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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

HIV has been in humans for 100 years, study says

NEW YORK: The AIDS virus has been circulating among people for about 100 years, decades longer than scientists had thought, a new study suggests.

Genetic analysis pushes the estimated origin of HIV back to between 1884 and 1924, with a more focused estimate at 1908.

Previously, scientists had estimated the origin at around 1930. AIDS was not recognized formally until 1981, when it got the attention of public health officials in the United States.

The new result is "not a monumental shift, but it means the virus was circulating under our radar even longer than we knew," said Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona, an author of the new work.

The results appear in the Thursday issue of the journal Nature. Researchers note that the newly calculated dates fall during the rise of cities in Africa, and they suggest urban development may have promoted the initial establishment and early spread of HIV.

Scientists say HIV descended from a chimpanzee virus that jumped to humans in Africa, probably when people butchered chimps. Many individuals were probably infected that way, but so few other people caught the virus that it failed to get a lasting foothold, researchers say.

But the growth of African cities may have changed that by putting many people close together and promoting prostitution, Worobey suggested. "Cities are kind of ideal for a virus like HIV," providing more chances for infected people to pass the virus to others, he said.

Perhaps a person infected with the AIDS virus in a rural area went to what is now Kinshasa, Congo, "and now you've got the spark arriving in the tinderbox," Worobey said.

Key to the new work was the discovery of an HIV sample that had been taken from a woman in Kinshasa in 1960. It was only the second such sample to be found from before 1976; the other was from 1959, also from Kinshasa.

Researchers took advantage of the fact that HIV mutates rapidly. So two strains from a common ancestor quickly become less and less alike in their genetic material over time. That allows scientists to "run the clock backward" by calculating how long it would take for various strains to become as different as they are observed to be. That would indicate when they both sprang from their most recent common ancestor.

The new work used genetic data from the two old HIV samples plus more than 100 modern samples to create a family tree going back to these samples' last common ancestor. Researchers got various answers under various approaches for when that ancestor virus appeared, but the 1884-1924 bracket is probably the most reliable, Worobey said.

The new work is "clearly an improvement" over the previous estimate of around 1930, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. His institute helped pay for the work.

Fauci described the advance as "a fine-tuning."

Experts say it is no surprise that HIV circulated in humans for about 70 years before being recognized. An infection usually takes years to produce obvious symptoms, a lag that can mask the role of the virus, and it would have infected relatively few Africans early in its spread, they said.

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We’ll Fill This Space, but First a Nap

Stan Honda/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Some large companies provide EnergyPods, leather recliners with hoods to block noise and light, to help employees take naps and return to work refreshed.

By LESLIE BERLIN

“WASTE not life,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, patron saint of American entrepreneurs. “In the grave will be sleeping enough.”

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Stan Honda/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Centuries later, the attitude toward sleep in America — and in American business, in particular — has scarcely changed. Corporate culture reveres the e-mail message sent at 3 a.m., the executive who rushes directly into a meeting from a red-eye flight. Bumper stickers offer an updated version of Franklin’s dictum: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“There is a cultural bias against sleep that sees it as akin to shutting down, or even to death,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has “gone to sleep” — it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas.

Steven P. Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, once defined creativity as “just connecting things.” Sleep assists the brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories, forging connections among them that increase the odds that a creative idea or insight will surface.

While traditional stories about sleep and creativity emphasize vivid dreams hastily transcribed upon waking, recent research highlights the importance of letting ideas marinate and percolate.

“Sleep makes a unique contribution,” explains Mark Jung-Beeman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies the neural bases of insight and creative cognition.

Some sort of incubation period, in which a person leaves an idea for a while, is crucial to creativity. During the incubation period, sleep may help the brain process a problem.

“When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are,” says Dr. Jung-Beeman, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology.

Another theory is that typical approaches to problem-solving may decay or weaken during sleep, enabling the brain to switch to more innovative alternatives. A classic switching story, recounted in “A Popular History of American Invention” in 1924, involves Elias Howe’s invention of the automated sewing machine: after much frustration with his original model, which used a needle with an eye in the middle, Howe dreamed that he was being attacked by painted warriors brandishing spears with holes in the sharp end. He patented a new design based on the dream spears; by the time the patent expired in 1867, he had earned more than $2 million in royalties.

Spear-wielding savages make for compelling stories, but creative insights directly induced by dreams are rare. In general, people are unaware of sleep’s effects on their performance.

Dr. Ellenbogen’s research at Harvard indicates that if an incubation period includes sleep, people are 33 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas, and yet, as he puts it, these performance enhancements exist “completely beneath the radar screen.”

In other words, people are more creative after sleep, but they don’t know it.

This lack of awareness makes it hard to identify specific aha! insights that have been prompted by sleep.

“It’s more that sleep brings a change of approach,” explains Mark Holmes, an art director at Pixar Animation Studios who worked on the film “Wall-E.” “You can get tunnel vision when you’re hammering away at a problem. You keep going down this same path, again and again, just tweaking, making incremental changes at best. ” He continues: “Sleep erases that. It resets you. You wake up and realize — wait a minute! — there is another way to do this.”

Business attitudes toward sleep may be starting to shift. Claire Stapleton, a spokeswoman for Google, says “grassroots” interest in sleep led to an on-campus talk by Sara C. Mednick a napping expert. Google also installed EnergyPods, leather recliners with egglike hoods that block noise and light, for employees to take naps at work.

Other companies that have installed EnergyPods include Cisco Systems and Procter & Gamble.

Vinayak Sudame, an engineer at the Research Triangle Park campus of Cisco, says he uses an EnergyPod to “shut my eyes and shut myself off for 10 or 15 minutes” when he is working on a problem or needs some quiet time. More than a walk or a coffee break, he says, this type of “total mental rest” helps him return to work with what he calls a “reorganized” perspective.

Alertness Solutions, a sleep consulting company in Cupertino, Calif., provided consultations and recommendations to a number of United States Olympic teams before the Beijing games and also works with corporate clients. Bob Agostino, vice president of operations at L. J. Aviation, in Latrobe, Pa., worked with Alertness Solutions at a previous employer and says that employees learned specific strategies to improve performance. These included when and how long to nap, how to determine the amount of sleep one needs, and how to recognize signs of fatigue and symptoms of sleep disorders.

Acting on this knowledge, Mr. Agostino says, “gives you an edge.”

In general, West Coast companies are more concerned about sleep issues than their East Coast counterparts, says Arshad Chowdhury, co-founder and chief executive of MetroNaps, which developed the EnergyPods.

“Particularly in New York, where financial services play such a big role, people are consistently sleep-deprived and consistently in denial,” he says.

Mr. Chowdhury — who says the idea for EnergyPods came to him in a nap — recalls a seminar in which one banker responded to a survey question with a note saying she knew she had no fatigue-related problems at work because the only time she fell asleep was when she sat still. Mr. Chowdhury laughs a bit ruefully: “Maybe we could have avoided the crisis we are in now if these people had just gotten proper sleep.”

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America's Best Burgers

by Kimberly Flynn

Even the fittest of the fit crave a good-quality burger every now and then. That's why we teamed up with the foodies behind the Zagat restaurant guides on this list of the country's best burgers. Consider it the ultimate burger lover's checklist.

1.) BURGER JOINT AT LE PARKER MERIDIEN
New York City — This is the place to get an old-school burger without the quirky toppings. All it takes is one bite of their smoky, slightly spicy burgers and you'll understand why these popular eats are one of the worst-kept secrets in town.

2.) IN-N-OUT BURGER
Los Angeles — The menu at this hot spot may appear simple, but that's because the best offerings are kept under wraps. Our suggestion: Order your burger "animal style" for a mustard-drenched patty served on a bun with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and grilled onions.

3.) JAK'S GRILL
Seattle — Famous for its half-pounders, Jak's seasons its burgers with onions, garlic, black pepper, a mixture of soy and Worcestershire sauces, red-chili paste, and brown mustard while they grill.

4.) JOE'S CABLE CAR
San Francisco — Hand-trimmed choice cuts of chuck steak and rib eye are ground daily in the Cable Car's on-site, open-air butcher shop—where first-time visitors can even try the meat before placing an order.

5.) KINCAID'S HAMBURGERS
Fort Worth, Texas — Kincaid's has been flipping the same classic burger for the past 40 years: a delicious half pound of beef topped with mustard, pickles, lettuce, tomato, and onion.

6.) MR. BARTLEY'S GOURMET BURGERS
Boston — The favorite dish at Mr. Bartley's is dubbed the Viagra Burger. And with its handmade seven-inch patty, blue-cheese dressing, bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes—plus a side of sweet-potato fries—it may be just as stimulating.

7.) PALENA CAFE
Washington, D.C. — Made with hamburger that's freshly ground in-house each day, the patty is topped with garlic mayo and a blend of truffles and Italian cheese, and it's served on a fluffy sesame-seed bun with pickles on the side.

8.) PETE MILLER'S SEAFOOD AND PRIME STEAK
Chicago — Pete's prides itself on serving burgers up any way you want them. Their most popular option: the Prime Burger, a giant one-pound slab of top-of-the-line beef topped with lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and grilled mushrooms.

9.) ROARING FORK
Scottsdale, Ariz. — Order up the Big-Ass Burger—12 ounces of ground beef marinated in green-chili sauce and then grilled and covered with bacon, Colby longhorn cheese, and a pile of caramelized onions.

10.) ROUGE
Philadelphia — Once you get tired of Philly's famous cheesesteaks, stop off at the Rouge for the house special: the "Rouge Burger," made with caramelized onions and Gruyere cheese on a brioche roll, with a side of crispy, homemade Belgium-style fries. Bon appetit.

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The Pizza and Ranch Dressing Rebellion

Photos by Robb Walsh

Romano’s on West Gray has outlawed dipping pizza in ranch dressing. The pizzeria’s owners, two cousins named Frank and Vinny, were born in Calabria, Italy. They spent 15 years working in New York pizzerias before coming to Texas. The cousins pride themselves on making one of the best New York-style pizzas in Houston.

Where Frank and Vinny come from, dipping pizza in ranch dressing is not done. “It's a crime against nature,” railed New York food writer Ed Levine, author of Pizza: Slice of Heaven, when I e-mailed him about the pizza/ranch combination.

But pizza dipped in ranch dressing is gaining ground in the rest of the country. The Washington Post credited inebriated college students with making the combination popular at a pizzeria in Georgetown. “Ranch Chicken Pizza,” a grilled chicken pizza covered with ranch dressing, was a special this summer at the Schlotzsky's sandwich chain. The pizza came with more ranch dressing for dipping.

Photos by Robb Walsh

“Pizza Hut franchises in the South began offering cups of ranch alongside their pies… Although dunking one's pizza in ranch dressing is a culinary act best described as arterial suicide,” wrote Brendan I. Koerner in a 2005 Slate article titled, “Ranch Dressing: Why Do Americans Love it So Much?” Koerner offered a genesis story for the dressing involving a Southern California ranch and recalled an episode of the Simpson’s when Homer uttered the immortal words “Bring me my ranch dressing hose” to a room full of harem girls.

From his tone, I suspected Koerner was a vegan who grew up eating granola in Boulder, so I sent him an e-mail and asked him if he liked ranch dressing. He turned out to be a nice guy from Los Angeles. He wrote back, “I'll confess to an affinity for ranch dressing, especially when drizzled on a nicely constructed club sandwich. I tried using it as a dipping sauce for pizza once, and almost didn't survive the experience. The phrase ‘fat bomb’ comes to mind.”

Obviously, Brendan I. Koerner hasn’t eaten Daniel Boulud’s foie gras-stuffed burger or Mario Batali’s cured pork fat, known as “lardo” in Italian. If he likes the flavor of ranch dressing but is worried about his arteries, why isn’t he dipping his pizza in Kraft Fat-Free Ranch Dressing? Probably because it’s not the fat content in ranch dressing that made it the object of his derision. It’s being accused of having the same culinary sensibility as Homer Simpson and the bubbas down South that really frightens him.

As a Texas food writer, I long ago made my peace with ranch dressing. In truth, I think it is unfairly maligned. After all, the main ingredient is buttermilk. I published a recipe for the stuff in the Texas Cowboy Cookbook, including a variation using yogurt instead of mayonnaise for those concerned about fat.

The origins of ranch dressing have been widely misrepresented. Brendan I. Koerner credits Steve and Gayle Henson, the couple who owned Hidden Valley Ranch, a dude ranch near Santa Barbara, California, with inventing the dressing. The Hensons started out selling spice packets that consumers mixed with buttermilk and mayonnaise, and their recipe was bought by Clorox in 1972 and marketed in a shelf stable formula.

In fact, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing is simply a brand name for buttermilk dressing, a Western favorite that may have had its origins in cowboy cooking. Cowboys acquired a taste for buttermilk because chuck wagon cooks had so little else to work with. West Texans didn’t come to love buttermilk pie because they didn’t like peach or apple. It was because there wasn’t any fruit to be had on the High Plains in the early 20th century. Vegetable oil was rare and expensive, but animal products were cheap, hence the popularity of buttermilk dressing.

Here’s a recipe that appeared in the San Antonio Light on November 3, 1937, long before Hidden Valley Ranch existed:

Buttermilk Dressing
One cup thick buttermilk
One-half cup fresh mayonnaise
Juice of half an onion
One-half teaspoon lemon juice
One-fourth teaspoon powdered mustard
One-eighth teaspoon white pepper
One-eighth teaspoon paprika

Method: Stir all ingredients into unbeaten buttermilk.

One West Texas chef told me that the modern buttermilk dressing binge started when restaurants began serving whipped low fat spreads instead of real butter. Cowboys craving butterfat responded by dunking their bread and biscuits in the buttermilk dressing instead of using the crappy spreads. And pretty soon they were dunking their chicken-fried steaks, onion rings, French fries, pizza and chicken wings in it too. Wherever the trend got started, it has taken hold of the condiment industry.

In 1992, ranch became the most popular dressing flavor in America. In Texas, we consume ungodly amounts of the stuff, both as a salad dressing and as a dip.

“Ranch is the new ketchup,” wrote fashion columnist Stephen MacMillan Moser in the Austin Chronicle. “I wouldn't be surprised if it turned up as a selection all its own on menus: Ranch: cup $1.99, bowl $3.99, pitcher $7.99. I'm shocked that we don't have Ranch-flavored ice cream.”

Photos by Robb Walsh

Personally, I have come to prefer ranch dressing over ketchup as a dip for onion rings. I had never dipped pizza in ranch dressing before I read the sign in Romano’s. But once it became the forbidden fruit, I found it irresistible. A search of my fridge during the writing of this article turned up a foil-wrapped slice of leftover pepperoni, Canadian bacon, black olive and green pepper pizza and a bottle of Whole Foods Organic Ranch Dressing.

So I did a taste test. And I concluded that the flavor was very similar to a slice of pizza that got some salad dressing on it. To Frank and Vinny, Ed Levine, Brendan I. Koerner, and all those who find the combo potentially lethal or otherwise abhorrent, I say: “Don’t have a cow, man.”

Robb Walsh

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Food Makers Want To Sell You Cheap Food For Big Profits

By Meg Marco

Gone are the days of pushing "premium" food offerings, says the Wall Street Journal— big food manufacturers like Kraft and Campbell are going to be pushing "cheap" foods like tomato soup and cheese singles — foods which are thought of as "easy on the wallet" but are still hugely profitable for the manufacturers.

From the WSJ:

But lower-priced "value" products can also have wide margins because they're cheaper to make. "Food companies will be careful to shift consumers to products that are still high margin," says Robert Moskow, an analyst with Credit Suisse. "Powdered Kool-Aid beverages are one of the most profitable food products in history."

Also Monday, the milk industry will begin running ads touting milk as a bargain. Financial guru Suze Orman will don the familiar milk mustache in a print ad that reads: "Even at today's prices, a glass of milk only costs about a quarter...." The ad is a big departure from prior "Got Milk" campaigns that focused on the nutritional value of milk.

The milk industry plans to spend just under $1 million on the Suze Orman ads.

The WSJ says the new campaigns indicative of a food industry that's afraid of consumers. Shoppers have been pinched by a 7.5% jump in food prices in the first 8 months of 2008, and have started buying generics. Oh, no!

If you're a member of the PTA, you can expect ConAgra to start giving you the hard sell on their cheap Banquet frozen dinners — they've hired "hundreds of mothers to provide money-saving tips and free product samples at PTA meetings and church groups across the country. The moms will be paid in Banquet product coupons, the company said."

Campbell will begin calling their soups, "the original dollar menu," stressing that you just have to add water, and Kool-Aid's new claims the product provides "more smiles per gallon" compared to soft drinks.

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Five Ways To Trick Yourself Into Eating Less

By Tina Peng



Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell UniversityFood and Brand Lab, has spent years studying the unconscious thought processes that lead to our sometimes unfortunate eating habits. Among his findings, published in "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think" (Bantam, 2007) we're bound to think food tastes better if it's described with more flowery adjectives; we eat less when it's warm; and if food is left in front of us, no matter how bad it tastes, there's a good chance we'll keep picking at it as long as we're just sitting there. But fear not, Wansink has also come up with some easy strategies to for us to trick ourselves into thinking we're eating more than we are.

1. Buy Smaller Plates: It's all about presentation: If you put the same amount of food on a smaller plate, it'll look like a bigger serving. Simply switching from a 12.5" plate to a 10.5" plate will make you unconsciously serve 20 percent less food. "A smaller plate suggests what's called a smaller consumption norm," Wansink said. "It suggests a smaller amount of food that's normal, typical and appropriate." A larger plate does the reverse; it suggests that a big portion is normal. Similarly, if you repackage jumbo boxes of cereal or spaghetti into smaller plastic containers or baggies, you'll cut down on the amount of food you pour onto the plate in the first place, according to Wansink.

2. Don't Clean Your Plate. For a Super Bowl party, Wansink and his graduate students laid out a spread of buffalo wings and let a crowd of hungry MBA students have at them. Throughout the night, they had waitresses occasionally clear the bones from some tables, but leave the other tables' remains alone. The students who were left sitting in front of a plate of bones could see exactly how may wings they'd consumed and that knowledge was reflected in how much they ended up eating. Those whose places were cleared ate seven wings throughout the night, while the students whose places weren't cleared, had five each. Wansink adds that readers have emailed him with tips they've come up with to combat this phenomenon. "If they're eating candy, like little candy bars, they'll keep the wrappers in front of them," he said. "If they're at a party, they'll keep caps of bottles in their pockets so they can remember how much they've had to drink."

3. No Bagging It: Eating straight out of a bag of snack food is dangerous because you don't get a sense of how much you're consuming. For example, Wansink's team gave two groups of adults half-pound and one-pound bags of M&Ms, then had them eat as much as they wanted while watching a video. The people holding the half-pound bags ate 71 M&Ms, on average; in the same amount of time, the people eating the pound bags ate 137 M&Ms, almost twice as much. So, to avoid mindless consumption, don't grab a bag of chips and settle in for your favorite show. Instead, serve all your snacks on a tray or in a bowl.

4. Watch out for Group Grazing. In general, if you eat with someone else instead of alone, you'll ingest 35 percent more than you normally would; if you have seven or more dining partners, you'll eat almost twice as much as you would alone. Why? "You pay less attention to what you're eating," Wansink said. "You're not monitoring how much you eat, compared to when you're eating by yourself. And you tend to sit a lot longer, and the longer you sit the more you tend to eat." When eating in a group, try to start eating last and pace yourself with the slowest eater--that'll ensure you ingest the least possible volume, Wansink counsels. And leave a little bit of food on your plate so you're not tempted to get another serving you don't really want.

5. Don't Trust Your Own Judgment: Most people dramatically underestimate how many calories they've consumed. And their assessments are particularly inaccurate when they think they're eating at a healthy restaurant. Wansink surveyed McDonald's and Subway customers to find that the Subway diners—who assumed they were eating at a healthier restaurant—didn't pay attention to calorie counts and packed on fatty extras such as mayonnaise, potato chips and cookies. As a result, they consumed a third more calories than they thought they had. The McDonald's diners had a more realistic assessment of their meal; they acknowledged that they hadn't chosen the most health-friendly lunchtime locale and only underestimated their calorie intake by 25 percent. Wansink, who calls this effect the "health halo," said its repercussions extend beyond lunchtime. "Later on, some people end up indulging with snacks and even a larger dinner, believing they did their body right [earlier]," he said. Wansink's tip: Double the number of calories you think you've eaten and you'll be much more accurate in your assessment of your intake.

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What makes an ideal woman?

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GILES COREN

Once upon a time, a man on the hunt for a wife would set great store by a woman who could cook. But things have changed. And to be honest, I’ll settle for a woman who can eat. A woman who doesn’t poke her food around the plate and hide things under her knife and claim to have a thousand intolerances and allergies. A woman who isn’t “off carbs”, “not drinking this year”, “toying with the macrobiotic thing” or made to “feel funny” by red wine. I don’t want to sound narrow-minded. If I truly love her, then I guess we could always work the food thing through. As long as she isn’t always “tired”. Men are either awake or asleep, but women are always “exhausted”. What the hell is that? If you’re tired, woman, go to bed.

Also, I want a woman who is prepared to admit that what she wants from a man is a big c*** and a lot of money. I am fed up with women always claiming that what they find most sexy is a sense of humour. Because it isn’t true. I know this because I am hilarious. Way more funny than most of the slack-arsed, car-obsessed, office wonk baldies you’ll meet in a wine bar on a Friday night, and yet I practically never get laid. If it were true that women are turned on by a man who makes them laugh, Woody Allen wouldn’t have had to marry his own daughter.

As for a woman with a sense of humour, that’s fine, as long as it simply means that she will laugh at my jokes. Most women only laugh at their own jokes. Shut up. If you say something funny, I’ll let you know. And don’t give me “career”. Only women have “careers”. Men have jobs, to get money, and if we could stop and have babies while someone else earned the loot, believe me, we would. We don’t need a “career” to feel validated. We don’t want to feel validated. We just want to feel boobs. As many as possible. And then, at the last minute, quickly have babies and then die.

ALEX JAMES

“Long-legged, expensive, bossy, messy wife required. GSOH not essential in the mornings, but must be able to climb trees and beat me at tennis sometimes.”

I’m not sure if that’s exactly what I would have written before I met her, but that’s what I got and she’s perfect for me. The moment I stop believing my wife is my ideal woman, I guess it’s over. No man can ever be sure whether he’s got a Linda or a Heather on his arm as the confetti falls, but I’m certain that nobody ever walks down the aisle with any sense of compromise. The whole absurdly wonderful, almost impossibly romantic thing about all marriages is that what you are saying to each other is: “You and me, we’re perfect.”

I suppose all men must conjure notions of their ideal partner. Mmmm, let’s see, I’ll take a big slice of Zeta-Jones with some Germaine Greer on top and the Abi Titmuss sauce — but these Frankenstein birds would never fly. Choosing a mate is not like buying a car or a house. Until she comes along, we have no idea what we really like: my imagination couldn’t hold a candle to the real thing. The best part of falling in love with Claire was discovering all the things I didn’t know I wanted or needed.

Of course, it’s not been all roses. There are whacking great thorns, but they’re a vital part of it, too. I think you’ve got to be able to surprise each other sometimes, without meaning to. Our daughter was born last week. Claire was pulling faces I’d never seen before and crushing my hand in hers. “Does anyone ever manage to do this without the swearwords?” I asked the midwife. Oh, yes, she said gently, through the torrent of obscenities. It struck me then that Claire, in her mind probably far from her best or most elegant, was incapable of not looking good, and even her swearing had a kind of grace to it.

I’d never seen Claire, or anyone, look so beautiful. Then I saw my daughter, and that’s a whole other story.

AA GILL

The most attractive attribute in a woman, the most melting, the most utterly winning, is gratitude. And the older you get, the more attractive it becomes. The nice thing for men who have been short-changed by Adonis, or fallen out of the ugly tree, is that gratitude is the one honest, decent and admirable emotion money can buy. And surprisingly, quite a small amount of money. You will find it in nature: I recently watched a David Attenborough programme about the bower bird. The male of the species spends all his time preparing the nest in an effort to attract a mate. Day after day, he will bring bauble after bauble — a tireless display of devotion to his future bird. But I saw it slightly differently. It’s not a virtuoso act of love. It’s more what women will do for a couple of bottle tops and an old Oyster card.

But, actually, this is the wrong question altogether. When Casanova was very, very old, and was asked how he had been the most successful seducer of women in the history of sex, he said it was because he loved women, and that there was, in every woman, something that was divinely beautiful, and his gift was that he alone had been able to see it in everyone, when so many other men couldn’t. I knew a man like that once, a white-van man I used to drink with in a pub. He was one of the most unattractive men: sweat-stained wife-beater, paunch, hairy back, a face that looked like it had been made out of melted tyres. He had a foul mouth and fouler breath, was utterly bereft of charm, but all anyone could talk about was how much and how often he got laid. I thought he was patently lying, but he insisted it was absolutely true. So I asked him why he got lucky so much. He said: “I drive round delivering things all day. I’ve got a mattress in the back.” That doesn’t make you any more attractive. “I drive slowly with the sliding door open. Every girl I pass, I say, ‘Do you want a shag?’ And every so often, one in a hundred says yes. It doesn’t take very long to ask a hundred. But that’s not the big deal. The big deal is when they say yes, you’ve got to.” Now that’s gratitude.

MATT RUDD

I’ll be honest, in five years of marriage, I quickly learnt to be too afraid to imagine the perfect woman. If I had even so much as looked off into the middle distance and begun to picture a half-Swedish, half-Japanese, permanently 25-year-old, 5ft 8in bisexual gymnast with a medium cup, a penchant for tastefully slutty cocktail dresses and an erotically feisty side that meant arguments about the Iraq war always deteriorated into sex rather than slammed doors, my wife would have known. Now that I have been asked, in a professional capacity, to reveal my views on female perfection, she says I have immunity. That is obviously a lie. A man trap. She will read this and I won’t be allowed to go to Tokyo or Stockholm or bisexual-gymnast meets ever again. So, obviously, my perfect woman is my wife.

But there are ways to improve on perfection. First, the perfect woman would show far greater tolerance of her perfect man’s habits. She would allow, for example, just off the top of my head, not that I have a list or anything, the following: sugar in tea; a healthy scepticism of yoga and/or arnica; at least one curry a week; nonorganic deodorant (ie stuff that works); and free rein in Blockbuster at least twice a year (free rein to include films with explosions in them).

Second, she’d intuitively understand and accept that she was the less accomplished driver. And map reader. And satnav operator.

Third, she would not make any conversation during Sky Cops, Street Wars, Road Wars, Cops on Camera, Cops with Cameras or, latterly, Caribbean Cops.

Fourth and finally, for we don’t want to be unreasonable about these things, she would hate having all the duvet. She would not sleep in a starfish shape. And she would always get the tea in the morning. With sugar in, but I think we have already covered that.

TOM STUBBS

Questing for the perfect woman is folly. A check list gets a man nowhere. Like buying property, you’ll never find all you desire: “I really like her: high ceilings, great amenities, but does she have a south-facing garden?” In my own case, foolishly harbouring a romantic ideal has left me marooned, like a cross between Carrie Bradshaw and Travis Bickle, but with more shoes, fewer guns, and the same chin-up routine.

But since you’re interested, here it is. Proficient deployment of glamorous high heels is essential — I call it altitude slickness. She’ll also require the knack of delivering the brushoff to unwanted, intrusive men. Some women have instinctive pest-control abilities, some don’t. My ideal girl also smells lovely and is excellent with profanities, emitting surprising and haphazard outbursts. Her cooking ability is immaterial, but she delights in her food. I’m needy-phobic, so her independence is crucial, as she runs a vigorous schedule of her own activities. We meet without unsavoury embroilment and enjoy jealousy-free satellite manoeuvring, once loyalty is pledged. It’s black and white for me, so no green eye from her. She’ll offer to pay her way; who actually pays is irrelevant, but willingness is critical. Her love of music reveals passion for life, while her dance moves will confirm this.

I’d consider a liaison with 70%, ono, of the above criteria satisfied. I guess you could also chuck in the poise of Rachael WW in Blade Runner, the chic of Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair and the impact of the girl on the Rio album cover by Duran Duran. What’s wrong with high aspiration? I’ll be saying that in the queue for my pension, pondering whether the striking open-plan reception with balcony and sought-after views was “the one”.

DOM JOLY

Let’s start with Béatrice Dalle from Betty Blue, but without the mental side. I fancied her when I was 16 — I thought she was gorgeous, exotic, and I liked the idea of having a French girlfriend. Then I once saw her interviewed and realised she was an absolute lunatic. I kind of like stability; I’m pretty all over the shop myself, so I like someone to balance it out. Now I’ve grown up, my ideal has got even more sensible, boring even, such as Jennifer Aniston.

I also have a thing about noses. My wife has a normal nose, but when she lined up pictures of all my exes, she pointed out that they all had prominent ones. I do like weird, strong noses. Not Jodie Marsh, obviously. Natascha McElhone has a wonderful nose, and I had a big crush on Laura Dern in Wild at Heart, but that went with Jurassic Park.

I am very disappointed that I have a crush on Sarah Palin — and I don’t think I’m alone. I loathe everything about her politically, but there’s something about her. It’s not the librarian bun and glasses, it’s just that I find women in power attractive, perhaps because they’re bright. I can’t stand women like Kate Moss. She is hideous, the exact example of a skank I would snog at Glastonbury and end up regretting. I think Agyness is gorgeous, but reminds me of the girls I fancied at 18.

Having a similar sense of humour is obviously a biggie, because if they don’t, the whole thing goes downhill. Sarcasm, cynicism, maybe a goth past — although I do tend to like sloaney girls, which feeds into the nose thing. My ideal woman used to be Patti Smith on the cover of Horses. She’s got that very cool, confident New York vibe, that no-bullshit stuff. All my life I’ve thought I’ve known what I was after, but I have never ended up with it — and what I have ended up with is a 5ft 2in Canadian blonde, who turns out to be ideal.

The ideal man? By Camilla Long

Under normal circumstances, my ideal man would be anyone who can make me laugh with his clothes on. That, or the entire Oxford Blues rugby team trapped under a net, ankles tied. Or . . . or . . . David Miliband. Either way, my ideal man changes every three minutes. I’ve got the romantic attention span of a trainee painter-decorator.

But then I was deployed to interview the most handsome man in the world (tough call that one). Bearded French male model Patrick Petitjean is a 6ft wonderwall of bristle, craggy Mount Rushmore cheekbones and (hopefully) some kind of torrid Gallic charisma. He has appeared endlessly as a handsome, hetero, aspirational male model in men’s magazines, headed up an H&M campaign and has single-handedly brought the beard back to the mainstream.

But that wasn’t all. “’E ’as the heart of an hartist,” cooed his agent in Paris. “’E lives in the mountains in the south of France, where he makes and sells furniture.” A hot, French, cave-dwelling furniture-maker? Jesus! As I steamed into Paris on Eurostar, my mind was already fast-forwarding. So I’d move to the south of France and live in a tree. He would be a model/carpenter/whatever and could be a lady novelist, and not at all unlike Brigitte Bardot. I quickly envisioned us, deux enfants down the line, happily unloading pains d’épices out of a (wooden) car at the Carrefour outside Lourdes. Never mind I couldn’t speak French beyond Tricolore Stage 3 and he could only speak with his . . . hands. It’d be the greatest love story ever.

Let’s just say I smelled the roll-ups round about Calais. The soul of an artist? The lungs of a nicotine-marinated haddock more like. And then there was the communication problem. Let’s just say my questions — “Où est la plage?”, “Le dernier train part à quelle heure?’, etc — didn’t inspire his “énergie”. Then, finally, goodness me, was that a twinkle in his eye? We crossed like ships in the night. Just as I cooled off, he warmed up. Another one bit the dust. Le sigh.

So, there you are: my ideal man is a man who lasts the course, or at least more than three minutes. And not someone French. My mother wouldn’t have tolerated it.

Original here