Saturday, May 10, 2008


Get your brickbats and rotten vegies out and take a shot at Lynne Tziolas. Today you can either denounce her as a barbarian at Andy Bolt's place, or join a more nuanced, conformitarian mob at catallaxy.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Echo & Narcissus Redux - Time to Get Serious (Part I)

Having extended or translated our central nervous system into the electromagnetic technology , it is but a further stage to transfer our consciousness to the computer world as well. Then, at least, we shall be able to program consciousness in such wise that it cannot be numbed nor distracted by the Narcissus illusions of the entertainment world that beset mankind when he encounters himself extended in his own gimmickry.
(Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan 1964)
Everyone more or less knows the story of Narcissus - he was that legendary Greek nancy boy who fell in love with his own reflection. The infatuation was inflicted on him by the gods as a punishment for his egotistical ways.

Echo was a nymph who had the misfortune to fall in love with Narcissus, after she too had been visited with a spot of divine punishment. Infuriated either by Echo's insistence on always having the last word, or by her habit of completing other's sentences for them (the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive) Hera removed her voice, with the exception that she could only speak the last words of someone who had spoken before her.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), McLuhan declares:
Until now a culture has been a mechanical fate for societies, the automatic interiorization of their own technologies.
Implicit in that "until now" is the belief, or hope, that in 1962 things might be arranged differently - that it might be possible to resist, or forestall the automatic interiorisation of the new media technologies that created McLuhan's "global village". Though the phrase has acquired warm fuzzy tree-hugging hippy connotations thanks to chronic misuse and misunderstanding, McLuhan didn't necessarily endorse its emergence. He merely described it. It's unlikely that he would have written either of the two passages I quoted if he wholeheartedly approved of the global village or the way consciousness would develop if we remained numbed and distracted by the Narcissus illusions of the entertainment world that beset us when we encounter ourselves extended in our own gimmickry. That form of progress leads ultimately to tribalism.

Here's take it or leave it proposition from me: the village, as we think of it, occupies an uneasy middle position between tribal society and, let us say, the civitas. Athens, in the time of Socrates was a civitas; in Homeric times it was something else. At its peak, the nation state is a civitas; in decline it relapses into feudal thuggery or something worse. Along both the upward path, and the downward path, you'll find the village - neither fully tribal nor fully civil (assuming either of these two extremes are attainable).

Over the past couple of weeks, while I've been reading McLuhan, I've found myself a little detached from this interwebs thing, much less of a participant in the ideological fun and much more of an observer. What I've often seen, and occasionally illustrated, is the playing out of global village scandals, such as the recent furore over Josef Fritzl and his long term imprisonment and repeated rape of his daughter Elisabeth.

I'm sure that there are plenty of people outside the wholly wired world - where the Fritzl scandal is playing out - who have never heard of Josef and Elisabeth Fritzl, and are neither the better nor the worse for it. Their personal welfare and their stature within their communities is left unaffected by it. Inside the wholly wired world - in the dream world of them Telstra Big Pond homes - things are different. The story of Josef and Elisabeth Fritzl is news and news demands a response. In fact, it demands several responses.

The first response, dictated by the sensational nature of the story, is a public emotional one. The ambit of that response is limited by common decency which prescribes empathic sorrow and pity for Elisabeth Fritzl, outrage on her behalf and disgust at the monstrosity of Josef Fritzl's actions. As a global villager you may be as extroverted as you wish in expressing these emotions - indeed you must be as extroverted as you can since common decency is all that the village retains of extroverted, empathic tribal life. While your material welfare is clearly unaffected by the events in Austria, you might lose standing within your community (at home, at the office, in your personal sector of the WWW) if your emotional responses are found deficient - indecent.

It's worth noting, at this point, that you're not under any social obligation to respond to this story, a brief item that appeared on page 13 of The Age on Wednesday April 30th, next to half a page on the "Solid Austrian burgher [who] led a double life", including photos and graphics depiciting the inside of "the house of horror":

Child Abuse Arrest

LONDON. Police have arrested a 68-year-old man as part of an investigation of allegations of abuse at a former children's home on the English Channel island of Jersey.

The man was answering questions about a number of rapes and indecent assaults, according to Jersey police investigating alleged abuse over decades at the Haut la Gaurenne site.

About 100 former residents have alleged physical and sexual abuse over three decades from the 1960s. (hat tip to Zeppo Bakunin)

Below the Fritzl article, and the "In Brief" column beside it - where the Jersey report appears - there's a half-page advertisement for the Commonwealth Bank, which declares "Our Personal Relationship Banking Specialists in Melbourne are here to help" - a reminder that the real business of The Age, like any newspaper, is attention broking; that what gives the Fritzl story value as news is, in part, it's capacity to draw your attention to a half-page advertisement promoting the services of a bank. Should more details of the Jersey case become available, it might be promoted from filler and supplant the Fritzl story in the role of attention grabber for paid advertising space. (The ad's placement, by the way, is by no means bizarre - the bottom of the page is the first place your eyes would turn if your repugnance for the Fritzl story turned you off reading the latest instalment.)

Part 2 later this week, or early next week. Right now I'm feeling a bit shagged out with this topic.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Wonderful, Cosy, Feel-Good, NATURAL Chemicals

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Louise Hall is a "Health Reporter". According to The Age, she's just Louise Hall. I guess "Lazy Hack from Sydney" doesn't look too good as a by-line when you're syndicating crap written by an interstate colleague. But let's not turn this into a Melbourne vs Sydney, Age vs SMH thing - The Age has one or two notably lazy hacks of its own, like this humourless humourist.

With the help of promotional material from Galen Naturopathic, Hall reports a surprising discovery:

FEELING blue? Mung beans, lobster, turkey, asparagus, sunflower seeds, cottage cheese, pineapple, tofu, spinach and bananas could lift your spirits.

It's easy to see how tucking into a lobster bisque or a turkey sandwich might make you feel better if you're feeling a bit glum - eating tasty food is a pleasant activity. The mung beans and tofu are a bit of an odd inclusion but there are people out there who like both - sometimes on the perverse basis that there's something virtuous about eating bland food to preserve the buff temple of your personal narcissism - so once again, the intrinsic pleasure of eating stuff you like might be the reason you'd experience a lift in spirits. According to Galen Naturopathic, via Hall, you'd be wrong to take such a naive view:

A diet high in tryptophan — an amino acid converted by the body into the feel-good chemical serotonin — can improve mood and wellbeing, a pediatrician and natural health expert, Caroline Longmore, said.
When and where did Longmore say this? Probably in a press release, such as this, where Longmore is described as "a French ex-paediatrician who has run Galen Naturopathic Centre in Richmond upon Thames for the past five years". Or in a spam e-mail to the world's Health Reporters.

The body cannot produce tryptophan so unless we get enough through diet, we may suffer a deficiency, leading to low serotonin levels, which is associated with mood disorders, anxiety, cravings and irritable bowel syndrome.

"Following a diet which contains foods rich in naturally occurring serotonin will improve your mood, leaving you energised and in a state of harmony and wellbeing," Dr Longmore said...
So Dr Longmore - a former paediatrician turned naturopath, proprietor of a naturopathy clinic named after the ancient Greek physician who is credited with holding back western medicine for more than a millenium - is spruiking a fad diet with Hall's eager assistance.

Right up to that last paragraph, neither Longmore nor Hall had put a foot too far wrong on the basic science too. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid which we have to get through diet - it's one of several such amino acids. And it is the biochemical precursor to the "feel-good chemical serotonin". It's just the spin that Longmore - through Hall - puts on those scientific facts that's a bit off.

The claim that "following a diet which contains foods rich in naturally occurring serotonin will improve your mood, leaving you energised and in a state of harmony and wellbeing," cranks the spin up by quite a few revs. Longmore's implied argument is that eating more tryptophan will lead to more serotonin synthesis and since we know that low levels of serotonin in certain parts of the human brain are associated with major (or clinical) depression it follows that eating lots of lobsters is going to be just as good for you as those nasty, big Pharma produced SSRIs. Not too long after the spin comes the outright bullshit:

In her e-book, The Serotonin Secret, Dr Longmore claims the best way to get optimum tryptophan levels is through a carefully devised eating plan.

She rates dozens of foods for their levels of tryptophan. Written with an Australian-trained medical scientist and naturopath, Katrin Hempel, the book has 50 recipes designed to solve serotonin imbalance without drugs. The concept works on the same principle as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, such as the popular antidepressant Prozac.
No it bloody well doesn't. The concept works - to gull people into buying copies of Longmore and Hempel's book - by misrepresenting science. To explain this, I'll have to take a short detour into some basic concepts of modern pharmacology.

First up, pharmacology doesn't interest itself in the origin of drugs. Morphine is a narcotic analgesic derived from opium poppies. Pethidine is a synthetic narcotic analgesic introduced into use in 1939. The two drugs are classed as narcotic analgesics because they produce the same effects - narcosis and pain relief. They've also been found to work on the same receptors in the nervous system.

A basic assumption of pharmacology - one which I doubt has been discarded in the few decades since I studied the subject at university - is that drugs (however defined) achieve their effects by either imitating the action of chemicals that naturally occur in the body (such as hormones and neurotransmitters) or by interfering with natural responses - at the cellular level - to those naturally occuring chemicals. This occurs because the drug binds to one of those receptor things, and either triggers a response, or hangs around doing nothing, like those boofheads who always plant themselves in doorways at parties.

SSRIs - Serotonin Specific Reuptake Inhibitors - are like the aforesaid boofheads. They block molecular "doorways" that take serotonin back into nerve cells after its release. The result is that the serotonin hangs around the synapse (the microscopic gap between one brain cell and another), long enough to have its "feel good" effect. But let's remember that it's only in the brain, and very specific sites within the brain where we want this happening. SSRIs are used in the treatment of clinical depression because they're very good at hitting that site. And because they've been tested and shown to work in clinical trials.

Raising your tryptophan intake because a former paediatrician tells you that it will lead to an increase in "feel-good" serotonin is a very different proposition. There's no evidence that it will work and quite a few reasons to think that it won't.

Making serotonin isn't the only use your body has for tryptophan. As an essential amino acid, tryptophan is also used in protein synthesis. So there's no guarantee that the extra tryptophan will get converted into "feel-good" serotonin. Neither is there any guarantee that extra serotonin production will happen in the brain - serotonin plays other roles in the body. It's present in blood platelets - when platelets bind to wounds to stop bleading, serotonin is released into blood vessels and constricts them.

At most, it might work, and if your tryptophan enriched diet includes a lot of those lobsters, turkeys, pineapples and bananas, you'll definitely have reason to feel good. You might even feel clever about boosting your serotonin levels, but you'd be fooling yourself; harmlessly, if your problem is merely "the blues" and you need a bit of a pick-me-up, not so harmlessly if the problem is more severe.

Hall finishes with a bit of token balance (there's more token balance earlier in the piece):
Britain's Food and Mood Project recommends eating chicken, sardines, turkey, salmon, fresh tuna, nuts and seeds to boost serotonin levels. But Associate Professor Michael Baigent, clinical adviser to the BeyondBlue anti-depression organisation, said there was only low-level evidence to suggest tryptophans had a medical effect.

Statistics show that in any 12 months, almost 17% of adult Australians have a mental disorder, with anxiety, depression and bipolar the most common.

In February, a major international review of clinical trials of new generation drugs, including Prozac and Aropax, found they were no more effective than a placebo, or sugar tablet, for most people with depression. (My emphasis there, to ensure you didn't miss the token balance)

That last paragraph isn't included in the SMH's version of the article - it most likely refers to the paper by Irving Kirsch et al where the conclusions were consciously spun by the paper's author to suggest a conclusion that was in fact refuted by the study's own data and data analysis.

Hall's article is a gift to Galen Naturopathic and to Australia's cray fishers, turkey farmers and growers of pineapples and bananas. But those 17% of Adult Australians with "mental disorders" have nothing to thank her for. Especially those who'll be hearing from friends and family that they need tostop wasting their time with the pills and get a bit more crayfish in their diet.