Thursday, April 3, 2008

10 ways to get the best airplane seat

We've all been there — the small child kicking the back of your seat, the lack of leg room, the war over the armrest. While there's no fail-safe way to guarantee that aisle seat in the exit row near the front of the plane with no one sitting next to you, we have some tactics that will help. Check out our tips for getting the best seat on the plane — and then share yours!

What makes a great seat?
Exit rows, aisle or window seats, and seats close to the front of the plane are typically considered the best. On a short business trip, you probably want an aisle seat near the front of the plane. On an overnight flight, you'll want a window seat so you can rest your head. Nervous fliers may want to sit over the wing, where there is less turbulence.

Exit row seats usually offer a bit more legroom, but they're not appropriate if you're traveling as a family. By federal law, no one under 15 may sit in an exit row, and infants are not permitted in the rows immediately behind or in front of an exit row either.

Many fliers also like "bulkhead seats," which are the seats directly behind the physical barriers (such as walls, curtains or screens) that separate different parts of the plane. Because there are no seats in front of you, you won't get stuck with another passenger reclining into your lap — and you often get some extra legroom as well.

But be careful: Not all "bulkhead" rows are created equal. On some planes, the first bulkhead row may be cramped and uncomfortable. For more information, go to, where you can check out seat maps for nearly every type of plane on every major airline.

Keep an eye on seat pitch, especially if you're tall. This is a measure of how much space there is between a seat and the one immediately behind or in front of it — so the higher the number, the more legroom you will have. SeatGuru lists both seat pitch and width (when available) for most airlines.

The middle seat in any row is generally undesirable. Rows near flight attendant areas and restrooms may be noisier and experience more traffic, and seats very close to cabin movie screens can be uncomfortable, or bright if you are trying to sleep. also identifies other potential problems on its seat maps, such as limited recline or reduced seat width.

10 ways to get a better seat

1. Join a frequent flier program
This is the most reliable tactic you can use. Providing your frequent flier number at the time of reservation goes a long way toward netting you a good seat, especially if you are a loyal, high-ranking member. If you don't already have your seat assignment when you arrive at the airport, present your number at check-in.

2. Buy your tickets early
The number of seats available for pre-assignment dwindles as the travel date approaches. If you can't buy your tickets at least several weeks in advance, be sure to check in online as soon as possible before your flight to select a seat, or arrive at the airport early if online check-in isn't available.

3. Consider purchasing a better seat
Several airlines now offer economy-class seats with extra legroom for an additional fee. JetBlue has just introduced "Even More Legroom" seats on all its flights, allowing passengers to pay $10 — $20 each way for an exit row seat with 38 inches of seat pitch (instead of 34 — 36 inches on its regular seats). United offers Economy Plus Access to high-ranking frequent fliers and to any travelers who pay the annual fee of $349; this entitles travelers to five more inches of seat pitch in the coach cabin. (If any Economy Plus seats are still available at flight time, they can be purchased for $25 to $30 one way.)

4. Select your seat when you book
Most airline Web sites and major booking engines allow you to choose a seat when you purchase your ticket, or to return to your reservation after your initial purchase and make your seat selection later. In most cases this process is free, but AirTran charges $6 per person, per one-way trip to select your seat in advance if you're traveling on a sale or discount coach fare.

5. Confirm your seat at check-in
Most airlines allow passengers to check in online 24 hours before their flight departs. At that point you can confirm the seat you've already chosen or even choose a better one.

6. Get to the airport early
If you arrive too late at your gate, you may lose your seat.

7. When in doubt, ask
Once you reach your gate, ask whether any new seats have opened up. If other passengers upgrade to business class or don't show up for the flight, you may get lucky and grab a better assignment.

8. Be specific
If you know exactly what seat you're interested in, it can be easier for agents to get it for you. Instead of asking for an exit row or "a good seat," try asking for "12A" — you'll be more likely to get what you want (or an acceptable substitute).

9. Keep the agent informed
If you have a medical condition, let the agent know. Most will do their best to accommodate you.

10. Kindness counts
Approach agents in a spirit of understanding. They hear complaints and demands all day. Treat them like human beings, and they may surprise you.

Original here

The Incredible Power of Contentment

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” - Cicero

While many readers have noted my efforts and articles on self-improvement, what I haven’t stressed as much is the beauty of becoming content with what you have and who you already are.

I’m definitely a goal-oriented person — I always have my eye on a goal, whether that’s writing a book, running a marathon, improving my blog, waking early, losing weight, or one of a dozen other goals I’ve had (and usually achieved) in the last couple of years. And once I’ve achieved a goal, I begin looking for another: now that I finished my second marathon, I’m already looking for a third.

So isn’t that a contradiction? Doesn’t that seem to indicate that I’m not content with my life? Not at all. I’m extremely content with my life, with what I have, and with who I am. I have accepted that I am the type of person who will always be striving for a goal, the type of person who enjoys a challenge, and who enjoys the journey. It’s not the goal that matters to me — it’s the journey to get there that is so fun. And I’m content with being that type of person.

So contentment isn’t a matter with being content with your situation in life and never trying to improve it. It’s a matter of being content with what you have — but realizing that as humans, we will always try to improve, no matter how happy we are. If we don’t, we have given up on life.

Today I’d like to discuss contentment, and the amazing things it can do in all aspects of our lives. And then we’ll look at a few tips for getting to contentment.

“Happiness is self-contentedness.” - Aristotle

My Life
I’m going to use my life as an example here, only because I’m more intimately familiar with it than any other life. Looking back, I wasn’t always content. There have been times in my life when I wasn’t happy, when things seemed dismal, when I wish I had more. I wasn’t content with the way things were, and now I know that my outlook on life was a major contributor to my unhappiness.

We choose whether we are happy or unhappy. Read that sentence again if it’s not already something you consciously practice in your daily life. If you’re unhappy with your life right now, I will venture to guess that it’s because you’ve chosen to be unhappy. That sounds harsh, but in my experience it’s completely true. Edit based on reader comments: I cannot speak to whether this concept of happiness applies to everyone — especially clinically depressed or those with similar disorders, people who are starving or homeless, people who have undergone massive tragedies or abuse, or others in such circumstances. However, for most readers, I believe the principles will apply.

You might say, “But my life is crap! Of course I’m going to be unhappy!” And I hear you: I’ve had those times when my job wasn’t going well, when my relationships weren’t going well, when my finances were very bad, when I was overweight, when my life was a mess.

But listen to this: I’ve had those conditions at several points in my life. And sometimes, I was unhappy in those kinds of conditions. And others, I was happy and content. So I’ve come to the conclusion — and it’s proven true time and again — that it’s not the conditions that make me unhappy, but my choice of thoughts, of attitude, of behavior.

What behaviors and thoughts and attitudes were different between my times of unhappiness and happiness? When I was unhappy, I focused on all the bad things in my life. Not only that, but I continually thought about how bad they were, and would complain, and would ask, “Why me?” I would let myself sink into inaction and eventually depression. I would be grumpy and cause those around me to be unhappy. That, in turn, only made the situation worse. It certainly didn’t help my job.

Let’s look at the times of happiness, in contrast: I focused instead on the good things in my life. Because while I had problems at my job and with my relationships and with my finances and health and all that … there were still good things. At least I had a job! At least I had someone who loved me! At least I wasn’t sick! At least I wasn’t bankrupt and homeless! I counted, instead, my blessings. I do this when things aren’t looking so good, and it turns me around.

I had a wife and beautiful children. I had the power to change my job. To simplify my life. To get out of debt. I had my health, even if I was overweight. I lived on a beautiful island with gorgeous beaches and wildlife and greenery. I had family around me who loved me. I had the power of my words, and my books that I loved reading. I had life!

And this outlook on life helped me to be happier. It improved my relationship, because I tried to appreciate my wife. It improved everything around me, in short — and we’ll take a closer look at those things next.

I was happy, despite my conditions, because I chose to be happy. I found contentment in what I already had, instead of wishing I had something else, instead of being discontented with what I had. Contentment not only made me happy, but it transformed my life in many ways. Here’s how.

This is perhaps the most obvious area affected on this list, because many people see “contentedness” and “happiness” as one and the same. In many ways, they are, but it’s really a matter of focus. When you’re happy, it’s really a state of being, influenced by a number of factors, including contentedness.

Contentedness, on the other hand, is a matter of being satisfied with what you have. It focuses on what you have and don’t have instead of just being a state of being. It influences happiness. However, you can choose to be content, just as you can choose to be happy, and if you choose to be content, you will be happy.

There are many ways to become happy — you can become happy by doing certain things (running, getting into Flow, sex), you can become happy because you are loved or in love, you can become happy because you just won a competition or a million dollars. Being content is just one way to be happy, but it’s a great way.

Simplicity, of course, means many things to many people, but for me contentedness is at the core of simplicity. It’s about being content with less, with a simpler life, rather than always wanting more, always acquiring more, and never being content.

Simplicity means examining why you want more, and solving that issue at its root. At the root of wanting more is not being content with what you have. Once you’ve learned to be content, you don’t need more. You can stop acquiring, and start enjoying.

Now, I won’t claim to never want stuff. I wanted a Macbook Air and I got it. It’s helping me to write this post and this book right now. (However, in my defense, I waited more than a month before buying it to make sure I needed it.) But while I am not immune to wants, I have learned to catch myself now and then, and to examine why I want something. And then I try to tell myself that I already have everything I could possibly want and need. And that contentedness leads to simplicity.

Really this is the same as simplicity, but I wanted to show it from a financial angle. The reason we get into financial trouble, oftentimes, is that we buy more than we can afford. And the root of that buying is buying things we want instead of only things we need, and the root of that is not being content with what we already have.

Finding contentment with the stuff you have and with a simpler life can lead to buying less, to buying things we need instead of want, and to only spending what we can afford. I know this first-hand, as uncontrolled spending led to debt for me, and contentedness led to me getting out of debt.

Many times it seems that we’re never satisfied with our significant others. They don’t behave how we want them to. That’s often at the root of relationship problems, as many-headed as those problems may seem.

Instead, learn to be content with the person you love, just as they are. This isn’t always easy, as we are usually trained (by our well-intentioned but never-satisfied parents, and others around us) to do just the opposite — to try to change people. However, you will only find trouble if you try to change your significant other. You might get them to change their behavior (but most often not), but they will be unhappy, and in turn the relationship will suffer.

I will admit to having a problem with this at times, but when this happens, I try to remind myself to love my partner as she is, for who she is. She is a beautiful person, just as she is now, and there is absolutely no need to change her. This has always led to a better relationship for me.

As mentioned above, parents are often not satisfied with their children. They need to be cleaner, better behaved, better in school, more organized and studious, more courteous and kind and compassionate, better groomed and better at sports. Well, that leads to the relationship problems mentioned above, later in the kids’ lives, as they have learned to never be satisfied with others and to try to change them.

It also leads to inferiority complexes in our children, in unhappiness, and in bad relationships with them. Instead, we should learn to love our children unconditionally, to accept them for the people they are, and to let them know this through not only our words but our actions.

Accept children for who they are, and they will be happier, and so will you.

Should we be content with our jobs? Well, I won’t say that you should stick with a dead-end job and a boss that treats you like dirt. If you’re unhappy with your job, change it. That’s been my approach and it’s worked for me.

However, I have learned that being a content person in other areas of my life, and being content with my life in general, has generally helped me at any job. Discontented people tend to be complainers, or grumpy, or negative. That leads to problems at the job. People who are content tend not to complain and tend to have a more positive attitude, and in my experience that almost always leads to more opportunities, both within the job (promotions, new projects, etc.) and outside the job (job offers, networking, etc.).

Social change
I’ve heard some writers say that people like me, who preach happiness and contentedness and a positive outlook on life, are teaching people to accept social injustice and not strive for change. I disagree completely, and as someone who would like a freer society than the one in which we currently live, I have given this much thought.

My favorite social disrupter, Gandhi, had two seemingly contradictory quotes on the subject of contentedness. The first: “Man’s happiness really lies in contentment.” And the second: “Healthy discontent is the prelude to progress.

This might seem confusing until you look at how Gandhi brought about change. He was discontent with the system of oppression in his country, so he sought to change it. However, he was content as a person, with who he was and what he had in his personal life. This inner content allowed him to have the inner power to face (and eventually beat) the very powerful authorities in his country at the time. He could face them because nothing they could do to him could take away his happiness. They could take away all his possessions, throw him in prison, take away even food, and he was content.

He taught his fellow countrymen the same lesson, to make the best of what they had in India (making their own simple clothing, making their own food) instead of wanting the commercial goods from foreign countries. Being content with such simplicity would give them the independence from foreign commercial powers, and eventually (as they are part of the same organism) foreign political powers.

So social change can still happen if you are content with yourself, with your life, but not content with the system of oppression around you. This system, in my opinion, is responsible for holding us down, for the deaths of millions of people in Third World countries … but it isn’t until we learn to be content with what we have, and free ourselves of our dependence on commercial goods, that we will be able to change the system for good.

Getting to Contentment
So if contentedness is so great, how do you get there? That’s not always easy, but here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Count your blessings. I mentioned this above, and in a previous post, but for me it’s the best way to get to contentment. When you find yourself unhappy with something, or with what you don’t have, take a moment to count all the good things in your life. And I would bet there are many. It puts the focus on what you do have rather than what you don’t.
  • Stop, and remind yourself. When you find yourself unhappy with someone, or trying to change them, stop yourself. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you should try to be happy with that person for who he/she is. Take a moment to think about the good things about that person, the reasons you love that person. Then accept their faults as part of their entire package.
  • Stop, and consider why you want something. When you feel the urge to buy something, think about whether it’s a need or a want. If it’s a want, take a pause. It’s good to wait 30 days — keep a 30-day list … when you want something, put it on the list with the date, and if you still want it in 30 days, you can buy it). Consider why you want something. Are you not content with what you already have? Why not?
  • Take time to appreciate your life! I like to reflect on my life, and all the good things in it, on a regular basis. I do this when I run, or when I watch the sunset or sunrise, or when I’m out in nature. Another great method is a morning gratitude session — think of all the things and people you’re thankful for, and thank them silently.
  • Show people you appreciate them. It’s good to appreciate people, but it’s even better to show them. Give them a hug, smile, spend time with them, thank them out loud, thank them publicly.
  • Breathe, and smile. Once again, advice from one of my favorite monks, but it works in this context. Sometimes when we take the time to breathe, and smile, it can change our outlook on life.
  • Learn to enjoy the simple things. Instead of wanting to buy expensive things, and spend money on doing things like eating out or entertainment, learn to enjoy stuff that’s free. Conversations and walks with other people. Spending time outdoors. Watching a DVD or playing board games. Going to the beach. Playing sports. Running. These things don’t cost much, and they are awesome.

“God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.” - Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Original here

Here comes the sun! Where are your shades?
Bora shades from

Welcome to sunny April, fearless readers, and to the following scary fact: Researchers have shown that you can get sunburned many times faster in 2008 you would have 50 years ago. Importantly, and while most people don’t realize it, your eyes can get sunburned, too, causing cataracts, skin cancer, even macular degeneration which can lead to blindness. Children’s eyes are especially vulnerable to the sun’s damage.

Before we show you the latest lens technology that can protect you and your family’s eyes, there are a few basic rules:

Dark colors do not guarantee protection.
Dark glasses do not necessarily protect your eyes from the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays. In fact, dark lenses cause your pupils to dilate; so if those stylish specs you’re wearing don’t have the proper material in them to protect against UVA/UVB rays (it will say so on the glasses in the store), they’ll actually be letting in more damaging rays, not fewer. Get lenses that block at least 95 percent of UVA and UVB rays.

It's the material — not the tint — that protects your eyes.
According to ophthalmologists at the Mayo Clinic, lenses made of polycarbonate block virtually 100 percent of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays, even if the lenses are clear. That’s right — clear polycarbonate blocks all of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. You’ll want them to be tinted to make bright days comfortable, but again, it’s not the tint that protects you, it’s the material. Advantages: Polycarbonate is light and literally bulletproof. Drawback: Polycarbonate is easy to scratch relative to glass.

Try lenses with photochromics.
Photochromics are molecules that darken when UV rays hit them. They’re often placed on the surface of a lens or in between two lens layers. Lenses with photochromics have this advantage over polycarbonate: They don’t distort color, making it easier to see accurately and putting less strain on your eyes. Drawback: Photochromic molecules can "age" (darkening more slowly, or eventually not at all, and become less effective over time).

Luckily, one company is introducing a lens technology that offers all of the advantages of the lens types above, with almost none of the disadvantages.

The California eyewear maker is called 7eye (, named after the visible spectrum’s seven colors — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Using lens technology designed in Parma, Italy, 7eye has just introduced a line of glasses that block all of the sun’s harmful rays using photochromics, but which are also more scratch resistant than polycarbonate … and still bulletproof. They’re even used by NASCAR driver Bobby Hamilton.

The 7eye’s lens technology is called NXT. It’s made of polyurethane, not polycarbonate. What’s the difference? Polyurethane can be molded at much lower temperatures than polycarbonate. The photochromic molecules that would be destroyed if poured into polycarbonate during the hotter molding process can be poured directly into the cooler polyurethane. The result: The 7eye’s photochromics last much longer, because they’re literally mixed into the lens, instead of sitting vulnerable in a layer on the top.

7eye also has a special lens construction called Amplified Color Technology which filters and separates primary colors, making objects seem clearer, even in lower light. The company promises that ACT will improve your depth perception and making your brain work less to try to differentiate colors.

And finally, 7eye has even created a so-called "eyecup" system in some of their glasses that blocks light from the side and even reduces dust infiltration.

Anything that can make my brain work less and protect my eyes in the bargain is alright with me. Happy spring ...

Original here

Are you getting enough sleep?

We all lose a little sleep now and then. But about 70 million Americans suffer from sleep problems ranging from insomnia to sleep apnea, according to the National Center on Sleep Disorders. Take this quiz to help you learn if you have a sleep disorder.
1. Do you need an alarm clock?

2. Do heavy meals and dull events make you sleepy?

3. Are you a serious snorer?

4. Do you sleep longer on weekends?

5. Can you nap just about any time?

6. Do you often feel drowsy during the day?


Original here

12 Tips to Create a Sleep Haven

Tips 1-5

To lull you to sleep, you need to make your bedroom a sensuous haven, adding all the accoutrements of comfort and serenity in a beautiful setting.

1. Buy a New Mattress. Don't even try to comparison shop. Every mattress in every store has a different name. And every owner of every mattress shop says that the mattresses in his shop are different -- and better -- than every other mattress shop on the planet. The truth is that the right mattress for you is the one that you try in your home for 30 days. Find a mattress shop that offers that option, pick out the mattress that you and your partner think is the most comfortable, make sure it has a guarantee, and flash your plastic. Don't worry about coils and foam and luxury toppers. The mattress that allows you to sink into a deep, natural sleep and wake up in the morning without aches and pains is the one you want. And there's only one way to find out which mattress that is.

2. Bask in Comfort.Buy silky, natural tree-fiber sheets in a soothing color. An exquisitely soft cashmere throw for the bed. A hypoallergenic down comforter. A sunshine silk duvet cover. Pillows, pillows, and more pillows. A roll for behind your neck, a wedge for behind your back, a full-body pillow for when your bed partner is away. Hypoallergenic, of course. And don't forget the teddy bear. No girl can sleep without one.

3. Spritz. A quick spritz of soothing lavender water on your pillows before bed will help calm your exhausted mind.

4. Chill Before Bed. Lower the temperature of your bedroom before you climb into bed, says Becky Wang-Cheng, M.D., a medical director at Kettering Medical Center in Ohio. Lower temperatures signal your body it's time to sleep. If your bed partner objects, just tell him to bundle up.

5. Soak. A hot bath also helps you lower your body's temperature. Yeah, your temperature goes up while you're in the bath, but your body's response to the heat will be to drop your temperature way down low.

6. Schedule a Massage. "Massage interrupts the neurohormones connected with sleeplessness and almost manually imposes sleep on you," says therapist Belleruth Naparstek, M.S. "If you can't afford a massage, go to a massage school. You can get one there for $15."

7. Get Mean. Women aren't used to nurturing themselves or putting themselves first. But sleep is so necessary to health and happiness that you have to do it. If the dog's snoring wakes you up, then put him in another room. If your partner's snoring wakes you up, help him get treatment. If he refuses to cooperate, put him in another room, too.

8. Shut the Drapes. You sleep better in the dark. If your eyelids flutter open as you move from one stage of sleep to another, even streetlights or a full moon can wake you up.

9. Ditch the Night-Lights. You can also get rid of the clock radios with lighted displays. It turns out your brain can misinterpret even such dim lights and wonder if it should wake you up. "Dark inhibits the brain's biological clock," says Dr. Yan-Go. It tells your brain it's time to sleep.

10. Pull on Socks. There's no solid explanation for it, but studies have found that wearing socks to bed helps you sleep. It may be that warming your feet and legs allows your internal body temperature to drop.

11. Ignore the clock. Turn your clock's face or digital readout away so you can't see it. We wake slightly throughout the night. A glimpse of your clock -- and the realization that you have to get up soon -- is enough to jolt you out of sleep and keep you out.

12. Sleep Naked. It's easier to adjust your comfort zone with sheets and blankets you can pull up or throw off rather than a long nightgown or a pair of fleece pajamas, says neurologist Charles J. Bae, M.D., a sleep specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center. The idea is to make the adjustment in a way that rouses you from sleep the least.

Orignal here

A Flowery Find That Left Us in the Dust

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

My brother Tyler and I sometimes play a game we call Liquor Store Archaeology. The aim is to make a pith-helmeted visit to older, neglected liquor stores, the sort of family-owned shops that perhaps were once prosperous and now do business mainly in pint-size flasks or liters of cheap wine or beer by the can. Inside, we scour the dark bottom shelves and dank back corners of the place, looking for forgotten bottles of spirits that have been languishing, perhaps for decades.

More often than not, we indeed turn up something rare or just plain strange. Our finds span the world: caraway-flavored kummel from Germany, an Armenian brandy called Ararat, eaux de vie with all manner of fruit floating in them, a wasabi-flavored liqueur, even a honey liqueur bottled with a real honeycomb.

It has become rather competitive. I thought I had taken the lead with something called Panache, a sweet aperitif wine with a 1970s-looking label that was made by Domaine Chandon but now is impossible to find. Then Tyler countered with a wonderful liqueur from Sicily made from mandarin peels, called Mandarino del Castello, about which we can find no information.

I figured I'd won when I'd unearthed a bottle of Cordial Campari. Though made by the same company, Cordial Campari is not to be confused with the more famous Italian red aperitivo; Cordial Campari is a clear, sambuca-like after-dinner digestivo. I'd heard tales of Cordial Campari and seen it in a few old-man bars in Italy. But it has not been widely available in the United States, and my bottle is probably decades old. It may once have been valuable, but probably not anymore -- mainly because my friends and I broke into the bottle during the holidays, and it's now sitting half-empty in my cabinet.

So Tyler became the clear victor not too long ago when he turned up something called, somewhat disturbingly, Peanut Lolita, a thick, peanut-flavored liqueur that once was produced by Continental Distilling in Linfield, Pa. The logo and fonts on the label suggest the early 1960s, but according to what little research exists, Peanut Lolita was still around in the mid-1970s, when infamous presidential brother Billy Carter "often made drunken appearances" with the liqueur's spokesmodel, according to an essay by Christopher S. Kelley in "Life in the White House: A Social History of the First Family and the President's House" (SUNY Press, 2004).

We may now own the only two bottles of Peanut Lolita left in existence. Due to the liqueur's overwhelming whiskey-and-peanut taste and grainy texture -- not to mention its unfortunate name -- it is unlikely to make a comeback anytime soon. But Tyler has created a respectable drink with the stuff: He layers ice-cold Peanut Lolita and raspberry-flavored Chambord in a cordial glass and calls it a PB&J.

For a while, the holy grail of our archaeology has been Creme Yvette, a purple-colored, violet-and-vanilla-flavored liqueur originally made by Sheffield in Connecticut and then by Charles Jacquin et Cie in Philadelphia. Nearly all mid-century bartending guides suggest that Creme Yvette was part of any well-stocked bar, and it was essential in classic cocktails such as the Blue Moon. But in the 1960s, it disappeared.

Creme Yvette is a variation on the traditional creme de violette liqueurs found in Europe, and the closest Tyler and I had come to tasting it was when friends brought home versions from France (Benoit Violette Liqueur) and the Netherlands (Bols' Parfait Amour).

That is, until last summer, when I finally had a taste of real Creme Yvette in New Orleans at the Tales of the Cocktail conference during a session on rare and obscure spirits. Rob Cooper of Charles Jacquin generously served tastes to everyone who attended, poured from one of two bottles left in existence. To judge from the reaction of many of the cocktail geeks in the room, you'd think it was a life-altering experience. Cooper suggested that if he had anything to do with it, Creme Yvette would soon be back on the U.S. market.

One importer has beaten him to the punch. Eric Seed, who owns the Minnesota-based Haus Alpenz, has brought in a delicious creme de violette liqueur made by Austrian distillers Rothman & Winter. This creme de violette is more floral, with less vanilla, than the others I've tried.

It's not the first time Seed has unearthed some long-lost spirit. In Indonesia, he rediscovered Batavia Arrack, a spicy rum cousin that was a standard in pre-Prohibition punches. In the Austrian Alps, he found Zirbenz, a liqueur made from the fruit of the native stone pine. And from Barbados, he began importing falernum, a spirit that until now I've had to manufacture myself if I wanted any (see recipe here).

Though recently called "the Indiana Jones of lost spirits" by Food + Wine, Seed is actually more cerebral and mild-mannered than he is swashbuckling. His hunts often begin at the request of high-end bartending clients, including those at Central and Cork in D.C. When asked what motivates his quests, Seeds says simply, "The customers I sell to, they take a very dim view of vodka."

Original here

Daily caffeine 'protects brain'

The easy way to neutralise cholesterol?

Coffee may cut the risk of dementia by blocking the damage cholesterol can inflict on the body, research suggests.

The drink has already been linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer's Disease, and a study by a US team for the Journal of Neuroinflammation may explain why.

A vital barrier between the brain and the main blood supply of rabbits fed a fat-rich diet was protected in those given a caffeine supplement.

UK experts said it was the "best evidence yet" of coffee's benefits.

Caffeine is a safe and readily available drug and its ability to stabilise the blood brain barrier means it could have an important part to play in therapies against neurological disorders
Dr Jonathan Geiger
University of North Dakota

The "blood brain barrier" is a filter which protects the central nervous system from potentially harmful chemicals carried around in the rest of the bloodstream.

Other studies have shown that high levels of cholesterol in the blood can make this barrier "leaky".

Alzheimer's researchers suggest this makes the brain vulnerable to damage which can trigger or contribute to the condition.

The University of North Dakota study used the equivalent to just one daily cup of coffee in their experiments on rabbits.

After 12 weeks of a high-cholesterol diet, the blood brain barrier in those given caffeine was far more intact than in those given no caffeine.

'Safe drug'

"Caffeine appears to block several of the disruptive effects of cholesterol that make the blood-brain barrier leaky," said Dr Jonathan Geiger, who led the study.

"High levels of cholesterol are a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, perhaps by compromising the protective nature of the blood brain barrier.

"Caffeine is a safe and readily available drug and its ability to stabilise the blood brain barrier means it could have an important part to play in therapies against neurological disorders."

A spokesman for the Alzheimer's Disease Society said that the study shed "important light" on why previous research had showed benefits for drinking coffee.

"This is the best evidence yet that caffeine equivalent to one cup of coffee a day can help protect the brain against cholesterol.

"In addition to its effect on the vascular system, elevated cholesterol levels also cause problems with the blood brain barrier.

"This barrier, which protects the brain from toxins and infections, is less efficient prior to brain damage caused by Alzheimer's disease or strokes."

She called for more research into whether the same effect could be seen in humans.

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The world's most dangerous gang

The suburbs of the US are no longer the same as those immortalised in 1950s movies, with white families living in big houses and the father driving off to work in his Buick, past manicured lawns.

An alleged Mara Salvatrucha gang member in El Salvador
MS-13 gang members are often heavily tattooed

These days, it is more likely that English will not even be the first language you hear on the streets.

In Langley Park, Maryland, the kiosks sell Spanish-language newspapers; the supermarket shelves are stocked with tortillas and assorted black beans.

Mexican music plays in the background while the tannoy blares out announcements in Spanish.

Outside, groups of men hang out on the street corners and their Spanish is accented - Nicaraguan, Honduran and, most often, Salvadoran.

They wait, hoping to be picked up for a day's labouring in the houses and gardens of Washington DC's middle class.

But among the hard-working families lurks a darker shadow.

Violent crime

Vicious street gangs, committed to violence, have spread throughout the Americas and are now a significant threat in the US.

We visited Maria Hernandez in her apartment in Langley Park.

She welcomed us through her battered front door, which had been smashed by police in a dawn raid.

San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador
The groups spread to Central American states after being born in the US

They were looking for evidence connecting her son, Marvin, to an assault, where a man suffered brain damage after being hit on the head with a baseball bat.

Maria told us that Marvin had joined a gang after being picked on at school.

The police search warrant said Marvin was a member of MS-13.

MS-13 - or Mara Salvatrucha - is the biggest and fastest-growing of the Latin American street gangs.

In Maryland alone, MS-13 members are accused of being responsible for a long series of violent crimes including murder.

Favoured tactics include decapitation by machete.

MS-13 started life as a group of young immigrants on the streets of California in the 1980s.

After nearly a million Salvadorans fled their civil war for the US, many of them settled in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife.

In the 1990s, the "maras" spread to Central America after many of their leaders were deported from the United States.

Kill and control

Those countries, struggling to get back on their feet after years of devastating civil conflict, were a perfect setting in which gangs could proliferate.

There's evidence that the model of the gang is rape, kill, control. They're really about gaining control over other immigrants from their community
Rod J Rosenstein, US attorney for Maryland
Today, some estimates put up to 60,000 maras active in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and - according to the FBI - in more than 40 US states.

Rod J Rosenstein is Maryland's US Attorney.

His office is currently prosecuting a series of cases against MS-13. He told us the gang's motives are more about mayhem than money.

"There's evidence that the model of the gang is rape, kill, control," he said.

"They're really about gaining control over other immigrants from their community, intimidating people and asserting some degree of threat which enables them to control their neighbourhoods."

Rosenstein's prosecutors have moved on from charging individual gang members with discrete crimes.

Instead, they are now targeting MS-13 with federal racketeering laws - the same legislation used against the Mafia and other organised crime.

For this tactic to be successful, they must prove that MS-13 is indeed an organised network.

We attended court in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The prosecutors spent much of their time talking about gang meetings; about the clothes - blue and white for MS-13 - and the tattoos.

And, most damningly, an alleged firm link between gang leaders in El Salvador and their proteges in the US.

Murder by mobile

In June 2007, the then US Attorney-General, Alberto Gonzales held a press conference to announce charges against MS-13 leaders in El Salvador.

A police patrol in San Salvador
Police seem unable to crack the strength of the gangs

The indictment alleged that Saul Antonios Turcos Angel communicated with members of the "Teclas Locos Salvatruchos" clique in Maryland via mobile phone and ordered them to commit two murders.

Later that day gang members in Maryland killed two people and wounded a juvenile.

The links between the countries are clear.

The court in Greenbelt was shown a home video made by the gang in a Salvadoran prison.

In it, maras send greetings to their "homies" in Maryland and other parts of the US.

They talk of killing and controlling others and display their full-body tattoos in a show of allegiance to MS-13.

Mindful of these trans-national links, the FBI last year made the decision to open an office in El Salvador.

Aaron Escorza heads the FBI's National Gang Task Force. He told us the gangs move freely around the region.

"They don't recognise borders. They commit crimes in El Salvador, flee El Salvador to come to the US and you have MS-ers who are committing crimes in the US and fleeing down to El Salvador to evade arrest."

Hard fist

But once in El Salvador, the challenge to authorities is immense.

Entire swathes of the capital are virtually under the control of MS-13 and its rival, Mara 18.

Local police patrol warily, tending when possible to avoid those parts of the city.

The region's homicide rates are among the highest in the world - 58 per 100,000 of population in El Salvador.

The past decade has seen politicians rise to power on the back of promises to declare war against the gangs.

The "Mano Dura" - or Hard Fist - policy introduced by Honduras at the start of the decade was closely followed by "Super Mano Dura" in El Salvador.

The legislation meant police could round up gang members at will, throwing young men in prison for any suspicious behaviour, including associating with likely gang members or sporting tattoos.

The result was thousands of gang members in prison.

But courts were not able to process such numbers and many lingered in prison without charge.

The prisons themselves have become strongholds of the gangs, many of them controlled by the Maras themselves, the authorities guard only from the outside.

The "Mano Dura" policies are now largely discredited.

On patrol in San Salvador, the police told us the laws had been counter-productive, driving the gangs underground and leading to more clever tactics from the likes of MS-13.

They pointed out men who could be Maras, but who now wear long t-shirts to cover their tattoos.

The graffiti that used to be ubiquitous, identifying each gang's territory, is no longer so obvious.

Mano Dura made the prisons into virtual headquarters for the gangs.

And the US deportation policy added to the problem, with the result that the gangs have become ever more organised and powerful.

Revolving door

Jose Miguel Cruz, of the University of Central America, who has studied the Maras for over a decade, says these approaches have led to a "revolving door" effect.

"MS-13 has spread across the US and is a major security problem in Central America. We haven't tried any more preventative measures."

He draws a comparison with Nicaragua. "They also are poor, they also have weak institutions."

If we can lock them away we will but if we can't, they should be deported
Julie Myers, US assistant secretary of state for homeland security

But Nicaragua has so far managed to avoid any large-scale gang problem. Why? "The police concentrate on more preventative measures," says Mr Cruz.

Former gang member Edgar Ramirez backed this up.

When he arrived back from the US, deported after a three-year prison sentence, he said there were no opportunities, no way back into normal society.

"I had tattoos so everyone treated me like a criminal," he tells us.

"And if you speak English, they know you're a deportee."

For now, US policy remains focused on law-enforcement.

The US Assistant Secretary of State for Homeland Security, Julie Myers, says it must remain the priority.

"If we can lock them away we will, but if we can't, they should be deported," she told us.

"We have to think about stopping young people going into gangs; but I believe the American public is safer when we remove these individuals from the streets of our communities and deport them wherever possible."

In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was fighting a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Central America, he promised to rebuild a new, better, El Salvador.

But after spending so much on the war, there was little appetite in Washington for the reconstruction project.

Two decades later, the US is reaping the consequences. And in Central America, a region still struggling with poverty and crime, MS-13 has thrived.

Law enforcement alone does not seem to be enough to contain it.

The Most Dangerous Gang in the World for the Assignment programme was broadcast by the World Service. Click here for the podcast.

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5th-grader finds mistake at Smithsonian

ALLEGAN, Mich. - Is fifth-grader Kenton Stufflebeam smarter than the Smithsonian? The 11-year-old boy, who lives in Allegan but attends Alamo Elementary School near Kalamazoo, went with his family during winter break to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Since it opened in 1981, millions of people have paraded past the museum's Tower of Time, a display involving prehistoric time. Not one visitor had reported anything amiss with the exhibit until Kenton noticed that a notation, in bold lettering, identified the Precambrian as an era.

Kenton knew that was wrong. His fifth-grade teacher, John Chapman, had nearly made the same mistake in a classroom earth-science lesson before catching himself.

"I knew Mr. Chapman wouldn't tell all these students" bad information, the boy told the Kalamazoo Gazette for a story published Wednesday.

So Kevin Stufflebeam took his son to the museum's information desk to report Kenton's concern on a comment form. Last week, the boy received a letter from the museum acknowledging that his observation was "spot on."

"The Precambrian is a dimensionless unit of time, which embraces all the time between the origin of Earth and the beginning of the Cambrian Period of geologic time," the letter says.

The solution to the problem would not involve advanced science but rather simply painting over the word "era," the note says.

"We did forward a copy of the comment and our paleobiology department's response to the head of the exhibits department," said Lorraine Ramsdell, educational technician for the museum.

While no previous visitors to the museum had brought up the error, it has long rankled the paleobiology department's staff, who noticed it even before the Tower of Time was erected 27 years ago, she said.

"The question is, why was it put up with that on it in the first place?" Ramsdell said.

Excited as he was to receive the correspondence from museum officials, he couldn't help but point out that it was addressed to Kenton Slufflebeam.

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