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an interminable conversation 12: more on hydrogen, and wondering about local power costs

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filched from an anti-global warming dinosaur – all’s fair….

Jacinta: So we’ve learned a lot about the problems with hydrogen as a potential fuel, and its problems as a chemical, in the production of fertiliser, in the petrochemical industry, and the need to clean up such usage, for example the contribution of ‘fugitive methane’ to carbon emissions. We also learned that carbon capture and storage, mooted for decades, seems to be going nowhere, largely due to its unprofitability re the private sector…

Canto: So now we’re going to listen to Rosie Barnes, of “Engineering with Rosie”, at a Hydrogen Online Conference, one of many interactive conferences apparently being planned. I’ve heard Rosie before, expressing some skepticism about hydrogen in general, so I’m surprised that she’s prepared to enter the ‘lion’s den’ of what I naturally presume to be hydrogen advocacy.

Jacinta: Yes I’m not sure I want to listen to the post-talk interactive session of this video, as I’m a bit squeamish about confrontation. Why can’t everybody just be nice and agree about everything?!

Canto: Yeah well Rosie begins with the question – which hydrogen projects should we prioritise?  And she also mentions the hydrogen energy supply chain, which is apparently a liquid hydrogen transport project between Australia and Japan, about which I know nothing.

Jacinta: Though actually we did write about this before, in a piece that now seems haplessly naive (linked below, FWIW). Anyway, the ScienceDirect website has this ‘headline’ in its overview of liquid hydrogen:

Production of liquid hydrogen or liquefaction is an energy-intensive process, typically requiring amounts of energy equal to about one-third of the energy in liquefied hydrogen.

which don’t sound promising.

Canto: But Rosie seems to think the hydrogen future is a bit more rosy these days. Another focus of her talk will be ‘giga projects’, presumably meaning ginormous projects, such as the ‘Asian renewable energy hub’ and the ‘western green energy hub’, about which more research is needed – by us.

Jacinta: So she was hearing a lot of hype, mainly from politicians, a couple of years ago, about all sorts of hydrogen ‘applications’, but mainly about ‘power system balancing’, which hopefully we’ll hear more about – maybe to do with balancing for the variability of wind and solar –  and for vehicular transport. And clearly she didn’t get it, especially in respect of other applications, no doubt, such as home heating. I mean, why hydrogen?

Canto: Indeed. She identified four red flags at the outset – and we need to dig deeper into these. First, ‘will developers keep building wind and solar if prices are negative?’ I don’t know what that means…

Jacinta: Economics is definitely not our strong suit. Actually we don’t have a strong suit. So here’s Wikipedia:

In economics, negative pricing can occur when demand for a product drops or supply increases to an extent that owners or suppliers are prepared to pay others to accept it, in effect setting the price to a negative number. This can happen because it costs money to transport, store, and dispose of a product even when there is little demand to buy it.

Canto: So it’s not immediately clear what that has to do with hydrogen, but let’s mention the other 3 red flags: 2 – will negative electricity prices persist? 3 – round trip efficiency, and 4 – the head start for and rapid improvement of other renewable technologies. Just putting those out there for now.

Jacinta: The questionable nature of the first one is – if electricity production becomes virtually free (negative pricing) then hydrogen production will be virtually free too, using renewables. I think. So the first two red flags are clearly connected. Businesses need to be profitable, so they won’t build (wind or solar) if there’s no market or if the market is saturated. With green hydrogen anyway, the production costs are, or have been quite extreme and those costs would have to come down by a factor of three to be equivalent to ‘dirty’ hydrogen production, to say nothing of cheaper electricity competing for the grid. To wait for the energy to be ‘negatively priced’ and only then use it for electrolysis seemed risky and possibly unworkable. A lot of equipment, etc, for little return.

Canto: Much of this was looking back at 2020 – not so long ago – and looking to Germany as an example of a highly renewable grid, but now she considers our Australian state – South Australia, which produces a lot of wind, first, and solar, second. Over the past 12 months, 65% or so of our grid electricity has been from renewables. Largely wind and solar, rather than base-load renewables (meaning nuclear perhaps, in the case of Germany?)

Jacinta: Yes, presumably nuclear, also hydro could be base load, as presumably it is in Tasmania. Rosie mentioned that we don’t have a lot of geothermal, and that rather shocked me, as I thought there wasn’t much geothermal anywhere, that it was one of those eternally future technologies….

Canto: The USA’s EIA (Energy Information Administration) tells us more:

The most active geothermal resources are usually found along major tectonic plate boundaries where most volcanoes are located. One of the most active geothermal areas in the world is called the Ring of Fire, which encircles the Pacific Ocean.

Most of the geothermal power plants in the United States are in western states and Hawaii, where geothermal energy resources are close to the earth’s surface. California generates the most electricity from geothermal energy. The Geysers dry steam reservoir in Northern California is the largest known dry steam field in the world and has been producing electricity since 1960.

Jacinta: Well, thanks for that. Something new every day…

Canto: So Rosie tells us we have had persistent negative electricity prices in SA – which is interesting considering that our household bills are painfully high. She presents a couple of graphics that I don’t fully understand… I certainly can’t understand negative pricing. Clearly not talking about consumers…

Jacinta: I’d like to know why our electricity costs are so high. Right now please. We can get back to Rosie later.

Canto: Well it’s a worthwhile detour to pursue, but it’ll require a bit of research. So maybe next time. So having watched Rosie’s not-so-rosey presentation, without watching the Q & A, because I tend to be a bit squeamish about that format, I find myself wondering…. there was little mention of Prof Cebon’s concerns about the questionable future of blue hydrogen and CCS, or of the problem of fugitive methane in the production of hydrogen from natural gas, or of the obvious failure in the take-up of hydrogen for passenger transport, or of the cost and difficult logistics of hydrogen compression and transport. And as to its possible use in storage, the battery solution seems more likely, surely?

Jacinta: She did point out, either in this talk or her earlier one, that hydrogen often looks like a solution looking for a problem, and this seems surely to be the case for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. It seems that EVs have won that race, and the improvements continue to be rapid. Well, we might pursue the hydrogen issue, and why so many people are hooked on hydrogen, and the details of hydrogen production, and many other issues relating to renewables, for a while yet, but let’s have a look at the cost of energy here in South Australia, where rooftop solar is very popular, and wind farms are kicking up a storm, but our electricity bills are still painfully high….

References

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/liquid-hydrogen

a hydrogen energy industry in South Australia?

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 18, 2022 at 6:52 pm

an interminable conversation 11: Hydrogen?

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yeah, hang on a minute

Jacinta: So green hydrogen – what is it, is it real? Does it really have a future? Where, if anywhere, does it fit in that future? It keeps getting put down, it keeps getting talked about, and it seems most experts say, yeah, it’s in the mix, but at a fairly low concentration.

Canto: Good topic – this will allow us to look back at some videos we’ve viewed which have left me scratching my head. So first, on the inestimable Fully Charged podcast, Robert Llewellyn interviewed a clearly Australian Prof, David Cebon…

Jacinta: And this interview received really rave reviews in the comments, I noticed, which surely says something.

Canto: Yes, so let’s try and get our heads around it… and wow, having watched that interview, I feel a bit dumb for having vaguely hyped green hydrogen’s promise, and for being overly skeptical of Elon Musk’s dismissal of hydrogen a few years go – especially in light of the difficulty of compressing and moving the stuff.

Jacinta: So let’s start at the beginning. Prof Cebon is with the Hydrogen Science Coalition (https://h2sciencecoalition.com), and is a professor of mechanical engineering at Cambridge University. He’s the Director of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, and he’s co-authored over a hundred papers etc etc, so he’s super-knowledgeable about this stuff, especially when it comes to vehicular transport.

Canto: So Robert started by talking positively about hydrogen fuel cell cars as clean and green – no toxic fumes. But, nowhere to refuel them – and refuelling is one of many issues.

Jacinta: And then it was onto the colours of hydrogen, which I didn’t know about. So you ‘make’ hydrogen in two ways – electrolysing water, that is separating into hydrogen and oxygen by means of an electric current, which is energy-intensive. Pulling the H2O molecules apart isn’t easy. If the electricity you use for this is renewable, that makes ‘green hydrogen’. If that energy isn’t renewable it’s called ‘yellow hydrogen’. Of course, energy out of the grid may be a mix – here in South Australia it’s largely gas and renewables, whereas in the eastern states a lot of it is coal – nasty brown coal in Victoria. And so on.

Canto: And as Prof Cebon points out, using green energy to produce hydrogen, rather than to grid it directly into houses and businesses, might seem a bit odd. He calls it an opportunity cost.

Jacinta: The next main ‘colour’ of hydrogen comes from fossil fuel, particularly gas (mostly methane, CH4). By treating gas with super-hot steam, you can break it down into hydrogen and CO2. That carbon dioxide normally goes into the atmosphere. Some 2% of the world’s carbon emissions comes from producing this sort of ‘grey’ hydrogen, which is used to make ammonia (NH3) for fertiliser, and in the petrochemical industry. That percentage is about as much as aviation uses (though fertiliser is pretty essential). However, if you can ‘carbon capture and storage’ that CO2, then the hydrogen involved becomes lovely blue hydrogen.

Canto: Yes but as the Prof points out, once you’ve stripped the carbon from the methane, the remaining hydrogen isn’t very energy intensive, so you need a lot of methane to make a useful amount of hydrogen. Better to use the methane directly via the grid!

Jacinta: As Prof Cebon says, you need more methane to fuel your economy via hydrogen (around 40% more) than if you just used natural gas directly. All very attractive to the natural gas industry!

Canto: Right – what with the ‘electrify everything’ trend, the gas industry will be worried about its market, so here’s an opportunity – pump up hydrogen. Beware of the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying! And it’s blue hydrogen they’re really after, for financial reasons.

Jacinta: So back to electrolysis, green hydrogen, and efficiency. The electrolysis process is about 75% efficient, but importantly the energy has changed form. Think of energy as either work or heat, and forget kWhs for the moment. It’s work that’s important. You want the energy to produce more work and less heat (as with LED versus incandescent light globes). The combination of the two is the total energy output according to the first law of thermodynamics, or the law of energy conservation. Electricity from your battery produces work (eg in an EV) with very high efficiency. Diesel, petrol and other chemical fuels, including hydrogen, produce a lot of heat. According to the prof, the efficiency of an infernal combustion engine, which is essentially its work to heat ratio, is around 30%. Diesel may get up to maybe 45% but that’s the limit. Electricity can reach 90 to 95% efficiency. Chemical energy apparently runs up against the second law of thermodynamics, which limits the conversion of heat back to work. There’s always going to be a loss.

Canto: Right again. So 25% of the energy used in electrolysis is lost as heat. You have to convert the heat back to electricity via a fuel cell, which also has limited efficiency. And this efficiency reduction is before the energy required for compression, transportation, etc. So it’s all very problematic, though hydrogen has been touted as a miracle energy source since the early days of the nuclear industry.

Jacinta: Yes, and there are plenty of other problems with hydrogen – first, it’s colourless and odourless, and it’s very hard to contain without leaks, being of course the most molecularly tiny element in existence, so to use it as a home fuel would require a massive infrastructural upgrade, and of course it’s highly explosive and generates high NOx emissions when burned in the home – more so than methane. It’s also very inefficient compared to electrified heat pumps, which the prof calculates as about six times more efficient. So why would you use renewable energy in this inefficient way? The industry, according to the prof, is trying to hide this impracticability from the public.

Canto: Professor Cebon is involved with, or maybe heads up, the Hydrogen Science Coalition, which highlights five principles. First, the only acceptable form, in terms of fuel, is green hydrogen, using electrolysis via green energy. Blue hydrogen isn’t clean – being gotten from ‘dirty’ methane, and what Cebon calls fugitive methane, emissions from flaring and venting and leaking, amounts to the total annual carbon emissions of Europe – it’s a huge problem, due partially to the unregulated nature of the gas industry in Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere. Carbon capture and storage, which has been mooted for decades, has gotten nowhere, because – where are the profits in it? No private enterprise would touch it.

Jacinta: The second principle, or project, is to clean up the chemical use of hydrogen in ammonia fertilisers and in the steel and petrochemical industries by preventing the escape of so much of the C02 byproduct from escaping into the atmosphere. Not so much via CCS as by more efficient processing. The third project is to speed up electrification – let’s not pretend that hydrogen is an option for heating homes, for example, or that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can be competitive with EVs. That battle has already been won.

Canto: Fourth is to rid ourselves of the idea that blending hydrogen into gas for any energy purposes is going to be useful. Hydrogen is a low energy replacement for methane, so you would need much more of the stuff, with all the attendant problems. And fifth and last is that hydrogen can only be used locally – that’s to say, at source. Transporting hydrogen safely is hugely expensive – being very light, many vehicles would be required to transport a sufficient energy load – 16 to 1 compared to diesel, according to our Prof. Not at all practicable.

Jacinta: And apparently hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are much more expensive to run than EVs, requiring replacement parts and so forth. So why are people still touting hydrogen. We’ll look more into that in a future piece.

Canto: Yes, Australia’s ‘Engineering with Rosie’ vodcaster has participated in a webinar for Mission Hydrogen, which sounds ominous, but I’ve heard her being skeptical about the green hydrogen movement, so we’ll see what she has to say.

 

References 

Home

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 11, 2022 at 6:18 pm

an interminable conversation 9: some basic physics

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yer most basic sine graph

Jacinta: So it’s time for us oldies to go to school, and get into physics from scratch, including the maths.

Canto: Yes, we’re not going to go all historical this time, much as we love all the nerdy characters to be encountered, instead we’re going to go with the concepts, from simple to complicated. I’ve found a collection of videos, called ‘crash course physics’, and we’re going to follow the ineffable logic of the presenter, Dr Shini Somara, to reach the pinnacle of sagesse en physique. Starting with basic motion in a straight line.

Jacinta: Exciting. I’ve done that. But in this first episode she deals with cars and acceleration, inter alia, including its maths. Equations! Time, position, velocity and acceleration will be explained/analysed in simple terms for this starter.

Canto: Kinematic equations – we’re going to the Kinema! So, motion in one direction on a straight line. You’re stopped at a red light, and then put your foot on the accelerator when it goes green. Seven seconds later (precisely), there’s a siren behind you – a police car is asking you to stop. They give you a ticket for speeding in a 100kph zone.

Jacinta: So, in 7 seconds you’re up to more than 100kph? I know nothing about cars but that’s unusual? Is it?

Canto: I’m sure car nerds can tell us, but so can google. There are plenty of cars that can get to 100 in less than 4 secs, even less than 3. Supposedly. Anyway, you’re doubtful about the police claim, but you can’t be sure, your speedometer is stuffed. How can you challenge the police claim, using maths?

Jacinta: You can’t, and anyway in Australia you’d be defected for a stuffed speedo.

Canto: But this is the USA, the land of shitty libertarian laws. So you’re travelling in one direction, one-dimensionally, so to speak. So the key variables here are the afore-mentioned time, position, velocity and acceleration. We also have to bear in mind change in position, aka displacement, which could have a positive or negative value – in this example, clearly positive. Now, velocity is about how that displacement occurs over time. It also can have a positive or negative value. Acceleration is about changes in velocity over time. You can feel that change – positive or negative – when you’re ‘thrown’ forward or backward on acceleration or braking.

Jacinta: So Dr Somara presents graphs that are fairly easy to read for a stationary vehicle, and one moving at a constant velocity. The vertical x-axis measures position or displacement in metres from an initial position, the y axis measures time. A stationary vehicle will show a straight horizontal line from the moment it stopped until it starts to move again. Constant velocity will show a straight line moving diagonally along both axes. An accelerating vehicle will of course show a curving line, curving up to the vertical, while a decelerating one will be curving to the horizontal.

Canto: So that’s a simple position v time graph, now to look at velocity and acceleration slightly differently, with velocity in metres/second on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal, and with acceleration in metres per second per second, that is, metres per second squared, on the vertical axis, and time, in seconds, on the horizontal. So this relates all our variables, time, position, velocity and acceleration. Average velocity is the change in position over time, and acceleration is the change in velocity over time. To get average velocity you divide change in position by change in time. 

Jacinta: But as Dr Somara says, subtraction is also a feature – to find out ‘change’ you subtract initial value from final value, which sounds right but somehow seems to contradict the previous….

Canto: One’s talking about a change, the other about an average. They’re quite different. So the change in a particular value, or variable, is symbolised or abbreviated as delta, ∆. So, v = ∆x/∆t, average velocity (the v should have a bar above it, but I haven’t learned how to do that – will I need an extra keyboard?) equals change in position over change in time. For Dr Somari’s example, the car moved from 4 metres to 13 metres (the change in position), i.e. a value of 9 metres for ∆x. This occurred over 3 seconds, apparently, which divides as 3m/sec for average velocity over that period. But of course the car was accelerating during that period. The equation for acceleration is a = ∆v/∆t, for average acceleration.

Jacinta: Okay, and we can, apparently handily, rearrange the equation to get v(average) = v(at time zero) + at. This equation is called the Definition of Acceleration. Tadaaa! Constant acceleration is equal to the change in velocity divided by change in time. This is the first of the two main kinematic equations, which links velocity acceleration and time.

Canto: Okay now our physicist turns to gravity (g), which here on Earth is a force causing acceleration at 9.81 m/sec squared. But then she talks about the second kinematic equation, the Displacement Curve, which involves acceleration, starting velocity and time in order to calculate displacement:

x(position) – x(at time zero, initial position) = v(initial velocity)t +1/2a(acceleration)t(squared).

All of which looks very messy because I haven’t learned how to do the proper notation. Anyway this links acceleration as change in velocity to velocity as change in position. Right?

Jacinta: Uhhh, yeah. And the other kinematic equations, we’re assured, are just rearrangements of this dynamic duo. So apparently this takes us back to our speeding issue at the start. The initial velocity was 0, the time was 7 seconds. The displacement curve²equation/formula can be used to work it all out, or at least the acceleration. Our physicist tells that x – x (initial position) is 122 metres, which equals initial velocity (zero) multiplied by 7 seconds (which must surely be zero?)  plus I/2a (which is to be found) multiplied by 7s squared, which is 49 seconds. So 122m = 0 + 49 (49) multiplied by half the acceleration, which by calculation I discovered to be close to 2.5, so the acceleration was approximately 5 metres per second squared.

Canto: It works out! And, following our expert, we can use the Definition of Acceleration formula to arrive at final velocity. It’s basically V + at, or 0 + 5 X 7, so a speed of 35 m/sec, which in km terms is about 126 km/h. Amazing! We got the maths. There is hope!

Jacinta: Well they’re diving into the deep end with crash course physics, as the next video is all about calculus and derivatives. About which I have no idea.

Canto: Yes, maths are the basis of physics, and we lost contact with complex maths decades, though I’m quite good at multiplication. But calculus, duh. Though our teacher tells us that it’s all just about accurately describing change.

Jacinta: Important – she goes on to explain things called derivatives, but I note in the inset:

Not all equations have derivatives! When we say ‘equations’ here, we really mean a function – an equation with only one output for each input. More specifically, we’re talking about functions that have derivatives.

I’m looking forward to clarification of all that.

Canto: So calculus explains the why’s and wherefores of change through derivatives. She also mentions integrals early on, as ways of calculating area under a curve – which we actually mentioned in those terms in a previous post.

Jacinta: We sound smart sometimes. So, derivatives. Dr Somara returns to the car and speeding example. The car drives off after the police incident, accelerating of course. But we don’t have a direct measure of the acceleration, but we know positional change over time. This is apparently equal to amount of time driving, squared, X = t².  After 20 secs of driving, some kind of roadside ‘detector’ reveals the car’s speed. The driver takes time to register that she’s going even faster than 126 mph.

Canto: Dumb blond? Maybe not, maybe the detector is dodgy. How to find the velocity at the moment she passes it? Which, according to Dr Somara is the derivative of her change in position. And this is also about limits. These are key ideas:

Limits are based on the idea that if you have an equation on a graph, you can often predict what it’s going to look like at one point, just by knowing what it looks like at the surrounding points.

Jacinta: So our teacher gives the example of graphing x = t² when t approaches the limit of 0. So remember we have our time on the horizontal, and distance covered (or displacement, or positional change – it seems ‘distance’ is a no-no in this maths) on the vertical axis. So, moving back to zero from t=1 and x=1 she finds that when t=0.5, x=0.25, and when t reaches 0.1, x=0.001, so both values approach zero. This apparently shows what happens when you make intervals smaller. Another definition:

An interval is just a range on a graph. It’s the space between two points on the horizontal axis.

Of course, because that’s the time axis, generally. This is great parroting, but then when parrots copy their trainer perfectly they’re regarded as brilliant.

Canto: So we’re calculating the average velocity over a particular interval – from 15 to 20 secs. We use the equation v = ∆x/∆t (∆x is change in position, ∆t is change in time). The change in position, after subtraction, was 175 metres, the change in time 5 secs. So the average velocity works out as 35 m/sec. But this is only an average, and doesn’t take into account acceleration. But using limits gets us closer to the number we want. You can calculate your average over increasingly small intervals to arrive at an increasingly accurate figure.

Jacinta: So, sticking with our teacher, velocity is an equation that describes change in position, acceleration describes change in velocity. Velocity is thus the derivative of position and acceleration is the derivative of velocity. This is expressed in writing, using, for example, the power rule, expressed using variables and their numbered exponents. So x = t² is an equation that works here. To calculate the derivative, you take the exponent, 2, and put it in front of the variable, and subtract 1 from the exponent, and that’s the derivative, 2t. In full, the derivative of x = t² is 2t.

Canto: That’s a trick, as Dr Somara said, but it’s not really explained. She says ‘no matter how [you’re accelerating], your velocity will be 2t – double the number of seconds’. So I think it depends on those seconds. After 5 seconds, say, you’re travelling at 5m/sec, but after 20 secs, your speed is 40m/sec. So dx/dt = 2t ‘which is just a way of saying, mathematically, we’re taking the derivative of x with respect to t’. But it’s also written differently sometimes: if f(t) = t², then f'(t) = 2t. And I’m guessing that f stands for function, but I don’t quite know what a function is.

Jacinta: A function is:

in mathematics, an expression, rule, or law that defines a relationship between one variable (the independent variable) and another variable (the dependent variable). Functions are ubiquitous in mathematics and are essential for formulating physical relationships in the sciences.

That’s from Britannica online. So to continue, if f(t) = t², then f'(t) = 2t. That’s to say, f prime (t) = 2t, according to our teacher, who doesn’t explain ‘prime’. Do we have to do a maths course before we do this physics course? Does it have to do with prime numbers?

Canto: Apparently not. The symbol can serve a number of purposes in maths. Let’s just leave it for now. Using the power rule we can find other derivatives, e.g. x = 7t to-the-power-6. This equation has the variable t, and its exponent 6. We take the exponent and put it in front of the 7t variable, multiplying the number and subtracting 1 from the exponent, 42t to-the power 5. That’s to say dx/dt = 42(t to the power of 5). But maybe that shouldn’t be bracketed. And when the exponent is a fraction or decimal, the derivative of, say t to the power of one half is 1/2t to the negative one half. You always minus one, I don’t know why.

Jacinta: Ours is clearly not to reason why, at least not yet. This derivative trick works for negatives too. In the case of x = t to-minus-2, the derivative (dx/dt) = -2t to minus 3. Not very comprehensible, and then she mentions the dread word, trigonometry, used for calculating triangles, their angles and sides. Apparently physics uses right-angled triangles a lot. We shall see.

Canto: Indeed, let’s get into it. The derivatives of sine x and cosine x. If you have a right-angled triangle with an adjacent angle x, sin(x) = the length of the opposite side divided by the hypotenuse. For cosine, cos(x) it’s the length of the adjacent side divided by the hypotenuse. So, sin(x) = o/h, cos(x) = a/h. ‘So the graphs will tell you what those ratios will be, depending on the angle’.

Jacinta: I’m not sure if I really understand this, but let’s move on into further weird territory, in which sin(x) is plotted on a graph going from -360° to 360° on the x (horizontal) axis (that’s the ‘phase’, in degrees) and -1 to 1 on the y axis. At x = -90° and x = 90° the curve turns – that’s at every 180°. At those points the equations aren’t changing and the derivative is zero. Between the points the derivative oscillates from positive to negative. That derivative is in fact cos(x). I’m not sure why, but the derivative of cos(x) is -sin(x), the derivative of -sin(x) is -cos(x) and the derivative of -cos(x) is sin(x), for future reference. I’m hoping it’ll all become clear some day. Graphing all these will provide the proofs, evidently.

Canto: Yes, so Dr Somara finishes off this vid with another derivative that’s important in calculus, e×, the derivative of which is also e×, always. e, like π, is an irrational number which is quite vital to calculus, apparently. And even finance. Can’t wait to find out. So with the preceding we can, supposedly, take any equation for position and calculate the derivative, and so, velocity. And for velocity, your acceleration. Using integrals, which we’ll soon learn about, we can go backwards from acceleration to velocity, and from velocity to position. Presumably that will be next time.

Jacinta: So easy…

References

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 14, 2022 at 8:05 am

the leader of the free world?: three things

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Canto: So now we’re going to have a go at US jingoism, which is the same as jingoism elsewhere, only more so.

Jacinta: Yes, when nationalism gets in the way of simple humanism, or what might be better termed as ‘humaneness’, or any term that can be defined as opposition to needless suffering, human or otherwise, then it’s a problem.

Canto: And nations, it seems to me, are a much more recent phenomenon, by and large, than cultures. So when national governments suppress particular cultures within their boundaries, as the Chinese thugocracy is doing today, in the name of some unifying national principle, it’s a problem.

Jacinta: And let’s be fair, Australia has done this in the past, as has the US – both nations in respect of their indigenous populations – and it has been a common feature of many nations as they seek to forge this ‘national identity’ dream.

Canto: But also to be fair, some nations are learning lessons from their history, and embracing a more multicultural national identity. But to return to the US, and the term US exceptionalism’, we’ve already agreed that, from an outsider’s perspective, the US appears to be exceptional in only two things, when compared to other WEIRD countries – its jingoism and its religiosity.

Jacinta: It’s kind of religiously jingoistic. As well as just plain religious, compared to Australia, Western Europe etc. Religious, or worshipful, about its political system, its Presidents (remembered by number!), and its clearly outdated and overly vague Constitution.

Canto: Indeed. But, having paid rather too much attention to US politics since the advent of Trump – because we could barely believe that any WEIRD nation could elect such a Chump, or permit to stand for the office of ‘President of the Leader of the Free World, or ‘President of the World’s Greatest Democracy’, a person whom no rational interview committee would hire to run a public toilet, an incompetent buffoon, in fact -having been seduced to watching this slow-motion train wreck, I’ve often heard these terms – ‘the Leader of the Free World’ and ‘the World’s Greatest Democracy’ – spoken by pundits of the Left and the Right, by politicians as well as journalists, generally in an offhand ‘speaks for itself’ sort of way that suggests to me that they might’ve learned this mantra in kindergarten. So I want to say three things about this, and I’m going to focus specifically on the ‘Leader of the Free World’ claim.

First Thing. The free world – a relative term, of course – doesn’t require a leader. Essentially, that’s what makes it free. It certainly doesn’t need to be led like a flock of sheep by a self-appointed shepherd.

Second Thing. There seems to be an assumption that the USA, which has the largest population of all the ‘free world’ or WEIRD countries (India, a nominally democratic nation, doesn’t quite tick all the boxes for WEIRDness), and the largest economy and military capacity, should automatically be named WEIRD leader. But that’s like assuming that the biggest and strongest kid in the class should be named ‘class leader’. After all, the biggest and strongest kid might be a blithering idiot. In fact, under Trump’s leadership, the USA did become something of a blithering idiot, and was so regarded by much of the WEIRD world. And it could become so again. If, for some specific purpose, the WEIRD world requires a leader, then it should choose a leader fit for that purpose. But I would argue that, most of the time, a leader is not required. What is most required is collaboration and mutual support. The free world shouldn’t be seen as hierarchical.

Third thing. When we talk about the free world, obviously the key word is ‘free’. Yet there is a problem within the USA vis-a-vis freedom, because the imprisonment rate there is higher than that of any other WEIRD country, by a long way (and meanwhile, high-level criminals can be elected to the nation’s top leadership positions). This third thing is worth looking at more closely. The World Population Review website has figures on incarceration rates by country, and it does provide sources, but let’s face it everybody knows that the USA’s incarceration rate is way off the scale – the greatest proportion of imprisoned citizens on Earth. And considering that second, third and fourth places are filled by Rwanda, Turkmenistan and El Salvador, nations not noted, historically, for their political freedoms, this screams at anyone that something is seriously wrong with this ‘bastion of freedom’.

Jacinta: Mind you, I wouldn’t trust any statistics coming out of China or Putinland…

Canto: So why such a high rate of the unfree in the land of the free? The World Population Review website provides the figures in numbers per 100,000 of the population. The USA’s number is 629, which has actually fallen in the last few years (it was 716 in 2013), but it’s still easily the highest in the world. Okay, as far as we know. Australia’s number is 167, which is bad enough. Western European countries seem to be doing something right – they’re obviously not riddled by crime, or they don’t see imprisoning people as the solution. Here’s some numbers. France 119, Portugal 113, Spain 113, Belgium 93, Austria 91, Italy 91, Switzerland 73, Sweden 73, Denmark 72, Germany 70, Netherlands 60, Norway 56 and Finland 50. And in Japan, that admittedly odd country, the number is 37. So why is the US number so horrifically high, and why isn’t the WEIRD world investigating the USA for crimes against its own humanity? Well, it may be that the USA is like the proverbial frog in the slowly warming pot – it seems oblivious to its self-made mess. But there are some clear-cut reasons. For a start, to call US prisons correctional institutions, as they do, is an obscene joke. The privatisation of the prison system has only increased the problem of dehumanisation and recidivism – the USA’s recidivism rate is one of the world’s highest. A tendency towards longer sentences – for whatever reason – has exacerbated the problem, and the USA’s fantastical ‘war against drugs’ has meant high rates of imprisonment for victimless crimes.

In short, no country that treats such a vast proportion of its own citizens, many of them struggling to survive in situations of severe disadvantage – in this way should be allowed to get away with claiming to be a bastion of freedom.

Jacinta: Yes, but you can’t get away from it, history tells us that might is right, and if you don’t get it, you’ll get stomped on. Peter the Great told me that.

Canto: Okay… so this was all a waste of time then.

Written by stewart henderson

April 19, 2022 at 6:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

what is electricity? part 3: capacitors, dielectrics and confusion

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an electrophorus, apparently

Canto: I’ve found a useful website on the history of the capacitor, which tells us that the term condenser was an early term for a capacitor, presumably because it accumulates charge, condensing it – like condensed milk?

Jacinta: Condensation in chemistry, or whatever, means transformation from a gas, or vapour, to a liquid. Remember they were thinking of an electrical fluid in the early days.

Canto: Well this excellent website on the early days tells me that the effect they were creating by rubbing  a glass globe is now called the triboelectric effect. And by the way it was Franklin who worked out that it was the glass that was creating the effect – nout to do with water, it seems.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s an everyday effect – you can get it just through combing your hair, or rubbing a plastic pen on your sleeve and then picking up bits of paper. I did it at school! I was very sciencey in them days.

Canto: Interestingly, there are lots of nice comments on this website, pointing out that the term for capacitor in a number of European languages is kondensator, or variants thereof. But we get yet another story here on early Leyden jars, which I’ll need to unpick:

It was realized also at Leyden University that it worked only if the glass container was held in your hand and not if it was supported by an insulating material. Today we realize that the alcohol or water in contact with the glass was acting as one plate of the capacitor and the hand was acting as the other while the glass was the dielectric. The high voltage source was the friction machine and the hand and body provided a ground.

Jacinta: So sometimes water was used as a ‘plate’ instead of the tin foil on the inner surface, and the hand was acting as the other plate. So, different versions of Leyden jars. And the dielectric? Yet another unexplained term.

Canto: Yeah, they just never simplify things enough for fuckwits like us. A dielectric is apparently an insulator. Or, as Wikipedia expands it, it’s ‘an electrical insulator that can be polarised by an applied electric field’. Now, I thought that an insulator was the opposite of a conductor, that it tends to be a bad conductor, something that’s difficult for a charge to pass through. Or is that a resistor? Anyway, I can see how dielectric, meaning two, has to do with polarisation, positive and negative, but it still remains vague. I just thought an insulator kind of protects people from getting electric shocks.

Jacinta: So, going back to Crump, here’s a quote:

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

I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS. I WANT TO UNDERSTAND. Does he mean positive and negative charges at the same time? Is that what a dielectric is? And when he says the force was stored in the glass, and the charge bore a mathematical relation to the surface area of the glass, does he mean a different thing by force and charge? And if the charge is proportional to the surface area of the glass, does that mean that if the surface area of the glass was equal to, say, the surface area of a glassy planet Earth, you’d get a more than respectable charge? And if our universe has a surface area?

Canto: The universe isn’t made of glass, I learned that from Dava Sobel’s The glass universe. Or not.

Jacinta: Okay, let me look up some common definitions before we go on.

dielectric is a material that transmits electricity without conducting. That’s to say, an insulator (BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT THIS MEANS). Examples of dielectric materials include glass, ceramics, metallic oxides, plastics and dry air.

An insulator, electrically speaking, is a material in which electricity can’t flow freely. In such materials, electrons are tightly bound – though it’s all relative. They’re said to be resistive. So presumably there’s a connection between resistors and insulators. Most insulators are non-metals.

conductor is a material that allows a flow of electrrical charge, aka a current. Metals, such as copper wire, are commonly used as conductors.

Electric charge – and I think this is really the biggie – is a state or property of matter when a certain force from an electromagnetic field is applied to it. Or when it is within an electromagnetic field. But we won’t try to define an electromagnetic field until part 30 or so. An electric charge can be positive (carried by protons) or negative (electrons). This is not, of course, a full definition.

Triboelectricity is a charge of electricity gained by friction. The triboelectric effect can be varied and unpredictable, depending on the precise structure of the materials being rubbed together.

A capacitor, originally called a condenser, a term first coined by Volta, is… well, we posted a piece over four years ago called ‘What are capacitors?’ – but we’ve never thought about them since…

Canto: Yes, I’ve skimmed through that piece and I barely understand it. Let’s just say for now that a capacitor is a device for temporarily storing electricity, but that it differs from a battery somehow.

Jacinta: Okay, one more term used in Hackaday’s ‘History of the capacitor’ that needs explaining is hygroscopic. It says that soda glass, whatever that is, is hygroscopic. Franklin used soda glass in his experiments, apparently.

Canto: Google only tells me something about soda-lime glass, which I’m hoping is the same thing. It’s the most prevalent type of glass, composed of 70% silicon dioxide, or silica, 15% soda (sodium dioxide) and 9% lime (calcium oxide). The other 6% is made up of ‘other’. Hygroscopic materials attract water molecules from the surrounding environment, either by absorption or adsorption, but Wikipedia, which gives a large list of hygroscopic materials, makes no mention of glass or silicon as hygroscopic, though it does mention sodium salts.

Jacinta: So let’s move on with the history of these electrical discoveries, and maybe we’ll solve the problem of our own ignorance along the way. I note that potted histories of the battery, such as the one I’m about to quote from, don’t bother to distinguish between a battery and a capacitor:

Ben Franklin built an electric battery using glass window panes and thin lead plates. Using his “electric battery,” a term he coined himself, he showed how electricity could be stored in the glass and passed through it. Shouldn’t we call it the great-grand-dad of electric batteries?

So let’s not worry about it, though I suspect Yank jingoism is at play here. Let’s move on to Alessandro Volta.

Canto: And the continuous current battery. Volta’s first contribution to electricity was to improve on the electrophorus…

Jacinta: And here’s a great definition of the electrophorus, a device actually named by Volta:

An electrophorus or electrophore is a simple manual capacitive electrostatic generator used to produce electrostatic charge via the process of electrostatic induction.

Canto: Clear as mud. An electrophorus apparently consists of a dielectric plate…

Jacinta: Yeah, something that transmits electricity without conducting it.

Canto: Okay, let’s clear that up – perhaps. Dielectric materials don’t have free electrons for conducting electricity – they’re insulators. Electrons are, of course, electrically charged particles, and in dielectrics they’re tightly bonded to their nuclei. What does happen when an electric field or current is applied is that they become polarised. This raises the question of what polarisation actually is, and what it is about an electric field/current that causes this polarisation.

Jacinta: Not to mention whether there is a difference between an electric field and an electric current.

Canto: Okay, more work to be done. There are different types of polarisation. The polarisation of light, for example, is a complex story which we’ll have to deal with in another 50,000 part series. But here’s a general description from Britannica:

polarization, property of certain electromagnetic radiations in which the direction and magnitude of the vibrating electric field are related in a specified way.

So, just off the top of my head, an electric current seems to imply direction, whereas electric field not so much. On electric polarisation, ScienceDirect, which takes material from scientific papers, has this:

Electric polarization refers to the separation of center of positive charge and the center of negative charge in a material. The separation can be caused by a sufficiently high-electric field.

I think this means that dielectrics can be separated in terms of overall positive and negative charge in their individual atomic make-up, so that they can become magnetised, sort of? Because I think of magnetism in terms of polarity. They can become polarised, like magnets, while not being able to conduct an electric charge. Maybe.

Canto: We seem to have come a long way from capacitors.

Jacinta: We got lost on electrophoruses. An electrophorus consists of a dielectric plate..

Canto: Okay, here’s another definition, from Oxford Reference:

An early form of electrostatic generator. It consists of a flat dielectric plate and a metal plate with an insulated handle. The dielectric plate is charged by friction and the metal plate is placed on it and momentarily earthed, which leaves the metal plate with an induced charge of opposite polarity to that of the dielectric plate. The process can be repeated until all of the original charge has leaked away.

Jacinta: So this gives me a visible image, of sorts. The flat dielectric plate – and I assume a plate is something flat and thin – is polarised by friction, and a metal plate, that’s to say a conductor, is brought into contact with it and then momentarily earthed (I DON”T UNDERSTAND THIS), which leaves an induced charge of opposite polarity on this other plate )I DON”T UNDERSTAND THIS EITHER), and with repetition the original charge is leaked away (DITTO).

Canto: It seems every explanation needs further explanation, and we’re constantly changing electricity’s tail. And we’ve only just begun 🎵.

References

History of the Capacitor – The Pioneering Years

what are capacitors?

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

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

https://www.britannica.com/technology/soda-lime-glass

https://www.britannica.com/science/polarization-physics

https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095746578

Written by stewart henderson

December 12, 2021 at 12:34 pm

me and Montaigne

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Montaigne’s better half

 

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

Michel de Montaigne 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2021 at 6:20 pm

on love and hormones

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The subversive family, a book written by Ferdinand Mount some 40 years ago, argues that the basic family unit, with two or, more rarely, three generations housed together, is indeed more basic than a great many critics allow, and that marriage based on mutual attraction has been more common throughout human history than many historians claim. However that may be, he makes no mention of prehistory, by which I mean the long period of human, and early hominid, existence, before the invention of writing.

What interests me is the nature of sexual relationships during that period, and that nature is hardly likely to have been static. Clearly, marrying is a ceremonial act, which requires a certain level of sophistication. It is apparently intended to ‘tie the knot’, to formalise two persons’ commitment to each other, a commitment expected to be lifelong. Ideally, this commitment is based on love.

It’s interesting that many bird species are monogamous. They stay together, with only the occasional bit on the side, build nests together, share the feeding and teaching of the kids and so on. We talk of love-birds, we love the willow pattern tale, but do we really think these birds love each other? Probably not, because we like to reserve this state of being for humans.

This human specialness thing is eroding though. Dogs mourn their human owners. Elephants grieve over their companions and their children. The more we look at complex social species, the more we find evidence of deep feeling which we may or may not call love, though to call it something other than love would seem insensitive.

But marriage, freely entered into, is about romantic love, and that, some say, is singularly human. Others, of course, say romantic love is a myth, a mixture of hormones and psychology that doesn’t last, though the commitment might continue after the passion is spent, especially where children are involved.

This monogamous arrangement has proved effective for the raising of offspring, in humans as well as in swans, cranes and eagles, and in prairie voles, Azara’s night monkeys and a few other mammalian species. However other complex social animals, such as elephants, dolphins and chimps, are not monogamous, and in fact only about 3% of mammals practice monogamy, and they still manage to raise their young just fine. I have a special interest in bonobos, our closest living relatives, on a par with chimps. They are highly sexualised, yet manage to avoid getting pregnant more than is needful. Females dominate in spite of sexual dimorphism which favours males. Are bonobos, Pan paniscus, a more loving species than Homo sapiens? I leave aside our species’ predilection for aggression and warfare, I’m considering the comparison in times of relatively peace for both species. It is probably impossible to make such a comparison, social contexts are perhaps too different, and bonobos are an endangered species, and quite difficult to study in the wild. As to human apes, it seems that in our human history, which dates back to the development of writing as an effective information and communication tool, we have been almost universally patriarchal and monogamous. But this takes us back only a few thousand years. Our species is at most about 300,000 years old – there’s a lot of debate about this – and tracing our ancestry back to its connection with the bonobo-chimp line has been problematic. There’s also the question of the connection between monogamy and romantic, exclusivist love. For example, it has been found that monogamous prairie voles mate exclusively for life, with the first ready member of the opposite sex they encounter. Clearly this isn’t about romance or conscious decision-making. It will be argued that it is preposterous to compare humans with prairie voles, but from a biological perspective, perhaps not so much. We often talk of ‘love at first sight’ and ‘I don’t know what hit me’ (sometimes with regret). There is no doubt that this sort of immediate sexual attraction can largely be explained by biochemistry. Monogamy in general appears to involve an interplay of hormonal and cultural effects.

Dr Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and Rutgers University, separates romantic love into three parts – lust, attraction and attachment. To summarise, doubtless too briefly, the hormonal effects here, the sex hormones testosterone and, to a lesser extent, oestrogen play a predominant role in increasing libido, or lustful sensations. The hypothalamus stimulates production of these hormones by the ovaries and testes. Testosterone, it should be emphasised, is not a ‘male’ hormone. It produces a variety of effects in both sexes. Attraction is a more complex, more conscious elaboration of lust. It may involve some weighing up of the costs and benefits of particular lustful feelings, though generally under the ‘sway’ of lust. The brain areas involved include the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and anterior cingulate cortex. The activation of these regions tend to increase trust in the object of lust and to inhibit defensive behaviour and anxiety. The hormones dopamine and norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline), which create a sense of euphoria, the sense of ‘being in love’, with its sleeplessness and obsessiveness, will have obviously differential effects depending on the object of attraction’s response to the person attracted. Feelings of attraction also appear to reduce serotonin levels, which help regulate appetite and mood.

Attachment, not surprisingly, is the most complex, conscious and culturally influenced of these three stages. It’s quite a bit cooler (temperature-wise) than the other two, and extends often to other connections, such as friends and family. The hormones most involved in this stage, or state, are vasopressin and oxytocin. Interestingly, those prairie voles mentioned earlier differ greatly from their promiscuous cousins, montane voles, in that they express far more of these two hormones. When these hormones are blocked by researchers, prairie voles turn promiscuous. It would of course be depressingly reductionist to describe attachment, and the other states, as well as their more negative features, such as jealousy, possessiveness and emotional dependence, in purely hormonal terms, but we need to understand, and so to positively change a world of human aggression and thuggery, so prominently displayed on the world stage today, to one a little more bonoboesque, while still preserving the best of our humanity – our inventiveness and our curiosity. Understanding how our hormones affect us is a good start.

References

https://www.ckn.org.au/content/cupid’s-chemical-addiction-–-science-love

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0265407511431055

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2021 at 8:17 pm

A bonobo world 39 – a world turned upside-down?

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yummy scummy

Jacinta: Why did Homo floresiensis go extinct? What happened to Homo neanderthalensis? What about mastodons, Australia’s megafauna, thylacines, dodos, stegodonts, mammoths, passenger pigeons, aurochs, great auks, quaggas, moas, and maybe hundreds more dead species?

Canto: Well humans are accused of being the direct cause, though no doubt there are lawyers out there with ingenious arguments to the contrary, or at least in mitigation. It might be argued for example that the rise to supremacy of H sapiens is a good thing, at least for H sapiens, and it could never have occurred without a bit of damage. I mean, there are plenty of species left, and more will come as nature selects them. And besides, we’re so smart we could bring many of those species back to life, if it’s not too inconvenient.

Jacinta: Hmmm, the issue of de-extinction aside, modern humanity is actually good at learning from its mistakes, and re-appraising our relationships with other species, and with other cultures within our own. That’s why I’m obsessing over bonobos and our own overly macho culture. We need an overhaul and more and more humans are becoming aware of it.

Canto: So I know you’re talking about that world-turned-upside down idea again, what with a large majority of our political leaders being men, surrounded by mostly male advisers and government ministers, dealing with overwhelmingly male business leaders and public intellectuals, male military brass, a male judiciary and scientific community…

Jacinta: Male billionaires, male mass-shooters, male sports stars, mostly… why are we so invisible in the public sphere?

Canto: The times they are-a-changin mate. Okay, forget that. It really is interesting to think what our world would be like if the men were in the position the women are now. And of course we can’t seriously turn to bonobos to find out. Can we?

Jacinta: Let’s leave that aside for now.

Canto: Anyway, crazy as it might be, our current situation has a long history…

Jacinta: Yeah, like astrology and traditional Chinese medicine, which is mostly horseshit.

Canto: I thought it was rhinos…

Jacinta: The point isn’t to understand our world historically, but to change it.

Canto: Yes, but in order to change gears, you need to know how a gearshift works.

Jacinta: ??

Canto: We need to know, I mean it would be helpful to know how we got into this lopsided mess, so we can extricate ourselves…

Jacinta: Yes, and sexual dimorphism isn’t the reason, because bonobos. Division of labour is more likely. Hunting and gathering. Both activities require getting out and about, far from GHQ, whatever that was in early hunter-gatherer days – makeshift constructions, caves. But the hunters would’ve travelled much further afield. Hunting trips may have lasted days.

Canto: But I think we need to be careful about that hunter-gatherer term. It’s surely too neat. I’m getting the impression, for example that the Australian Aboriginal survival life was much more complex, with fish traps, organised burnings and the like. A lot of accumulated knowledge to enable them to gain more foodstuff with less output. A bit like us really.

Jacinta: Yeah they knew how to store their food for a rainy day – but then so do tons of bird species. Anyway, let’s move on to the age of agriculture. Fixed dwellings. And remember it was the women who had the children.

Canto: Really?

Jacinta: They might carry the newborns out to the fields, but once they became pesky toddlers they were too much of a hindrance…

Canto: Yes, and more… Imagine this conversation: ‘Now Wilma you need to keep the little one home, she’s impossible to keep an eye on here, and you know how dangerous it is with those big flaming birds…’ ‘Oh don’t remind me again Fred..’ ‘Well I will – that big bloody bird took the neighbour’s little one, flew off with him, dropped him on that rock, and Bam Bam, that was the end of him’. ‘Dear god of our harvest, you’re a bastard, Fred’. ‘Bam bam, you should’ve seen the mess. Anyway you need to keep her home, keep her occupied, make some pretty jewellery…’ ‘I’m sick of being home, how many times have I told you…’ ‘Yeah but look – hey are you preggers again? Is that one mine, or has that Barney been creeping around? I know he wants another Bam-Bam, but I’ll Bam Bam him….’

Jacinta: Yes, thought-provoking. And Fred would stick his arm out and say  ‘Feel that muscle? That tells you I can do enough work for two. So you just stay home and prepare some of that great brain food you’re so good at. All those omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and trace elements and such, they’re just doing my head in they’re so good. A man sure needs a maid and you sure is the best’.

Canto: This is getting overly speculative I think. I mean, you’re assuming monogamy at this stage, which is perhaps reasonable but not certain. So this scenario is from around 10,000 years ago? That’s when they say agriculture got started, at the earliest. And we know that most primates are non-monogamous. I’m thinking of the connection between monogamy and division of labour. And there’s also the idea of wives – but not husbands – as property, which is a feature of the Old Testament.

Jacinta: Well to be fair husbands could often be treated that way, as in ‘stop trying to steal my man or I’ll rip your eyes out’, but mostly it was the husband who carried the club, now replaced by the Kalishnikov AK-47 among others. I think monogamy goes back a long way. Ferdinand Mount, in his book The subversive family, argues that monogamous romantically-based relations are a permanent feature of humanity, but by ‘permanent’ he really means as far back as written records, and not even that, as his examples mostly go back some hundreds of years. I’m prepared to accept that monogamy goes back as far as agriculture and the establishment of fixed dwellings, and more restricted notions of property…

Canto: So do you think that if we did have a world-turned upside down we’d be less monogamous?

Jacinta: Uhhh, hesitantly I’d say yes, but in such a way that the offspring wouldn’t suffer. I mean you can see the trend in developed countries – with the rise of women’s rights came the new appreciation of children and their rights and value. ‘A woman’s place is in the home’, and ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’, those clichés went together in blighted Victorian England.

Canto: Funny that, considering that Victoria was a woman, I’ve heard. But that was Irony Age England for you.

Jacinta: Again, with bonobos and other less male-dominated primate societies, infanticide is virtually non-existent. It’s quite prevalent in other primate societies. Female promiscuity is used as a strategy to keep males from killing the kids. ‘Oh shit, that one was mine, I think. Now I feel such a fool’.

Canto: Well I’m okay with female promiscuity personally.

Jacinta: Yeah and it also happens to be fun – variety’s the spice of life and all. Of course monogamy can be defined in various ways, for example as a tendency rather than a strict rule. But the tendency toward monogamy might’ve evolved as a response to environmental stresses – stresses that generally no longer exist for us. And so we see a rise in single-parent families, because they can manage now, albeit with difficulty, which they could barely do in previous centuries. Genetic studies, by the way, place human monogamy as having evolved between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. But I’m sure that’ll be endlessly disputed.

Canto: So have we worked out how we got into this lop-sided mess?

Jacinta: Well, sort of, and I think we’re slowly extricating ourselves. Less aggression, more collaboration, in an extremely uneven way from a global perspective, and in a two steps forward, one step back, Steven Pinker-type sense. Which requires work, community-building work to bring us all together out of the stresses that plague too many of us. We’re mostly in a post-industrial society, but exploitation proceeds apace. We need to call that out, in government, in business, and between nations. Anyone would think we’re not just one species, the way some people carry on.

References

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-infanticide-idUSKCN0IX2BA20141113

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

Ferdinand Mount, The subversive family, 1981

Barbujani G (2003). “A recent shift from polygyny to monogamy in humans is suggested by the analysis of worldwide Y-chromosome diversity”. J Mol Evol. 57 (1): 85–97.

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2021 at 4:54 pm

a bonobo world 30: touching on science, and adversarial systems

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I love this quote from Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand ‘provincial’ who became one of the most brilliant experimental physicists of the turn-of-the century physics revolution:

… experiment, directed by the disciplined imagination either of an individual, or, still better, of a group of individuals of varied mental outlook, is able to achieve results which far transcend the imagination alone of the greatest philosopher.

from Thomas Crump, A brief history of science, p225

We’ve far transcended the bonobos in our experimental and tool-making skills, and in our varied mental outlooks, but it seems to me the teamwork is lacking, or at least it’s often outdone by over-competitiveness and mutual suspicion. Science, the bid to find the best explanations for our own workings and the working of the universe around us, and the best way forward for our species and all that connects with us, has long struck me as the best activity to unite us as Homo sapiens. Of course, the scientific community, being human, is driven by competition and personal glory to a large degree, but the smiles I see on the faces of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, whose images are all over the internet at present, would hardly strike anyone as smug or self-congratulatory, and they’re clearly happy to share the glory and to educate anyone prepared to listen about the meaning of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing breakthrough, and to give all credit where credit is due to their collaborators and precursors. 

I’m not being naive here, methinks. Having read Venki Ramakrishnan’s Gene Machine and Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race, and knowing of the battles over atomic theory which may have led to Ludwig Botzman’s suicide, I’m well aware that scientific competition can be pretty fierce. However, I don’t believe it’s anywhere near as ideological as politics or law. Generally the goal of science is something all scientists have in common – that best explanation. That is not the case with many other fields of activity. Here is what I wrote in 2011 about what I call ‘macho’ adversarial systems that continue to blight human society. 

1. Politics.

Some thirty years or so ago I read a book which had as profound a political influence on me as anything I’ve ever read. It was written by the Roman historian Livy and it bore the the title The history of the Roman Republic or something like that [in fact Livy’s monumental history, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, ‘Chapters from the Foundation of the City’ covered the whole ground from the myths of Rome’s founders to the early empire under Augustus, in Livy’s own time, and the book I read was presumably a translation of the first half or so]. What astonished me about the book, much of which was made up of speeches from political leaders [a trick he clearly learned from Thucydides] was, to me, its modern relevance. It told the story of two political factions or sides, or perhaps parties, the Patricians and the Plebeians, and of how political power swung from one side to another on a regular basis. However, as is the case in modern politics, this regularity wasn’t particularly regular. Depending on the persuasiveness and charisma of particular leaders, and on external pressures [and corruption of course also had a role], one side might hold sway for an extended period. Many of the issues discussed – taxation, wealth and land ownership and/or redistribution, security and military expenditure, had a familiar ring, and some approaches struck me as profoundly socialist, some two thousand years avant la lettre. Naturally all this made me consider the modern left and the modern right from a more interesting ‘longitudinal’ perspective. But another thing that struck me was the quite viciously adversarial world Livy described. When the political pendulum inevitably swung against them, those who were ousted from power were, equally inevitably, accused of treason, corruption, and/or both, and driven into exile or, probably more often, summarily executed or forced into suicide. Yet quite often their policies were followed by their successors, in spite of much rhetoric about ‘winding things back’. It all left me wondering why anybody in their right mind would pursue a public, political career under such circumstances. It may well have been that civic virtue, or the kudos gained from serving the public in the role of consul or quaestor, was regarded so highly that the inherent dangers were swept aside, or even seen as a worthy feature of the job [think of a career in the armed forces – heroism always has its appeal].

Domestic politics isn’t quite as threatening as it once was, but it still seems sometimes pointlessly adversarial. Notably, in many of the areas where a sensible person might expect a bipartisan approach, such as immigration and climate change, the parties are most determined to be at loggerheads. Maybe it’s because they’re so close together on these issues that they can see the whites of their enemies’ eyes, and this drives them into a frenzy of acrimony. It’s true that Tony Abbott appears to be a climate change ignoramus, but he’s also a pragmatist, and he knows that, if he finally gets in, he’ll have to come up with some sort of scheme to tackle climate change, and it won’t be heaps different from Labor’s. The rest is just spoiling, and an insult to the voters’ intelligence. As for the asylum seeker issue, it should be a minor one considering the numbers involved, but the opposition has whipped and frothed it up for all it’s worth, not caring about the fact that one day they’re complaining about the government’s softness, and the next day they’re decrying government inhumanity. As long as they get to hurl abuse. I know I’m not the only one who finds all this childish and patently dishonest, but most people seem to just consider it a political game that has to be played. I wonder why? Is it so that we can feel superior to all those dishonest pollies? Or is it that this really is the best way to forge policy and to make reforms, in the teeth of vehement opposition. Maybe being collaborative makes for worse policy, I don’t know. There just seems so much expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

2. Law

Again, I’m never sure if I’m missing something, but the adversarial legal system has always struck me as weird. I felt the same way about debating clubs as a kid – I had no interest in finding clever arguments for a position I didn’t believe in, I wanted to argue for what I believed, and to listen to others and gladly concede to them if their argument went deeper and uncovered things I hadn’t thought of. Getting to the truth, or to the most convincing and evidence-backed account, that was the thing. But of course there are other serious considerations with this approach to law. Some lawyers are more skillful, experienced and convincing than others, and lawyers can be bought. From a personal perspective, I can’t understand how a lawyer can do all in his power to defend or prosecute someone whose guilt or innocence he isn’t sure of, out of a ‘professionalism’ from which all moral qualms are removed, if that’s possible. This is probably naive of me, and I know that in these matters almost everyone is compromised by vested interest – the police want to see their arrests vindicated, the victims and their families want revenge, the lawyers want to improve their win/loss ratios, the accused want to get off, etc. Only the judge [and/or jury] is expected to uphold some sort of claim to objectivity, thus becoming the target of all the persuasive powers of the defence and prosecution teams, who seek to take advantage of every quirk and tendency they might perceive in the judge or the jurors. All of which makes me feel not quite right.

I know that in some countries a non-adversarial judicial system has been adopted, but I’m completely vague on the details. I do know that it’s a system heavily criticised by the proponents of the adversarial system, on what grounds and with what legitimacy I’m not sure. I’ve also heard that it hasn’t necessarily produced better or fairer outcomes. I’m also at a loss as to how such a non-adversarial system is financed, without accused persons being able to pay top dollar for the best lawyers. However, I can’t help but intuitively feel that a non-adversarial, collaborative system, in which everybody has the same aim, to uncover the truth surrounding a particular crime or alleged crime, would in principle be a better approach.

3. Work

I presume that ever since we began to divide labour – that is, from the beginning of civilisation – work and power have been intimately related. In fact, it’s only in recent times, with the growth of the idea of universal human rights and the notion of inherent, individual human dignity, that we’ve come to see that people shouldn’t necessarily be devalued according to the type of work they do. The otherwise brilliant Aristotle notoriously wondered whether slaves were capable of consciousness, and this, I would guess, was not due to their inherent status [he knew well enough, surely, that today’s battalion commander could become tomorrow’s slave to forces victorious over him], but to the menial work he or she was forced to do. Similarly when the novelist V S Naipaul [whose work and character I’ve always loathed] recently declared himself to be a superior writer to every female who has ever taken up a pen, he based this ‘knowledge’ on female work, as he saw it. Women, or women writers, had never been estate managers or big bosses or whatever, and so could never see things from a superior male perspective.This idea that employers were inherently superior to ‘underlings’ has only gradually faded with the advent of the union movement and its ability to articulate the rights and grievances of such underlings. Mostly this has involved clashes, demonstrations and strikes, with the formation of employer groups to combat the rise of workers’ associations.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that in the world of work we’ve seen more positive moves towards a collaborative approach than in other areas. Work, in the west, has become more multifaceted and less rigidly specified, with a blurring of distinctions between types of work and the prestige attached to work, from parental roles and household tasks to management and other high-flying positions, and this has broken down the old us-and-them tradition to some extent. Not that there isn’t a place for good old-fashioned confrontation. Sometimes, as with the demonstration I participated in recently, the problem is that there is no clear ‘enemy’. Workers in the community welfare sector [where the percentage of women is high] are very poorly paid. Generally they’re paid by the government, which means their work is very insecure as governments and their pet projects come and go. Funding is ever a problem and it’s hardly surprising that turnover is very high. Targeting government becomes a problem when governments get turfed out and the next government hasn’t made the same commitment. The problem may well be in public relations – but I’m moving too far from my focus. The point is that, again in this area, a collaborative approach, recognising the mutual dependency of coalface workers and management [and often their inter-changeability] strikes me as inherently more productive. But maybe we’ve had to go through a certain period of mutual hostility, misunderstanding and misrepresentation to get to that stage.

 

So the above is ten years old, and the world of work – the growing gig economy, and increasing deregulation – is getting tougher for those without the right connections. A basic income provision, which might alleviate the problems caused by an increasing concentration of wealth, doesn’t seem to be supported fully by the left or the right, never mind the kind of bipartisan support required for success. But bipartisanship and collaboration is essential to face and overcome the problems we’re creating for ourselves. The thirty percent target for female involvement at all levels in these key fields is critical in creating this collaborative environment – though thirty percent isn’t enough. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 3, 2021 at 12:43 pm

a bonobo world etc 28: finding connections through difference

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some of the language and cultural groups in modern China

Our human world is divided into many nations – 195 or so according to the UN, but this all depends on how you define the term. We know that there are many peoples who see themselves as separate and distinct from the nations they happen to inhabit, and prefer to consider themselves a nation of some sort, and some have named their nation – the Uyghurs of East Turkistan, the Kurds of Kurdistan, the Catalans of Catalonia, the Basques of Cantabria (and many other names) and the Samaritans of Samaria, to name a few – while others, such as the Hazaras, the Rohingyas, the Yorubas and the Tamils, may or may not have specific named territories they would like to claim as their own. In Australia, some have spoken of hundreds of Aboriginal nations, generally associated with language groups. And since we know of about 7,000 existent languages, each associated with particular cultures, there seems to be something of a barrier to any simplistic notions of globalism and global problem-solving. 

This is the difference between human apes and other apes. We have divided into distinct groupings, which it seems, our ancestral hominins, going back to CHLCA – the chimpanzee (and bonobo)-human last common ancestor – didn’t do. But is this true? Could it be that the neanderthals and others formed separate cultural groupings within themselves? And how is it that language, which creates such barriers among peoples today, became so diversified as we went forth and multiplied? 

Clearly language is a near-unique human capacity. The neanderthals, though, are now known to have possessed a hyoid bone – a horseshoe-like bone in the neck – which may argue for speech capacity. Hyoid fossils have also been found attributed to Homo heidelbergensis and dated back half a million years. If these extinct hominins had language, was it the same language? Language is a means not only of communication but of instilling and handing down cultural praxis, so who knows? The idea of sub-dividing Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and perhaps others into distinct language and cultural groups really makes the brain spin. 

Today, with the greater ease of travel, and with the general tendency of humans, and most other species, to migrate from regions of great danger and few resources to regions of greater resources and fewer dangers, we find that the most economically successful countries are becoming increasingly multicultural, and naturally those countries seek to make a virtue out of necessity. 

There are clearly positives and negatives about multiculturalism. Minority cultures understandably seek the comfort of their familiars, leading to ghettoism. They also have vulnerabilities that are exploited by the dominant culture, taking on low-paid or under-the-counter work eschewed by others, and accepting poorer housing and other conditions. Discomfort with difference works both ways of course, and it has been the case that, going back to the days of the early slave-dependent cultures of Greece and Rome, slaves were considered something less than human even by the intelligentsia (and women in somewhat similar ways). The difference today is, or should be, that we know how nonsensical those attitudes were. And yet they persist, in muted form. 

There’s also the view, put forward for example by Sam Harris in The moral landscape and, in different form, by David Deutsch in The beginning of infinity, that some cultures are objectively superior than others, especially in terms of law, science and progress. Their general argument is that those cultures that are static or archaic in terms of lore and ideology need to ‘get with the program’ being followed by most developed countries in terms of the pursuit of deeper and richer knowledge and the tools and technologies that flow from that knowledge. And yet, paradoxically, some of that knowledge and research informs us that indigenous cultures in particular, such as existed for tens of thousands of years in Australia, developed practices and technologies over that period which allowed them to live in relative comfort in a landscape that new arrivals from Europe found inherently inhospitable – though of course those new arrivals didn’t by any means give up, and eventually found ways to exploit enough of the land and resources to become populous and dominant. 

In reflecting on all these differences and tensions, we need, I think, to always keep in mind how situated we are. None of us chose the cultures we were born into, and this heavy fact should help determine our sympathy for those born into more or less different cultures, as well as those born better or worse off in our own. And there are many features common in our humanity. As a teacher of international English, I’ve taught students from scores of different nations and cultures, and clearly from a range of different positions within those cultures, and I’ve been struck by the broad lines of humanity they share, in terms of humour, ambition, anxiety, desire and wonder. All of these emotions or traits are a kind of human substrate, a permanent foundation upon which human cultures, which come and go and transform and so forth, are constructed, sometimes obscuring the view of the basic humanity that really connects us. 

The language barriers may be about to erode, by means of technology – at least the barriers between major languages, such as Mandarin and English (the minority languages will inevitably get the rough end of this particular stick). Electronic translators are a long way from the Babel fish thought up by Douglas Adams in The hitch-hikers guide to the galaxy, a device like Apple’s AirPods which instantly translates every language in the universe into your own, but earpiece translators are already with us, and are bound to improve. It’s surely better than having everyone learn the same, dominant language. But the real promise of this technology is the promise of collaboration, and the reduction of truly artificial, or human-created, differences, and strengthening that human foundation that underlies those differences. Something to hope for. 

 

References

Madelaine Bohme, Rudiger Braun & Florian Breier, Ancient bones, 2020

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25465102

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/feb/17/is-the-era-of-artificial-speech-translation-upon-us

Written by stewart henderson

February 9, 2021 at 2:13 pm