Thursday, June 26, 2014

Good Read: Caffeinated

I recently finished reading Murray Carpenter's Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm not much into caffeine. And after reading Carpenter's book, I'm into caffeine even less.

Rather than total abstinence, however, I plan to use it more strategically. But more on that later.

Part one of the book addresses what Carpenter calls traditional caffeine, specifically the kick derived from cacao beans, tea, and coffee. For reasons unknown, he only mentions guarana and yerba mate in passing. Perhaps their stories are not nearly as romantic as those of the other three, or maybe they provide little of Americans' total caffeine consumption, I don't know. In either case, the omission is odd since Carpenter felt that caffeine deserved a 288-page treatment in the first place. What's another 30-60 pages to enlighten us on two caffeine sources that I only knew about through conversations with former missionaries who'd served in South America?

Part two, on modern caffeine, tells of the extraction of the bitter white powder from coffee or tea for use in other products, primarily soft drinks and energy drinks, and the laboratory synthesis of caffeine from urea, a byproduct of guano. No, that does not mean that we are drinking bat or bird feces when we have a Coke. (I don't think the urea is actually harvested from guano.) The greater concern with synthetic caffeine is that it's mostly made in China, where regulations governing food additive purity are probably not that stringent.

Chapters 10 and 11 of part three, which discuss the use of caffeine by athletes and the military, were of greatest interest to me, as an exercise scientist with a nutrition background. Caffeine has been shown to increase mental acuity and physical endurance, accounting for its popularity in events like the utterly insane, though no less impressive, Ironman triathlon.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition, for example, published a 2010 position stand on caffeine and performance, concluding that there is clear evidence that endurance athletes and participants in intermittent sports, like soccer or rugby, can see definite performance enhancements (yes, caffeine is, by definition, a performance enhancing drug, albeit a legal one, according to most sport governing bodies) along the lines of enhanced vigilance and whatnot.

The jury is out regarding the effects of caffeine on strength-power performance, though, anecdotally, when I take caffeine prior to resistance training, my vigilance definitely sees a noticeable enhancement. Whether my force production is actually increased, and I think that is what the researchers are looking for, I feel stronger against the weights I'm pressing and pulling. As any good researcher would say, more research—and, therefore, grant monies—is needed.

In any case, as I alluded to at the beginning, in the future I'll probably strategically restrict my caffeine consumption to just prior to my workout. (And to the occasional diet soda.)

Part four, entitled Corralling Caffeine, discusses the amazing—some might say alarming—proliferation of caffeine-containing products, from traditional sodas to energy shots to gum, and the difficulties the Food and Drug Administration has in regulating them. There are some legitimate concerns, to be sure, but as with most things these days involving food, there is bound to be a bit of overreach by public health officials in their approach to regulating caffeine. (Case in point.)

That said, we ought to be concerned with the consumption of caffeine by infants, children, and adolescents, and about sourcing synthetic caffeine from countries with iffy regulatory oversight of their own, like China.

Anyway, Caffeinated is, on the whole, stimulating reading, if you'll forgive the pun. Check it out.

Monday, June 9, 2014

"The Language Boot Camp"

Missionaries are even encouraged to pray in their mission language from the very start

National Public Radio featured the Mormon Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, in a recent report on how well the missionaries learn new languages prior to entering their assigned fields of labor.

I spent about nine weeks there between March and May 2001, prior to traveling to the Samoan islands.

By learning languages to aid missionary work, Mormons believe that they are fulfilling a prophecy given through Joseph Smith promising that
every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language, through those who are ordained unto this power, by the administration of the Comforter, shed forth upon them for the revelation of Jesus Christ. [v. 11]
That belief is an impetus powerful enough to get young men and young women barely out of their teenage years to leave their families, their friends, and nearly all that they're used to and comfortable with (texting!, Facebook!!, swimming!!!), and immerse themselves for 16 waking hours of every day for 18 months to two years in a language and culture entirely foreign to them (not to mention the food, weather, local bugs and dogs, and so forth).

It's really quite remarkable.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

"Just Keep the Inquiry Going"


More than a year ago now I watched an interview with historian David Hackett Fischer, whom you know, all three of you, my dear readership, I greatly admire as a scholar and historian.

In the interview the good professor answers a number of questions by callers to the show as well as emailed queries.

As I recall, Fischer very skillfully answers their questions and calmly endures at least one of them who seemed, to me at least, a tad bit belligerent.

The very last question posed to Fischer, submitted via email, addressed "problems with reading history today:"
When I read two different history books on the same subject, [says the enquirer,] both versions sound reasonable to me and they are often widely divergent. How are non-historians to learn how to evaluate these writings?
I would say here that history isn't the only field where one might find two reasonable-sounding books that are widely divergent in their evaluation of evidence and presentation of conclusions.

And I don't think Professor Fischer's answer applies only to students of history, either.

He said that there are at least two ways the lay reader might approach this problem, the first is to "center on the point of friction between two works and then read a third book," and the second is to find and read primary sources, in short, "become your own historian."

"It's that principle of inquiry, I think, that's the answer to that problem, just keep the inquiry going."

(Image: AHA)