Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On the Edge of a Fjord

By SUE CHESTER for the
Published: November 25, 2008

ASKER, Norway

Everyone aspires to have a spectacular view. For Jeff and Tina Leopold, who built their dream home next to a fjord, 30 minutes south of Oslo, the vista of water, islands and pine trees provides daily inspiration.

“We are very fortunate to have a property close to the water,” Mr. Leopold said. “It’s extremely special.”

The couple met through mutual Norwegian friends while they both were studying in California. Mrs. Leopold, 37, was born in Denver but has Norwegian parents and was brought up in the Oslo region; Mr. Leopold, 42, is from the San Francisco area. They had a long-distance relationship until Mr. Leopold decided to move to Norway in 1996. They now have two children, ages 6 and 8.

“I felt I would like the challenge to go somewhere else and make a life out of it,” Mr. Leopold said of moving abroad. “I knew the biggest challenge would be establishing a career.”

When he first moved to Norway he worked as an inventory management consultant in the outdoor sporting industry. Now he owns his own company, which imports outdoor clothing. He works from a home office next to the garage, giving him the opportunity to be on hand to help with the children and to enjoy family life.

The house is a large structure of white weatherboard, with an asymmetric tangle of gables, eaves and windows and five large decks at various levels. The front garden leads to the water’s edge and the family’s dock, off which they swim and fish.

“We’re down there all summer,” Mr. Leopold said. “For the kids, it is fantastic. They love to swim. You have a long winter here when you’re inside all the time. We also go out to the islands with our boat and fish from there.”

Achieving their dream home was not easy. They had their eyes on the 800-square-meter (8,610-square-foot) property as early as 1998, but did not manage to buy it until 2003. Planning permission to build a home on the property had already been issued, but as it was waterfront, they knew there would be fierce competition from other perspective buyers. The couple, however, had a distinct advantage. Through a Norwegian property law known called “Family Purchasing Rights,” the couple were automatically given the right to buy the land, as Mrs. Leopold’s great aunt owned the property.

“Typically in the fjord area here at Asker you can’t build a house within 100 meters (330 feet) of the water,” Mr. Leopold said. “So it was unusual to get property so close to the fjord.”

They bought the land in June 2003 for 2.3 million kroner (about $350,000 at the time). Their construction budget, originally 3.7 million kroner ($533,400 now), ended up totaling 8 million kroner ($1.15 million), including the landscaping.

They now have a 300-square-meter (3,229-square-foot) house and garage with an adjoining 36-square-meter (387-square-foot) office.

In October 2007, the property was appraised at 13.5 million kroner ($1.95 million), although Mr. Leopold admitted it may be worth less following the global downturn, which has also affected Norway’s housing market.

His general estimate of the country’s market was confirmed by Odd Nymark, the chief executive of EiendomSmegler 1 Oslo Akershus, a real estate agency. “Selling property in Oslo right now is like driving a car with the handbrake on,” he said. “Turnover is down by 30 to 40 percent and prices dropped by 4.7 percent in October. We expect prices to go down 5 to 10 percent before they bottom out.”

Mr. Leopold said that, despite the downturn, he is confident that the house is still a good investment. “It will always hold its value as it’s prized waterfront, which is almost impossible to find nowadays,” he said.

The 116-square-meter (1,250-square-foot) ground floor has high ceilings and a large kitchen area. There are floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. “We designed it so that you can be looking at the view once you’re in the kitchen,” Mr. Leopold said.

There is an open fireplace and a wood-burning stove, but most of the heat is generated from an electric system under the floor, which, at 250,000 krone ($36,040), was the most expensive part of the building budget. Each room’s heat is controlled by a remote thermostat set according to the size of windows and ceiling height so the temperature is constant throughout the house.

Upstairs there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms; in the basement there is a self-contained 60-square-meter (646-square-foot), one-bedroom apartment that the Leopolds rent out for 10,000 kroner ($1,440) a month. Also on the lower level is a guest room with its own bathroom, a recreation room (with a snooker table and plenty of room for ski gear) and a utility room for the heating controls.

“In Norway, if you have an apartment inside your house, the rental income isn’t taxed,” Mr. Leopold said. “I was quite negative about it, but after seeing the expenses the house generates I realized it was quite a good idea. One 120,000 kroner ($17,300) per year tax free — that’s good finance.”

The Leopolds also decided to have electric heating under the driveway and the path leading to the front door to keep the ground ice free. “This device is particularly useful when my family visit,” Mr. Leopold said. “They’re not used to walking on ice. Their Californian motor skills aren’t quite designed for it.”

Although Norway’s winters are long with short days, the Leopolds believe the Scandinavian summers are one of the region’s best kept secrets.

“They’re beautiful with temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) through the night, and it’s light until midnight,” Mr. Leopold said. “Tina loves the sun so that’s why we have a sun deck on every side of the house. We’re actually quite blown away that we are living here and have a place right in front of the water. ”


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens

By: Rachel Somerstein for

Born in 1949 in Waterbury, Connecticut, Annie Leibovitz enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute intent on studying painting. It was not until she traveled to Japan with her mother the summer after her sophomore year that she discovered her interest in taking photographs. When she returned to San Francisco that fall, she began taking night classes in photography. Time spent on a kibbutz in Israel allowed her to hone her skills further.

In 1970 Leibovitz approached Jann Wenner, founding editor of Rolling Stone, which he’d recently launched and was operating out of San Francisco. Impressed with her portfolio, Wenner gave Leibovitz her first assignment: shoot John Lennon. Leibovitz’s black-and-white portrait of the shaggy-looking Beatle graced the cover of the January 21, 1971 issue. Two years later she was named Rolling Stone chief photographer.

When the magazine began printing in color in 1974, Leibovitz followed suit. “In school, I wasn’t taught anything about lighting, and I was only taught black-and-white,” she told ARTnews in 1992. “So I had to learn color myself.” Among her subjects from that period are Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Patti Smith. Leibovitz also served as the official photographer for the Rolling Stones’ 1975 world tour. While on the road with the band she produced her iconic black-and-white portraits of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, shirtless and gritty.

In 1980 Rolling Stone sent Leibovitz to photograph John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who had recently released their album “Double Fantasy.” For the portrait Leibovitz imagined that the two would pose together nude. Lennon disrobed, but Ono refused to take off her pants. Leibovitz “was kinda disappointed,” according to Rolling Stone, and so she told Ono to leave her clothes on. “We took one Polaroid,” said Leibovitz, “and the three of us knew it was profound right away.” The resulting portrait shows Lennon nude and curled around a fully clothed Ono. Several hours later, Lennon was shot dead in front of his apartment. The photograph ran on the cover of the Rolling Stone Lennon commemorative issue. In 2005 the American Society of Magazine Editors named it the best magazine cover from the past 40 years.

Annie Leibovitz: Photographs, the photographer’s first book, was published in 1983. The same year Leibovitz joined Vanity Fair and was made the magazine’s first contributing photographer. At Vanity Fair she became known for her wildly lit, staged, and provocative portraits of celebrities. Most famous among them are Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a bath of milk and Demi Moore naked and holding her pregnant belly. (The cover showing Moore — which then-editor Tina Brown initially balked at running — was named second best cover from the past 40 years.) Since then Leibovitz has photographed celebrities ranging from Brad Pitt to Mikhail Baryshnikov. She’s shot Ellen DeGeneres, the George W. Bush cabinet, Michael Moore, Madeleine Albright, and Bill Clinton. She’s shot Scarlett Johannson and Keira Knightley nude, with Tom Ford in a suit; Nicole Kidman in ball gown and spotlights; and, recently, the world’s long-awaited first glimpse of Suri Cruise, along with parents Tom and Katie. Her portraits have appeared in Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker, and in ad campaigns for American Express, the Gap, and the Milk Board.

Among other honors, Leibovitz has been made a Commandeur des Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and has been designated a living legend by the Library of Congress. Her first museum show, Photographs: Annie Leibovitz 1970-1990, took place in 1991 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and toured internationally for six years. At the time she was only the second living portraitist — and the only woman — to be featured in an exhibition by the institution.

Leibovitz met Susan Sontag in 1989 while photographing the writer for her book AIDS and its Metaphors. “I remember going out to dinner with her and just sweating through my clothes because I thought I couldn’t talk to her,” Leibovitz said in an interview with The New York Times late last year. Sontag told her, “You’re good, but you could be better.” Though the two kept separate apartments, their relationship lasted until Sontag’s death in late 2004.

Sontag’s influence on Leibovitz was profound. In 1993 Leibovitz traveled to Sarajevo during the war in the Balkans, a trip that she admits she would not have taken without Sontag’s input. Among her work from that trip is Sarajevo, Fallen Bicycle of Teenage Boy Just Killed by a Sniper, a black-and-white photo of a bicycle collapsed on blood-smeared pavement. Sontag, who wrote the accompanying essay, also first conceived of Leibovitz’s book Women (1999). The book includes images of famous people along with those not well known. Celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Diane Sawyer share space with miners, soldiers in basic training, and Las Vegas showgirls in and out of costume.

Leibovitz’s most recent book, A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005, includes her trademark celebrity portraits. But it also features personal photographs from Leibovitz’s life: her parents, siblings, children, nieces and nephews, and Sontag. Leibovitz, who has called the collection “a memoir in photographs,” was spurred to assemble it by the deaths of Sontag and her father, only weeks apart. The book even includes photos of Leibovitz herself, like the one that shows her nude and eight months pregnant, à la Demi Moore. That picture was taken in 2001, shortly before Leibovitz gave birth to daughter Sarah. Daughters Susan and Samuelle, named in honor of Susan and Leibovitz’s father, were born to a surrogate in 2005.

Leibovitz composed these personal photographs with materials that she used when she was first starting out in the ’70s: a 35-millimeter camera, black-and-white Tri X film. “I don’t have two lives,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.” Still, she told the Times, this book is the “most intimate, it tells the best story, and I care about it.”


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Carbo-Loading, Hawaiian Style

Photo by Cory Lum for The New York Times

Published: November 12, 2008

AMONG the myriad people and institutions predicted to profit from Barack Obama’s victory, why has no one cited the plate lunch?

This traditional Hawaiian meal — validated as fine fare by the president-elect when he proclaimed his longing for one during a vacation in Oahu last summer — might be poised to enter the consciousness of mainlanders in all of its fatty, greasy deliciousness.

It is probably unrealistic to expect aloha-infused cuisine in the White House kitchen, given Mr. Obama’s clear fixation with staying trim and healthy. But he has made no secret of the fact that when in Hawaii he likes to indulge in the culinary treats of his youth there, including the fast food at Zippy’s, a local chain; shave ice, the ambrosial confection of powdered ice topped with fruit syrups; and the plate lunch.

Drawing on the food ways of the Hawaiian Islands’ many Asian immigrant groups, and chowed down on regularly by everyone from surfers to businessmen to the future occupant of the White House, the plate lunch is simple in form but varied in its elements. Its foundation: two scoops of white rice and a side of macaroni salad, heavy on the mayonnaise.

This carbo load — usually piled into a plastic foam container — is paired with a protein, generally of the pan-Asian variety, often slathered in brown gravy. After a morning of hard work (or hard surf), one might opt for Korean kalbi or meat jun, Chinese char siu roast pork, Philippine pork adobo, Hawaiian kalua pork (a luau favorite), Japanese katsu or salmon teriyaki, Portuguese sausage, American-style beef stew, or loco moco — a hamburger patty and a fried egg.

“The cultural significance of the plate lunch is that it illustrates Hawaii as a special place where all of our mixed cultures share their foods with one another,” said Matthew Gray, who runs Hawaii Food Tours, which ferries tourists to Oahu’s plate lunch outlets and other lesser known haunts. “Instead of referring to Hawaii as a melting pot, I prefer to call us a salad bowl, where we all get to share and showcase the individual flavors, aromas and histories of our food.”

The Hawaiian plate lunch traces its roots to the 1880s, when giant fruit and sugar companies controlled much of the local economy. Among other factors, the decimation of the local population by disease made the companies desperate for plantation workers, and they drew a labor pool from China, Japan, Portugal, the Philippines and other areas.

For workers who toiled under harsh conditions, lunchtime was a respite, with hearty portions of rice matched with whatever meat was left over from dinner the night before.

“The workers would take their bento in these little tins,” said Kaui Philpotts, the former food editor of The Honolulu Advertiser, who has written books about Hawaiian food.

“They didn’t eat sandwiches or things like that,” Ms. Philpotts said, “it was leftover rice and a lot of things like canned meat or teriyaki or cold meat or maybe scrambled eggs or pickles, and almost no salad or vegetable.”

Macaroni, a later addition, seemed to bridge many national tastes and, slick with mayonnaise and a dab of salt and pepper, mixes well with a gravy-covered slab of meat.

After the plantation days ended, the plate lunch lived on. In the 1960s, it moved into lunch wagons, which took meals to workers putting up buildings and conducting other forms of day labor, with little time for lunch.

Enter next the holes in the wall and other stand-alone plate lunch restaurants, followed by chains that eventually expanded into Los Angeles and other cities. More recently, the health-conscious plate lunch has surfaced, in which brown rice replaces white, salads are offered instead of macaroni and misoyaki butterfish is as common as fried pork cutlets.

This summer, I enjoyed the kalua pork with sweet potato salad, and some macaroni salad made with grated onions, carrots and light mayo, at Luke’s Place, a restaurant in a plantation-style building in the tiny town of Hawi on the Big Island. “We are looking to go toward healthier but affordable,” said Mike Prine, the general manager.

Kaka’ako Kitchen, a plate lunch spot in a busy Honolulu shopping center, rounds out brown rice and greens with chicken in honey-lime vinaigrette, calamari with spinach salad or wild salmon with lemon-ginger sauce. “We try to take it a little more upscale,” said Russell Siu, the owner. “We don’t want to be like every other drive-in in town.”

Like, for instance, Rainbow Drive-In in Honolulu, popular among the flip-flop set and a destination on Barack Obama’s must-get-to list last summer. For less than $7 one can fill up on the teriyaki beef plate, which some like to top with chili, or the “mix, all over,” which is a plate of teriyaki beef, breaded mahi-mahi and fried chicken, smothered in brown gravy “all over.”

Indeed it is the standard plate lunch that tends to draw local crowds, for its magical mix of portions (large) and price (cheap). The plate lunch is something that Americans from the mainland “sort of turn their noses up at,” Ms. Philpotts said. “Especially if they are foodies or health conscious. They look at all that cholesterol and white rice, and they just go nuts. But people here grow up eating that.”

It all seems like odd fare for a man as bookmark-thin as Mr. Obama, who seems to treasure his treadmill. “I think it is really funny he still eats plate lunch,” Ms. Philpotts said. “Because he is so healthy.”

But she strongly suggested — at least to my ears — that the plate lunch in part accounts for his strong showing in Hawaii. “I think it is because when he comes back here he is so cool, he just kind of slips back into local ways.”


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Stretching: The Truth

Illustration by Emily Cooper
STRAIGHT-LEG MARCH (for the hamstrings and gluteus muscles)Kick one leg straight out in front of you, with your toes flexed toward the sky. Reach your opposite arm to the upturned toes. Drop the leg and repeat with the opposite limbs. Continue the sequence for at least six or seven repetitions.

Stretching: The Truth

WHEN DUANE KNUDSON, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Chico, looks around campus at athletes warming up before practice, he sees one dangerous mistake after another. “They’re stretching, touching their toes. . . . ” He sighs. “It’s discouraging.”

If you’re like most of us, you were taught the importance of warm-up exercises back in grade school, and you’ve likely continued with pretty much the same routine ever since. Science, however, has moved on. Researchers now believe that some of the more entrenched elements of many athletes’ warm-up regimens are not only a waste of time but actually bad for you. The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — known as static stretching — primes muscles for a workout is dead wrong. It actually weakens them. In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, probably because the central nervous system rebels against the movements.

“There is a neuromuscular inhibitory response to static stretching,” says Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which is not how an athlete wants to begin a workout.

THE RIGHT WARM-UP should do two things: loosen muscles and tendons to increase the range of motion of various joints, and literally warm up the body. When you’re at rest, there’s less blood flow to muscles and tendons, and they stiffen. “You need to make tissues and tendons compliant before beginning exercise,” Knudson says.

Illustration by Emily Cooper
SCORPION (for the lower back, hip flexors and gluteus muscles) Lie on your stomach, with your arms outstretched and your feet flexed so that only your toes are touching the ground. Kick your right foot toward your left arm, then kick your left foot toward your right arm. Since this is an advanced exercise, begin slowly, and repeat up to 12 times.

A well-designed warm-up starts by increasing body heat and blood flow. Warm muscles and dilated blood vessels pull oxygen from the bloodstream more efficiently and use stored muscle fuel more effectively. They also withstand loads better. One significant if gruesome study found that the leg-muscle tissue of laboratory rabbits could be stretched farther before ripping if it had been electronically stimulated — that is, warmed up.

To raise the body’s temperature, a warm-up must begin with aerobic activity, usually light jogging. Most coaches and athletes have known this for years. That’s why tennis players run around the court four or five times before a match and marathoners stride in front of the starting line. But many athletes do this portion of their warm-up too intensely or too early. A 2002 study of collegiate volleyball players found that those who’d warmed up and then sat on the bench for 30 minutes had lower backs that were stiffer than they had been before the warm-up. And a number of recent studies have demonstrated that an overly vigorous aerobic warm-up simply makes you tired. Most experts advise starting your warm-up jog at about 40 percent of your maximum heart rate (a very easy pace) and progressing to about 60 percent. The aerobic warm-up should take only 5 to 10 minutes, with a 5-minute recovery. (Sprinters require longer warm-ups, because the loads exerted on their muscles are so extreme.) Then it’s time for the most important and unorthodox part of a proper warm-up regimen, the Spider-Man and its counterparts.

“TOWARDS THE end of my playing career, in about 2000, I started seeing some of the other guys out on the court doing these strange things before a match and thinking, What in the world is that?” says Mark Merklein, 36, once a highly ranked tennis player and now a national coach for the United States Tennis Association. The players were lunging, kicking and occasionally skittering, spider-like, along the sidelines. They were early adopters of a new approach to stretching.

While static stretching is still almost universally practiced among amateur athletes — watch your child’s soccer team next weekend — it doesn’t improve the muscles’ ability to perform with more power, physiologists now agree. “You may feel as if you’re able to stretch farther after holding a stretch for 30 seconds,” McHugh says, “so you think you’ve increased that muscle’s readiness.” But typically you’ve increased only your mental tolerance for the discomfort of the stretch. The muscle is actually weaker.

Stretching muscles while moving, on the other hand, a technique known as dynamic stretching or dynamic warm-ups, increases power, flexibility and range of motion. Muscles in motion don’t experience that insidious inhibitory response. They instead get what McHugh calls “an excitatory message” to perform.

Dynamic stretching is at its most effective when it’s relatively sports specific. “You need range-of-motion exercises that activate all of the joints and connective tissue that will be needed for the task ahead,” says Terrence Mahon, a coach with Team Running USA, home to the Olympic marathoners Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor. For runners, an ideal warm-up might include squats, lunges and “form drills” like kicking your buttocks with your heels. Athletes who need to move rapidly in different directions, like soccer, tennis or basketball players, should do dynamic stretches that involve many parts of the body. “Spider-Man” is a particularly good drill: drop onto all fours and crawl the width of the court, as if you were climbing a wall. (For other dynamic stretches, see the sidebar below.)

Even golfers, notoriously nonchalant about warming up (a recent survey of 304 recreational golfers found that two-thirds seldom or never bother), would benefit from exerting themselves a bit before teeing off. In one 2004 study, golfers who did dynamic warm- up exercises and practice swings increased their clubhead speed and were projected to have dropped their handicaps by seven strokes over seven weeks.

Illustration by Emily Cooper
HANDWALKS (for the shoulders, core muscles and hamstrings) Stand straight, with your legs together. Bend over until both hands are flat on the ground. ‘‘Walk’’ your hands forward until your back is almost extended. Keeping your legs straight, inch your feet toward your hands, then walk your hands forward again. Repeat five or six times.

Controversy remains about the extent to which dynamic warm-ups prevent injury. But studies have been increasingly clear that static stretching alone before exercise does little or nothing to help. The largest study has been done on military recruits; results showed that an almost equal number of subjects developed lower-limb injuries (shin splints, stress fractures, etc.), regardless of whether they had performed static stretches before training sessions. A major study published earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control, on the other hand, found that knee injuries were cut nearly in half among female collegiate soccer players who followed a warm-up program that included both dynamic warm-up exercises and static stretching. (For a sample routine, visit And in golf, new research by Andrea Fradkin, an assistant professor of exercise science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, suggests that those who warm up are nine times less likely to be injured.

“It was eye-opening,” says Fradkin, formerly a feckless golfer herself. “I used to not really warm up. I do now.”

You’re Getting Warmer: The Best Dynamic Stretches

These exercises- as taught by the United States Tennis Association’s player-development program – are good for many athletes, even golfers. Do them immediately after your aerobic warm-up and as soon as possible before your workout.


(for the hamstrings and gluteus muscles)

Kick one leg straight out in front of you, with your toes flexed toward the sky. Reach your opposite arm to the upturned toes. Drop the leg and repeat with the opposite limbs. Continue the sequence for at least six or seven repetitions.


(for the lower back, hip flexors and gluteus muscles)

Lie on your stomach, with your arms outstretched and your feet flexed so that only your toes are touching the ground. Kick your right foot toward your left arm, then kick your leftfoot toward your right arm. Since this is an advanced exercise, begin slowly, and repeat up to 12 times.


(for the shoulders, core muscles, and hamstrings)

Stand straight, with your legs together. Bend over until both hands are flat on the ground. “Walk” with your hands forward until your back is almost extended. Keeping your legs straight, inch your feet toward your hands, then walk your hands forward again. Repeat five or six times. G.R.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Progress Is Minimal in Clearing DNA Cases

Photo by Ann Johansson for The New York Times
Stacy Vanderschaaf, of the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center in Los Angeles, where the Police Department has some 7,000 cases awaiting DNA analysis.

By SOLOMON MOORE for The New York Times
October 24, 2008

LOS ANGELES — Local and state law enforcement agencies have made uneven progress in reducing a nationwide backlog of cases awaiting DNA analysis over the past four years, according to reports filed by more than 100 agencies with the National Institute of Justice.The patchy results came despite stepped-up efforts by the federal government, including nearly $500 million in grants since 2004, to help crime laboratories reduce the backlog.

Victims’ rights groups and some law enforcement officials say the untested evidence, much of it stemming from sexual assault crimes, leaves open the possibility that thousands of criminal offenders have gone unpunished or are on the loose and committing new crimes.

“That’s always a concern,” said Sharon Papa, an assistant chief in the Los Angeles Police Department, “because, unfortunately, oftentimes rape is a serial crime.”

The problem seems most severe here in Los Angeles, where the Police Department has the largest known backlog, about 7,000 cases, including many with rape kits from sexual assaults.

The backlog comprises a mix of open cases and solved cases awaiting analysis and entry of DNA into state and national databases.

An audit released Monday by the Los Angeles city comptroller found that 217 backlogged cases here involved sexual assaults so old the 10-year statute of limitations had lapsed. The audit did not determine how many, if any, of those cases might have been prosecuted based on other evidence. The federal government has not quantified the country’s overall DNA evidence backlog since 2003, when it stood at 542,000 cases, but a researcher for Human Rights Watch who has studied the backlog, Sarah Tofte, estimates that it exceeds 400,000.

“People just assumed that we were testing every kit,” Chief Papa said, “and we were not.”

About 95 percent of state and local criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements, often before DNA analyses are completed. The police and prosecutors rely on confessions, witness testimony and physical evidence like fingerprints and ballistics.

Still, DNA remains the most sophisticated and reliable physical evidence, especially in cases with no named suspects or promising investigative leads.

Two weeks ago, President Bush signed a bill that includes an additional $1.6 billion over six years intended to speed DNA analyses by hiring temporary crime lab workers, providing overtime pay and renovating crime labs.

But many crime labs are disqualified from receiving more money because they have failed to spend previous financing in a timely manner. A report prepared for Representative Howard L. Berman, a Democrat representing a district in Los Angeles, found that the Police Department had spent less than half of the $4.4 million in federal money it received from 2004 to 2008. Los Angeles police officials said that they had spent or committed all but one-third of that money but that they had not properly recorded some expenditures.

Photo by Ann Johansson for The New York Times
Many of the untested samples involve sexual assaults.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spent less than half of its $4.9 million in grants, the report said. Law enforcement agencies blame several factors for the DNA backlogs, including restrictions on how the federal money can be spent, local staff shortages, bureaucratic delays and planning problems. Some agencies have also seen the demand for new DNA analyses outpace efforts to clear old cases, criminalists said.

Pete Marone, chairman of the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations and director of the Virginia state crime lab, said staffing levels at crime labs had not kept pace with technological advances in DNA analysis.

“Police are starting to send us new work that we couldn’t have done before,” Mr. Marone said. “We can do ‘touch’ evidence now, utilizing DNA analysis to see whether a defendant even touched a weapon. We can get DNA evidence from steering wheels. We can go into a room and find drugs on the floor and we’ll be able to analyze those drugs to determine which hand threw them down on the floor.”

Criminalists said that other kinds of evidence occupied much of their time. Many crime labs facing hundreds of backlogged DNA cases have even more shelved fingerprint, serology, ballistics and drug evidence that needs to be tested.

“DNA really accounts for just 10 percent of the caseload in crime labs around the country,” Mr. Marone said. “The majority of our work is analyzing drugs.”

Processing of a DNA evidence sample takes about a week, said Larry Blanton, a criminologist for the Los Angeles Police Department.

After a sexual assault, the police try to collect biological material — blood, semen, saliva — from the victim and the crime scene. If DNA is found, a chemical process creates billions of copies. A machine then produces a profile of 13 unique markers, which are entered into state and national databases for matches. Each DNA sample costs about $1,500 to analyze, criminalists said.

Photo by Ann Johansson for The New York Times
A saliva sample taken from a rape kit in the Los Angeles crime lab.

About a quarter of the 105 local and state law enforcement agencies that received federal money to reduce their DNA backlogs beginning in 2004, when Congress first authorized the spending, were granted less money this year because they had failed to meet spending goals, according to the report prepared for Mr. Berman. In progress reports filed in January with the National Institute of Justice, about 40 of 82 agencies said their DNA case backlogs had increased or remained constant during the previous six months.

“Many places have not even counted their backlogs,” said Ms. Tofte, the researcher with Human Rights Watch.

In January, the Denver Police Department reported that it had used federal funds to process 13 cases last year, including eight rape kits, out of 934 backlogged cases. The Miami-Dade Police Department failed to spend any of the $200,000 it requested in 2007 to cut its DNA backlog, whose size was not reported to the federal government.

The West Virginia State Police reported that its DNA case backlog had grown to 697 cases by Dec. 31, 2007, from 560 cases in July 2007, despite receiving about $230,000 in federal money.

“Our backlog at its peak was around 730, and now we have about a 650-case backlog,” said Lt. Brent Myers, head of the state’s DNA analysis unit. “We haven’t been able to hire temporary employees as we would have liked, so that’s why it’s taken longer to spend that money.”

The federal grants can be used to outsource DNA testing or to hire temporary employees, but not permanent staff members.

Some police departments have done better. In New York City, a backlog of more than 17,000 DNA samples from sexual assault and homicide cases from 2001 to 2004 was brought under control when the Police Department hired additional criminalists to work more cases, added overtime, bought analysis equipment and hired private firms to process DNA.

Elsewhere, the backlog has haunted detectives, as it did in a rape case that Detective Tim Marcia of the Los Angeles Police Department worked 10 years ago. A 43-year-old legal secretary was raped in her home as her son slept in another room. The attacker forced the woman to destroy evidence by cleaning herself.

“Given the way everything happened,” Detective Marcia said, “I knew in my gut that this was a repeat offender and he was going to strike again.”

Detective Marcia said he had rushed the woman’s rape kit to the department’s crime lab but was told to expect a processing delay of more than a year. He drove the kit to the state’s DNA testing laboratory in Sacramento, about 350 miles north. But a backlog there prevented testing for four months.

During that time, the rapist broke into the homes of a pregnant woman and a 17-year-old girl and sexually assaulted them.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Sweetener With a Bad Rap

A Sweetener With a Bad Rap

EVERY time Marie Cabrera goes shopping, she brings along her mental checklist of things to avoid. It includes products with artery-clogging trans fats, cholesterol-inducing saturated fats, MSG and the bogeyman du jour, high-fructose corn syrup. That last one, she says, is the hardest to avoid unless she happens to be shopping in the small natural-foods section of her supermarket.

As she pushed her shopping cart down an aisle of the Super Stop & Shop near her hometown of Warren, R.I., recently, Ms. Cabrera, a retired schoolteacher, offered her thoughts on why she steers clear of high-fructose corn syrup: "It's been linked to obesity, and it's just not something that's natural or good for you."

This is the perception that many consumers have of the syrup, a synthetic sweetener that has replaced plain old sugar and become a ubiquitous ingredient in American processed foods. High-fructose corn syrup provides the sweet zing in everything from Coke, Pepsi and Snapple iced tea to Dannon yogurt and Chips Ahoy cookies. It also lurks in unexpected places, like Ritz crackers, Wonder bread, Wishbone ranch dressing and Campbell's tomato soup.

In the news media and on myriad Web sites, high-fructose corn syrup has been labeled "the Devil's candy," a "sinister invention," "the crack of sweeteners" and "crud." Many scientific articles and news reports have noted that since 1980, obesity rates have climbed at a rate remarkably similar to that of high-fructose corn syrup consumption. A distant derivative of corn, the highly processed syrup was created in the late 1960's and has become a hard-to-avoid staple of the American diet over the last 25 years. It spooks foodies, parents and nutritionists alike. But is it really that bad?

Many scientists say that there is little data to back up the demonization of high-fructose corn syrup, and that links between the crystalline goop and obesity are based upon misperceptions and unproved theories, or are simply coincidental.

"There's no substantial evidence to support the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is somehow responsible for obesity," said Dr. Walter Willett, the chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health and a prominent proponent of healthy diets. "If there was no high-fructose corn syrup, I don't think we would see a change in anything important. I think there's this overreaction."

Dr. Willett says that he is not defending high-fructose corn syrup as a healthy ingredient, but that he simply thinks that the product is no worse than the refined white sugar it replaces, since both offer easily consumed calories with no nutrients in them. High fructose corn syrup's possible link to obesity is the only specific health problem that the ingredient's critics have cited to date — and experts say they believe that this link is tenuous, at best.

Even the two scientists who first propagated the idea of a unique link between high-fructose corn syrup and America's soaring obesity rates have gently backed off from their initial theories. Barry M. Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that a widely read paper on the subject that he wrote in 2004 with George A. Bray, a professor of medicine at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., was just meant to be a "suggestion" that would inspire further study.

"It was a theory meant to spur science, but it's quite possible that it may be found out not to be true," Professor Popkin said. "I don't think there should be a perception that high-fructose corn syrup has caused obesity until we know more."

Professor Popkin says that he and Professor Bray both decided not to raise the issue of high-fructose corn syrup for a beverage panel that they and four other scientists formed last year at the University of North Carolina. The panel was convened to provide clear guidelines to consumers about the nutritional risks and benefits of various beverages.

Rather than single out high-fructose corn syrup for derision, the panel focused on the proliferation of beverages with added sugars, regardless of what sweetener was used. Those beverages, the panel said, should be consumed at the lowest possible level, no more than eight ounces a day. "We felt there were much bigger issues and it would be a distraction," Professor Popkin said of high-fructose corn syrup.

AS America's obesity problem has evolved into a major public health concern over the last five years, singling out high-fructose corn syrup as a singular culprit reflects, perhaps, society's early response to a vexingly complex issue. Scientists say part of the confusion about the ingredient's role in the nutrition debate stems from a basic misunderstanding: the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is actually high in fructose.

Studies have shown that the human body metabolizes fructose, the sweetest of the natural sugars, in a way that may promote weight gain. Specifically, fructose does not prompt the production of certain hormones that help regulate appetite and fat storage, and it produces elevated levels of triglycerides that researchers have linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

But the name "high-fructose corn syrup" is something of a misnomer. It is high only in relation to regular corn syrup, not to sugar. The version of high-fructose corn syrup used in sodas and other sweetened drinks consists of 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, very similar to white sugar, which is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. The form of high-fructose corn syrup used in other products like breads, jams and yogurt — 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose — is actually lower in fructose than white sugar.

Even if high-fructose corn syrup is no worse than sugar, it may never be popular with consumers like Ms. Cabrera who routinely seek out natural and organic foods. Most manufacturers of natural products shun the syrup, in part because many of them consider it an artificial ingredient. Among natural-foods enthusiasts and many nutritionists, there is a belief that the foods humans have been consuming for hundreds or even thousands of years are better handled by our bodies than many of the modern and chemically derived concoctions introduced into the food supply in the last 60 or so years.

Among producers of organic products, there is a similar prohibition against high fructose corn syrup in favor of regular sugar, although one ingredient company, Marroquin International of Santa Cruz, Calif., sells organic high-fructose corn syrup.

Michael F. Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group that often criticizes the food industry, says that unlike sugar molecules, which reside in the stalks of sugar cane or the beets that are used to make sugar, high-fructose corn syrup is artificial because it is not found anywhere in corn.

"You're causing a change in the molecular structure, and that shouldn't be considered natural," he said, adding, however, that he never supported the notion that high-fructose corn syrup was a unique contributor to obesity.

Produced in large manufacturing facilities scattered mostly across the flat, golden expanse of the American corn belt, high-fructose corn syrup is not a product that anyone could cook up at home using a few ears of corn. The process starts with corn kernels and takes place in a series of stainless steel vats and tubes in which a dozen different mechanical processes and chemical reactions occur — including several rounds of high-velocity spinning and the introduction of three different enzymes to incite molecular rearrangements.

The enzymes turn most of the glucose molecules in corn into fructose, which makes the substance sweeter. This 90 percent fructose syrup mixture is then combined with regular corn syrup, which is 100 percent glucose molecules, to get the right percentage of fructose and glucose. The final product is a clear, goopy liquid that is roughly as sweet as sugar.

The major manufacturers of high-fructose corn syrup — the farm giants Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Corn Products International and the ingredients company Tate & Lyle — say that their product is natural because it is made from plain old corn (though some of it is genetically modified) and contains no synthetic materials or color or flavor additives.

The Food and Drug Administration has never established rules on what, exactly, "natural" means, allowing companies to pitch products as natural even if they contain high-fructose corn syrup. Cadbury Schweppes recently began promoting 7-Up, which is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, as "100 percent natural." Capri Sun fruit-flavored drinks from Kraft are also promoted as all-natural, although they, too, are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Cadbury and Kraft both say they believe that high-fructose corn syrup is natural because it is made from corn.

Sugar is considered natural because there are no chemical processes involved in its production and no molecular changes occur as it is processed. The Sugar Association, which represents sugar growers and producers, filed a petition in February with the Food and Drug Administration asking the agency to define "natural," but the association says the agency has not yet responded.

THE modern supermarket, of course, is stocked with artificial additives and the highly processed products of modern food science, most of them unknown outside of food technology circles. Still, even with this cacophony of indecipherable, hard-to-pronounce ingredients, few have been singled out for the scorn heaped upon high-fructose corn syrup.

Yoshiyuki Takasaki, a scientist, patented high-fructose corn syrup in 1971 while working for a government-affiliated laboratory in Japan. But it wasn't until 2001, shortly after the United States surgeon general issued a landmark report on obesity, that the brouhaha over the substance began. Warning that America's expanding waistline could reverse many health gains achieved in recent decades, the report prompted new research into the causes of obesity.

Professor Bray of the Pennington research center — a lean, bespectacled man who had spent much of his career studying obesity and diabetes — said he had been pondering the obesity problem for several years when, in early 2002, he had a sudden insight. Charting federal data on the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup against data on obesity rates, he found amazing parallels between his two graphs.

Starting in 1980, around the time that manufacturers started replacing sugar in sodas with a more cheaply produced sweetener — high-fructose corn syrup — there was a sharp increase in male and female obesity in the United States. From 1980 to 2000, the incidence of obesity doubled, after having remained relatively flat for the preceding 20 years, the data showed. Could high-fructose corn syrup be making us fat, Professor Bray wondered? After all, according to his analysis of government consumption data, per capita intake of the syrup had increased by more than 1,000 percent from 1970 to 1990, exceeding the changes in the intake of any other food group tracked by the Department of Agriculture.

Professor Bray's theory received enormous attention when he teamed up with Professor Popkin to publish the idea in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in April 2004. Around the same time, a breezy and provocative book about America's obesity problem, "Fat Land" by Greg Critser, generated more awareness of high-fructose corn syrup. Mr. Critser proposed that the syrup made consumers fat because it was so cheap, and thus food makers could afford to offer more products with it and more copious portions.

Manufacturers had always been able to buy the sweetener at prices 20 percent to 70 percent less than those of sugar. In a 1983 article in Fortune magazine, one beverage analyst estimated that by switching to high-fructose corn syrup, Coca-Cola gained a cost advantage over Pepsi and its bottlers of $70 million a year. A year later, Pepsi followed in Coke's footsteps and also began using the sweetener. Mr. Critser argued that the cost savings allowed soft-drink companies to create larger sizes that were only marginally more expensive, thus propelling people to drink more soda. It also freed up extra marketing money, he said. "High-fructose corn syrup really allowed companies to transform their brands and to become some of the biggest brands in the world," Mr. Critser said in a recent interview.

There is little question that after beverage companies began adding high-fructose corn syrup into soda in the early 1980's, soft-drink consumption soared. From 1980 to 2000, per-person consumption of sweetened soda rose by 40 percent, to 440 12-ounce cans a year, according to the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service. During roughly the same period, the inflation-adjusted price of soda declined by about one-third, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Also in the 1980's, supersizing began in earnest. In 1983, for example, 7-Eleven rolled out its 44-ounce soda and, in 1988, the huge 64-ounce. And McDonald's began supersizing its drinks in the late 80's. But whether all of this would have happened anyway, even if sodas still were sweetened with pricier sugar, is hard to say, according to analysts.

John Sicher, publisher of the trade journal Beverage Digest, says he thinks that the lower cost of soda today, versus 20 years ago, is attributable largely to the advent of bigger packaging, which lowers distribution and manufacturing costs. He cited several reasons for soda's dominant presence in the American diet: "I think that the higher consumption of soft drinks today is more about the increased prevalence of product," he said. "It's the growth of fast-food restaurants, much more availability in supermarkets, the growth of convenience stores with coolers in them and a huge build-out of new vending machines in the 1990's. I don't think it has anything to do with high-fructose corn syrup."

Dave DeCecco, a spokesman for Pepsi, says the company's decisions over the years about package and portion sizes were based on the changing desires of consumers — and had nothing to do with the price of high-fructose corn syrup. "The cost of the sweetener in the product is extremely minimal to the point of not even mattering," he said.

Mr. Critser, the author of "Fat Land," says that John Peters, a scientist at Procter & Gamble and a founder of America on the Move, a foundation devoted to obesity prevention, was the first person to get him thinking about a link between the cheap cost of high-fructose corn syrup and obesity.

Reached three weeks ago at his office at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Mr. Peters said the idea was "just a hypothesis, without any data to back it up." Asked if he thought that high-fructose corn syrup had played a unique role in America's obesity problem, he said, "I don't think we know."

Few scientists and nutritionists are willing to believe that the small amount of additional fructose in high-fructose corn syrup, as opposed to sugar, makes a difference in people's weight. Dr. Peter J. Havel, an endocrinology researcher in the department of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, said he did not think that the replacement of sugar, or sucrose, with high-fructose corn syrup in the food supply was, by itself, responsible for the increase of obesity in the population.

"I don't think it is likely that things would be very different if people consumed increased amounts of either sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup," he said in an interview. "Overconsumption of either sweetener, along with dietary fat and decreased physical activity, could contribute to weight gain."

THE recent backlash against the ingredient, which has enjoyed more than 20 years of uninterrupted sales growth, has caused its corporate sponsors to take notice. Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, a trade group in Washington that represents the biggest makers of high-fructose corn syrup, put up a Web site,, three years ago to blunt criticism of the sweetener. The site includes information about the amount of fructose in the syrup and charts showing sharp increases in obesity in countries that use very little of the liquid. (Outside of Canada, the United States is the only country with a significant consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, largely because other countries have erected successful trade barriers to protect sugar.)

But Ms. Erickson says her arguments that high-fructose corn syrup is a safe ingredient have gained little traction. She says her trade group recently entertained the idea of changing the sweetener's name. "It really does have this negative connotation," she said.

Manufacturers of high-fructose corn syrup, however, may have more than an image problem to deal with. Annual per capita consumption of the sweetener is down 7 percent, to 59.2 pounds in 2005, from its peak of 63.7 pounds in 1999, according to the Agriculture Department. Ms. Erickson says that this is attributable less to the negative perceptions of high-fructose corn syrup than to the popularity of drinks with fewer calories, such as diet soda, bottled water and sports drinks. Annual per capita consumption of refined sugar has also declined, falling 4 percent from 1999 to 63.4 pounds, in 2005.

All of which suits Ms. Cabrera just fine. Regardless of what experts say about high-fructose corn syrup, she says she will still try to avoid it. But now, after learning that many experts say the substance is handled no differently in the body than sugar, she says that she will probably let some products with high-fructose corn syrup slide.

"I guess I don't need to be so hard-core about it," she said.


Monday, October 20, 2008

The Wonders of Blood

By NATALIE ANGIER for the New York Times
October 20, 2008

You’re born with a little over a pint of it, by adulthood you’re up to four or five quarts, and if at any point you suddenly shed more than a third of your share, you must either get a transfusion or prepare to meet your mortician.

Human cultures have long recognized that blood is essential to life and have ascribed to it a vast array of magical powers and metaphorical subroutines. Blood poultices and blood beverages were said to cure blindness, headaches, gout, goiter, worms and gray hair. The Bible mentions blood more than 400 times, William Shakespeare close to 700. It’s “all in the blood,” your temperament, your fate. Are you a blue-blooded Mesopotamian princess or a red-blooded American male?

Yet to scientists who study blood, even the most extravagant blood lore pales in comparison to the biochemical, evolutionary and engineering marvels of the genuine article.

The fluid tissue we call blood not only feeds us and cleans us, delivering fresh oxygen and other nutrients to all 100 trillion cells of the body and flushing out carbon dioxide, ammonia and other metabolic trash. It not only houses the immune system that defends us against the world.

Our blood is the foundation of our very existence as multicellular animals, said Andrew Schafer, a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College and the outgoing president of the American Society of Hematology. Blood is the one tissue that comes into contact with every other tissue of the body, and it is through blood that our disparate parts communicate, through blood that our organs cooperate. Without a circulatory system, there would be no internal civilization, no means of ensuring orderly devotion to the common cause that is us.

“It’s an enormous communications network,” Dr. Schafer said — the original cellphone system, if you will, 100 trillion users strong.

Blood can also be thought of as a private ocean, a recapitulation of what life was like for all the years we spent drifting as microscopic, single-celled organisms, “taking up nutrients from sea water and then eliminating waste products back into sea water,” Dr. Schafer said. Not only is blood mostly water, but the watery portion of blood, the plasma, has a concentration of salt and other ions that is remarkably similar to sea water.

Of course, we can’t rely on wind and weather to keep our hidden seas salubriously churned and aerated, so we have evolved an active respirator and pumping mechanism, the lungs and heart. Our eight pints of blood circulate through the powerhouse duet maybe 60 times an hour, absorbing recently inhaled oxygen from the honeycombed fabric of the lungs and proceeding into the thickly muscled heart, which then shoots the enriched fluid outward.

Oxygen allocation is the task of the red blood cells, which hematology researchers refer to with a mix of affection and awe. “Red cells have enormous capabilities,” said Stanley Schrier of Stanford University’s School of Medicine. They give up so much to make room for their hemoglobin, the proteins that can latch onto oxygen and that give blood its brilliant grenadine sheen. Alone among body cells, red cells at maturity jettison their nucleus and DNA to accommodate their cargo.

And oh how roughly they are treated. A red cell at rest looks like a plump bialy and measures about 8 microns, or .0003 inches, across. Yet to reach every far-flung, oxygen-hungry customer, the cells must squeeze through capillaries less than half their width, which they accomplish by squashing down into threads that then crawl in single file along the capillary wall, pulling themselves forward, Dr. Schrier said, like tank treads gripping the road.

Blood is also a genius, able to sustain two contradictory states without going mad. To ceaselessly shuttle along the body’s 60,000 miles of arteries, veins and capillaries, blood must be fluid, our trusty souvenir sea.

Yet even though we constantly replace components of our blood, directing the aged and the battered to the spleen and liver — the “graveyards for blood cells,” Dr. Schafer said — and replenishing them with fresh blood cells forged in the bone marrow, the turnover cycle is gradual and we can’t afford to lose everything in one big gush wrought by a predator’s gash. Blood, then, departs from sea water, or, for that matter, from breast milk, another prized body fluid, in one outstanding way: it is always poised to clot, to relinquish liquidity and assume solidity.

In deciding whether to flow or clot, blood takes its cues from its surroundings. As blood glides through the bulk of its tubular circuitry, the comparatively heavy red cells are driven toward the center of the swirl, said James N. George, a hematologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, while two other, lighter characters are pushed out to the periphery: the white blood cells that operate as immune warriors, and the platelets, tiny cells that have been called the Band-Aids of the body. Their marginalization is no accident. “They’re surveillance cells,” Dr. George said. “It’s almost like they’re scouting for trouble.”

White blood cells look for signs of invasive microbes, while platelets scan for leaks. As long as the platelets detect the Teflon-like surface of unbroken endothelium, the tissue with which blood vessels are lined, they keep moving.

But even the tiniest cut or gap in the smooth vessel wall will expose some of the fibrous strands beneath, and the platelets are primed to instantly detect the imperfection. A passing platelet will stick to the raggedy strand and change shape, from round to octopoid, which in turn attracts other platelets, forming a little clump. “If the cut is small, that’s all you need,” Dr. George said. If not, the next phase of flood control begins. Signals from the platelets arouse the blood’s clotting factors, free-floating proteins that can cross-link together into bigger, better Band-Aids.

“Platelets and clotting factors,” Dr. Schrier said. “It’s a marriage made in heaven.”

Up to a point. Just as our immune cells can go awry and begin attacking our own body tissue, so an overzealous clot response can have dire consequences. Should a clot happen to cut off blood flow to a vital organ like the heart or brain, the only one playing the harp will be you.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Getting faster, higher, stronger, older

Dara Torres posing with her teammates (from left) Natalie Coughlin, Kara Lynn Joyce, Lacey Nymeyer and their silver medals after finishing second in the women's 4x100 meters freestyle relay on Sunday. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters )

Getting faster, higher, stronger, older
By Gina Kolata for International Herald Tribune
Published: August 12, 2008

At the age of 41, the American swimmer Dara Torres seems to have broken new ground, showing that it is possible for athletes to continue to compete at the highest levels, even making Olympic teams, at advanced ages.

But, exercise physiologists say, the conventional wisdom about age and sports is more urban legend than fact. Not only were there Dara Torreses in the past, these experts say, but they also predict that stories like hers will be more common in the future. The reasons are an infusion of money into many sports, combined with improvements in sports medicine and training.

Exercise researchers cite athlete after athlete who competed at ages when conventional wisdom said they should have been washed up. Even sprinters, widely believed to reach their peak performances in their early 20s and decline a few years later, have defied expectations. In fact, said José González-Alonso, director of the Center for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at Brunel University, near London, the notion about sprinters' peaking early might have no basis in science.

In the last century, there were sprinters like Donald Finlay of Britain, who came in fourth in the 110-meter hurdles in the 1948 Olympics at the age of 39. More recently, the sprinter Merlene Ottey competed in seven Olympics, including the Athens Games in 2004, and won a total of eight medals. She turned 48 in May.

Of course, it is not easy to keep competing year after year.
"It has to be someone who is very, very driven and injury-free," González-Alonso said. "The hardest thing is to have the motivation to train well."

As years go by, many tire of the discipline, said Michael Joyner, an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic. "How much do you want to suffer every day?" he asked.

But in the end, whether an athlete can continue often comes down to money. And one reason coaches and exercise researchers expect to see many older Olympians in the future is that for the first time in many sports, athletes are finding that they can make a living by competing.

Joyner offered swimming as an example. Elite swimmers cannot just go out and train themselves. They need a coach, a 50-meter pool and the financial support to be able to spend up to five hours a day training. Such a schedule makes it difficult to hold a full-time job.

Until recently, that meant that elite swimmers were in high school or college. After college, it became impossible to train without a team, and most swimmers felt they had to earn a living some other way.

No more, said Frank Busch, an Olympic swimming coach who said companies were now supporting swimmers. "You're seeing the age of the Olympic team continue to get older," Busch said. Now, he said, 90 percent of U. S. Olympic swimmers were professional athletes. In contrast to what happened in the past, very few high school and college students are on the team and it is common for Olympic swimmers to be in their mid- to late-20s.

"Pro swimming has changed the whole scene," Busch said.

Sandy Neilson, an Olympic swimmer who won three gold medals in 1972, watched the transformation happen.

"Back when I was 16, there weren't scholarships for women," Neilson said. "It was unheard of out of college. Things really started to change between 1984 and 1988 to allow the athletes to receive money without losing their amateur status."

She decided to take advantage of the change and return to the sport, coached by her husband.

In 1984, Neilson was named US Swimming's national comeback swimmer of the year. Now, at the age of 40 and as a mother of four, she seeks to maintain that competitive edge.

"It's something no one else has done," she said. "I believe I can go faster. My training hasn't been what it needs to be. There's room for improvement. I'm not looking at the 40-year-old wall. Life goes on after 40."

In addition to money, sports medicine has made a difference, said Joyner, the exercise researcher. Older athletes may be more prone to injuries, but today's medicine allows them to recover quicker. "Knee surgery used to be medieval," he said. But now, athletes can go back to training almost immediately.

So have improved training techniques, González-Alonso said. Athletes today train better and have more support.

And there, Dara Torres may be paving the way.

In 1992, she learned that she had asthma. She takes medicine that allows her to breathe normally, which allows her to train hard and compete. And with her head coach, sprint coach, two stretchers, two masseuses, a chiropractor and a nanny, she spent at least $100,000 a year preparing for the Olympics.
But, of course, the results are clear. Age, it turns out, may not be the obstacle it was thought to be.

Karen Crouse contributed reporting.


Sorting Out Coffee’s Contradictions

By JANE E. BRODY for the
Published: August 5, 2008

When Howard D. Schultz in 1985 founded the company that would become the wildly successful Starbucks chain, no financial adviser had to tell him that coffee was America’s leading beverage and caffeine its most widely used drug. The millions of customers who flock to Starbucks to order a double espresso, latte or coffee grande attest daily to his assessment of American passions.

Although the company might have overestimated consumer willingness to spend up to $4 for a cup of coffee — it recently announced that it would close hundreds of underperforming stores — scores of imitators that now sell coffee, tea and other products laced with caffeine reflect a society determined to run hard on as little sleep as possible.

But as with any product used to excess, consumers often wonder about the health consequences. And researchers readily oblige. Hardly a month goes by without a report that hails coffee, tea or caffeine as healthful or damns them as potential killers.

Can all these often contradictory reports be right? Yes. Coffee and tea, after all, are complex mixtures of chemicals, several of which may independently affect health.

Caffeine Myths

Through the years, the public has been buffeted by much misguided information about caffeine and its most common source, coffee. In March the Center for Science in the Public Interest published a comprehensive appraisal of scientific reports in its Nutrition Action Healthletter. Its findings and those of other research reports follow.

Hydration. It was long thought that caffeinated beverages were diuretics, but studies reviewed last year found that people who consumed drinks with up to 550 milligrams of caffeine produced no more urine than when drinking fluids free of caffeine. Above 575 milligrams, the drug was a diuretic.

So even a Starbucks grande, with 330 milligrams of caffeine, will not send you to a bathroom any sooner than if you drank 16 ounces of pure water. Drinks containing usual doses of caffeine are hydrating and, like water, contribute to the body's daily water needs.

Heart disease. Heart patients, especially those with high blood pressure, are often told to avoid caffeine, a known stimulant. But an analysis of 10 studies of more than 400,000 people found no increase in heart disease among daily coffee drinkers, whether their coffee came with caffeine or not.

"Contrary to common belief," concluded cardiologists at the University of California, San Francisco, there is "little evidence that coffee and/or caffeine in typical dosages increases the risk" of heart attack, sudden death or abnormal heart rhythms.

In fact, among 27,000 women followed for 15 years in the Iowa Women's Health Study, those who drank one to three cups a day reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 24 percent, although this benefit diminished as the quantity of coffee rose.

Hypertension. Caffeine induces a small, temporary rise in blood pressure. But in a study of 155,000 nurses, women who drank coffee with or without caffeine for a decade were no more likely to develop hypertension than noncoffee drinkers. However, a higher risk of hypertension was found from drinking colas. A Johns Hopkins study that followed more than 1,000 men for 33 years found that coffee drinking played little overall role in the development of hypertension.

Cancer. Panic swept this coffee-dependent nation in 1981 when a Harvard study tied the drink to a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Coffee consumption temporarily plummeted, and the researchers later concluded that perhaps smoking, not coffee, was the culprit.

In an international review of 66 studies last year, scientists found coffee drinking had little if any effect on the risk of developing pancreatic or kidney cancer. In fact, another review suggested that compared with people who do not drink coffee, those who do have half the risk of developing liver cancer.

And a study of 59,000 women in Sweden found no connection between coffee, tea or caffeine consumption and breast cancer.

Bone loss. Though some observational studies have linked caffeinated beverages to bone loss and fractures, human physiological studies have found only a slight reduction in calcium absorption and no effect on calcium excretion, suggesting the observations may reflect a diminished intake of milk-based beverages among coffee and tea drinkers.

Dr. Robert Heaney of Creighton University says that caffeine's negative effect on calcium can be offset by as little as one or two tablespoons of milk. He advised that coffee and tea drinkers who consume the currently recommended amount of calcium need not worry about caffeine's effect on their bones.

Weight loss. Here's a bummer. Although caffeine speeds up metabolism, with 100 milligrams burning an extra 75 to 100 calories a day, no long-term benefit to weight control has been demonstrated. In fact, in a study of more than 58,000 health professionals followed for 12 years, both men and women who increased their caffeine consumption gained more weight than those who didn't.

Health Benefits

Probably the most important effects of caffeine are its ability to enhance mood and mental and physical performance. At consumption levels up to 200 milligrams (the amount in about 16 ounces of ordinary brewed coffee), consumers report an improved sense of well-being, happiness, energy, alertness and sociability, Roland Griffiths of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine reported, although higher amounts sometimes cause anxiety and stomach upset.

Millions of sleep-deprived Americans depend on caffeine to help them make it through their day and drive safely. The drug improves alertness and reaction time. In the sleep-deprived, it improves memory and the ability to perform complex tasks.

For the active, caffeine enhances endurance in aerobic activities and performance in anaerobic ones, perhaps because it blunts the perception of pain and aids the ability to burn fat for fuel instead of its carbohydrates.

Recent disease-related findings can only add to coffee's popularity. A review of 13 studies found that people who drank caffeinated coffee, but not decaf, had a 30 percent lower risk of Parkinson's disease.

Another review found that compared with noncoffee drinkers, people who drank four to six cups of coffee a day, with or without caffeine, had a 28 percent lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. This benefit probably comes from coffee's antioxidants and chlorogenic acid.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Swimmer inspires sisters to shoot for Beijing

Swimmer inspires sisters to shoot for Beijing
By Katie Thomas
Published: August 8, 2008
There was something about the Fong sisters that caught Dara Torres's eye at a camp for aspiring swimmers at Stanford University in 2000.

Torres had recently broken the American record in the 50 meters at the Santa Clara International Invitational. Sandra and Danielle Fong were 10 and 8 years old, and dreamed of one day becoming Olympic athletes.

Torres had brought the Santa Clara medal to show the children at camp, but her plan changed when she met the Fong sisters from New York.

"My heart melted around them, so I just went ahead and gave it to them," Torres recalled Thursday in an e-mail message. "I remember Danielle in particular, she just had such a sweet face."

The sisters returned to their family's apartment in New York City, and Danielle Fong hung the medal on her wall."It inspired me to try to work harder in swimming and try to be an inspiration to others," Danielle said.

Swimming did not stick, but the inspiration did. Now 18, Sandra made the United States shooting team after finishing second in three-position rifle. Danielle, who is 17 and has cerebral palsy, will represent the United States next month as a member of the Paralympic shooting team.
Their mother, Nicole Fong, said she believed Torres influenced their future.

"It was just a sign of something to them that you could reach for the stars," Nicole Fong said in a telephone interview Thursday before leaving for the first of back-to-back trips to Beijing. "They weren't meeting a movie star with glasses. She could be a normal person and still have that level of achievement."

The athletes' village is full of brothers and sisters who have followed each other into the elite world of Olympic sports. On the United States team alone, there are the three Lopez siblings in tae kwon do, Keeth and Erinn Smart in fencing, and of course Venus and Serena Williams. The team boasts two sets of twins — not including Paul and Morgan Hamm, who each had to withdraw from gymnastics because of injury.

For the Fongs, the urge to compete originated with their father, Yuman Fong, who encouraged his three daughters — Abigail, 20, is the eldest — to purse sports from a young age.

A surgeon at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, he started his daughters in swimming, but when it became clear that none of them would grow taller than 5 feet 3 inches, he said, they looked elsewhere. Around the same time, Yuman Fong got the urge to dust off his rifle and started shooting in local competitions. Before long, the whole family was spending weekend afternoons at a rifle range in Ridgewood, New Jersey

"It turned out he was a good teacher, and they were good students," Nicole Fong said.

Last year, Abigail and Sandra were named to USA Shooting's national team. Danielle attained similar success in Paralympic competition, placing ninth at the European Paralympic Championships last year.

For a while, Yuman and Nicole thought all three sisters could make it to the Beijing Games. "You know, that would have been perfect," Nicole said.

But at the Olympic shooting trials earlier this year, Sandra edged out Abigail, coming in second while her older sister placed fourth. Both sisters had a chance to make the team, explained David Johnson, the national coach for rifle shooting.

"In that age group, they're both world-class," Johnson said.

Yuman Fong said: "Everybody expected that Abby was going to make the team. But that's the way Sandy is, she rises to the occasion."

Sandra was training with the shooting team in South Korea a few days ago when she checked her e-mail and noticed a message from an unknown sender who turned out to be Torres, wishing the Fongs luck in the weeks to come. An NBC crew recently asked Torres about the sisters, refreshing her memory of the 2000 encounter.

"I don't know if you'll remember me," the e-mail message began.

Sandra had to laugh.

"Do I remember her?" she said Thursday afternoon, after completing practice at the Olympic shooting range.

Does she ever.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Canada's Olympic hopefuls: No. 4 of a series

Canada's Olympic hopefuls: No. 4 of a series
Adam van Koeverden: unfinished business


It's not difficult to build a case that Adam van Koeverden is some sort of freak of nature. The 26-year-old kayaker, reigning world and Olympic champion in the K1-500 m, and at least the second-best man on earth at the K1-1000 m, has a resting heart rate that borders on the reptilian — 38 beats per minute. His VO2 max, the measure of how many millilitres of oxygen per kilogram he can utilize during a minute of full-tilt activity, is in the mid-to-high 70s. (Someone who scores 60 is considered an elite athlete. A fit, 30-year-old fun-runner would be lucky to hit 45.) His body produces next to no limb-deadening lactic acid, which is awfully useful when the Olympic finals for your events come

24 hours apart. But perhaps the strongest evidence of his otherworldliness is found on the water. Down in Florida, where he has spent most of the winter ramping up for Beijing, he has been spending six to eight hours a day in his boat following a lung-busting training regime that he sums up as "going as close to race speed for as long as you can, as often as you can." A morning session might feature 10 sets of five-minute-long, high-intensity paddles, broken with two-minute rests. In the afternoon, it could be 24 one-minute sprints, with 60 seconds of slow strokes in between. It would kill the rest of us. And one of the main jobs of his coach, Scott Oldershaw, is to stop him from going even harder. Even among paddlers, van Koeverden is an oddity. In training, as in competition, he has only one gear — flat out. He refuses to conserve strength and coast through the heats. "He likes to win every race on the water. Every workout, every piece of a workout," says Dr. Don McKenzie, the UBC physiology prof and physician for Canada's canoe/kayak team. "By and large, he wears everyone else out." Last year, van Koeverden lost a grand total of one race at his chosen distances, finishing just over half a second behind the U.K.'s Tim Brabants in the K1-1000 m at the World Championships in Duisburg, Germany. (Although he clinched his fourth straight overall World Cup titles in both disciplines.) And it still bugs the hell out of him. "I recognize that it's sort of ridiculous to be complaining about being second in the world, but that's the position I'm in," he says. "I can't ignore that I can go faster, that I've beaten those guys before, and that I can do it again."

Silly or not, it's the type of frustration that should make the rest of the kayaking world nervous about how things might unfold alongside the Chaobai River this August in Beijing. Van Koeverden is not only the favourite to defend his 500-m title, he is serving notice that he intends to find the top step on the podium in the 1,000 m as well. This past summer's World Championship silver marked his third turn as bridesmaid. "I've lost to a guy from New Zealand, a guy from Norway and a guy from Great Britain. I don't want to be second anymore, " he says. "Stacking my silver medals on top of my dresser at home is not my favourite activity."

In another athlete you could dismiss it all as bravado. But van Koeverden has a way of backing up his words. Four years ago in Athens, where he was considered only a medal hopeful, the kayaker called out his teammates, challenging them to go beyond the "ultra-Canadian" goal of simply making an Olympic final. "Sorry, that's not good enough," he proclaimed. "That's why Canadians come in fourth more than anyone else." A day later in the 1,000 m, the race that everyone — himself included — viewed as his best chance, he flew out the gate, leaving the sport's elite in his wake for more than half the course, before eventually fading to the bronze. Twenty-four hours after that, he came back for the 500 m — a distance that even he considered his weaker — survived a slow start and pulled out a shock gold in the last push to the line.

Such displays of will, celebrated when it's done by the pros — think Babe Ruth pointing to the fences, or Mark Messier guaranteeing a game seven victory — have earned van Koeverden the odd reputation of being maybe a little too cocky for an Olympian, at least one who wears the Maple Leaf. Something he says he understands, but for which he makes no apology. "I've never really had any problems with motivation or goal setting," says van Koeverden. "I train hard every day, I'm a world-class athlete every day, so there's no reason to think when I line up on race day that I'm a different person or have lost any of those abilities that I've been perfecting and fine tuning over the last 12 years." But it's an attitude that the Canadian Olympic Committee undoubtedly wishes it could bottle and distribute more widely. (The kayaker accounted for 17 per cent of the country's medal haul in Athens.) Penny Werthner, a University of Ottawa sports psychologist who works with a number of winter and summer Olympians, tells a story from Greece. Like a lot of athletes, van Koeverden likes to listen to his iPod as a pre-competition relaxation technique. But standing dockside in the moments before the K1-1000 m race he found he had forgotten his headphones back at the hotel. It's the kind of glitch that would throw many competitors into crisis, says Werthner, let alone one who was awaiting his first ever Olympic final. But what she remembers most is his reaction. "F--k it," van Koeverden said. "I don't need to listen to music." He's not a superman, says the psychologist, but that sort of mental toughness enables him to crash through more barriers than most people she deals with. "Adam has no fear of putting everything on the line," she says. "A lot of athletes subconsciously hold back in a race. But he's able to focus on killing himself for the full 1,000 m, if that's what it takes."

If van Koeverden does have a fear, it seems to be not living up to his own sky-high expectations. His lowest point since Athens, he says, came at the 2006 World Championships, where he finished fourth in both distances. "I was in shock that after all the preparation and work I could still come in fourth. It was that realization that some things are not in my control." How that insight changed him is a little less clear. Winning the Worlds in 2007 became something of an obsession, say those around him. And if anything, the losses appear to have made him even more fanatical about training. Penny Werthner, a University of Ottawa sports psychologist who works with a number of winter and summer Olympians, tells a story from Greece. Like a lot of athletes, van Koeverden likes to listen to his iPod as a pre-competition relaxation technique. But standing dockside in the moments before the K1-1000 m race he found he had forgotten his headphones back at the hotel. It's the kind of glitch that would throw many competitors into crisis, says Werthner, let alone one who was awaiting his first ever Olympic final. But what she remembers most is his reaction. "F--k it," van Koeverden said. "I don't need to listen to music." He's not a superman, says the psychologist, but that sort of mental toughness enables him to crash through more barriers than most people she deals with. "Adam has no fear of putting everything on the line," she says. "A lot of athletes subconsciously hold back in a race. But he's able to focus on killing himself for the full 1,000 m, if that's what it takes."

If van Koeverden does have a fear, it seems to be not living up to his own sky-high expectations. His lowest point since Athens, he says, came at the 2006 World Championships, where he finished fourth in both distances. "I was in shock that after all the preparation and work I could still come in fourth. It was that realization that some things are not in my control." How that insight changed him is a little less clear. Winning the Worlds in 2007 became something of an obsession, say those around him. And if anything, the losses appear to have made him even more fanatical about training. Four years after his gold medal triumph, the only thing that has changed about Adam van Koeverden is that he's better. "Winning isn't everything. It's not the most important thing," he says. "But in a race, it's the point."


Thursday, July 31, 2008

Drugs Offer Promise of Fitness Without Effort

Photo by Cheryl Senter/Associated Press

Mike Batista, center, with other members of the Old School P.E. class at the recreation center in Newport, N.H.

Published: August 1, 2008

Can you enjoy the benefits of exercise without the pain of exertion? The answer may one day be yes — just take a pill that tricks the muscles into thinking they have been working out furiously.

Researchers at the Salk Institute report they have found two drugs that do wonders for the athletic endurance of couch potato mice. One drug, known as Aicar, increased the mice’s endurance on a treadmill by 44 percent after just four weeks of treatment.

A second drug, GW1516, supercharged the mice to a 75 percent increase in endurance, but had to be combined with exercise to have any effect.

“It’s a little bit like a free lunch without the calories,” said Dr. Ronald M. Evans, leader of the Salk group.

The results, Dr. Evans said, seem reasonably likely to apply to people, who control muscle tone with the same underlying genes as do mice. And if the drugs work and prove to be safe, they could be useful in a wide range of settings.

They should help people who are too frail to exercise and those with health problems such as diabetes that are improved with exercise, he said.

But such muscle-enhancing drugs would also have obvious appeal to athletes seeking to gain an edge in performance. With funds from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Dr. Evans has devised test to detect whether an athlete has taken the drugs, and has made it available to the World Anti-Doping Agency, which prepares a list of forbidden substances for the International Olympic Committee.

Officials at the anti-doping agency confirmed that they were collaborating with Dr. Evans on testing procedures but could not say when they would start using them.

Experts not involved in the study agreed that the drugs held promise for treating disease. Dr. Johan Auwerx, a specialist in metabolic diseases at the University Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France, said the result with the Aicar drug “looks pretty good’ and could be very helpful in the treatment of diabetes and obesity. “The fact you can mimic exercise is a big advantage because diet and exercise are the pillars of diabetes treatment,” he said.

Dr. Richard N. Bergman, an expert on obesity and diabetes at the University of Southern California, said the drugs could become widely used if they prove safe. “It is possible that the couch potato segment of the population might find this to be a good regimen, and of course that is a large number of people,” he said.

The idea of a workout in a pill seems almost too good to be true, but Dr. Evans has impressive research credentials, including winning the Lasker award, which often presages a Nobel prize. He is an expert on how hormones work in cells, and on a powerful gene-controlling protein called PPAR-delta which instructs fat cells to burn off fat.

Four years ago he found that PPAR-delta played a different role in muscle. Muscle fibers exist in two main forms. Type 1 fibers have copious numbers of mitochondria, the organelles that generate the cell’s energy, and are therefore resistant to fatigue. Type 2 fibers have fewer mitochondria and tire easily. Athletes have lots of Type 1 fibers, and people with obesity and diabetes have far fewer Type 1 and more Type 2 fibers.

Dr. Evans and his team found that PPAR-delta remodels the muscle, producing more of the high endurance type of fiber. They genetically engineered a strain of mice whose muscles produced extra amounts of PPAR-delta. These mice grew more Type 1 fibers and could run twice as far as on a treadmill as ordinary mice before collapsing.

Given that people cannot be improved in this way, Dr. Evans wondered if levels of the gene-controlling protein could be raised by drugs. Pharmaceutical companies have long tried to manipulate the protein because of its role in fat metabolism, and Dr. Evans found several drugs were already available, although they had been tested for different purposes.

In a report published in the Friday issue of Cell, he describes the two drugs that successfully activate the muscle-remodeling system in mice. One, GW1516, activates PPAR-delta but the mice must also have exercise training to show increased endurance. It seems that PPAR-delta switches on one set of genes, and exercise another, and both sets are needed for great endurance.

The second drug, called Aicar, improves endurance without any training. Dr. Evans believes it both mimics the effects of exercise and activates PPAR-delta, thus being able to switch on both sets of genes needed for the endurance signal.

Aicar works by mimicking a by-product of energy metabolism, signalling the cell that it has burned off energy and needs to generate more. The drug is “pretty much pharmacological exercise,” Dr. Evans said.

He said the drugs work off a person’s own genetics, pushing the body to an improved set-point that is otherwise gained only by strenuous training. “This is not just a free lunch, it’s pushing your genome toward a more enhanced genetic tone that impacts metabolism and muscle function. So instead of inheriting a great set-point you are using a drug to move your own genetics to a more activated metabolic state.”

Aicar is a well known chemical that has been tested for various diseases since 1994. But neither Aicar nor GW1516 has been tested in people for muscle endurance so the health effects of the drugs, particularly over the long term, are not precisely known.

This may change if pharmaceutical companies pursue Dr. Evans’s findings. “The drugs’ effect on muscle opens a window to a world of medical problems,” Dr. Evans said. “This paper will alert the medical community that muscle can be a therapeutic target.”

The new drugs activate at least one of the pathways triggered by resveratrol, a substance found in red wine though in amounts probably too low to significantly affect muscle.

In 2006 Dr. Auwerx and colleagues showed that large doses of resveratrol would make mice run twice as far as usual on a treadmill before collapsing. It is unclear just how resveratrol works, but one of its effects may be to bind with a protein that helps activate PPAR-delta. Dr. Auwerx’s resveratrol-treated mice remodeled their muscle fibers into a type that contains larger numbers of the energy-producing mitochondria.

This is the same result that Dr. Evans has found can be obtained with Aicar.