Sunday, June 15, 2008

Deadly fats: why are we still eating them?


The average sausage roll contains 10g of hydrogenated vegetable oil

They are the cosy, friendly foods that present us with a rosy image of our childhoods: Quality Street chocolates and Angel Delight dessert; Horlicks instant night-time drink and Knorr stock cubes.

As brands, they endure. Not quite as cutting edge as their more sophisticated and modern supermarket-shelf counterparts, perhaps. And certainly not as healthy. Because the truth is that some of the leading comfort foods we remember from our youth are doing their very best to kill us.

The culprit is one item, usually tucked away in tiny lettering on the ingredients label. It's called hydrogenated vegetable oil. It sounds harmless enough, but it is one of the most dangerous products ever to be mashed into the food we eat.

Food scares are, of course, nothing new, but hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) elevates health risk to a whole new level. Recent scientific research suggests that it may be responsible for an unknown, but certainly very large, number of heart attacks.

Clinical researchers have discovered that ingesting just two grams a day of HVO – the amount contained in just one doughnut fried in this type of fat – increases an individual's risk of heart disease by 23 per cent. This makes HVO much more dangerous to health than the saturated fats such as butter it often replaces. It distorts cholesterol levels, encourages obesity, causes inflammatory conditions, and can even be a cause of infertility.

Yet, despite the dangers, many major UK food producers continue to use it in everyday products. Brands that include it in their manufacture include Cadbury Heroes, some Nestlé and Mars confectionery, Batchelors Cup a Soups and even Haliborange Omega-3 Fish Oil capsules for children.

Nor is its use confined to retail food goods. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, or trans-fat, as it is sometimes called, is also widely used in bakery products, and by restaurants and takeaways, where it usually does not have to be labelled and declared as being present.

Given the risks, why do some of the country's leading food companies continue to lace their brands with this deadly ingredient? The answer is predictably simple: cost and convenience. Trans-fats were discovered back in 1903, when oil was boiled to more than 260C in the presence of a metal catalyst such as nickel. The result was that its molecular structure mutated, turning the oil into a hard, greasy, grey lard-like substance looking, as one observer described it, like "the skin of a corpse". The original purpose in making it was to create a cheap form of candle wax as an alternative to the more expensive tallow. That this wax could also be used in mass food production was a commercially sensational secondary discovery.

"Hydrogenated vegetable oil may look and sound disgusting, but in many ways, it's a food scientist's holy grail," explains the health writer and author Maggie Stanfield, whose recently published book, Trans-Fat: The Time Bomb in Your Food tells the full story of its acceptance by the food industry.

"It can be used as an alternative to butter – it's a lot cheaper, is taste-free, gives what the industry calls 'good consumer mouth feel', and lasts a long time. A very long time. An American TV programme recently featured a fairy cake made more than 25 years ago. It still looks perfect."

These days, far less harmful substitutes are readily available, and some UK food producers now take advantage of them. Others, though, persist in their use. And why shouldn't they? Trans-fats keep production costs down, and most consumers remain unaware of their dangers, believing, wrongly, that the real peril to their health lies in saturated fats such as palm oil and butter, which are actually far less harmful.

Given the weight of scientific evidence that has now built up against trans-fats, there is an overwhelming case for the Government to ban their use. This has already happened in Denmark, where legislation removing HVO from the food chain was introduced five years ago. Since then, the rate of heart disease among Danes has dropped by a staggering 40 per cent. The only European country to follow suit since then is Switzerland, which introduced a ban this April. Britain has no plans to take action, instead being content to leave the industry to get its own house in order.

Will it do so? There is little evidence of any enthusiasm for change. Legally in the UK, HVOs must be identified on ingredients labels, but to most shoppers it is just another meaningless name. There is nothing to indicate that it is hazardous to health. A voluntary deal was forged last year by major food retailers, but it only commits them to removing HVOs from own-label products. There is evidence that the deal is already being broken.

Professor Steen Stender, the Danish cardiologist who led the drive to ban trans-fats, says that voluntary codes never work. "Why should people need to know terms such as 'hydrogenated vegetable oil'? The EU must ban their use."

Having researched the topic thoroughly, Maggie Stanfield is convinced that the only safe amount of HVO we should be eating is no HVO at all. "When we eat trans-fats, our cells get confused. They identify the fat as unsaturated – it comes from vegetable oil, after all – but because of the industrial process involved, they can't handle the fat as they would a truly unsaturated one.

"Instead, HVO actually changes the cell structure, making the wall soft, and acts like a pincer, raising bad cholesterol on the one hand, lowering good on the other. So the gap is widened, making us more vulnerable to heart disease."

Stanfield believes that it suits the food industry to keep trans-fats a trade secret, doing little or nothing to flag them up. "They're hugely useful to the industry as they have a shelf-life of years, don't add unwanted flavour, don't need to be chilled, and are very cheap, unlike the natural alternative. A chip shop can deep fry in HVO for a month, for example, where vegetable oil must be changed every few days."

Given that there is conclusive evidence of the damage HVO does, Stanfield adds, an EU-wide ban is imperative. "What are we waiting for? Denmark has led the way, and the rest of Europe needs to get rid of these killer fats now."

Trans-Fat: The Time Bomb in Your Food by Maggie Stanfield is published by Souvenir Press, £8.99

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Retrain Your Brain

Give Your Brain a Boost

Can't remember where you put your glasses? Blanked on your new colleague's name? "Forgetting these types of things is a sign of how busy we are," says Zaldy S. Tan, MD, director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "When we're not paying good attention, the memories we form aren't very robust, and we have a problem retrieving the information later."

The key, says Harry Lorayne, author of Ageless Memory: Simple Secrets for Keeping Your Brain Young, is to get your brain in shape. "We exercise our bodies, but what good is that great body if you don't have the mental capabilities to go with it?" Sure, you could write everything down, keep organized lists and leave electronic notes on your BlackBerry, cell phone or PDA. But when you don't have access to those aids, or if you want to strengthen your brain, try these expert-recommended strategies to help you remember.

Brain Freeze #1
"What the heck is his name?"

• Pay attention. When you're introduced to someone, really listen to the person's name. Then, to get a better grasp, picture the spelling. Ask, "Is that Kathy with a K or a C?" Make a remark about the name to help lock it in ("Oh, Carpenter -- that was my childhood best friend's last name"), and use the name a few times during the conversation and when you say goodbye.

• Visualize the name. For hard-to-remember monikers (Bentavegna, Wobbekind), make the name meaningful. For Bentavegna, maybe you think of a bent weather vane. Picture it. Then look at the person, choose an outstanding feature (bushy eyebrows, green eyes) and tie the name to the face. If Mr. Bentavegna has a big nose, picture a bent weather vane instead of his nose. The sillier the image, the better.

• Create memorable associations. Picture Joe Everett standing atop Mount Everest. If you want to remember that Erin Curtis is the CEO of an architectural firm, imagine her curtsying in front of a large building, suggests Gini Graham Scott, PhD, author of 30 Days to a More Powerful Memory.

• Cheat a little. Supplement these tips with some more concrete actions. When you get a business card, after the meeting, jot down a few notes on the back of the card ("red glasses, lives in Springfield, went to my alma mater") to help you out when you need a reminder.

Brain Freeze #2
"Where in the world did I leave my glasses?"

• Give a play-by-play. Pay attention to what you're doing as you place your glasses on the end table. Remind yourself, "I'm putting my keys in my coat pocket," so you have a clear memory of doing it, says Scott.

• Make it a habit. Put a small basket on a side table. Train yourself to put your keys, glasses, cell phone or any other object you frequently use (or misplace) in the basket -- every time.

More Brain Freeze Tips

Brain Freeze #3
"What else was I supposed to do today?"

• Start a ritual. To remind yourself of a chore (write a thank-you note, go to the dry cleaner), give yourself an unusual physical reminder. You expect to see your bills on your desk, so leaving them there won't necessarily remind you to pay them. But place a shoe or a piece of fruit on the stack of bills, and later, when you spot the out-of-place object, you'll remember to take care of them, says Carol Vorderman, author of Super Brain: 101 Easy Ways to a More Agile Mind.

• Sing it. To remember a small group of items (a grocery list, phone number, list of names, to-do list), adapt it to a well-known song, says Vorderman. Try "peanut butter, milk and eggs" to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "Happy Birthday" or even nursery rhymes.

• Try mnemonic devices. Many of us learned "ROY G BIV" to remember the colors of the rainbow, or "Every Good Boy Deserves Favors" to learn musical notes. Make up your own device to memorize names (Suzanne's kids are Adam, Patrick and Elizabeth, or "APE"), lists (milk, eggs, tomatoes, soda, or "METS") or computer commands (to shut down your PC, hit Control+Alt+Delete, or "CAD").

• Use your body. When you have no pen or paper and are making a mental grocery or to-do list, remember it according to major body parts, says Scott. Start at your feet and work your way up. So if you have to buy glue, cat food, broccoli, chicken, grapes and toothpaste, you might picture your foot stuck in glue, a cat on your knee looking for food, a stalk of broccoli sticking out of your pants pocket, a chicken pecking at your belly button, a bunch of grapes hanging from your chest and a toothbrush in your mouth.

• Go Roman. With the Roman room technique, you associate your grocery, to-do or party-invite list with the rooms of your house or the layout of your office, garden or route to work. Again, the zanier the association, the more likely you'll remember it, says Scott. Imagine apples hanging from the chandelier in your foyer, spilled cereal all over the living room couch, shampoo bubbles overflowing in the kitchen sink and cheese on your bedspread.

Brain Freeze #4
"What's my password for this website?"

• Shape your numbers. Assign a shape to each number: 0 looks like a ball or ring; 1 is a pen; 2 is a swan; 3 looks like handcuffs; 4 is a sailboat; 5, a pregnant woman; 6, a pipe; 7, a boomerang; 8, a snowman; and 9, a tennis racket. To remember your ATM PIN (4298, say), imagine yourself on a sailboat (4), when a swan (2) tries to attack you. You hit it with a tennis racket (9), and it turns into a snowman (8). Try forgetting that image!

• Rhyme it. Think of words that rhyme with the numbers 1 through 9 (knee for 3, wine for 9, etc.). Then create a story using the rhyming words: A nun (1) in heaven (7) banged her knee (3), and it became sore (4).

Brain Freeze #5

"The word is on the tip of my tongue."

• Practice your ABCs. Say you just can't remember the name of that movie. Recite the alphabet (aloud or in your head). When you get to the letter R, it should trigger the name that's escaping you: Ratatouille. This trick works when taking tests too.

Brain Freeze #6
"I just can't memorize anything anymore!"

• Read it, type it, say it, hear it. To memorize a speech, toast or test material, read your notes, then type them into the computer. Next, read them aloud and tape-record them. Listen to the recording several times. As you work on memorizing, remember to turn off the TV, unplug your iPod and shut down your computer; you'll retain more.

• Use color. Give your notes some color with bolded headings and bulleted sections (it's easier to remember a red bullet than running text).

• Make a map. Imagine an intersection and mentally place a word, fact or number on each street corner.

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How America's Children Packed On the Pounds

In the 1950s, kids had three cups of milk for every cup of soda. Today that ratio is reversed, meaning they get all the calories and none of the nutrients.

Americans disagree about a lot of things, but we rarely quarrel when it comes to our food. For a nation built on grand democratic virtues, there is still nothing that defines us quite like our love of chow time.

We have plenty of reasons to fetishize our food—not the least being that we've always had so much of it. Settlers fleeing the privations of the Old World landed in the new one and found themselves on a fat, juicy center cut of continent, big enough to baste its coasts in two different oceans. The prairies ran so dark with buffalo, you could practically net them like cod; the waters swam so thick with cod, you could bag them like slow-moving buffalo. The soil was the kind of rich stuff in which you could bury a brick and grow a house, and the pioneers grew plenty—fruits and vegetables and grains and gourds and legumes and tubers, in a variety and abundance they'd never seen before.

With all that, was it any wonder that when we had a chance to establish our first national holiday, it was Thanksgiving—a feast that doesn't merely accompany a celebration but in effect is the celebration? Is it any wonder that what might be our most evocative patriotic song is America the Beautiful, in which an ideal like brotherhood doesn't even get mentioned until the second-to-last line, well after rhapsodic references to waves of grain and fruited plains? "We've defined an American version of what it means to succeed," says neuroscientist Randy Seeley, associate director of the Obesity Research Center at the University of Cincinnati Medical School. "And a big part of that is access to an environment in which there is a lot of food to be consumed."

The problem is, all those calories come at a price. Humans, like most animals, are hardwired not just to eat but to gorge, since living in the wild means never knowing when the next famine is going to strike. Best to load up on calories when you can—even if that famine never comes. "We're not only programmed to eat a lot," says Sharman Apt Russell, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History, "but to prefer foods that are high in calories." What's more, the better we got at producing food, the easier it became. If you're a settler, you eat a lot of buffalo in part because you need a lot of buffalo—at least after burning so many calories hunting and killing it. But what happens when eating requires no sweat equity at all, when the grocery store is always nearby and always full?

What happens is, you get fat, and that's precisely what we've done. In 1900 the average weight of a college-age male in the U.S. was 133 lb. (60 kg); the average woman was 122 lb. (55 kg). By 2000, men had plumped up to 166 lb. (75 kg) and women to 144 lb. (65 kg). And while the small increase in average height for men (women have remained the same) accounts for a bit of that, our eating habits are clearly responsible for most. Over the past 20 years in particular, we've stuffed ourselves like pâté geese. In 1985 there were only eight states in which more than 10% of the adult population was obese—though the data collection then was admittedly spottier than it is now. By 2006, there were no states left in which the obesity rates were that low, and in 23 states, the number exceeded 25%. Even those figures don't tell the whole story, since they include only full-blown obesity. Overall, about two-thirds of all Americans weigh more than they should.

"Sit down on a bench in a park with a person on either side of you," says Penelope Slade-Royall, director of the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. "If you're not overweight, statistically speaking, both of the other people sitting with you are."

If there was any fire wall against the fattening of American adults, it was American kids. The quick metabolism and prodigious growth spurts of childhood make it a challenge just to keep up with all the calories you need, never mind exceed them. But even the most active kids could not hold out forever against the storm of food coming at them every day. In 1971 only 4% of 6-to-11-year-old kids were obese; by 2004, the figure had leaped to 18.8%. In the same period, the number rose from 6.1% to 17.4% in the 12-to-19-year-old group, and from 5% to 13.9% among kids ages just 2 to 5. And as with adults, that's just obesity. Include all overweight kids, and a whopping 32% of all American children now carry more pounds than they should. "There's no way to overestimate how scary numbers like this are," says Seeley.

Obese boys and girls are already starting to develop the illnesses of excess associated with people in their 40s and beyond: heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, gallstones, joint breakdown and even brain damage as fluid accumulation inside the skull leads to headaches, vision problems and possibly lower IQs. A staggering 90% of overweight kids already have at least one avoidable risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol or hypertension. Type 2 diabetes is now being diagnosed in teens as young as 15. Health experts warn that the current generation of children may be the first in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents'. "The more overweight you are, the worse all of these things will be for you," says acting U.S. Surgeon General Steven Galson. And, warns Seeley, the worse they are likely to stay: "When you're talking about morbidly obese kids, zero percent will grow up to be normal-weight adults."

It's hardly a secret how American children have come to this sickly pass. In the era of the 64-oz. soda, the 1,200-calorie burger and the 700-calorie Frappuccino, food companies now produce enough each day for every American to consume a belt-popping 3,800 calories per day, never mind that even an adult needs only 2,350 to survive. Not only are adults and kids alike consuming far more calories than they can possibly use, but they're also doing less and less with them. The transformation of American homes into high-def, Web-enabled, TiVo-equipped entertainment centers means that children who come home after a largely sedentary day at a school desk spend an average of three more sedentary hours in front of some kind of screen. Schools have contributed, with shrinking budgets causing more and more of them to slash physical-education programs. In 1991, only 42% of high school students participated in daily phys ed—already a troublingly low figure. Today that number is 25% or less.

Washington, too, is dropping the ball. Seven years ago, Congress allocated $125 million for a smart new health campaign dubbed Verb, aimed at getting preteen kids to become more active. Boldface names such as teen star Miley Cyrus and quarterback Donovan McNabb headlined public-service ads, and volunteers set up booths at public events. In the program's first year, up to 80% of kids polled were aware of the Verb message, and communities began sponsoring their own Verb-based activities. But that success could not survive congressional budget cuts, and the program's funding was steadily slashed. By 2007, funds were shut off altogether, and Verb was past tense.

The government insists that the decision was a fiscally prudent one and that local and state programs, like the widely publicized fitness initiatives launched by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or the less publicized INShape program begun in 2005 by Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, are a more efficient way to get the message out. "Obesity is not the kind of problem that is going to respond to just the flow of federal funds," says Galson. The fact is, however, that in the case of Verb, responding was precisely what it was doing—even if only a little.

In all of this, there are flickers of hope. In May, epidemiologists were thrilled when the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study of 8,165 children, which showed that for the first time in decades, the increase in U.S. childhood obesity had leveled off. It's not certain if the plateau is a sign that public-awareness programs and improved menus in many school cafeterias are producing results or merely that some kind of saturation point has been reached, with most kids genetically susceptible to gaining too much weight having done so. "Whether this is meaningful data, we don't know yet," says Seeley. "But anyone who wants to stick a flag in this and declare victory is just crazy."

Clearly, nobody is going that far. Victory may indeed come, but it will be only after a long, multifront war, one that, as the following stories in this Time special section show, is at last being joined. Parents are fighting it in the home as they learn how to make healthier meals available to their families, set better examples with their own food choices and manage the critical issues of self-esteem that can be so disabling for overweight kids. Policymakers are fighting it as they study the growing body of research showing how everything from income to race to education plays a role in how much kids weigh and as they craft local solutions to solve these local problems. Doctors are fighting it as they deal daily with the ills associated with childhood obesity and work to repair the damage that's been done. And perhaps most important, teachers, mentors and public role models are fighting it as they help kids navigate a culture that fosters fat but idealizes thin and as they teach them that what truly counts is getting themselves as fit as their body type and genes allow—and then loving that body no matter what.

Do all these things—and do them right—and the national obesity epidemic just might be brought under control before some kids struggling with their weight today even reach middle age. "If we got this way over the last 30 years," says Galson, "it's not going to take us centuries to get back. We could reverse things at the same speed or even faster." Americans will continue to love good food; the trick will be to learn to love good health even more.

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Schools, Facing Tight Budgets, Leave Gifted Programs Behind

Before her second birthday, Audrey Walker recognized sequences of five colors. When she was 6, her father, Michael, overheard her telling a little boy: ''No, no, no, Hunter, you don't understand. What you were seeing was a flashback.''

At school, Audrey quickly grew bored as the teacher drilled letters and syllables until her classmates caught on. She flourished, instead, in a once-a-week class for gifted and talented children where she could learn as fast as her nimble brain could take her.

But in September, Mountain Grove, a remote rural community in the Ozarks where nearly three in four students live in poverty, eliminated all of its programs for the district's 50 or so gifted children like Audrey, who is 8 now. Struggling with shrinking revenues and new federal mandates that focus on improving the test scores of the lowest-achieving pupils, Mountain Grove and many other school districts across the country have turned to cutting programs for their most promising students.

''Rural districts like us, we've been literally bleeding to death,'' said Gary Tyrrell, assistant superintendent of the Mountain Grove School District, which has 1,550 students. The formula for cutting back in hard times was straightforward, if painful, Mr. Tyrrell said: Satisfy federal and state requirements first. Then, ''Do as much as we can for the majority and work on down.''

Under that kind of a formula, programs for gifted and talented children have become especially vulnerable.

Unlike services for disabled children, programs for gifted children have no single federal agency to track them. A survey by the National Association for Gifted Children found that 22 states did not contribute toward the costs of programs for gifted children, and five other states spent less than $250,000.

Since that survey, released in 2002, the outlook for programs for the gifted has grown harsher. In Michigan, state aid for gifted students fell from more than $4 million a year to $250,000. Illinois, which was spending $19 million a year on programs for fast learners, eliminated state financing for them. New York was spending $14 million a year on education for the gifted but has now cut all money earmarked for gifted children, saying districts should pay for them out of block grants. Nearly one in four school districts in Connecticut have eliminated their programs for gifted students.

The new federal education law, known as No Child Left Behind, ''has almost taken gifted off the radar screen in terms of people being worried about that group of learners,'' said Joyce L. Vantassel-Baska, executive director of the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary.

''In a tight budget environment,'' Ms. Vantassel-Baska said, ''the decisions made about what gets dropped or not funded tend to disfavor the smaller programs.''

Missouri was reimbursing districts for 75 percent of the cost of educating gifted children but has reduced the contribution to 58 percent. In Mountain Grove, an aging base of voters rejected a proposed tax levy in February. Schools are now planning to cut seven teachers in the elementary grades, public financing of team sports and transportation service within the town's boundaries.

''There are some mandates that you must do from the feds and the state,'' Mr. Tyrrell said, citing programs for disabled children as an example. ''Those will be the last to go.''

No Child Left Behind is silent on the education of gifted children. Under the law, schools must test students annually in reading and math from third grade to eighth grade, and once in high school.

Schools receiving federal antipoverty money must show that more students each year are passing standardized tests or face expensive and progressively more severe consequences.

As long as students pass the exams, the federal law offers no rewards for raising the scores of high achievers, or punishment if their progress lags.

Eugene Hickok, acting deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education at the federal Education Department, called the closing of programs for highly intelligent children an unfortunate, ''unintended consequence'' of No Child Left Behind. ''Laws by definition are rather blunt instruments,'' Dr. Hickok said.

He said he did not believe that No Child Left Behind alone was responsible, adding that some districts blamed the law unfairly. ''It's running for cover to say we can't deal with your needs because our fundamental requirement is to serve these other kids,'' Dr. Hickok said.

He said the administration was not considering revising the law to protect programs for gifted children, calling such programs a matter of ''state and local control.''

The tough choices, in Mountain Grove and districts around the country, are fueling emotional debates about educational fairness and where districts should focus limited resources. Among some educators and parents, special consideration for gifted children appears to attract resentment, and here in Mountain Grove, the parents of gifted children, while concerned, seem reluctant to demand extra enrichment.

Bridget Williams, the principal of Mountain Grove Middle School, maintains that very bright children do not deserve specially tailored classes, especially when the district is focusing on bringing all children up to a minimum standard of competence.

''Are they more important than a special-ed kid?'' Ms. Williams asked in an interview with other administrators. Some teachers did not like to release their smartest students from regular classes, and one perennial dispute involved whether or not students who attended the classes for the gifted should have to make up homework from their regular classrooms.

Ms. Williams said it was not so much the education, but merely status, that gifted children lost when their program was cut in September. ''They lost the title,'' she said.

Others contend that cutting programs for such students threatens the nation's future by stunting the intellectual growth of the next generation of innovators. Not only do gifted children learn faster, but often they learn in a different way, experts say.

''Many of them will never, ever achieve their potential without some type of advanced learning opportunities and resources,'' said Joseph S. Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut. ''Equity goes both ways. It means we're going to accommodate the needs of students, whether they're struggling, average or above-average learners.''

Carolyn Groves, who taught gifted education here for seven years, fashioned creative projects intended to stretch the critical thinking of her students. One unit put ''Nursery Rhymes on Trial,'' while in another, middle-school students created the government of Utopia. ''Mind benders'' gave students systematic rules for deconstructing challenging mathematical questions.

''People say, 'These kids are smart. They're going to make it anyway,' '' Ms. Groves said. But experts say that gifted children can easily grow bored and alienated.

''These are the kids who are either going to turn out to be nuclear scientists or Unabombers,'' said Ms. Groves, who now teaches high school remedial students at the vocational school. ''It all depends on which way they're led.''

Some parents of Mountain Grove's brightest children try to make up for the elimination of programs for the gifted. Mr. Walker and his wife, Marilyn, shuttle Audrey to dance and Spanish lessons. They encourage her interest in filmmaking by helping her develop ideas for movies she shoots on the family's video camera. Mr. Walker said he worried, though, about other promising children whose parents were too poor or overworked to offer their own children similar enrichment.

These days, Mr. Walker said, Audrey no longer enjoys school and frequently asks to stay home.

In small towns like Mountain Grove, Mr. Walker said, ''a tremendous amount of frustration can build up in these kids, because they're different, but they don't know why.'' When she participated in the classes for the gifted, Audrey felt less isolated for her bookishness and learned to manage frustration that used to crush her, when her efforts did not live up to her vision.

On a deeper level, Mr. Walker said he worried about the message Mountain Grove was sending to its most promising students. ''Yes, they may achieve great things,'' Mr. Walker said. ''But I don't think they'll achieve the greatest things that they're capable of. It's saying it's all right to aim for mediocrity.''

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Cars Hurt Most by $4 Gas

By Rick Newman

Call it the revenge of the little guys. With gas prices officially cresting $4--and running higher in many parts of the country--American drivers are finally downsizing in big numbers. Overall auto sales are down about 8 percent so far this year--but sales of large cars and trucks have plunged 23 percent, according to J.D. Power & Associates. There's no mystery behind the shift: Buyers clearly believe high gas prices are here to stay, and are desperate to cut their gas bills.
Among the cars piling up on dealer lots, here are some of the biggest losers:

Hummer. Sierra Clubers can go ahead and cheer: Hummer sales are down by 36 percent so far this year, the biggest drop among a single brand. Sales of the smallest Hummer--the H3, which averages about 15 mpg--have fallen even more than the brawnier H2, which gets a meager 10 mpg or so. Consider some painful Hummer math: With gas at $4, it costs about $120 to fill the tank of an H2, and then you can only go about 300 miles before forking over another $120. No wonder General Motors is considering offloading the whole division.

Nissan Titan. This pickup has never caught on like its American counterparts, and sales are off 45 percent for the year. But even the venerable American brands are hurting. Dodge Ram sales are off 27 percent; Chevy Silverado sales, 26 percent. Sales of the Ford F series, down a mere 19 percent, look healthy by comparison.

Jeep Commander. That thing got a Hemi? Better hope not. The big V-8 engine was a hit back when gas was $1.50, but sales of the Commander--city mileage with the optional Hemi: 13 mpg--have plummeted 48 percent so far this year. Other SUVs are in bad shape, too. Sales of virtually every midsize SUV have fallen by double digits, and there's now such a glut that some dealers won't even accept an SUV as a trade-in.

Chrysler. That deal to lock in $2.99 gas was supposed to move some metal in a tough market, yet Chrysler sales are down 19 percent for the year--with a 25 percent drop in May, when the $2.99 deal was supposed to be luring buyers. The hulking Chrysler 300, a huge hit that supposedly redefined American muscle when it debuted in 2004, now looks as passé as tail fins: Sales are down 31 percent.

Saturn. General Motors has revitalized this division's entire lineup, with enticing new right-size vehicles like the Outlook and Vue crossovers and the Aura sedan. But buyers aren't, well, buying it. Sales are down 20 percent.

Toyota Avalon. Yes, even Toyota is struggling in segments, and while the Avalon sedan is more spacious than the popular Camry, there's only one engine choice, a six-cylinder. That's one reason sales are off 33 percent, a lot more than slightly smaller sedans that come with a four-cylinder option. Sales of every other large four-door are down, too, as the family sedan shrinks. It was nice while it lasted.

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What does gay look like? Science keeps trying to figure that out

With body paint, Israeli men made their sexual orientation easy to see at the Gay Pride Parade on June 6 in Tel Aviv. But what about innate traits that might correlate with homosexuality? Finding and solidifying such links isn’t easy. Studies contradict each other, and some promising paths don’t pan out. But the result could be insight into biological origins of homosexuality.

Finding common biological traits -- things like hair growth patterns, penis size, family makeup -- might one day shed light on the origins of sexual orientation.

Last month, Sen. John McCain dropped by “Saturday Night Live,” drawing laughs from his promise, if elected president, to fight expensive federal projects -- such as, he spoofed, a Department of Defense device to "jam gaydar."

That was a joke. But some scientists are, in a way, working on gaydar, the supposed ability to discern whether a person is homosexual by reading subtle cues from their appearance. Just don't refer to it that way. The preferred term is "sexual orientation correlates."

These scientists are searching for innate traits that might not appear to be related to sexual orientation or even to standard clichés. So measuring a subject's shoe size is permissible; asking about ownership of Barbra Streisand albums would be cheating. Some inborn traits might be expected if homosexuality is -- as most scientists believe -- rooted in biology, and they might provide clues about the biological origins of sexual orientation.

Finding and solidifying these links isn't easy. Studies contradict each other, and some promising paths don't pan out. (A link between male homosexuality and finger lengths isn't holding up, and a claim that gays have distinctive fingerprint ridge patterns is largely discredited.) Scientists don't always agree on how to interpret the results, and more progress has been made with regard to men than to women.

* Big brothers. Study after study -- including one of 87,000 British men published last year -- has found that gay men have more older brothers than straight men do. Only big brothers count. Lesbians don't show such patterns.

The numbers: Each older brother will increase a man's chances of being gay by 33%, says Ray Blanchard of the University of Toronto, an expert on the "big-brother effect." That's not as dramatic as it might sound. A man's chance of being gay is pretty low to begin with -- perhaps as low as 2% (lowered from 10% by researchers in the early 1990s). So having one older brother ups the chance to only about 2.6%.

What it might mean: Psychological influences are probably not at work, because the pattern holds even for gay men who weren’t raised with their older brothers. Instead, the mother's womb might be key. After giving birth to a boy, her immune system might create antibodies to foreign, male proteins in her bloodstream. Subsequent sons in the womb could be exposed to these "anti-boy" antibodies, which might affect sexual development in the brain.

Accordingly, you'd expect the percentage of gay men in a society to vary depending on demographic differences in family size: One study calculated that a one-child-per-family law would reduce male homosexuality by about 29% from current levels.

* Left hand vs. right hand. The hand you use to sign your name might have something to do with what gender you are drawn to.

The numbers: More lefties -- or at least more somewhat-ambidextrous folks -- crop up in the gay population than among straight people, several studies have shown. An analysis of more than 23,000 men and women from North America and Europe in 2000 found that being non-right-handed seems to increase a man's chances of being gay by about 34%, and a woman's by about 90%.

What it might mean: One guess is that different-than-normal levels of testosterone in the womb -- widely theorized to play a role in determining eventual sexual orientation -- could nudge a fetus toward brain organization that favors left-handedness as well as same-sex attraction.

Another theory is that development of a fetus might be disturbed by factors such as a mother's illness, steering the fetus into being less than strictly right-handed -- and, in some cases, less than strictly heterosexual.

It's a politically sticky idea, says Qazi Rahman of Queen Mary-University of London. "It's essentially saying that homosexual preference . . . is some kind of biological error," he says. (It might tick off the left-handed folks too.)

* Hair whorl. How does your hair grow? This might reflect your sexual orientation.

The numbers: A 2004 study of nearly 500 men -- 272 on Delaware's Rehoboth Beach, popular with gay men, 200 on a beach without that reputation -- found that hair on the heads of men on the gay beach was 3.5 times more likely to grow in a counterclockwise direction. (Scalp hair typically resembles a clockwise-rotating typhoon.)

What it might mean: One theory is that a single gene might influence hair-whorl direction, left-right brain organization and, somehow, sexual orientation. Exactly how it would do all this, however, is anyone's guess.

The study, although intriguing, suffers from a lack of scientific rigor. The author walked around while on vacation, collecting hair-whorl observations on men from a discreet distance. He didn't know anyone's sexual orientation for sure, and didn't objectively examine any scalps up close. Rahman's group is attempting to replicate the results in the lab.

* Penis size. If exposure to testosterone in the womb influences sexual orientation, scientists reckon that straight and gay people would differ in body parts strongly affected by testosterone, such as the penis.

The numbers: Anthony Bogaert of Brock University in Ontario and his colleagues re-analyzed data on 5,000 gay and straight men from sexologist Alfred Kinsey's famous files, collected from the 1930s to the 1960s. The results, published in 1999, showed that gay men had longer, thicker penises than did straight men: on average, about 6.5 inches long and 4.95 inches around when erect, versus 6.1 inches long and 4.8 inches around for straight men.

What it might mean: Scientists don't really know. One guess is that gay men could have been exposed to an odd mix of hormones in the womb. Testosterone levels might peak early, causing enhanced penis growth, then drop off later in pregnancy -- leading to some feminine characteristics.

There's one catch: Kinsey asked his subjects to measure themselves at home and mail a postcard recording their dimensions. It is within the realm of imagination that not every man reported the perfect truth. If everyone lied, the essence of the results wouldn't change. It's a problem only if gay men were more factually creative than straight men.

Bogaert says that all the measures -- length and circumference, erect and flaccid -- seem to plausibly line up, which probably wouldn't be the case if the men had tacked on a vanity half-inch or so. Also, a smaller, 1960s study (in which a physician did the measuring) backs up the findings. As to whether gay or straight men are more likely to exaggerate about penis size, "It would be an interesting master's thesis project," Bogaert muses.

However, the next frontier in this kind of research seems to lie elsewhere -- with subtle differences in how gay and straight brains navigate new cities, respond to erotic movies and react to the scent of sweat and urine.

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Add some nostalgia to your digital photography

The "Emotoscope" by Kenichi Okada (a student in the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art) is a portable device that turns current digital photography and filmmaking into relics from the past. His device shoots video as if it were taken from a Super 8 film camera from the 1950s and 60s. The idea is to instill a sense of the past into today's often sterile photographic process. Check out the videos at the link below to get the full effect.

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Walking a little can go a long way

What if there was something simple you could do every day that would burn calories, be good for your heart, and help you stay young. You'd do it, right?

Researchers and doctors say walking cuts breast-cancer risks, protects your bones, helps you sleep, and more.

Well, that's why researchers and doctors are so gung ho about walking, especially in light of new research that credits it for everything from cutting breast-cancer risks to helping you sleep.

Walking is not just a weenie activity for the nonathletic, says Michelle Look, M.D., national medical consultant to the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk and a physician who specializes in sports medicine in San Diego, California: "It's good for just about anybody, and the health benefits are particularly significant for women." Here, eight reasons to start walking -- or just walk a little more often. Sneak more walking into your life

1. It's great for the heart

In a recent study conducted at Duke University Medical Center, researchers found that walking briskly for 30 minutes every day lowers your odds of developing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors linked to higher risks of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Roughly 24 million women in the United States have metabolic syndrome. Don't have time for a daily half-hour walk? Try multitasking: A British study found that active commuting (incorporating walking and cycling into your sedentary commute) is associated with an 11 percent reduction in heart-disease risk, especially among women.

2. It cuts breast-cancer risks

Walking, even for a few hours a week, significantly reduces breast-cancer risk, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The thinking is that walking helps reduce levels of body fat, a source of estrogen. The research looked at 74,000 postmenopausal women between the ages of 50 and 79. Those at a normal weight lowered their risk by 30 percent; those who were overweight, by 10 to 20 percent. Younger women may also gain similar benefits.

3. It helps you sleep

A brisk walk in the afternoon will help you get a better night's sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Experts say that walking may boost levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, which relaxes you. Or, the rise in body temperature brought on by walking may signal the brain to lower your temperature later, which promotes sleep. (Avoid a walk two hours before bed --that's too late to cool down.)

4. It cuts down on aches and pains

Walk the "Chi" (pronounced chee) way and you could have fewer achy days. Nine years ago, Danny Dreyer, an ultra-marathoner then living near San Francisco, California, invented ChiWalking, which incorporates ideas from Tai Chi, yoga, and Pilates. It looks like regular walking but, because you consciously relax, improve the alignment of your body, and involve arm movements, puts less stress on the legs while you walk. That means fewer aches. "ChiWalking can cut down any risk of injury," says Alice Peters Diffely, a ChiWalking instructor in Portland, Oregon. "Your whole body will feel better."

5. It makes you happy

Walking can relieve depression, anxiety, and stress. Just one 30-minute walk may make you feel better when you're down, University of Texas researchers found. Head out for 90 minutes five times a week and you'll get the biggest boost, according to a new study from Temple University. One possible explanation: Walking helps the body produce endorphins, the mood-boosting chemicals linked to "runner's high." Get the most out of your walk

6. It keeps you slimmer

Walking for 30 minutes a day can prevent weight gain in most people who are physically inactive, according to another Duke study. And researchers from Brown University and the University of Pittsburgh showed that women who walked for an hour five days a week and consumed 1,500 calories a day lost and kept off 25 pounds over the course of a year. The reason walking helps control your weight: It's easy! "The harder the exercise is, the less people will do it," says Johnny Benjamin, MD, chairman of the department of orthopedics at Indian River Medical Center in Vero Beach, Florida. How one woman lost 45 pounds by walking with friends

7. It staves off senior moments

Several studies in older people suggest that walking -- even for as little as 45 minutes a week -- helps ward off Alzheimer's disease. Regular strolls are also linked to mental sharpness in seniors. But regardless of your age, walking is likely to help keep your mind active, Benjamin says-particularly if you stroll with friends; walking while talking is a surefire brain booster.

8. It protects your bones

Just 30 minutes of walking three times a week does wonders to prevent and treat thinning bones. This kind of exercise, which uses 95 percent of your muscles, actually pushes your bones to get stronger so they can handle the load. "Walking," Look says, "is not just for cardio."

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Electric Car Less Than 3 Feet Wide

Now, we’ve seen plans for tiny fuel efficient cars, and even tiny electric cars, but this is a car I’d LOVE to try out as soon as it is a reality. I doubt it’d have a snowball’s chance here in America where, while we say we’re heading back to smaller cars, we still have a “size matters” complex. The itty bitty Lumeneo Smera is in the works – an electric car that drives like a motorcycle. It seats two passengers in the super slim 35.5 inch wide cab, and is about 8 feet long with trunk space.

While it has four wheels, it maneuvers like a motorcycle, tiliting around curves and corners, rather than turning wheels. On initially reading this I had visions of tip-overs and wipeouts, especially if you have a passenger – how are you supposed to shift your weight to get the car to “tilt” around turns? Well, apparently the car has that part under control. The car’s internal gadgets take into account the dynamic parameters of the car, the turning curves, the selected driving mode and the road quality, determining the optimal tilting angle and moving the cabin and four wheels for you so you can make turns without needing special training on how to drive the thing. Who knows – this might be the next generation of driving.

The wheels are powered by dual electric 20hp motors. Using Lithium technology, the battery takes a plug-in electric charge of 15kw to take you about 93 miles, but you only need 7kw to go as far as 62 miles miles. When considering this vehicle is likely to be used for busy city streets, and not open country roads, 93 miles is a good long way, making these potentially excellent delivery vehicles…for smaller packages. While you plug in to charge the battery, you also gain power by braking. Each braking action is transformed into energy by the alternator and is stored in the batteries.

The motors are designed to last about 124,000 miles, or about 10 years – so its right up there with our standard cars today. The cost is expected to be around $31,000 to $46,000. I can just see these taking over rush hour streets of busy European cities.

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Prototype Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid: 88 MPG on 85% Ethanol

First Flex-Fuel Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle

As part of a push by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to make plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) cost competitive with other cars by 2014, Ford has delivered a plug-in hybrid electric flex-fuel Escape to the DOE to join its test fleet of other PHEVs currently undergoing research and testing.

The vehicle is equipped with a 10 kilowatt lithium ion battery that can take it up to 30 miles at speeds under 40 mph before needing to fire up its fuel-fed hybrid-electric engine. After that, the hybrid-electric engine kicks in and can deliver a fuel economy of 88 mpg in the city and 50 mpg on the highway when using E85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline blend).

This means that for most people in the US, they would only have to use fuel in this vehicle once or twice a week with the rest of their driving needs covered by the battery.

According to Ford, this is the first ever flex-fuel PHEV capable of running on E85.

Ford claims that, based on current estimates, the Escape Flex-Fuel PHEV would emit 60% less carbon dioxide than a conventional gasoline powered vehicle. Ford also states that if cellulosic E85 fuel was used, that carbon dioxide reduction could be as high as 90%.

I’m assuming the “as high as 90%” reduction claim is based on the fact that cellulosic ethanol is typically derived from plant material and the growth of these feedstocks can represent an additional carbon sink — not that Ford thinks cellulosic ethanol provides lower carbon dioxide emissions compared to corn ethanol when combusted.

In addition to taking delivery of the Escape Flex-Fuel PHEV, DOE announced that $30 million will be made available over the next three years to fund PHEV demonstration and development projects with industry cooperation. The goal is to develop PHEVs that can be mass produced, compete effectively in the marketplace, and substantially reduce petroleum consumption.

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The Five Best Ways To Steal Gas...And One Really Bad Way

Come on, admit it. The last time you put $65 of gas into your Camry, the idea crossed your mind for at least a split second. Like any other commodity, it's easier to steal gas than it is to pay for it. So if you're looking for a way — totally for informational purposes, of course — here's five of the best — and one really bad way — to do it:

5. Siphoning Fuel From Someone Else's Tank

Pros: Being able to pick the location, secluded is best. The ability to directly target your enemies. Relatively simple and cheap.
Cons: No way to check how much fuel is in the tank before you decide to steal it. Applying suction by mouth may result in severe vomiting, recurring nightmares, cancer, addiction.
Instructions: Insert a small, stiff pipe into a vehicle's gas tank. Apply suction. When fuel starts to flow, place pipe exit below tank height and fill jerry can.

4. The Old Switcheroo

Pros: No special tools or knowledge needed (except a midget or small child).
Cons: Requires a relatively advanced level of grifting, limited time means you probably won't get away with a full tank. Risk of confrontation is high.
Instructions: Simply create a distraction while your assistant swaps someone's paid-for pump into your own tank.

3. RFID Hacking
Pros: Non-confrontational. Little physical effort required. Perfect for nerds.
Cons: Requires a high-level tech know-how. It's a felony offense. High up-front equipment cost.
Instructions: Many gas stations offer SpeedPass-style pay-by-RFID. Unlike RFID cloning a credit card, the encryption ciphers in these cards are vulnerable to a brute force attack. Crack the code and give yourself free gas for life.

2. Siphoning On An Industrial Scale

Pros: The economies of scale. Relatively stealthy. High profit margins.
Cons: Requires the possession and subsequent modification of a large trailer. Penalties are commiserate with the scale of the theft.
Instructions: Pull a trailer fitted with a trap door, a large tank and a pump over a gas station's underground reservoir. While you pretend to make repairs under the hood, have an assistant open the trailer's trap door, insert a pipe down into the reservoir and then pump out the gas.

1. Pump Hacking

Pros: The ability to fill up multiple vehicles. Very stealthy. Once learned, this is a skill with near universal applicability.
Cons: Requires specialist knowledge and tools.
Instructions: Details are murky, but it appears that fuel pump service tools are making their way into thieves' hands. Get your hands on such a device, the technical know how to use it, exploit the system.

-1. Drilling Gas Tanks

Pros: Any idiot with a drill can do it.
Cons: Spark, fire, death, destruction. Permanently damages another person's vehicle, and that's just wrong.
Instructions: Climb under car with drill, make hole, slide container under cascade of highly flammable liquid. Best to avoid open flames, static electricity, cell phones, electric drills.

*Note: Gasoline is most flammable as a vapor. By drilling a tank, you're removing a liquid while leaving behind vapor. Vapor will also permeate the area around the vehicle. Even if you manage to avoid setting yourself on fire, there's always a chance the car may blow up when the owner tries to start it. Killing people is bad.

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