an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

the best kind of sleep

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Canto: So Dr Seheult tells us that the most important sleep is in the earliest period. This is called slow-wave sleep or N3 sleep. It doesn’t last long, maybe half an hour…

Jacinta: Why is it called N3 sleep?

Canto: Well, here’s the detail – you have three stages of this early sleep. N1 is when you fall asleep. It lasts no more than ten minutes generally until you’re really there, in sleep. Then there’s N2 of course, which lasts from 30-60 minutes, your muscles relax and you begin to enter this slow-wave, also called delta-wave or delta brain activity sleep. That’s the deepest sleep of the night, at its deepest in the N3 period.

Jacinta: Well that explains the 1-2-3, sort of, but what about the N?

Canto: I haven’t been able to find that out specifically, but these are all phases of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, which are followed by the REM phase. So I think the N is just short for NREM. Anyway there are two types of sleep for maintaining good health – slow wave sleep and REM sleep towards the end of the night…

Jacinta: But don’t those two make up the whole of the sleep cycle?

Canto: Let me tell the story. Slow wave sleep is when you secrete valuable growth hormone, vital for children, in the time before midnight, according to the good doctor.

Jacinta: But I virtually never sleep before midnight.

Canto: Well you’re not alone there. In cities now, which are growing ever larger, we’re going to bed later and getting up earlier, and so sleeping less…

Jacinta: But generally living longer. So what’s the problem? I’ve heard that Hong Kong, which is about as urban as it gets, has the longest life expectancy on Earth – but that was probably measured before the China crackdown haha.

Canto: Well it’s no joke that China’s thugocracy will jeopardise everything in HK’s future, but good public healthcare and a very low infant mortality rate helps. People today can still live well with diabetes, obesity and slow-developing cancers, but they’d be even better with good sleep habits, if the rat-race allows them. But cities present us with a kind of eternal daylight, at great cost, not only in electric lighting, but in lack of sleep. Not to mention brightly lit screens that we take to bed with us…

Jacinta: Okay so what are the other benefits of slow wave and REM sleep, however delayed?

Canto: Dr Seheult describes a study showing that general sleep deprivation actually reduces the levels of antibodies produced after influenza vaccination. That’s to say, vaccination is less effective for the sleep-deprived. Another study used rhinovirus, a common cold virus. They paid students to be infected and found that those with good sleep efficiency, that’s to say, a high ratio of in-bed time to sleep time – their risk of being infected was reduced five to seven-fold, an extraordinary result. Actually this ‘extraordinary result’ finding comes up again and again in Matthew Walker’s book.

Jacinta: Yes, but it’s surely good to be awake sometimes too. But again, what is it about slow-wave and REM sleep that provides such benefits. What are the mechanisms?

Canto: Well, we’re talking about N3 sleep, the deepest sleep. This sleep phase is particularly important for memory consolidation, the stabilisation of a memory trace once it’s been acquired – meaning presumably the event itself, or its impact. It’s also called sleep-dependent memory processing. Now, how this precisely works is still being researched, but it appears to have much to do with interactions between neurons or neuronal complexes in the neocortex and the hippocampus. So here I should introduce sleep spindles, which are essential to all mammalian species.

Jacinta: They’re brainwaves, aren’t they?

Canto: Neural oscillations, indeed. They’re generated in the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), in richest quantities during N2 and N3 sleep. Wikipedia tells me this:

The density of spindles has been shown to increase after extensive learning of declarative memory tasks and the degree of increase in stage 2 spindle activity correlates with memory performance.

This is confirmed in experiments described in Why we sleep, showing that people who slept for a night between being asked to memorise certain data, like putting a name to a face, did a significantly better job than those who tried to remember the data after eight hours without sleep (from morning to evening). During the sleep period, subjects’ brain waves were recorded, and this is Dr Walker’s account:

The memory refreshment was related to lighter, stage 2 NREM sleep, and specifically the short, powerful bursts of electrical activity called sleep spindles… The more sleep spindles an individual obtained during the nap, the greater the restoration of their learning when they woke up. Importantly, sleep spindles did not predict someone’s innate learning aptitude. That would be a less interesting result, as it would imply that inherent learning ability and spindles simply go hand in hand. Instead, it was specifically the change in learning from before relative to after sleep, which is to say the replenishment of learning ability, that spindles predicted.

Jacinta: So they were correlating the number of spindles with their memorising performance, and memory here is being equated with learning. Is that right? I mean, is learning really just memorising?

Canto: Well, no, but it helps. I’m trying to memorise Newton’s inverse square law for gravity, but I know that even if I can reel it off like a favourite poem that doesn’t mean I fully understand it. Let me see G = m1.m2 over r². I’m not sure if that’s right.

Jacinta: Yeah, basically you have to know that the gravitational attraction between two bodies is equal to the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between their ‘centres of mass’. I think. Though why that happens to be the case I have no idea. Does anyone?

Canto: Because… the universe? I’m beginning to feel sleepy…


M. Walker, Why we sleep, 2017

How to get the best sleep for your immune system | Roger Seheult (video)

Written by stewart henderson

November 14, 2021 at 12:54 am

Posted in memory, mind, science, sleep

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more thoughts on sleeping

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Jacinta: So, as I said last time, there’s tons of shite – I mean good shite – on sleep disorders and benefits and how to improve your sleep etc, on YouTube and elsewhere on the net. Why bother with social media, folks – rise above yourself and grasp the world. So I’ll start with Matthew Walker – he doubtless imparts his ideas on improving our sleep in his book Why we sleep, leaving the good dope till the end, but I’m not there yet, so I’m looking at his video ‘How to Improve Your Sleep’…

Canto: Which I’ve already watched, and I’m a man, so I’ll take over. First, alcohol as a ‘nightcap’ doesn’t work. It’s a sedative, and a sedation state isn’t the same as everyday sleep. It doesn’t have a restorative effect – it actually has a disruptive affect – you’ll tend to wake up more often in the night, and not just for wee-wee. You often don’t even remember this happening. It also blocks much of your dream or REM sleep, which is important for your mental health. Depriving rats of REM sleep apparently has quite catastrophic effects. Marijuana, that supposedly wonderful medicinal herb, doesn’t fare much better. It also blocks the dream sleep, though by a different pathway. Walker doesn’t provide too much detail in this 8-minute video, but he’s a professor of neurophysiology at a big Californian uni, and science is our god, right? So marijuana can send you to sleep quickly enough, but with little of that all-important REM sleep….

Jacinta: I can explain why REM sleep is so important…

Canto: Please, I’m not finished. Not getting the REM sleep can make you more anxious and more likely to self-medicate with Mary Jane, leading to a cycle of dependency. But there are questions around the drug – there are unverified claims that CBD oil, or cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive component (as opposed to THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol) may have benefits, but effective studies haven’t been conducted.

Jacinta: Because of a history of stupidity around marijuana. I blame Harry Anslinger and his crowd.

Canto: So can you recover sleep that you’ve lost, either over a previous night or two or a previous lifetime? Well, Walker says no, but that strikes me as disastrously pessimistic – he seems to be saying that some even small period of short-sleeping will have long-term or permanent effects, and you’ll just have to live with those effects for the rest of your life. I mean, really?

Jacinta: Yes, and short-sleeping is often related to our work patterns or the schedules set for us by our culture. Our dog sleeps whenever she wants, and so do bonobos. But kids have to be up for school at seven every morning, and it often goes on throughout our working life…

Canto: To say nothing of shift-work, which I experienced for years, and it was a living nightmare, sleep-wise. It’s ok for these smart-aleck professorial types. We dumb fucks have to earn a living with the sweat of our brows.

Jacinta: Professors sweat too. Anyway, I think this particular video doesn’t quite deliver on how we can improve our sleep. Sure we should avoid alcohol and drugs and not rely too much on alarms, but how do we deal with such problems as – well, just never falling asleep before midnight, and waking up in the night, and so on. I suppose that’s called insomnia?

Canto: Well, as many health sites put it, insomnia is a symptom, not a disease. You might need a bit of discipline. Put down your book, or switch off your phone or tablet well before midnight. Dr Seheult of Medcram fame, who’s also a sleep specialist, suggests you should organise your room, your sleeping place, so that it’s dedicated only to sleeping, not anything else, such as a workspace. Try that, for your psychology. But I’ve also found reputable health websites that disagree with Dr Walker’s claims about short sleeping. They claim that a good night’s sleep is an individual thing in terms of hours spent in shut-eye. Maybe you don’t need as much sleep as the average person. It could be that your anxiety about sleep is doing more damage.

Jacinta: There was some mention of pee earlier. Coffee’s a diuretic – so no coffee for maybe two or three hours before bedtime, whenever that is.

Canto: Difficult.

Jacinta: Self-discipline. I’m sure that bladder retention reduces as we age. I think establishing a routine would help. If you make a decision to get out of bed, say, at eight every morning, and keep to it, the front end will sort itself out, so to speak.

Canto: Well, try that and report back. I’m beginning to feel that you’re making a problem out of nothing. I mean, you worry too much.

Jacinta:: Probably. Anyway, the Better Health Channel has some suggestions for dealing with short term insomnia, and here are some that I find relevant. Avoid caffeinated drinks before bedtime. Also avoid strenuous exercises. Try not to nap during the day. Don’t go to bed if you don’t feel sleepy. And don’t spend too much time worreting over the issue.

Canto: So, should you keep on reading Why we sleep? Won’t that keep you worrying?

Jacinta: Well I don’t mind worreting. And there’s a lot to learn from the book, about how sleep actually works. That’s what we’ll get into in a future post.


Why we sleep, by Matthew Walker, 2017

How To Improve Your Sleep | Matthew Walker (video)

Written by stewart henderson

November 8, 2021 at 11:09 pm

a post to send you to sleep, or not

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Häggström, Mikael (2014). “Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström


Canto: Anything interesting you’ve learned lately?

Jacinta: Well, there’s so much, it’s hard to keep track of it all, before it slides down the slippery slope into a past of fragmented memories.

Canto: A pasta of memories? That’s food for thought. I know you’ve been reading up on sleep, among all your other heavy reading. Tell me.

Jacinta: Yes, I’ve been reading up on feminism and misogyny as you know, which is mostly depressing, but this sciencey but very accessible book, Why we sleep by Matthew Walker, is not so much depressing as worrisome, for those of us whose sleep patterns are all over the place, like mine. He’s a big-time sleep researcher, and what he says about sleep deprivation is all bad – even for a wee bit of it.

Canto: So, those dreams of doing away with sleep, of zapping your brain for a few seconds to provide the instant reinvigoration that sleep takes eight hours of wasteful oblivion to achieve, allowing us that much more time to ruin the biosphere and all, or just to read more books and shit, those dreams are just a waste of sleep?

Jacinta: No zapping will ever replace the complexity of sleep, with all its REMness and non-REMness, let Mr Walker assure you. Sleep is a restorative and builder, which has complexly evolved with the complex evolution of our brains and bodies. And by ‘our’ I don’t just mean humans, but every complex or not-so complex evolved organism. They all sleep.

Canto: Well, there are many questions here. You’ve mentioned REM sleep, which I think has something to do with dreaming – your eyes, presumably under their lids, are rapidly moving about. Why? It doesn’t sound healthy.

Jacinta: They’re responding to brain signals, and it’s perfectly normal. More specifically, they seem to be responding to the brain’s changing visual representations while dreaming. They used electrodes in the brain to discover this – which sounds Frankensteinish but in this case they were patients with epilepsy preparing to have very invasive treatment to stop their seizures. They looked at activity in the medial temporal lobe, a region deep in the brain which includes the hippocampus and amygdala, and is involved in encoding and consolidating memories, and found fairly clear-cut connections between that activity and patients’ eye movements.

Canto: But how could they ‘see’ the eye movements?

Jacinta: Oh god, I don’t know, for now I’m more interested in sleep deprivation, which raises concerns for everything from diabetes to Alzheimer’s. And, although I haven’t measured anything carefully, my guess is that I average 6 to 7 hours’ sleep a night, and I need to amp that up.

Canto: And you’ve recently been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, so do you think more sleep can help with that? It’s usually pretty strongly correlated with diet isn’t it?

Jacinta: Less time sleeping, more time for eating, Walker writes. I’m certainly trying to lose weight, but only by eating less. I think my diet’s not too bad, less wine though. And I suppose if I slept more, which is easier said than done, I wouldn’t eat so much. I’ve found in the past that just reducing the quantity of food I ingest, without changing its make-up – in other words, being more disciplined – can take the weight off quite quickly. The key is to make it life-long.

Canto: More fibre is good, I think. For the microbiome.

Jacinta: So type 2 diabetes is generally about blood sugar levels and their regulation, or lack thereof. In a healthy person, eating a meal adds glucose to the blood, which triggers the hormone insulin, produced in the pancreas, to somehow bring about cellular absorption of the glucose as an energy source. In the case of diabetes, there’s usually a break-down in the cellular response to the insulin signal, I think, and so you become hyperglycaemic – not that this has ever happened to me, so far.

Canto: So how does this relate to lack of sleep, apart from giving you more time to guzzle sugar?

Jacinta: Walker describes a series of studies, independent from each other, in different continents, which found high rates of type 2 diabetes in people who reported sleeping for less than six hours a night on a regular basis. They controlled for other factors such as obesity, alcohol use, smoking etcetera. But of course correlation isn’t causation so they investigated further. They conducted experiments with a bunch of healthy people – no blood glucose problems or signs of diabetes. Firstly, they mildly tortured them – they permitted them only four hours of sleep per night over six straight nights. Then they tested their ability to absorb glucose, and found a 40% reduction in that ability. This would immediately classify them as pre-diabetic, and these studies, I’m assured, have been replicated numerous times.

Canto: That sounds incredible. And these guinea pigs quickly recovered? Or are they now full-blown diabetics? Doesn’t sound like mild torture to me. And do they know why a week’s sleep deprivation had such a dramatic effect?

Jacinta: Ha, well, Walker doesn’t mention the afterlife of the experimental subjects, but I’m assuming normality came bounding back after they recovered their sleep. As to the mechanism of action, Walker describes two options – sleep loss may have blocked the release of insulin by the pancreas, providing no signal for cell absorption to take place, or it may have interfered with the released insulin’s message to the cells. And though it seems that sleep loss probably had an effect on both, it was clear from biopsies taken from subjects that it was the latter, the cells’ lack of response to insulin, their ‘refusal’ to take up the blood glucose, that was the principal problem.

Canto: Just looking at the Sleep Foundation website, and they seem to get things the other way round, that diabetics are suffering from sleep loss. I must say, that, off the top of my head, I’d find being pre-diabetic easier to manage than my sleep behaviour. I mean, I can imagine changing my diet and exercise habits easily enough, but my sleep habits not so much. How do you turn off your brain?

Jacinta: Well, Mr Walker has some suggestions on that, which we’ll explore next time. And by the way, there seems to be tons of videos and websites providing knowledge and advice on the issue, which always makes me feel superfluous to requirements as a human being…

Canto: Well, try not to lose sleep over it.


Why we sleep, by Matthew Walker, 2017


Written by stewart henderson

November 7, 2021 at 3:56 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

a bonobo world: the ascent and fall of man

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                                  devil woman, with evil on her mind

Bonobos obviously evolved from some earlier type, along with chimps, but we’re not as interested in their evolution as we are in ours, understandably enough. What wouldn’t we give to fill in the gaps in our rise – the where and when of the first use of fire, the first spoken language, the beginnings of religious practice and so on? And of course none of us will live long enough to find out if bonobos, left alone (which they won’t be), become more gynocratic or less in the distant future, let alone whether we humans will eventually manage to live for as long as some tortoises I’ve heard about.

We human apes, of course, have socially evolved, especially over the past few thousand years, as Jacob Bronowski pointed out regularly in the series so admired by Deutsch. Yet interestingly, there was a kind of evolution that Bronowski himself, and the producers of The Ascent of Man, seemed not to have arrived at by 1971. I haven’t watched the entire series, only the two episodes and other bits and pieces I’ve found on YouTube, because I’m too poor to pay for the entire series, but having watched the first episode more than once, I felt bugged by all this ‘man’ stuff. So I did a count. Bronowski utters the word ‘man’ 70 times, together with the pronouns ‘he’ (29 times), ‘his’ (23) and ‘him’ (12). The words ‘woman’ ‘she’ and ‘her’ are uttered zero times in toto by my count. In terms of imagery, only two human figures are focussed on apart from Bronowski, a male child learning to stand on two feet, and a male athlete running and pole vaulting. But of course, by ‘man’ he means ‘human’, right? And, hey, this was the beginning of the seventies, right? Which was almost the sixties, really quite close to the fifties…

I’m not even a woman but I felt like I was having my female irrelevance bashed into my face in listening to all this – a bit like a sleeping woman who only realises she’s being clouted when she wakes up. And all this man stuff didn’t suddenly end with the seventies – I’m reminded of a book, God, actually, which I read at the tail end of the New Atheism flare-up a few years ago. It was a dreadful piece of drivel seeking to prove the existence of the Judaeo-Christian god and to debunk evolution, which, against the advice of my betters, I managed to read to the end. Yet nothing in the male author’s specious arguments irritated me more than his deliberate use of ‘man’ as a generic term (though I was more irritated at the publisher, ABC books of all people). At one point, after reading the ‘man’ word about fifteen times in a couple of pages, I threw the book across the room in disgust. It seemed far more of an attack on women than on atheists.

But perhaps the title ‘The Ascent of Man’ was meant as a clever science-and-human development counterpoint to the religious ‘Fall of Man’ trope? Or at least, let’s pretend. The fall of man really was male, of course, and it was caused by woman. Or, if you like, by god, who should’ve left that spare rib alone. Not that this little fable was necessary to create a viciously misogynistic society, as witness the ancient Greeks (with apologies to the Spartans). Still it did a fine job of making life hot for women, long before the witch-burning frenzy of the fifteenth,  sixteenth, seventeenth  and eighteenth centuries (to be precise, the last woman known to have been burnt to death as a witch was Barbara Zdunk in Poland in 1811, and the first known execution of a witch, recorded by Demosthenes, was of Theoris of Lemnos, and her family, some time before 323 BCE, though it’s likely that witch-hunting, torture and execution predates this). Since all the early Christian writers and power-wielders were men with natural sexual desires, and since they’d gotten into their collective heads a fear and hatred of sexual desire as a straying from the endless and more or less brainless contemplation of the divine, women, the ‘daughters of Eve’ (though women were generally supposed, at least by the elites who pretended to understand such things, to be the carriers of the human seed without contributing to it) became the collective scapegoat. Basically, women were encouraged to be the objects of men’s desires, and exploited as such, and then blamed for it. Here’s the early Christian writer Tertullian, as memorably quoted by Beauvoir in The Second Sex:

And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?

As many feminist writers have pointed out, the exploitation of, and the ill-treatment, murder and general public opprobrium of sex workers of all varieties has never really abated, despite the so-called sexual liberation that began decades ago. What these religious and conservative types would think of bonobo shenanigans is an interesting question, but not particularly relevant for the future of humanity, whether it’s headed upwards or down. For the future lies with those who are open and attentive to the behaviour of our relatives. Bonobos’ use of sex isn’t obsessive, or particularly excessive. What is excessive and obsessive is our fear of sex, and our need to control it, to hide it, to wrap it in bonds of ownership, to weaponise it. We’re so  absurdly uptight about it, so incapable of normalising it as a need, a feeling, an appetite, a social bond, a pleasure.

The fall, indeed. We’ve fallen for so many myths about sex. When will be able to rise above all that, and be kinder to each other? Not until women are on top, I’m pretty sure.


The Ascent of Man, Ep. 01 “Lower Than the Angels” (YouTube video)

Roy Williams, God, actually, 2010, ABC Books & HarperCollins

Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers

Written by stewart henderson

October 11, 2021 at 9:32 pm

a bonobo world: on puncturing the masculine mystique

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‘They need to touch materials with their hands. They need to form materials, need to make things with their own hands out of wood, clay, iron etc. They need to own tools and handle tools. Not doing it, not being permitted to do it, does something to men. They all know it.’

Sherwood Anderson

‘A man who can’t handle tools is not a man’

Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman,  by Arthur Miller


It’s often pointed out by feminist writers that women do more work than men and get little acknowledgement for it. The work of nurturing children, especially in early infancy, and the unpaid work of maintaining the family – remembering important dates, events and tasks – while, also, these days, pursuing her own career. In less affluent countries, their burden is often greater, as they work for a pittance outside the home, and for nothing, economically speaking, inside it, while ceding ‘head of the household’ status to men. Marilyn French detailed the systemic discrimination against working women thirty years ago in The war against women, and given the heavy patriarchal culture women still labour under in those parts of the world dominated by  the major religions, progress has been painfully slow. Here in the WEIRD world, however, there are some positive signs. It’s still overwhelmingly patriarchal even now that the WEIRD nations have largely recognised the artificiality of the ‘masculine mystique’. However, that recognition is an important step toward gynocracy.

Let me explain what I mean by the masculine mystique, since I’ve just thought of the term (so I need to explain it to myself). In Susan Faludi’s 1999 book Stiffed, a humane rendering of the quandary many men have found themselves in as the WEIRD world has become post-industrial, she quoted Sherwood Anderson and Arthur Miller on masculinity and tool use. The idea being mooted was that man was the tool-maker and tool-user, and deprived of those skills and opportunities, he felt emasculated.

This was about mastery. Without their sense of mastery, especially an exclusive mastery, one not shared by females, men weren’t really men. This masculine mystique needs to be punctured. In fact it has been punctured, but it needs to deflate quite a bit more.

Chimpanzees use tools. Bonobos too, but far less so, sad to say. One particular tool shown in a video I recently watched was a thin stick for poking into termite mounds and collecting a tasty and doubtless nutritious meal. The video presented adult chimps showing their expertise in this task, while the children fumbled and failed. Only later did I wonder – were those adult experts male or female? The commentator didn’t say, and surely this was unsurprising, surely all adults had learned this skill. Though chimps live in a largely patriarchal society, there’s surely no division of labour such that the females are expected to keep the forest clearing tidy, mind the kids and wait for the male to bring home the termites. And yet we’ve only recently come to terms, even in the WEIRD world, with female engineers, mechanics, scientists, entrepreneurs, truck-drivers and a whole lot more. In other words, throughout our history, we’ve been much more patriarchal and frankly misogynistic in our division of labour, and its spoils, than chimps have ever been. The upper classes have intoned from on high that ladies should be powdered, manicured, stupidly shod and generally decorative, and those notions are far from having been laid to rest.

Let me offer another example, a favourite of mine. In the early seventies, I attended a youth camp in the Adelaide Hills. We were kicking a soccer ball around, and one of the camp leaders beckoned to a couple of female watchers on the sidelines to come and join in. They were reluctant and giggly and seemed almost deliberately hapless, swinging and missing the ball and landing on their rumps, and giggling all the more. I was irritated, as I’d seen this before, girls almost proud of their lack of co-ordination, a kind of learned helplessness. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and I was attending an impromptu housewarming for people a generation or two behind me. It was during the day, and the young people, about a dozen of them, trooped outside to a vacant lot behind the house, with a soccer ball. I watched them from an upstairs window. They formed a circle, kicking the ball between them. There were as many girls as lads, but there was no difference in the skill level, it seemed to me. They were all able to trap the ball, bounce it up to their heads, and pass with power and accuracy. I was amazed, and even became a bit teary. These were young girls I knew, but I didn’t know they were into soccer. And maybe they weren’t particularly. Maybe they were just brought up in a generation that had broken from that long history of patriarchal expectation or demand. They had no interest in being ladylike women, at least not all the time.

What has happened? The first women’s World Cup was held in 1991, and the past few of them have received blanket coverage. Tennis really led the way, and then golf, and now women are becoming heroes in many athletic and sporting contests, with motor sports as the next challenge. It seems that, in sporting prowess at least, the trickle-down effect may actually be real.

And this particular trickle-down can also be viewed as the trickling away of the masculine mystique, the near superhero of Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, the culmination of human can-do physical prowess. In many respects, the competencies required for the challenges in our future – the problems of global warming, reduced biodiversity, the exploitation, suffering and slaughter of other species, the reduction of poverty in our own – are not so much the competencies wrapped up in the masculine mystique package. They’re more like the competencies associated with creating unity, inclusivity, teamwork, as well as a more reflective, and dare I say sensual understanding of the world we have come to dominate, and, in our masculine way, to domineer. We can still be the can-do species, but what we have to do requires a different approach, a greater appreciation of the complexity of the world we’ve come to dominate, and which is now suffering from that domination. In a sense we’ve become the ‘earth-mother’ of the planet – we’re preserving other species in zoos and nurseries (good word), we’re waking up to our damaging habits, we’re looking for solutions that won’t entail more damage. All of this requires as much ingenuity as we’ve ever applied before. Warfare, competitive advantage, insularity and breast-beating human supremacy are not what is needed. We need something a lot more bonoboesque – a sharing of ideas, responsibility and passion, for each other (all others), and our world. And maybe, with all our failings, we’re inching towards it.

Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2021 at 12:05 am

a bonobo world: monogamy, heavy culture, gynocracy

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“our ancestors established the rule that all women, because of the weakness of their intellect, should be under the power of guardians”

Cicero,  Pro Murena


Boudica of the Iceni – to the life

Having been brought up in a disastrous monogamous relationship has given me a lifelong bias against monogamy – I should make this important admission from the start. Of course, I’ve since witnessed many successful and happy monogamous pairings, but I can’t help feeling that social pressures (and religious pressures, but those are gradually weakening in the WEIRD world) and long-term cultural expectations are acting as a kind of cement to relationships that could have been more open.

The recent dithering of our Australian federal government in finally legalising same-sex marriage (largely due to the composition of our federal parliament being significantly more religious than the general population) had me thinking in something of a blooming, buzzing confusion. My initial reaction was – what do they want to get married for? When I realised that one important reason was that marriage was supported by law in various ways – spouse inheritance for example – as well as being an important form of public recognition in the face of naysayers, I relented. But still – monogamy as the ultimate legal achievement?

As a teenager in the late sixties and early seventies, I felt energised by the sense around me that so many social mores were being up-ended. Dress codes became degendered, colour was in for everyone, and free love was in the air (up there just beyond my reach). It didn’t last, of course – no hippy parliamentarians, judges, business leaders in the nineties, or very few. Men in blue or black ties, women (the few who achieved such prominence) in stupid shoes, it all seemed horribly retrograde – one step forward and two steps back. Currently, there’s a lot of talk about community values – perhaps underlined by the current pandemic – but the hard shell of the nuclear family, with one or two parents, and the occasional grandparent – shows no sign of cracking.

As mentioned previously, I read Children of the Dream in my youth, hoping to find an alternative to nuclear family monogamy, long before I discovered bonoboism. The kibbutz world, though, had little about it that was organic or evolutionary. It was a devised, top-down socialist thingummy, and its ruling shibboleth – ‘from each according to her ability to each according to her need’ had an element of enforcement about it, while bonobos appear to have arrived at a similar system without a conscious thought. And there were/are other problems with the kibbutzim. It was essentially monocultural, though gentiles were allowed in, if they toed the line. Multiculturalism, and multicultural interaction and exchange, it seems to me, must be an essential feature of a successful human community in the modern world. In fact Israel is a country that shrieks failure in this regard – a failure that was essentially intended from the formation of the new state of Israel – to the despair, I should add, of many Jews with better intentions.

To continue on this theme of culture, I like the idea of the light culture/heavy culture distinction. I was born into a Scottish culture transplanted to Australia – about as far away from Scotland as the globe allows (though culturally not so much). This allowed me to dip in and out of the shallows of Scottish culture more or less at my leisure. My mother occasionally mentioned the hope of one of her offspring learning highland dancing or bagpipe-paying, but nothing came of it – though I wish I’d kept the kilt I was gifted at age thirteen or so, and had the chutzpah to wear it to school, and beyond. In any case, our move to Australia further lightened a culture that was already blended into a more generalised WEIRD world. This is important, as not all cultures are equally valuable – a controversial claim for some, but argued eloquently, for example, by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape. I recently met a friendly New Zealander at an art event, a man who, by his features, I recognised as of Māori origin. When I mentioned this, he became almost aggressively negative. He wanted nothing to do with that culture, he’d come to Australia to escape all that. Of course I didn’t press him on any details, which left me free to speculate wildly. The Māori male has become a stereotype of macho toughness, a stereotype much-promoted by non-Māoris, according to Waikato University’s Professor Brendan Hokowhitu. However, stereotypes generally have some basis in truth. My first experience of Māori maledom was a bantering conversation in an Adelaide pub, which led to him grabbing my arm tightly and pushing his staring, tattooed face into mine. I was quite sober and quite sure I hadn’t said anything to offend any reasonable, or reasonably unreasonable person. I should also add that, physically, I’m a rather flimsy male specimen. However, I didn’t want to be humiliated, so I simply stared back at him, and waited for his whole-body erection to subside, which it eventually did. After which I managed to skedaddle with a modicum of dignity, only cursing that I hadn’t notified the bar staff of his behaviour.

This was heavy culture, it seemed to me, of the most physical type. Another quite different example, came to me via a highly intelligent young student whom I was tutoring on Zoom recently. She lived in Australia but English was her second language and I was helping her with its connotative aesthetics vis-à-vis essay-writing. In one essay she described returning to India for a holiday, and the culture shock she received, as a near-adult, in being confronted by her extended family’s adherence to the caste system. As a member of the Brahmin caste, and as a person who’d experienced years of relative egalitarianism in Australia, she was well placed to recognise the casual injustice, and the blindness to it, in her extended family’s behaviour. She tried to confront her elders about it, but of course as a teenager she lacked the status and the articulacy to be effective, and was only too happy to return to a future in Australia.

It seems to me that heavy cultures are invariably patriarchal, and monogamous, often punitively so for women. We can’t always blame religions, which are generally born into a patriarchal culture, which they then reinforce. Perhaps the most patriarchal culture in human history was that of the ancient Greeks, often described as the culture that gave birth to democracy, a ridiculous claim given its dependence on slavery and its treatment of half the population, or potentially half, since female infanticide was almost compulsory among them. Archaeologists digging up bones from that era have noted the overwhelming preponderance of adult male bodies over females, largely the result of an unofficial, and rather self-defeating, ‘no female child’ policy. The Romans were no better – no ancient Roman female, apart from the odd goddess, has ever been recognised for her sagacity or prowess in anything, as far as I’m aware. The Romans were apparently shocked, on occupying Brittania, to find that certain women there, such as Cartimandua and Boudica, wielded actual power over estates and armies. Tacitus, Caesar and Cassius Dio are, unfortunately, the only writers to have presented these women to the world, and being Roman, are highly unreliable sources. Boudica in particular has become a woman for all ages since her time, with portraits of her reflecting the shifting social attitudes towards powerful women through the centuries. It’s quite likely, though, that the Romans’ prurient interest in the warrior women of Britannia exaggerated their power and their numbers. With territorial disputes often descending into warfare, men would surely have been at the helm during much of Iron Age Britain. The epigraphic evidence is limited mostly to militaristic inscriptions, and there is a weighting of archeological evidence from the Romanised aristocracy at a later date. We have little idea of the lives and status of Briton women before the Roman ascendancy.

Of course we don’t need prior examples of somewhat more gynocratic cultures to mold our own, though it would help to inspire. We also need to be aware of what we’re up against, as if it hasn’t long been obvious. In Afghanistan, as I write, the new government appears to be cutting girls off from all but the most elementary education. How Greek can you get? And this is only the news that’s speaking loudest to us at present. Lack of opportunity for women at the highest level is a commonplace for virtually every country on the globe. And the fewer women there at that level, the harder it tends to be for them. And yet…



Written by stewart henderson

September 18, 2021 at 8:00 pm

Interferons – they’re there to help

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some human interferon looks something like this, according to someone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Written by stewart henderson

September 6, 2021 at 10:12 pm

capitalism, bonobos and feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by stewart henderson

September 3, 2021 at 12:12 pm

more on nuclear fusion: towards ignition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


movements in nuclear fusion: ITER

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

Episode #841


Written by stewart henderson

August 31, 2021 at 5:19 pm