquently argues in a brief piece on Kandahar and the Afghan wars in volume 34 of New Philosopher. It might be argued that even Islam is a Johnny-come-lately in the tribal traditions of these desert regions. The Expatica website, which is designed to prepare workers for the challenges of living and working within a foreign culture, also argues that many of the political changes represent the thinnest of veneers. For example, female genital mutilation is still relatively common in rural areas, and Islamic Law is followed in the matter of domestic violence, to the detriment of women. This website claims the UAE ranks 49th in the world for gender equality, somewhat contradicting the embassy site, but without reference.

Canto: Hmmm. I’d rather work with bonobos. But they don’t really need us, do they?

References

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-63768538

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/26/new-zealand-women-parliament-gender/

Glimpses of utopia, by Jess Scully, 2020

https://www.britannica.com/event/Iranian-Revolution/Aftermath

https://www.government.nl/latest/news/2022/12/16/iran-questions-and-answers-about-the-situation-and-sanctions

https://data.ipu.org/women-ranking?month=1&year=2022

https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/the-truth-about-gender-equality-in-cuba

https://www.uae-embassy.org/discover-uae/society/women-in-the-uae

‘Hidden truths’, by DBC Pierre: New Philosopher 34: Truth

https://www.expatica.com/ae/living/gov-law-admin/womens-rights-in-the-united-arab-emirates-71118/

 

Written by stewart henderson

December 23, 2022 at 9:20 pm

adult ADHD – what’s the buzz?

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Jacinta: So this is a commissioned piece, sort of, by someone who wants us to look into this disorder (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, in full), for our sakes and of course for the sake of humanity.

Canto: Sounds like a first world issue to me.

Jacinta: Okay consider yourself lucky you don’t have to scrounge around rubbish heaps for a living, or travel miles on a half-dead donkey to see a medico, or dodge government bullets because you’re an outspoken female…

Canto: Okay okay. So we know that diagnoses of adult ADHD have risen substantially in recent years, in the WEIRD* world, along with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, PTSD, chronic fatigue syndrome, and others. A lot of work is being created for clinical psychologists, and the waiting lists are getting longer. 

Jacinta: So we’ve started by watching a couple of videos, one from CNBC in the US, another from the ABC in Australia. And a few points here about research and reliable info. Avoid social media! And for the most part avoid commercial news and info networks, which are privately owned and often have a commercial-financial agenda. The most reliable sources in the WEIRD world are generally government subsidised and mandated sites (the ABC in Australia, the BBC in Britain, PBS and NPR in the USA, DW (Deutsche Welle) in Germany, France TV and Radio France, for example). 

Canto: Well, we’ve broken that rule by starting with this video from CNBC, but it does give a good overview of the symptoms, via field professionals such as Dr Leonard Adler, director of an adult ADHD programme at NYU. The symptoms are divided into two types, those associated with inattentiveness and with hyperactivity, though there are obvious crossovers. Under each type heading, nine more or less connected symptoms are described. For example, symptoms of inattentiveness include ‘forgetfulness in daily activities’, ‘failure to finish tasks’ and ‘losing important things’, and under hyperactivity comes ‘interrupting others’ or ‘trouble with turn-taking’, and ‘being always ‘on the go”. Apparently you need at least five of the nine symptoms in either category to be diagnosed with ADHD, at least in the USA. Personally, I can relate to all of the symptoms some of the time. All of this, by the way, comes from the famous, or infamous, DSM-5, the 5th edition of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 

Jacinta: So you may be skeptical, but on the question posed throughout this video: ‘Is ADHD on the rise or is there simply a rise in diagnoses?’, my answer would be ‘yes there is a rise in diagnoses’, but not for the cynical reason you seem to favour – that it’s all about lining the pockets of psychiatrists. Remember we’ve been studying Freud and the post-Freudians, who pioneered the uncovering of disorders due to childhood trauma, sexual repression, unconscious guilt and the like, all in a groping, hit-and-miss sort of way, before anything much was known of neurology, endocrinology or genetics. Now in the 21st century, we can make connections between genetics, family and personal histories and brain processes in a more scientific way – at least slightly. There’s a long way to go. And this has led us to the reality of ongoing behavioural disorders, where previously people were just considered in vague terms as oddballs, eccentrics, psychos, losers or pains in the arse. 

Canto: Steady on. I understand that it’s not about having some symptoms sometimes, which we all do, it’s about having a number of them to a degree that it becomes debilitating. And, as more than one expert has said, what’s frustrating to these sufferers is that sometimes, with certain specific tasks, or aspects of their professional lives, they perform perfectly well on a regular basis, while the rest of their lives are a mess of procrastination, disorganisation, impulsivity and the like. But the more I learn about the disorder, the more I wonder about treatment. These symptoms seem so multi-faceted, I can’t imagine how they can be dealt with though drugs. I can’t even begin to imagine the brain chemistry behind such varied behaviour. Surely there’s no medication that’s going to make you more organised or a better listener – never mind both at the same time.

Jacinta: Well, and yet it all has to be about brain chemistry and signalling. What else can it be? And patterns of behaviour – that’s to say, patterns of brain signalling, that have become habitual since childhood. In response to family dynamics and such. No free will, remember. Much that I’ve heard so far indicates that it runs in families. And of course there are prescription medications for the disorder. So we have to look at effectiveness (method of action), cost, availability and any side-effects or downsides. And then there are other treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy. 

Canto: Yeah I’ve heard that medications are expensive, and I doubt that therapy comes cheaply either. But let’s look at the brain of ADHD sufferers and what can be done medically, if anything, to alter it. 

Jacinta: Well Britain’s National Health Service has this to say: 

Research has identified a number of possible differences in the brains of people with ADHD from those without the condition, although the exact significance of these is not clear. For example, studies involving brain scans have suggested that certain areas of the brain may be smaller in people with ADHD, whereas other areas may be larger. Other studies have suggested that people with ADHD may have an imbalance in the level of neurotransmitters in the brain, or that these chemicals may not work properly.

Canto: Wow, that’s really informative. I like the bit about smaller or larger. Are they talking about brains or dicks? I mean, really… 

Jacinta: Hmm. We need to look at research papers. And one thing I note is that researchers don’t readily distinguish ‘Adult ADHD’ because it’s understood to have emerged in childhood, though symptoms might have changed over time. In fact many children may ‘get over it’. Dr Judy Ho, in an interview on ADHD in the USA, quoted that childhood ADHD affects some 5% of the population but the adult version affects some 2.5%, which seems to make sense. 

Canto: Well, having checked Google Scholar, I don’t see much in the way of recent research that jumps out. Sheeting home the various symptoms of the disorder to brain chemistry is really difficult…

Jacinta: Well since they do have medications on the market – the NHS describes 5 types- methylphenidate, lisdexamfetamine, dexamfetamine, atomoxetine and guanfacine – and these presumably work on brain chemistry, they must have some idea. ..

Canto: Well these are generally amfetamines, which act as stimulants, speeding up brain functions through the release of hormones and monoamine neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine, and this kind of ‘upper’ activity would help with the disorder most associated with ADHD, which is depression, though there are definite downsides related to prolonged use or overuse. Combining, and possibly replacing, such medications with more behavioural-analytical treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy might be an idea, if there were enough decent therapists around, and if it was affordable, but it’s all a bit hit and miss. 

Jacinta: You have to distinguish between proximal causes and ultimate causes. The proximal causes of most of these conditions is hormone levels and neurotransmitter activity, but that says nothing about why those levels are higher in some people than in others. If you don’t know the underlying causes, you’re just treating symptoms – drugging people to behave ‘normally’. But those underlying causes are generally fiendishly difficult to deal with – for example how can you cure an abused childhood, or damage done in the womb? 

Canto: But many people with ADHD may just want to be ‘normalised’, to a degree. They know that what’s been done to them can’t be undone, but they just might want those symptoms reduced, to concentrate better, to be more organised, to calm down, whatever. 

Jacinta: And given that we’re not that good at tolerating differences, why not give people drugs so they can all be the same, at least tolerably so….

*western ,educated,industrial,rich,democratic

References

ADD/ADHD – What is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? (video)

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/treatment/

https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/index.html


Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2022 at 9:39 pm

catching up on SARS-CoV-2

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Canto: So, having largely ignored COVID-19 in the last few months, since having my fourth vaccine, which came before or after having tested positive (a RAT test) for the virus, with minimal symptoms – and I suppose it may have been a false positive – I hear that it’s still causing serious problems two years on. And I’m still encountering people who make light of the virus, and are ‘on the fence’ about ‘the whole vaccine thing’, so I think we should explore the situation anew – variants, comorbidities, actions to be taken, long covid etc etc.

Jacinta: Okay, another interminable conversation perhaps. Where do we start? According to a graph (see below) on the situation in South Australia, case numbers have spiked a few times in the last year, but the graphic gives no indication of severity of symptoms. The reporting on new cases seems to be more sporadic at the moment, which explains the gap between the lines, which are getting disturbingly longer. We’ve noticed of course, that mask-wearing and other precaution-taking has slackened off during the year, and government-enforced mandates were lifted months ago….

Canto: And few people seem to be concerned about crowded settings any more… The ABC has a state-by state report, referenced below, which gives weekly stats. It shows that in every single state and territory the case numbers for the last week were higher than those of the week before. Their site presents a rather alarming graphic of case numbers over the last four months, which speaks for itself:

Jacinta: And yet, as you say, covid fatigue, or rather covid restrictions fatigue, has set in, and governments are no doubt reluctant to get tough again, unless things get even worse. What I’m hearing, from people much younger than me, is that it’s no big deal for the young and healthy, only elderly people or those with comorbidities need to worry – and of course it’s all a bit overblown. I hesitate to ask if they’ve been fully vaxed – they’ve obviously never heard of Typhoid Mary.

Canto: And that was 100 years ago – the germ theory of disease wasn’t fully accepted then, but now information is easily available.

Jacinta: And so is misinformation. Anyway, the ‘fourth wave’ is now underway, according to the media. According to Dr Nancy Baxter in an ABC interview, our vaccine immunity has declined over time and most covid restrictions are gone, so numbers are increasing again, and hospitalisations are rising.

Canto: My sympathies go to all the medicos, nurses and other such workers out there. What about death rates – and what about variants, where are we with those?

Jacinta: So just over a month ago the federal government’s Chief Medical Officer made this public statement:

We are seeing an increase in COVID-19 case numbers in Australia, reflecting community transmission of the Omicron variant XBB. We are also closely monitoring the overseas transmission of a second Omicron variant – BQ.1. While evidence is still emerging, the experience to date with these two variants overseas is that they do not appear to pose a greater risk of severe illness and death – and that the COVID-19 vaccines provide good protection against these outcomes. All indications are that this is the start of a new COVID-19 wave in Australia. This was to be expected and will be part of living with COVID-19 into the future. The overseas experience is that these new variants have driven increases in case numbers – and hospitalisations at a rate proportionate to these increases – because of their ability to evade the immunity provided by prior infection and vaccination.

So, not more deadly, but each new variant that comes to our attention does so because it has varied sufficiently to evade the immunity provided by previous infections and the vaccines created to target those earlier forms of the virus. So this could be an ongoing problem, as the CMO says.

Canto: So doesn’t this remind you of the antibiotics dilemma? Rapid reproduction means rapid variation, and we can’t keep up, with antibiotics or vaccines. We’re all doomed!

Jacinta: Well, the panic seems to be over – though panic is the wrong word, to be sure – but case numbers continue to be high, though they appear to go in waves, as every new more successful variant comes along. And death rates, which of course lag case rates and are complicated by comorbidity and age factors, are still higher than we’d like them to be. It’s a weird situation we’re in now, with so many people being in denial or just switched off, perhaps because they’ve made it okay thus far. But of course we’re not doomed – we just need to keep informed about our local area, keep up the vaccines as required, and take precautions as necessary. Remember it’s a largely airborne virus, and it loves crowds of people in enclosed spaces.

Canto: Well we might be keeping up with the vaccines, but are the vaccines keeping up with the variants?

Jacinta: Well this week the CDC in the USA came out with an advisory about updated (bivalent) boosters for adults and children – though the adult one came out on September 2, so not so recent…

Canto: What’s a bivalent booster?

Jacinta: That’s a vaccine that confers immunity to two antigens, such as two versions of a virus, as is presumably the case here. So they’re able to tweak vaccines to cover new variants, methinks. Seems to be a bit of a race between antigens and prophylactics. As to keeping up, an article from the Nature website (referenced below) provides reassurance:

Booster shots against current SARS-CoV-2 variants can help the human immune system to fight variants that don’t exist yet. That’s the implication of two new studies analysing how a booster shot or breakthrough infection affects antibody-producing cells: some of these cells evolve over time to exclusively create new antibodies that target new strains, whereas others produce antibodies against both new and old strains.

Canto: So the message clearly seems to be to keep up the boosters, which I strongly suspect young healthy people aren’t doing, so they’re playing dice with their own health as well as threatening the health of others inadvertently, as more of less healthy carriers of the virus.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s really a difficult message to get through to the young, especially if they’re not in contact with serious sufferers or the mortality of loved ones.

Canto: Okay, so it’s an ongoing drama at present. I’m hoping that we can look at the long covid issue sometime soon, another complex problem, due to symptom variety, skepticism, and the whole issue of treatment.

Jacinta: Yes – whether the pandemic is over or not is a live issue. Sometimes I get the impression that it’s over just because people want it to be over. They want to return to ‘normality’ whatever the consequences. The virus may teach us otherwise. We need to keep an eye on it.

References

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-12-09/covid-19-news-case-numbers-states-territories-december-9/101754038

https://www.health.gov.au/news/new-covid-19-variant-leads-to-increase-in-cases

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/stay-up-to-date.html

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

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-03119-3

Written by stewart henderson

December 15, 2022 at 9:15 pm

Posted in covid19, immunology

Tagged with , , ,