Friday, December 06, 2013

We Are All Where We Belong (Atheist Rock?)

When I find out about a "new" band via NPR, I can be pretty sure its not exactly "new", and if its actually good music I feel slightly depressed by the confirmation that I am inevitably falling behind the times. Perhaps its time to actually buy those Birkenstocks that my friend Slainte always envisions me wearing.

Yesterday's NPR piece about the Austin, Texas band "Quiet Company" was actually quite worthwhile. Their 2011 album "We Are All Where We Belong" is about the the lead singer's loss of faith in God. Hence an "atheist rocker" label that has been applied to the band.

For An Ex-Christian Rocker, Faith Lost Is A Following Gained (NPR, December 5, 2013)

The NPR piece also played a few excerpts of this song "The Black Sheep and the Shepherd" which is melodically up my alley (slightly beatles-esque in a sgt. pepper's vein), but the lyrics also deliver. Plus the singer's slightly southern accent reinforces (for me at least) that he really did grow up in a place where being evangelical Christian is all kids know. The kind of kids who tweet about loving Jesus inbetween their selfies.
NPR said: The refrain from the album title — "where we belong" — is at the heart of Muse's problem with Christian theology. He says he was taught from the Bible that good Christians don't store up treasures on earth: They're supposed to store up treasures in heaven. "They're always making the statement, 'This is not your home, this is not where you belong,' " Muse says. "I wanted to make a record that said, 'No, actually, this is where you belong. This is your one chance to make your life into what you want it to be. This is your one chance to make the world what you think it can be.'
Powerful stuff for thought. I believe in a God, but I also believe we are where we belong. What do you think?

(check out the video itself for the full lyrics)
Oh I tried, and I tried to achieve belief
But maybe there is somethin' wrong with me
But I've been feelin' fine
In fact, often better than fine
But now both my shoulders have started hurtin'
From walkin' around under such a burden
To reconcile everything that we've learned
With everything that we were taught
But with all we know now, how can you say:
"Oh you just gotta take it all on faith
And don't think too much, just hush and pray
Exactly as we've always done"?
Hey! I just noted that the youtube video of the song (uploaded in July) only has 962 views. Maybe I'm not the last person to hear about this band!

Discussion thread of this post on Anchor Cove forums

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How Evil Corporations Created The Myth That Tryptophan In Turkey Makes You Sleepy on Thanksgiving

May the effects of trytophan spare you from having to hear conversations about the effects of tryptophan
Thanksgiving is this week, and in the time-honored tradition of lazy journalists everywhere, you are sure to see scads of articles decrying the myth that tryptophan in turkey causes post-Thanksgiving drowsiness. Just see today's Huffington Post, among many others. (If you need a good, science-based debunking of the myth, see Dr. Aaron Carroll's short video from this week. Play it for your disbelieving relatives tomorrow as well.)

The Annual Tradition: Google trends data for "tryptophan" 2005-2013:
journalists giddibly writing about tryptophan, i can't wait for the 2013 data to include this article.

But where did this myth come from? It hasn't existed forever, to be sure. If Marty McFly cracked a tryptophan joke when he traveled back to 1955, you can be sure that no one would have gotten the joke -- the myth didn't exist yet. In fact, coming from 1985, its questionable whether Marty himself would have made the joke. By 1995 he certainly could have.

Thanks to mattress manufacturers and a Japanese chemical company.

The Origin of the Turkey Tryptophan Myth

Prior to the mid-1970s, the amino acid known as "tryptophan" was rarely mentioned in the press, and never in connection with sleep. For example, a 1952 report suggested that low tryptophan levels might help prevent paralysis from polio. (Yes, this was back when awful common diseases like polio were still around and scared everyone witless.) And in the late 1960s, some folks said they wanted to genetically increase the supply of the chemical in corn to up its protein content. Yum? Also, by the early 1970s, the Japanese were gung ho about using tryptophan-rich plankton for food. Double Yum! Interestingly, whether tryptophan was even in turkey seemed to be in question -- one doctor in 1968 reported that a turkey diet might be a cure for psoriasis because tryptophan "is found in all meats except turkey". Needless to say, no one was making "tryptophan-haze" jokes as an excuse to not help clean up the Thanksgiving table in 1968.

In 1975, however, a Tufts University study found that tryptophan, at least given in tablet form, appeared to make study participants fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. This was cited at the time as evidence supporting the old claim that drinking a glass of warm milk before bed might have some truth to it. And in 1977, an Associated Press article reported that not only milk, but other high protein foods with tryptophan could also induce sleep. The Miami News version of that article was amusingly titled "New cure for insomnia - hamburgers". photo hamburgers_zpsbaa4b872.png

But people didn't start joking that their Big Macs were lulling them to sleep. Into this nascent area of sleep research stepped our good friends, big corporations. At the same time this early research about tryptophan and sleeping was coming to light, the American mattress industry formed a group known as the "Better Sleep Council". Though this ostensible non-profit group claimed to only want to aid humans in their pursuit of sleep, and thus have more satisfying lives, its real purpose was to, of course, SELL MORE MATTRESSES. Getting people to think more about how they sleep, and how to sleep well, is one of the goals of the group, because this might GET YOU TO BUY MORE MATTRESSES. Of course, the "Better Sleep Council" couldn't just demand we "buy mattresses" and nothing else. They had to come up with "studies" and "reports" that looked scientific, and address other things that maybe could effect sleep (INCLUDING NEW MATTRESSES).


So, for Thanksgiving 1978, the Council released a report to entice holiday-related coverage from lazy journalists. "The traditional Thanksgiving dinner, a sumptuous gathering for fine food and family communion, can also be the answer to an insomniac's prayer, according to the Better Sleep Counsel." Oh yes. "Turkey contains a high concentration of tryptophan, an amino acid that induces sleep." Now, of course, there had been no studies of whether turkey itself induced sleep; the Council was just highlighting turkey since it was Thanksgiving. And while the Council did note that other foods are also "good sources" of tryptophan, it left the impression that turkey was better.
not their real logo, which shows someone stretching after a good night's sleep on a NEW MATTRESSThe Council also recited a number of other things that might possibly help one sleep, before concluding that a "good bed with a firm mattress" might be the real solution. (YOU DON'T SAY!) And benignly enough, the Better Sleep Council would continue to include turkey and tryptophan among its list of potential cures for insomnia through the 1980s.

But mattress manufacturers are not the only party to blame here.

Health Food Stores: How Many Thing Do They Sell That Can Kill You?

Tryptophan also began to be sold in tablet form in health food stores by the early 1980s as an insomnia cure. And since turkey was one of the foods frequently mentioned as containing tryptophan, and since people do get sleepy after gorging themselves on Thanksgiving, this became "evidence". Though there were some naysayers. For Turkey Day 1986, for example, the "National Turkey Board" (GOAL: EAT MORE TURKEY!) assured Americans that its the big meal, not the tryptophan, causing sleepiness.

As the claim that tryptophan tablets could cure insomnia continued to spread, the Japanese chemical company Showa Denko greatly stepped up its production of tryptophan in the late 1980s. In fact, the majority of tryptophan tablets sold in the United States all originated from the company, and to keep up with demand, the company made many changes in its manufacturing process to boost production. Like removing the step of removing impurities. Oops. What's the worst that could happen, right?

Well, you could kill people. Which is what happened. Over 25 deaths and many cases of serious illness from Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome (EMS) resulted from taking the drug. At the time, the fact that the production was probably contaminated was not known, and calls to ban the drug permanently as the cause of the disease outbreak were sounding by Thanksgiving 1989. A ban was put in place. Showa Denko ended up paying $2 billion to settle lawsuits arising out of its conduct.

All this news coverage of tryptophan and its claimed effects actually served to spread the theory that eating turkey on Thanksgiving would make you drowsy. By 1992, newspapers could run an article with a headline like this:
A turkey dinner can lull you to sleep; its tryptophan that goes to your head

This November 26, 1992 piece in the Lakeland Ledger is a high-water mark example of the tryptophan-turkey-sleep connection. It claimed that the tryptophan in turkey will make you sleepy, and also that all those carbs you eat will "accelerate" the process! Even though a Butterball Turkey spokesperson told the reporter than you'd have to eat 21 ounces of turkey (7 servings) to get sleepy, readers were told that adding those carbs make will "it happen faster." Wow! Its science!!

By the mid-1990s, direct refutations of the turkey-tryptophan myth began to appear in the press, but it was already too late. Of course, there would be no need to refute the myth, if the news media hadn't already help create it. But for every article saying "don't blame the turkey", there would be other articles lazily restating the basic story as a probable truth. And casual references to turkey-tryptophan-induced sleepiness became common, without reference to whether or not it was true; it was now accepted. As notes, a November 1997 episode of Seinfeld was able to casually mention the tryptophan claim over a turkey dinner. Everyone knew it.

Since at least 2004 (and some earlier examples), every serious article to look at the subject is adamant to debunk the myth. But the myth is now so firmly ensconced in our culture that its now an annual ritual of Thanksgiving to write articles debunking the myth. Just as it will be a ritual for your Uncle Walter to declare that the tryptophan's effects are settling in on everyone. Articles promoting the link still pop up from time to time. It's all in how the article is slanted. A November 2006 report on CNN claimed "there may be more at work than just tryptophan" although "Experts say it has a calming effect that can make you sleepy." These sorts of stories perpetuate the myth.

What will we have to tweet about tomorrow otherwise?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Richard Cohen Interracial Marriage Non-Troversy

A somewhat big political news story yesterday was a pile of baloney. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, a cranky old fart who regularly says stuff to get people going crazy, wrote a column about why Ted Cruz (or someone of his douchebaggy ilk) will beat Chris Christie in Iowa in 2016. Frankly, the fact that Chris Christie will do poorly with tea party voters in rural states is obvious. Can he be the 2016 GOP nominee? Who knows. Ask me in early 2016, when it actually is something you might intelligently guess. So this November 2013 column should just be another boring turd of irrelevant opinion everyone can avoid.

But to spice up the turd, Cohen inserted an awkwardly worded claim that conservatives hate gay marriage. Wait, did i say gay marriage? No, I meant interracial marriage.

Gawker article

Today's GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn't look like their country at all.

So this has generated a ton of stories about Cohen being racist (which seems dumb because he's not referring to himself and his own views). Its also generated a bunch of claims that conservatives don't actually oppose interracial marriage.


So, Cohen's trolling got the clicks and news coverage he hoped for, I guess.

The reality of his claim -- assuming we can ever understand what he means -- is a bit more complicated. It wasn't until 1997 that a majority of Americans said that they supported gay marriage. 1997! By 2011, Gallup found 86% approval, but the approval rating in the South was a bit lower at 79% (Midwest was 86%). It was also 79% among "conservatives", 77% among Republicans, and only 66% among those over 65. You look at these numbers a bit, and you can suspect its indeed possible that a majority of tea party republicans in some regions of the country are opposed to interracial marriage. To wit, a 2011 poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 46% thought interracial should be "illegal", and Sarah Palin had a high net favorable rating of +17 among those people as compared to those who thought interracial marriage should be legal.

Ultimately I don't think Cohen was even saying a "majority" of conservative republicans oppose interracial marriage. He is suggesting they do accept it, even if it makes them uncomfortable. BUT, there is no interracial couple running for the GOP nomination, so why he would focus on this issue is wholly unclear. Chris Christie is simply less "conservative" on many issues that tea partiers care about, that is his problem, not interracial marriage. Cohen's analogy of interracial marriage was more awkward than insane.