an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

adult ADHD – what’s the buzz?

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

Canto: Sounds like a first world issue to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*western ,educated,industrial,rich,democratic


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

Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2022 at 9:39 pm

catching up on SARS-CoV-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canto: What’s a bivalent booster?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by stewart henderson

December 15, 2022 at 9:15 pm

Posted in covid19, immunology

Tagged with , , ,

erogenous zones, domination, submission, bonobos and other sexy stuff

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Jacinta: So Simone de Beauvoir has a section in The second sex called ‘Sexual initiation’, which seems to me much influenced by all that Freudian stuff we’ve been exploring in Freud’s women, particularly all that clitoral versus vaginal malarky. However, she does try to get to the bottom of the physiological aspects rather than the psychological, which the Freudians (and many of their opponents) seemed to be stuck on. Still, she seems overly influenced by the passive-active distinction that Freud, especially in the early years, assumed as ‘natural’ vis-a-vis the female-male attitude to coitus.

Canto: Well, to be fair, in much mammalian coitus, the male ‘mounts’ and the female assumes the ‘lordosis position’, according to zoologists. It all appears a bit dominant-submissive to me.

Jacinta: Yeees, sort of, and this seems to have much to do with the evolved features of the sexual apparatus. Think of birds – the male jumps on top, wiggles around and that’s it, it lasts a couple of seconds. Consider that birds generally bond in lifelong pairs, with the odd bit on the side, and the males aren’t generally dominant, though it varies a lot species-wise, and birds, at least some species, are quite intelligent…

Canto: Yeah we don’t tend to think of the lifelong psychological effects of the physical act, or positioning, of sex in birds, or cats and dogs. We’re very speciesist that way.

Jacinta: Which reminds me of another story – actually a memory, of a dog we had, a female who regularly masturbated on top of her favourite fluffy toy, when she wasn’t ‘fighting’ with it all over the house. I can’t remember whether she’d been desexed or not, but clearly her erogenous zones were still intact. Was this clitoral or vaginal stimulation? Does it really matter? But of course for we humans it’s all so much more complex, apparently. Especially for us women. Here’s what Beauvoir has to say – and I sympathise to some extent:

The act of love [sic] finds its unity in its natural culmination: orgasm. Coitus has a specific physiological aim; in ejaculation the male releases burdensome secretions; after orgasm, the male feels complete relief regularly accompanied by pleasure. And, of course, pleasure is not the only aim; it is often followed by disappointment: the need has disappeared rather than having been satisfied. In any case, a definitive act is consummated and the man’s body remains intact: the service he has rendered to the species becomes one with his own pleasure. Woman’s eroticism is far more complex and reflects the complexity of her situation…. instead of integrating forces of the species into her individual life, the female is prey to the species, whose interests diverge from her own ends; this antinomy reaches its height in woman; one of its manifestations is the opposition of two organs: the clitoris and the vagina.

The second sex, pp 394-5

Canto: Yes… well, if dogs don’t much care if it’s clitoral or vaginal pleasure, why should women? It’s all an erogenous zone, some parts more than others maybe, but when the ‘act is consummated’, who cares? And the remark that ‘the female is prey to the species’ presumably refers to pregnancy and all its attendant issues. Beauvoir was writing before the contraceptive pill, which changed so much, at least in the WEIRD world.

Jacinta: Well, yes but there’s the whole issue of teen pregnancy, due to rape, ignorance and the like, and abortion and its enemies. Look at the USA today, still messed up about this issue. But, yes, this clitoris-vagina stuff is largely a red herring to me.

Canto: Yes it all smells a bit fishy.. oh sorry that was a bit below the belt…

Jacinta: Haha I recall an American sex video actor saying all her male co-performers’ dicks stank of marihuana – which may or may not be worse depending on your taste. But speaking of sex, there is an obvious imbalance in the sex game. How often do women rape men? Or even ‘coerce’ men into having sex. And think of gang rape. And the horrific consequences for women. And of course most men don’t rape, or even give it a moment’s thought – at least I hope they don’t – but I know the danger is often on the minds of women when they’re having a night out.

Canto: Safety in numbers, and that seems to be the bonobo way too, and getting back to other mammals again, it’s generally the case – think dogs, horses, any four-legged beastie – that the male mounts the female. Often from behind, like sneakily, creepily. Males on top, and females more or less taken unawares, more or less unwillingly. It seems like the urge to copulate invariably comes from the male.

Jacinta: Yes, evolution appears to have worked it that way, though social evolution can turn this around, at least somewhat. Not just safety, but power in numbers, that seems to be the bonobo way.

Canto: So how exactly do bonobos deal with the sex issue? I’d like some details. I know they engage in regular stimulation of each others’ erogenous zones, aka masturbation, but what about actual copulation, for the purpose of reproduction, though presumably they don’t make the connection. And when did we humans make the connection, when it comes to that?

Jacinta: Well bonobos reproduce at the same rate as chimps, despite all their sexual shenanigans. Humans differ from our primate cousins in that we don’t ‘come into season’ with ‘attractive’ pink swellings, which have an effect on the males, that’s both visual and probably chemical – pheromones and all.

Canto: And if we did – I mean if you females did – it might well be covered up, not only with clothing but deodorants and the like. I wonder if there’s any vestigial elements of being ‘in heat’. as they say, in humans.

Jacinta: Well this is where we move onto hormones. Here’s a quote from a sexual health website, which is pretty reliable:

Medical experts associate changes in sex drive with changes in the ratio of estrogen and progesterone, hormones that are produced by the ovaries. These shifts occur at different phases of your monthly cycle. During your period and for a few days after, the concentration of both hormones is low, resulting in less sexual desire. By the time ovulation rolls around, estrogen peaks, naturally increasing libido. Once the process of ovulation wraps up, there’s a boost in progesterone production, and you might notice a dip in your sex drive.

Canto: Ah yes, menstruation – I don’t recall Freud saying much about that. Do bonobos menstruate?

Jacinta: Do bears shit in the woods? We should do a whole interaction on the menstrual cycle, for your benefit. Anyway, here’s a useful brief guide to bonobos and chimps:

  • Bonobos are sexually receptive for a large portion of their reproductive cycle, even when not near the time for ovulation.
    • This trait has sometimes been called concealed ovulation because the male has no clear signal for the optimum time for mating.
    • Bonobos also engage in sex in non-swelling phases of their cycle in about 1 out of 3 copulations.
    • Chimpanzee females tend to be sexually active only during their maximum swelling phase.

Canto: Right. Uhhh, no mention there of menstruation. Forgive my ignorance but what’s the difference/connection between ovulation and menstruation?

Jacinta: Okay here’s the story with us humans. Ovulation starts at puberty. It’s when an egg is released from one of the ovaries (we have a left and right ovary). You can say this is when we’re fertile, when we’re liable to get pregnant. Ovulation occurs at around day 14 of the 28-day menstrual cycle, on average. The cycle starts, and ends, with that thing called ‘the period’, when material from the endometrium, the lining of the uterus, is shed, along with blood and other yucky stuff. You can imagine the psychological impact that might have on girls when they’re not prepared for it. It can be a real trauma. So menstruation strictly refers to the whole cyclical process, but it’s often used to refer to that flushing out ‘period’. All of this is mediated by hormones. Estrogen is the main builder of new endometrium – the biochemistry of it would require a whole other conversation.

Canto: Yes that’s enough for now, but it seems that oestrogen also boosts libido…

Jacinta: Yes, that’s important, the urge to copulate doesn’t just come from the males. And this physiological stuff seems like solid ground after all the flights of psychoanalysis we’ve been trying to get our heads around recently.

Canto: And we haven’t yet gotten onto what has been made of Freudian and post-Freudian theory by the likes of Lacan, Kristeva, Irigary, Cixous, Derrida, Deleuze, and of course Guattari, among many others…

Jacinta: Yeah, mostly French – funny that. It seems Freud’s influence has waned, though, in the 30 years since Freud’s women was published. The broad Freudian notion of the unconscious – rather than the unconscious processes that go on through our nervous and endocrine systems – has been buried, it seems, by neurological advances, which, as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, have been fast and furious in the 21st century. But that period, and that physical and metaphysical region centred around Vienna when Freud was active in the first decades of the 20th century, was very fruitful, and in many ways revolutionary. Anil Seth, one of today’s leading researchers into human consciousness, paid tribute to it in his book Being you:

In the fluid atmosphere of Vienna at that time, the two culture of art and science mingled to an unusual degree. Science wasn’t placed above art, in the all too familiar sense in which  art, and the human responses it evokes, are considered to be things in need of scientific explanation. Nor did art place itself beyond the reach of science. Artists and scientists – and their critics – were allies in their attempts to understand human experience in all its richness and variety. No wonder the neuroscientist Eric Kandel called this period ‘the age of insight’, in his book of the same name.

Canto: Well, that’s a nice conciliatory note to end this conversation on.


Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Freud’s women, 1992

Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017

Anil Seth, Being you: a new science of consciousness, 2021

Written by stewart henderson

December 12, 2022 at 11:41 am

Freudian chitchat, sex and bonobos

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Sigmund and Anna Freud

As previously mentioned, the world of Freudian categories was one of my first interests as a teenager. I loved the simple division, as I imagined it, between the id (our uninhibited ‘animal’ urges and appetites), the superego (the parental leash, restraining, guiding, forcing) and the ego (some sort of more or less stable truce between these forces). It was neat, and still allowed for freedom of sorts – the leash could be stretched or even snapped depending on the nature of our parents, the weakness or strength of our bond with them, and the changing nature of our relations over time. It all sounded right somehow, or at least it opened up powerful insights.

Other Freudian categories also attracted, more or less. The Oedipus complex, which I naturally reduced to killing Dad and fucking Mum, had less appeal. I was, at the time, more interested in the idea of killing Mum, but I was smart enough to realise that this was because Mum was the Dad in our house – dominant, remote, scary. At the same time, but never at the same time, she was the nurse, the comforter, the defender. If only I could explain this to Sigmund or his analyst friends.

Being, as mentioned, a teenager, I loved the sexual undertones, overtones, and basic in-your-face tones in Freud’s treatment of – what? The unconscious? Motivation? Human life? Whatever, ‘polymorphous perversity’ meant, I presumed, that we had the tendency, or ‘ability’ to be turned on by any activity or percept, but ‘sublimation’, a product of our superego, could transform that perverse energy into something productive rather than reproductive, like art or relativity theory.

Bonobos, it seems, just stick with the polymorphous perversity. But beware of what is seeming so. All animals strive to be more than what they already are. That is, to thrive. That’s what evolution is all about.

All of this is prologue to the fact that, after many decades, I’ve been revisiting Freudian ideas through Freud’s women, a fiendishly complex book written some thirty years ago, cataloguing Freud’s life and developing ideas, but more interestingly, his impact upon the next generation of analysts, all of them former patients (or analysands), as seemed to be Freud’s rule. That’s to say, the next generation of female analysts.

The generation of women after that of Freud, the generation that came of age in the early 20th century, whether born in Vienna or attracted to it by Freud’s growing superstardom, couldn’t be said to have an easy time of it. A depressing rate of childhood (and maternal) mortality, sudden changes of fortune due to cataclysms such as the Great Depression, two horrific European wars, the Nazi anti-Semitic frenzy of the thirties, and an obsession with female ‘hysteria’ and other mystery ailments, all created complications, to put it mildly, for upwardly mobile female intellectuals. Professional careers as doctors or academics were still largely closed to them, and it’s noteworthy that many, such as Lou Andreas-Salomé, turned to writing to establish their intellectual reputations. Others, such as Anna Freud and Marie Bonaparte, had clear birthright advantages. Other important female figures for this generation of psychotherapy were Helene Deutsch, Melanie Klein, Joan Riviere, Alix Strachey, Jeanne Lampl-de Groot and Ruth Mack Brunswick, to name a few, but many analysands were touched by this (occasionally vicious) circle, including the brilliant if mystifyingly mystical writer H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

What is fascinating about this little ecosystem that had come to thrive under Freud’s benevolent paternalism is its openness to the wiles of sexuality, while always maintaining an un-bonoboesque primness. Of course, bonobos weren’t fully identified as a species until 1929, and nothing was then known of their lifestyle, and nor was evolution and our connectedness to other species fully accepted, or its consequences much explored in Freud’s lifetime. But the circle of analysts, analysands and their companions, spiced with more or less explicit notions of childhood sexuality, latent lesbianism, father fixations and the like, seems like a simmering pot under the cover of polite society. Largely all talk no action. The talking cure? The talking distraction? The talking disorder? To read some of the writings of these analysts, well they often make heavy work of everyday life, its thoughts and feelings, as they seek to frame experience within one particular theory or another. It reminds me of other forms of over-intellectualising – it’s fascinating how dated and more or less quaint seem arguments regarding the philosophy of ‘mind’ and ‘free will’ of several decades ago.

Bonobos, of course, have no language. They can’t tell us how well- or mal-adjusted they are. All we have is our own observations. Bonobos aren’t always lovey-dovey, they sometimes fight, though not as often or as viciously as chimps. They suffer more from human raids than from their own species, which has led to a lot of orphans and ‘childless mothers’. At a stretch, you could argue that these threats have something in common with those experienced by Anna Freud and the Jewish or pro-Jewish psychoanalyst community of the twenties and thirties. An article from Discover magazine describes bonobo responses after a bit of rough tangling in the treetops:

The researchers found that those young bonobos that were able to calm themselves down most quickly after altercations were also those most likely to console another individual in distress. What’s more, these socially well-adjusted bonobos were far more likely to have been raised by their mothers. Orphaned apes, on the other hand, were less likely to offer consolation. This consolation behaviour through contact, such as by touching, embracing and kissing, suggests that the young bonobos are expressing empathy.

Some researchers aren’t entirely convinced that consolatory behaviour is going on, I’m not quite sure why, but it seems to me that consolatory behaviour (and the need for it among the suffering) in these non-speaking relatives of ours has something in common with the ‘talking cure’ that became so sought-after in early twentieth century Europe. What’s also interesting is the focus on sex, albeit in very different ways, in relation to stress, and effective function, in humans and bonobos. Here are some examples of Freud’s ‘sex talk’, in written form, from Freud’s women. First, in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess in 1897:

the main distinction between the sexes emerges at the time of puberty, when girls are seized by a non-neurotic sexual repugnance and males by libido. For at that period a further sexual zone is (wholly or in part) extinguished in females which persists in males. I am thinking of the male genital zone, the region of the clitoris, in which during childhood sexual sensitivity is shown to be concentrated in girls as well. Hence the flood of shame which the female shows at that period – until the new, vaginal zone is awakened, spontaneously, or by reflex action.

Freud’s women, p 400

This is all a bit below the belt for the late 19th century, and the male/female generalisations are questionable, but the fact that such matters are being aired feels like enlightenment. The difficulty I find with Freud, from many of these writings, is that he expresses himself with an air of certitude in so many works which, as his ideas ‘evolve’, contradict previous works, no doubt influenced by the enormous variety of analysands and their neuroses, or simply their backgrounds, as presented to him. The Oedipus complex, for example, appears to be enormously flexible in this way. You could say that his theories, or theory, if there is one, is so open to be tailored to the Individual that it’s unfalsifiable. Though I’m not particularly au fait with Karl Popper’s falsifiability test, I’m betting that he would have used Freud’s theories as a perfect example of work which fails that test.

Having said that, I’m not about to give up on old Sigmund, who perhaps unwittingly inspired many feminist intellectuals in the first decades of the 20th century, if only because he genuinely admired them, took them seriously and was influenced by their experiences and critiques. Perhaps also because his focus was on the internal and domestic world, the world of repressed desires, parental struggles and the great variety of female entanglements with male power, implicit and explicit. I’ll quote another, typically convoluted excerpt (to me at least), this time from 1926, in which Freud discusses castration anxiety:

there is no danger of our regarding castration anxiety as the sole motive force of the defensive processes which lead to neurosis. I have shown elsewhere how little girls, in the course of their development, are led into making a tender object-cathexis by their castration complex. It is precisely in women that the danger-situation of loss of object seems to have remained the most effective. All we need to do is make a slight modification in our description of their determinant of anxiety, in the sense that it is no longer a matter of feeling the want of, or actually losing the object itself, but of losing the object’s love [emphasis added]

Freud’s women, p 414

WTF, think thou? Firstly, an ‘object cathexis’ is apparently an ‘investment of libido or psychic energy in objects outside the self, such as a person, goal, idea, or activity’. But what exactly is a ‘castration complex’ in little girls? Apparently it’s the discovery that they don’t have the dangly stuff of their male counterparts (if they ever discover such a thing in childhood). This makes what follows a little complicated – they (the girls) lose the object’s (the penis’s) love? And so the theory, if it can be called that, gets more ‘flexible’.

All of this of course raises the putatively vexed issue of penis envy, which surely doesn’t have to be such a serious thing. De Beauvoir describes a cute example of this in The Second Sex, quoting from Frigidity in woman, a book by the Freudian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, published in 1926. The reminiscence is from a 21-year-old:

‘At the age of 5, I chose for my playmate Richard, a boy of 6 or 7… For a long time I had wanted to know how one can tell whether a child is a girl or a boy. I was told: by the earrings…. or by the nose. This seemed to satisfy me, though I had a feeling they were keeping something from me. Suddenly Richard expressed a desire to urinate… Then the thought came to me of lending him my chamber pot… When I saw his organ, which was something entirely new to me, I went into highest raptures: ‘What have you there? My, isn’t that nice! I’d like to have something like that, too.’ Whereupon I took hold of the membrum and held it enthusiastically… My great-aunt’s cough awoke us… and from that day on our doings and games were carefully watched.’

The second sex, p 348

I can well imagine a non-verbal experience of a similar sort among juvenile bonobos – though given that bonobos, like every other non-human mammal, never ‘cover-up’, the surprise and delight would’ve occurred at a very early stage of development, and there’d be no elder relatives keen to prevent further explorations. Which brings me to civilisation – and its discontents.

Anyway, this post has gone on long enough, but the issues raised are important to me, and I’ll pursue them further in later posts.

penis envy mushrooms – another story altogether


Freud’s women, by Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Virago Press 1993

The second sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, 1949: Vintage books 2011

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2022 at 12:13 pm

A bit about schizophrenia – a very bizarre ailment

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Having, for a book group, read a strange novel written a little over 50 years ago, by Doris Lessing, Briefing for a descent into hell, the title of which may or may not be ironic, and being reasonably interested in the brain, its functions and dysfunctions, I’ve decided to use this post to update my tiny knowledge of schizophrenia, a disorder I’ve had some acquaintance with.

Lessing’s book may or may not be about schizophrenia, because it doesn’t concern itself with labeling any mental disorders, or with the science of brain dysfunction in any way. The focus is upon the imaginative world of an Oxbridge academic, a lecturer in classical mythology or some such, who, having been found wandering about in some Egdon Heath-type landscape, with no identification papers or money, and a lack of proper lucidity, is brought into a psychiatric facility for observation and treatment. The vast bulk of the book is told from this individuals’s perspective. Not that he tells the story of his illness, he simply tells stories – or Lessing tells stories on his behalf. Somehow the reader is allowed to to enter the main character’s inner landscape, which includes a voyage around the Pacific Ocean, another voyage around the solar system (conducted by classical deities) and harrowing, but fake, war-time experiences in the Balkans. Along the way we’re provided with the occasional dazzling piece of insight which I think we’re asked to consider as the upside, or mind-expanding nature, of ‘madness’ – somewhat in the spirit of Huxley’s Doors of Perception and Timothy Leary’s psychedelia. At the end of the book the professor is returned to ‘normality’ via electric shock treatment, and becomes, apparently, as uninteresting a character as most of the others in the book, especially the doctors responsible for his treatment, only known as X and Y. 

So, there are problems here. First, Lessing’s apparent lack of interest in the science of the brain means that we’re at a loss to know what the academic is suffering from. Madness and insanity are not of course, legitimate terms for mental conditions, and Lessing avoids using them, but offers nothing more specific, so we’re reduced to trying to deduce the condition from what we know of the behaviour and ramblings of an entirely fictional character. I’ve come up with only two not very convincing possibilities – schizophrenia and brain tumour. A brain tumour is a useful literary device due to the multifaceted nature of our white and grey matter, which constitutes the most complex organ in the known universe, as many an expert has pointed out. A benign tumour – one that that doesn’t metastasise – may bring on a multiplicity of neurons or connections between them that increase the ability to confabulate – though I’ve never heard of such an outcome and it’s more likely that our ‘imagination’ is the product of multiple regions spread throughout the cortex. Schizophrenia only really occurs to me here because the professor was found wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’, far from home, having had his wallet presumably stolen, so that it took some time to identify him. This reminds me of a friend who has from this condition, and has suffered a similar experience more than once.

One of the symptoms of schizophrenia is called ‘loss of affect’, which means that the sufferer become relatively indifferent to the basics – food, clothing and shelter – so caught up is he in his mental ramblings, which he often voices aloud. It’s rare however, for schizophrenia to make its first appearance in middle-age, as appears to be the case here. Another reason, though, that my thoughts turned to schizophrenia was something I read online, in reference to Briefing for a descent into hell. I haven’t read any reviews of the book, and in fact I had no idea when the book was published, as I’d obtained a cheapie online version, which was undated. So in trying to ascertain the date – 1971, earlier than I’d expected, but in many ways illuminating – I happened to note a brief reference to a review written when the book came out, by the US essayist Joan Didion. She wrote that the book presented an ‘unconvincing description of mental illness’ and that the book displayed the influence of R D Laing. A double bullseye in my opinion. 

I read a bit of R D Laing, the noted ‘anti-psychiatrist’ in the seventies, after which he went decidedly out of fashion. His focus was primarily on schizophrenia – as for example in his 1964 paper ‘Is schizophrenia a disease?’ – though he treated other psychoses in much the same way as ‘a perfectly rational response to an insane world’. This is doubtless an oversimplification of his views, but in any case he seems to have given scant regard to what is actually going on in the brain of schizophrenics. 

Since the sixties and seventies, though, and especially since the nineties and the advent of PET scanning, MEG, fMRI and other technologies, the field of neurology has advanced exponentially, and the mental ailments we suffer from are being pinpointed a little more accurately vis-à-vis brain regions and processes. I’ve noted, though, that there’s still a certain romantic halo around the concept of ‘madness’, which after all human society has been ambivalent about since the beginning. The wise fool, the mad scientist and the like have long had their appeal, and it may even be that in extremis, insanity may be a ‘reasonable’ option. As for schizophrenia, maybe we can live with our ‘demons’, as was apparently the case for John Nash after years of struggle, but it’s surely worth trying to get to the bottom of this often crippling disorder, so that it can be managed or cured without resort to disabling or otherwise unhealthy or inconvenient dependence on medication. 

Schizophrenia is certainly weird, and its causes are essentially unknown. There’s a genetic element – you’re more likely to suffer from it if it runs in the family – but it can also be brought on by stress and/or regular drug use, depending no doubt on the drug. It’s currently described as affecting a whopping one in a hundred people (with enormous regional variation, apparently), but perhaps if we’re able to learn more about the variety of symptoms we might be able to break it down into a group of affiliated disorders. There is no known cure as yet.

One feature of the ‘neurological revolution’ of the last few decades has been the focus on neurotransmission and electrochemical pathways in the brain, and dopamine, a neurotransmitter, was an early target for understanding and treating the disorder (and may others). And that’s still ongoing:

Current research suggests that schizophrenia is a neurodevelopmental disorder with an important dopamine component.

That’s from a very recent popular website, but research is of course growing, and pointing at other markers. A reading of the extensive Wikipedia article on schizophrenia has a near-paralysing effect on any attempt to define or describe it in a blog post like this. Glutamate, the brain’s ‘most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter’, has been a major recent focus, but it’s unlikely that we’ll get to the bottom of schizophrenia by examining brains in isolation from the lived experience of their owners. Genetics, epigenetics, stress, living conditions and associated disorders, inter alia, all appear to play a part. And due to its strangeness, its apparent hallucinatory nature, its modern associations of alienation and dystopia  – think King Crimson’s ’21st century schizoid man’ and much of the oeuvre of Bowie (mostly his best work) – it’s hardly surprising that we feel something of an urge to venerate the schizoid personality, or at least to legitimate it. 

Meanwhile, research will inevitably continue, as will the breaking down of intelligence and consciousness into neurotransmission pathways, hormone production, feedback loops, astrocytes etc etc, and ways of enhancing, re-routing, dampening and off-on switching neural signals via increasingly sophisticated and targeted medications… because a certain level of normality is optimal after all. 

Meanwhile, I’m off to listen to some of that crazy music….


Written by stewart henderson

December 1, 2022 at 9:16 pm

less testosterone? – such a worry

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the Chinese Testosterone Party – ‘let’s wear boring western outfits and shit on “western values” – that’ll fix em’

Okay, so back to the real stuff, testosterone. The inimitable Sabine Hossenfelder, of the dry humour and sexy German accent, has explored its supposed reduction among humans and how it is deplored among the wannabe macho fraternity.

So first of all I must go straight to bonobos, our more or less female-dominant cousins. There’s precious little data on bonobos and testosterone, but see my previous piece, referenced below. A 2005 study of wild bonobos found, unsurprisingly, that ‘the alpha male had the highest circulating levels of T’, though a comparison with chimp T levels would have been useful. And when I say ‘little data’ I should qualify that – there’s not much data that can be made sense of (by me), it’s so complicated. For example, testosterone levels in female bonobos are just as important as in males, and they vary with age and circumstances. What seems to be the case, which I suspected all along, is that testosterone levels follow rather than lead social aggression and lifestyle patterns, which is why I’ve always been interested in the social development of humans along bonobo lines, so to speak, without worrying about hormones too much.

Now, returning to Sabine, who does a great job of summarising the pros and cons of having too much or too little T. Her most important point, which is well-known but can hardly be stressed enough, is that testosterone levels drop when males are holding or playing with a child (or maybe even thinking of doing so, or having pregnancy fantasies, or just wearing his favourite little black dress…), and they rise after divorce – which may help to explain some restraining orders. But these effects are relatively small for most males.

The evidence is clear, though, that T levels really are falling (oh frabjous day!). Sabine provides graphic, heartening evidence, at least to this dweeb. But there are downsides – both men and women are becoming physically weaker, slower and fatter, especially in the WEIRD world. High protein diets are more common than ever before, and weight gain lowers T, which in turn results in weight gain. And even the abandonment of cigarettes reduces T somewhat – another pleasant, if bizarre, surprise. Of course, as Sabine points out, all this is far from pleasant to some, such as the perennial dweeb who would be otherwise, Tucker Carlson, but others, such as myself, call it progress. Sabine winds her piece up with a most excellent quote from the sadly missed Carl Sagan which I’ll set down here for my own delight:

Why is the half of humanity with a special sensitivity to the preciousness of life, the half untainted by testosterone poisoning, almost wholly unrepresented in defence establishments and peace negotiations worldwide?…. Testosterone also causes the kind of aggression needed to defend against predators and without it we’d all be dead….  Testosterone is there for a reason. It’s not an evolutionary mistake.

Testosterone won’t disappear, in humans or bonobos. If we have more need of it in the future, it’ll probably mean bad news, as Sabine points out. Meanwhile we have the near-apoplectic Mr Poo-tin (a sobriquet for which I’m most grateful) and the Chinese Testosterone Party as ongoing examples of the downside of T.

So while T isn’t an evolutionary mistake, evolution doesn’t stand still. Indeed social evolution is a more accelerated version of earlier forms. It took a couple of million years, at most, for bonobos to depart from chimps in terms of their happy, sharing-and-caring lifestyles. Humans, so much smarter and quicker off the mark once they’ve grasped the benefits (think Deutsche’s The beginning of infinity), have just started to move towards a more female-empowered society in the last century or so, at least in the WEIRD world. And it’s largely females in collaboration that have made it happen, just as occurred, I’m sure, in bonobo society. Of course, this is still too slow for those of us growing older and more impatient. However, horrible as this is to admit, super-macho events such as the ‘great wars’ of the first half of the 20th century, Japan’s half-century of brutal slaughter and rape in the East, and now Poo-tin’s crime against Ukraine, lead to a quickening of positive responses – the United Nations, international monitoring agencies, defensive alliances, and the like. Global human-caused problems are leading to globally-negotiated attempts at solutions, and the lure of global trade dollars also has its benefits.

We need also to learn from previous mis-steps. Here in Australia we commemorate Anzac Day every year, and we hear kids saying ‘they died to save our country’ or ‘…that we can be free’. In the USA we hear praise of Vietnam vets, who fought ‘to defend our country’ or ‘our values’. Against the Vietnamese? It’s such arrant bullshit. The US was in Vietnam first at the behest of the French, who decided to quit their overlordship because it wasn’t delivering enough benefits – to the French. And of course it was impossible for the locals to govern themselves, in spite of having inhabited the region for millennia. It’s just another story of the powerful against the powerless, stories that go back to the dawn of civilisations. As to the ANZACs, fighting the Turks on the other side of the world, what was that about? Certainly nothing to do with Australian freedom. Australia just happened to be much more closely linked to Britain in 1914 than it is now, and two imperialisms, Britain with its quite vast empire, and Germany, the late-comers, spoiling for more power and influence, and a great muddle of other countries trying to work out which side would best suit their interests, came to blows in much the same way as two troupes of chimps have been known to do, but with much more horrific consequences. And blind patriotism, and its fanatical encouragement, didn’t help matters. The ‘Great War’ was an avoidable catastrophe and all our remembrance should surely be focussed on this avoidability.

To accentuate the positive, we are getting better. Yes, there’s the horrors in Ukraine, Iran, Burma and a number of African nations, which have diverse roots. Often it’s to do with the powerless rising up against their disempowerment, having virtually nothing to lose. Such conflicts have been going on for millennia, but we shouldn’t turn our backs o them. None of us get to choose whether we’re born in a rich or poor country, or a rich or poor sub-section of that country. We need to always bear this in mind. Of course it’s hard. It’s estimated that there are between 10,000 and 50,000 bonobos left in the wild. Humans number 8 billion. Even if we turned our backs on 99% of them, that would leave us with millions to worry about. And we all have our own problems… but sympathy and sharing seem to do us all a power of good. Vive les bonobos!


more on hormones, bonobos and humans


Written by stewart henderson

November 23, 2022 at 11:09 am

brilliant women – Lou Andreas-Salomé, writer, psychologist, éminence grise

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Je dirigerai ma vie selon ce que je suis

In my rather aimless intellectual roaming in pursuit of feminine bonobo-like power and influence in the human socio-cultural world I’ve been reading various feminist and ‘inspirational’ texts such as Dava Sobel’s The glass universe, Melvin Konner’s Women after all, and Simone de Beauvoir’s classic The second sex. I’ve also taken up a book I bought and half-read more than two decades ago, Freud’s Women, a book the title of which immediately attracted me as it combined my interest in intellectual feminism with remembrances of one of my first intellectual interests, the ideas of Sigmund Freud. I’m talking here of my teen years, when I encountered Freud’s concepts in the most rudimentary, truncated form. The id, ego and superego, and the concepts of eros, thanatos, and especially polymorphous perversity and sublimation struck me as highly diverting at least.

Another Big Name I encountered and cursorily read in those early years was Friedrich Nietzsche. I remember three of the titles – Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil and The Anti-Christ, and there may have been more. I write this with a kind of amazement – how were these books in the house? My mother rarely read a book, my father never. It may have been my older siblings… anyway, I recall puzzling over Zarathustra, being thrilled at Nietzsche’s excoriation of Paul of Tarsus, and generally feeling buoyed up by his ebullient self-confidence – if that’s what it was.

So, returning to Freud’s Women, a book I started rereading recently, almost out of a sense of duty. I’m now getting into the second half of the book, and it seems to me that the writing has lifted as the women in Freud’s circle have become more multi-faceted and interesting – or more interestingly depicted. This began with Sabina Spielrein, one of the first female psychoanalysts, who had important associations with Jung, Freud and Piaget. Next was Loe Kann, a strong-willed, intellectual associate of both Freud and Ernest Jones, with whom she had a turbulent relationship. But the most fulsomely depicted character I’ve encountered so far is Lou Andreas-Salomé – a much-admired confidante and influencer of Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke and Freud, amongst others, and an important intellectual figure in her own write. She wrote a highly regarded book on Nietzsche’s philosophy, published way back in 1894 – probably the first major treatment of Nietzsche in print – as well as many other works. But the fact that she was so highly regarded by the tediously misogynistic Nietzsche as well as the faintly condescending Freud is testament, not so much to her writing as to her Dasein, if that’s the word – the effect of her character, intellect and attitude to life.

Andreas-Salomé, like many of the women described in both Freud’s Women and The Second Sex, such as Irene Reweliotty and Marie Bashkirtseff, came from a wealthy, intellectual family in a period when only the tiniest proportion of women could benefit from an academic education and a career open to talent. Writing was almost the only way to provide proof to the world of their value, as was the case years earlier for Jane Austen and the Brontës. I haven’t yet read Andreas-Salome’s work, beyond the excerpts found in Freud’s Women, and perhaps I never will, but I got a buzz of energy from the positive spirit of her influence – upon Rilke, Freud, his daughter Anna, among others. An intellectual bonobo, if you will. And that’s the highest praise!

It’s strange today to hear Freud described as a neurologist, as he’s occasionally described in Freud’s Women. It’s an indication of how far neurology has come in the 21st century. In earlier times it was all ‘mind’ and the brain was enclosed in an impenetrable ‘black box’. Everything was gleaned from behaviour, thoughts, impulses, obsessions, fantasies and the like. Fascinating stuff, but easily manipulated and exaggerated. Probably the best thing about the ‘talking cure’ was the talking itself, the sharing, the unburdening, and the warm connections so created. And in those early days it provided above all a career open to women – smart, insightful women who were keen to help. There were, of course disputes. Two of the most prominent practitioners in the thirties, Melanie Klein and Anna Freud, both of whom specialised in the treatment of children, were at loggerheads over the ‘Oedipal problem’ and how to deal with the ‘latency period’ – I’m no expert on psychoanalytic theory, but it seems that the pair were mostly in dispute over whether the analyst had a pedagogical role (Anna Freud) or not (Klein). Interestingly, and I think tellingly, Freud himself, who tended to be non-pedagogical in his own approach, generally sided with his daughter in these disputes, with the usual tangle of rationalisations and special pleading. Family is family, at the end of the day.

Anyhoo, returning to Lou Andreas-Salomé, the ‘poet of psychoanalysis’ as Freud called her, it’s clear that she knew her own worth and was never particularly intimidated by Freud’s reputation. And in the face of the whole Oedipus obsession she pushed back in underlining the value of women and mothers. Here is her response to Freud, after reading his essay ‘the taboo of virginity’, which deals with the historical and cultural obsession with female virginity and ‘defloration’:

It occurred to me that this taboo may have been intensified by the fact that at one time (in a matriarchal society) the woman may have been the dominant partner. In this way, like the defeated deities, she acquired demonic properties, and was feared as an agent of retribution. Also her defloration by deity, priests etc points back to a time when she was not the ‘private property’ of the male, and in order to achieve this she had to shake off the shackles of her impressive past – which may still play its part as the earliest positive basis for the precautionary measures of the male.

What’s interesting here is not the perhaps dubious historicity of her claim but the female valuation it implies. Andreas-Salomé was not a ‘noted feminist’ of her time, she took no active part in first-wave feminism, but her self-confident, no-nonsense dealings with the prominent intellectual males she met and clearly influenced, and her later conversion to the ‘talking cure’, so well-suited, it seems to me, to the values of partnership and collaboration and help, values that are generally more female than male, have made her a figure well worth discovering, for me at least.


Freud’s women, by Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester, 1992

‘The taboo of viginity’, by Sigmund Freud, 1918


Written by stewart henderson

November 19, 2022 at 9:39 am

a glut of greed – on high gas prices and who’s to blame

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Crisis? What crisis….?

So Australia’s industry minister Ed Husic has come out with a claim that I’ve heard from renewable energy journalists more than once before in recent times – that the gas industry is pocketing record profits while households suffer from record power costs. So what exactly is happening and how can it be fixed?

Husic’s remarks were blunt enough: ‘This is not a shortage of supply problem; this is a glut of greed problem that has to be basically short circuited and common sense prevail.” As I reported before, gas companies are more interested in exporting their product overseas, at great profit, than selling it domestically. All the major news outlets are reporting much the same thing – the political right, under conservative leader Dutton, is blaming the overly-rapid shift to renewables (he wants to open up more gas fields), and gas companies are playing the victim role.

The ACCC has been complaining for some time that there isn’t an effective mechanism to prevent gas companies from selling to the highest bidder, at the expense of the local market. There are, of course, worldwide gas shortages, causing the value of the commodity to shoot to record highs. The Financial Review reported on the situation back in July:

The ACCC says prices for east coast domestic gas that will be delivered in 2023 have rocketed to an average of $16 per gigajoule from $8 per gigajoule. Exporters have also dramatically widened the spread of prices offered to domestic buyers from between $7 and $8, to between $7 and as much as $25. This is despite the fact that the estimated forward cost of production is steady at just over $5.

The government clearly has little control over gas exporters – ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ aren’t really cutting it, and domestic costs are affecting businesses as well as households, adding to the many woes of local manufacturing. So I’ve turned to the ever-reliable Renew Economy website in the hope of hearing about plausible solutions. Their journalist Bruce Robertson, of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, is arguing for a gas reservation policy:

Such a policy on new and existing gas fields means gas companies must sell a portion of their gas into the domestic market – rather than putting it all out for export – with an immediate downward effect on prices. Similar to the reservation policy in place for over a decade in Western Australia, the east coast gas reservation policy could be set at $7 a gigajoule (GJ), a price allowing gas companies to achieve a profit over and above a return on investment. In turn, energy consumers would see their electricity bills cut.

It sounds like magic – like, if it’s that easy why wasn’t it done ages ago? The reason Robertson appears to be putting forward is price-fixing and the unwillingness of east coast governments, and the federal government, to deal with it:

In Australia, gas prices are fixed by a cartel of producers on the east coast… – Shell, Origin, Santos, Woodside and Exxon. For decades they have set the price above international parity prices.

It does seem, well, a little unseemly, that Australia, the world’s largest LNG exporter, is having to pay such exorbitant prices for domestic usage – though, in fact, other countries are suffering more. Locally though, South Australia, where I live, is particularly hard hit. Unlike the eastern states, coal plays no part in our energy mix – it’s all gas and renewables, with wind and solar playing a substantial part, more so than in the eastern states. And yet… Sophie Horvath reported in Renew Economy back in May:

A draft report from the SA Productivity Commission finds that despite the state’s solar and wind delivering some of Australia’s lowest wholesale spot prices, prices faced by the state’s consumers were around 20% higher than consumers in New South Wales. And it warns that without the rapid implementation of market and policy reforms, the situation for consumers will only get worse as more and more renewable energy capacity is added.

This sounds, on the face of it, as if SA’s take-up of renewables has backfired, but the situation is rather more complex, as Horvath explains. One problem is variable demand, which ‘produces challenges for the grid’, and another, highlighted by the SA Productivity Commission, is the ‘various market flaws that are stopping the benefits of renewables being passed through to consumers’.

So what are these market flaws? And what are ‘wholesale spot prices’ and why are they so different from the costs to suckers like us? Here’s an excerpt from a ‘Fact Sheet’ from the Australian Energy Market Commission about how the spot market works:

The National Electricity Market (NEM) facilitates the exchange of electricity between generators and retailers. All electricity supplied to the market is sold at the ‘spot’ price…. The NEM operates as a market where generators are paid for the electricity they produce and retailers pay for the electricity their customers consume. The electricity market works as a ‘spot’ market, where power supply and demand is matched instantaneously. The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) co-ordinates this process.

The physical and financial markets for electricity are interlinked. Complex information technology systems underpin the operation of the NEM. The systems balance supply with demand in real time, select which generators are dispatched, determine the spot price, and in doing so, facilitate the financial settlement of the physical market. And all this is done to deliver electricity safely.

So far, this bureaucratic lingo doesn’t inspire confidence. Complex systems synchronise and balance everything, both financially and powerfully, ensuring our safety. Praise the lord. This Fact Sheet, from early in 2017, goes on for three and a bit pages, and I’m trying to understand it. Maybe Ed Kusic is too.

Meanwhile, back in South Australia, it was reported a few months ago that…

Tens of thousands of SA households are set to be hit with increased electricity bills after the energy industry watchdog made the ‘difficult decision’ to increase benchmark prices by hundreds of dollars a year.

So why indeed was this decision so ‘difficult’? The Australian Energy Regulator (AER – there are a headachy number of acronyms in this business), which sets the Default Market Offer (DMO) – a price cap on the charge to customers who, shockingly, don’t bother to shop around for a better deal – has increased the cap due to an 11.8% increase in wholesale electricity costs ‘driven by unplanned power plant outages and the ongoing war in Ukraine’. The fact that SA experienced massive power outages in the last 24 hours due to extreme weather conditions won’t help the situation. The Chair of the AER, Clare Savage, advises shopping around for cheaper deals rather than just accepting the DMO. The AEC (groan) also recommends shopping around, and even haggling for a better deal from retailers. The state government, in response to criticism from the opposition, emphasises focusing on the long-term and the ongoing shift to renewables. State energy minister Tom Koutsantonis expresses his faith – “Our government will reactivate investment in renewables as a hedge against price shocks on fossil fuels”.

Great – I can’t wait.


SA power bills to rise in cost-of-living blow

SA renewables surge bringing down energy prices, but consumers miss out



Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2022 at 12:56 pm

more on hormones, bonobos and humans

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So having recently read Carole Hooven’s Testosterone: the hormone that dominates and divides us, an extremely informative and well-argued book that was basically a necessary read for me, considering my obsession with a more bonobo-like world for humans, I’m left with – what to do? How can I incorporate all this hormonal stuff into my ‘bonobo world and other impossibilities’ essays? I know I’ve mentioned hormones here and there, but never in any detail. Basically I’ve noted, along with Steven Pinker and others, that ‘we’re getting better’. Less violent, more caring of our children, more appreciative of our ‘feminine’ side, more questioning of the nature of gender, a little less male-dominant, at least in the WEIRD world. And since this doesn’t seem to have involved hormones, at least on the face of it, the testosterone issue was never so much front and centre in my dreams of human transformation as was the example, largely ignored by the human world, as it seems to me, of bonobo society.

Sadly, Hooven hardly mentions bonobos, so I need to do some bonobo-testosterone research myself. Here are my initial thoughts. Since bonobos, along with chimps, are our closest rellies, it’s reasonable to assume that we’re hormonally very similar (research required). So how did they evolve into the make-love-not-war apes (yes, an over-simplifying cliché), and why did we evolve more along the chimp line (yes, with great diversity, but very few cultures that ‘aped’ bonobos)?

Again, before I start looking at research abstracts, I can surmise a little. Chimps eat more meat than bonobos, which means more hunting and killing. Testosterone helps with that. The males are more into it so they gang together, leaving the women – sorry, the females – behind. There will be teamwork but also show-offy competition and a muscular hierarchy within the team. And the excitement of the hunt will boost testosterone all the more, which will be worked off on the females afterwards. Bonobos on the other hand spend more time in the trees, in a relatively nutrient-rich part of the DRC rainforest, eating mostly fruit and nuts. Not the sort of stuff you have to chase around and bash to death. And they hang around together, so the males might spend more time entertaining the kids, more or less by default.

And there are mysteries. The male bonobos are bigger than the females, by about the same proportion as humans. The females keep control by female-female bonding, often sexualised, but since ‘sexual healing’ goes on in every possible combination, why don’t the males gain control by the same means? Or why haven’t they? (It wouldn’t be a matter of deciding to do so, more an evolved thing, which didn’t happen). Also dominant females appear to have favoured male offspring, who might serve as their captain-at-arms, in a sense. But now I’m starting to speculate more wildly.

So, the research: in 2010, a paper was published in PNAS (pronounced ‘penis’ by the cognoscenti), entitled ‘Differential changes in steroid hormones before competition in bonobos and chimpanzees’. It described an experiment conducted on male pairs of chimps and bonobos (chimp with chimp, bonobo with bonobo). The pairs were tested for hormonal changes before and after two different food-sharing settings:

We found that in both species, males showed an anticipatory decrease (relative to baseline) in steroids when placed with a partner in a situation in which the two individuals shared food, and an anticipatory increase when placed with a partner in a situation in which the dominant individual obtained more food.

However, these ‘endocrine shifts’ occurred in cortisol for bonobos, and testosterone for chimps, which was more or less as predicted by the researchers. And why did they predict this?

Given that chimpanzees and bonobos differ markedly in their food-sharing behavior, we predicted that they would differ in their rapid endocrine shifts.

Cortisol is generally regarded as a stress hormone, or the fight or flight hormone. I used to get one of those ‘shifts’ (which sent me to the toilet) before teaching a new class. I haven’t asked female teachers if they ‘suffered’ similarly.

Because competition for overt markers of status and mating opportunities is more relevant to males, these effects are less consistent in females.

I’m not sure I was concerned about mating opportunities when starting a new class – could get me into a spot of bother – but status, maybe. But what interests me is that hormone shifts follow social behavioural patterns. That’s to say, shifts in testosterone will be rapid in all-male groups such as male gangs (which I experienced as a young person), in which the pecking order is constantly under challenge, all the way down the line. Cortisol too, I suppose, but gangs are all about ‘proving manhood’, which didn’t at the time seem to be all about sex, but in a not-so-roundabout way, it was.

Chimps, as mentioned, tend to hang together in these sorts of tight hierarchical groups, and so show a stronger ‘power motive’, a term used in human competition research. Bonobos are more co-operative, to the point of becoming stressed when food isn’t easily shared:

Because bonobo conflicts rarely escalate to severe aggression, we might classify bonobos as possessing a passive coping style…

That sounds like me, especially in my youth – considering that, all through my school years, I was one of the two or three smallest kids in the class, male or female, what other coping style could I have? But unfortunately, in the human world, too many blokes have an active coping style, together with a power motive, making misérables of the rest of us.

So, I’ve focused only on this one piece of research for this little essay, and I’ll have a look at more in the future. What it tells me is that we can, indeed, and should, shape our society to become more bonoboesque in the future, for the good of us all. It is heading that way anyway (again with that WEIRD world caveat), in spite of the Trumps and their epigones (dear, the idea that Old Shitmouth could bring forth epigones is grossly disturbing). One last quote from the researchers:

These findings suggest that independent mechanisms govern the sensitivity of testosterone and cortisol to competition, and that distinct factors may affect anticipatory vs. response shifts in apes and humans. Future species comparisons can continue to illuminate how ecology has shaped species differences in behavioral endocrinology, including the selection pressures acting in human evolution.
And of course human evolution continues…

can’t get enough of bonobo bonding


Carole Hooven, Testosterone: the hormone that dominates and divides us, 2021


Written by stewart henderson

November 1, 2022 at 10:52 pm

our electric future – is copper a problem?

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So I recently had a conversation with someone who told me that electric vehicles were not the future because – copper. I must admit that I immediately got tetchy, even though I knew nothing about the ‘copper problem’, or if there actually was one. My interlocutor wasn’t anti-green in any way, he was more into electric bikes, tiny-teeny cars, and people staying put – not travelling anywhere, or not far at least. Perhaps he imagined that ‘virtual travel’ would replace real travel, reducing our environmental footprint substantially.

It has struck me that his rather extreme view of the future was an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. I’m all for electric bikes, car-sharing and even a reduction in travelling, within limits (in fact migration has been associated with the human species since it came into being, just as it has with butterflies, whales and countless other species) but although I note with a certain disdain that family cars are getting bigger just as families are getting smaller (in our WEIRD world), I have no faith whatever that those family cars are going to be abandoned in the foreseeable.

But getting back to copper, the issue, which I admit to having been blind to, is that with a full-on tilt to electrification, copper, the world’s most efficient and cheaply available electric conductor, might suddenly become scarce, putting us in a spot of bother. But will it? That depends on who you talk to. Somehow the question brings back to mind David Deutsch’s The beginning of infinity, a super-optimistic account of human ingenuity. Not enough copper? No problem we can’t engineer our way out of…

Currently demand for copper is outstripping supply, but will this be a long term problem? CNBC made a video recently – ‘Why a looming copper shortage has big consequences for the green economy’ – the title of which, it seems to me, is more pessimistic than the content. Copper has been an ultra-useful metal for us humans, literally for millennia. But its high conductivity – second only to silver, which presumably is more rare and so far more expensive – has made it the go-to metal for our modern world of electric appliances. It also has the benefit of being highly recyclable, so it can be ripped out of end-of-life buildings, vehicles and anything else and re-used. But EVs use about four times more copper than infernal combustion vehicles, and wind turbines as well as solar panels require lots of the stuff, as do EV charging stations, and there aren’t too many new copper mines operating, so…

From what I can gather online, though, there’s no need for panic. Apparently, we’re currently utilising some 12% of what we know to be available for mining. The available stuff is the cheap stuff, and until now we’ve not really needed much more. But new techniques of separating copper from its principal ore, chalcopyrite, look promising, and markets appear to be upbeat – get into copper, it’ll make your fortune!

There’s also the fact that, though things are changing, the uptake of EVs is still relatively slow. People are generally talking about crunch time coming in that vaguely defined era, ‘the future’. High copper demand, low supply seems to be the mantra, and all the talk is about investment and risk, largely meaningless stuff to impoverished observers like me. In more recent times, copper prices have dropped due to ‘a manufacturing recession caused by the energy crisis’. I didn’t know about either of these phenomena. Why wasn’t I told? has this to say about the current situation, FWIW:

Copper prices typically react to the ebb and flow of demand in China, which accounts for half of global consumption estimated at around 25 million tonnes this year. But this time the focus is on Europe, accounting for 15% to 20% of the global demand for copper used in power and construction. The region is facing surging gas and power prices after energy supply cuts, which Russia blames on Western sanctions over the Ukraine conflict. The European Union has made proposals to impose mandatory targets on member countries to cut power consumption.

Make of this what you will, I have quoted the most coherent passage in a mire of economics-speak. Presumably, supply is affected by the volatile conditions created by Mr Pudding’s testosterone. So everybody is saying that copper is falling in price, and this is apparently bad. Here’s another quote to make sense of:

Due to closing smelters and falling demand from manufacturers, an excess of copper stockpiles has been building up in a number of Shanghai and London warehouses, also contributing to downward pressure on prices.

Meaning copper isn’t worth much currently, though this is probably a temporary thing. Glad I haven’t anything to invest.

I think the bottom line in all this is don’t worry, be happy. Copper availability for the energy transition is subject to so many incoherent fluctuations that it’s not worth worrying about for the average pundit. Here in Australia the issues are – you can solarise your home no worries. Buying an EV is another matter, since none are being manufactured here, so governments need to be pressured to create conditions for a manufacturing base, and the infrastructure to support the EV world. Storage and battery technology need to be supported and subsidised, as is in fact starting to happen, with a more supportive federal government, and state Labor governments here in South Australia, and in Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.

So, to conclude, having read through quite a few websites dealing with copper as the go-to metal for the transition to green energy (some links below), I haven’t found too much pessimism or concern about Dr Copper’s availability, though there are clearly vested interests in some cases. Australia, by the way, has the second largest copper reserves in the world (a long way behind Chile), and this could presumably be turned to our benefit. I’m sure a lot of magnates are magnetised by the thought.


Europe’s energy crisis to drop copper price to two-year low

Driving the green revolution: The use of copper in EVs

Written by stewart henderson

October 26, 2022 at 10:09 pm