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Sunday, November 23, 2008

‘Amtrak Joe’ No More

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

THE MAD DASH For years, Joseph R. Biden Jr. has commuted from Delaware to Washington.

By JULIE BOSMAN

NINE days after the election, in a motorcade zipping through the diagonal streets of downtown Washington, Jill Biden sat next to her husband, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., peering out the window and scoping out her soon-to-be home city.



Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

ROOM TO SPARE The official residence at the Naval Observatory.

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

HOME SWEET HOME A policeman standing guard outside Mr. Biden’s home in Delaware in August.

“What building is that?” she asked, pointing out an unfamiliar structure in Judiciary Square, recalled Ted Kaufman, Mr. Biden’s longtime adviser and close friend, who was in the car.

Her husband, the consummate Washington insider, was stumped. “Neither of us knew what it was,” Mr. Kaufman said.

Perhaps that’s because Mr. Biden, like his wife, has never lived in Washington, despite serving in the Senate for 36 years.

Not since Jacob K. Javits took near-daily flights back to New York City (mostly to please his wife, Marian, who refused to leave Manhattan) have a senator’s commuting habits been so carefully documented. But Mr. Biden’s nightly 90-minute Amtrak rides to Wilmington, Del., will grind to a halt in January, when he and Dr. Biden, an English professor, take up residence at No. 1 Observatory Circle, on the grounds of the United States Naval Observatory, the official home of vice presidents since 1974.

Mr. Biden will be the first vice president to move into the residence without previously living in Washington, said Donald Ritchie, a Senate historian.

For the Bidens, the move will bring a drastic change in habit. Mr. Biden, 66, will abandon his long-cherished routine that cemented his reputation as “Amtrak Joe,” an average guy who rushes to make the train home to spend time with his kids. Dr. Biden, 57, will almost certainly surrender her job at Delaware Technical and Community College.

In Delaware, they live in a 10-year-old lakeside home in the aptly named suburb of Greenville, outside Wilmington, a house that Mr. Biden personally designed.

In Washington, they will inhabit a 115-year-old Victorian with 33 rooms on a heavily guarded circular lot, next to the British Embassy.

The Bidens and their aides declined to discuss their plans or the question of whether Dr. Biden would find a new job in Washington. But friends and colleagues said that in all the decades Mr. Biden worked in Washington, he never had much of a social life there. He rarely stuck around for an evening fund-raiser or a cocktail party. He was not a regular at typical lawmaker haunts like the Capital Grille or Charlie Palmer, instead inviting people to the Senate dining room if he happened to be in town for dinner.

“I think he was far more interested in his children than the social whirl,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a longtime Biden friend. “I have to kid him a little bit, because he’s no longer going to be asking, ‘Are we going to finish this vote by 7:45?’ so he can make this mad dash to the train.”

Not that Mr. Biden will suddenly become a fixture at Washington dinner parties, predicted Mr. Leahy, who in his 34 years in the Senate has seen a few new administrations come to town. “Everybody loves to have the vice president over for dinner, and he’ll have 100 invitations piling up,” Mr. Leahy said. “But I think he can be very valuable to President Obama up on the Hill. That will be the most important place to be.”

Sally Quinn, the journalist and author, said that like the Obamas, who have spent little time in Washington, the Bidens will be social newcomers.

“I’ve never seen Joe Biden at a party in Washington,” Ms. Quinn said. “Both of those couples are going to be fresh faces, even though they’ve both been in the Senate and Biden’s been here for a hundred years. It’ll be very interesting to have them around.”

Mr. Kaufman, who has been a close Biden friend since the 1970s, said Mr. Biden was damaged politically by his absence on the social scene.

“He did not participate in it,” Mr. Kaufman said. “To be honest, it was a real hindrance, because when he ran for president in ’87, people didn’t know him. You could probably count on two hands the number of embassy functions he went to.”

That could change in January, if he and Dr. Biden make time to sample the city’s Italian restaurants (their favorite cuisine) or visit the National Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue instead of traveling to New York to see a show (their regular practice until now).

Or they could take in performances at the Kennedy Center, a place Mr. Biden was rarely spotted at when he was a senator, said John Dow, a spokesman for the Kennedy Center.

If the Bidens stay closer to home, they will be surrounded by familiar faces in their new neighborhood on Massachusetts Avenue in northwest Washington. Hunter Biden, one of Mr. Biden’s sons, lives a mile and a half from the Naval Observatory with his wife and their three daughters. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton lives around the corner in a five-bedroom brick Colonial on Whitehaven Street. They may also bring Mr. Biden’s 91-year-old mother, Jean, to live with them, as she does in Delaware.

Dr. Biden, who runs five miles a day, five days a week, will enjoy close proximity to the trails winding through Rock Creek Park, close to the Naval Observatory. (She will be closely trailed by athletic Secret Service agents.)

And the Bidens are expected to keep their home in Greenville, which Dr. Biden has said they will never sell. “In D.C., we’re so close that I would be lucky enough that we could take advantage of both places,” she recently told The News Journal, a Wilmington paper.

If Dr. Biden decides to continue working, she would be one of the few vice-presidential spouses to do so. Lynne Cheney is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and wrote several books during the Bush administration. Lady Bird Johnson supervised her Texas broadcasting company while her husband served as vice president. But most other second ladies have devoted themselves to volunteer work and ceremonial duties on behalf of their husbands.

If she chooses to work, Dr. Biden’s chosen profession is unlikely to raise any red flags. “It’s almost impossible for me to imagine what kind of conflict there could be with a teacher,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group.

An official at one Washington college said she hoped that Dr. Biden would come looking for a job there. “We would love it,” said Elizabeth Homan, a spokeswoman for Montgomery College, one of the largest community colleges in the Washington area. “I think it would be a really pleasant surprise.”

Officials at Amtrak, however, were less enthusiastic about losing their high-profile customer.

“We will miss having Senator Biden as a regular passenger,” said Karina Romero, an Amtrak spokeswoman.

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Rolle Wins Rhodes Scholarship

By PETE THAMEL

Florida State safety Myron Rolle was awarded a Rhodes scholarship Saturday. He is the first major-college football player of his generation to win what is considered the world’s most prestigious postgraduate academic scholarship.

He became the most prominent student-athlete to win the award since Bill Bradley at Princeton in 1965. Bradley was later a Knicks star, a senator and a presidential candidate. Other winners have included Pat Haden (U.S.C. and the Rams) and Tom McMillen (Maryland and the N.B.A. and Congress).

Rolle’s quest to the win the Rhodes had received heavy attention from the news media because he chose to risk missing all or part of Florida State’s pivotal game at Maryland on Saturday night to have the interview, which took place in Birmingham, Ala.

Rolle received the news about 5 p.m.; he then received a police escort to a local airport, where a private plane waited to take him to the game. He entered the game late in the second quarter of a 37-3 victory. “He is flying high,” Sally Karioth, a Florida State nursing professor who accompanied Rolle to his interview, said before the game. “He was hopping. He’s usually real sedate.”

Rolle was one of two winners selected from 13 finalists interviewed in Birmingham. Parker Goyer, a former player on the women’s tennis team at Duke, was the other winner.

Rolle is in his final football season at Florida State and now faces a difficult decision. He will have to choose between perhaps playing in the N.F.L. next year and studying at Oxford. His planned course of study would be a one-year master’s degree in medical anthropology; he plans to become a doctor and open a clinic to help needy people in the Bahamas. Rolle has said that if he wins the award, he will make a decision with his family when things settle down.

“I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if he heads off to Oxford in October,” Karioth said of Rolle. “He’s really an academic. There aren’t a lot of Renaissance kids out there. He really is.”

Rolle has long stood out at Florida State. He was the country’s top recruit, started as a freshman and has had an all-American-caliber junior year in 2008.

Along with graduating in two and a half years with a 3.75 grade point average in pre-med, Rolle was awarded a $4,000 grant to conduct cancer research and set up a program in Okeechobee, Fla., to teach Seminole Indian children about health and physical fitness.

“It’s a fantastic accomplishment on his part,” Garrett Johnson, a former Florida State shot-put champion and 2006 Rhodes winner, said in a telephone interview Saturday. “I always thought he was a deserving candidate, but I was a bit biased.”

Rolle’s victory is also considered a major boost for a Florida State athletic department that has been an academic punch line for the past year. A cheating scandal affected the eligibility of 60 athletes, resulting in three firings and a self-imposed probation. “Having two student-athletes win speaks very highly of the caliber of athlete we have at Florida State,” Johnson said. “We are representative of a vast majority of the student-athletes at Florida State. It’s great to project that on a national stage.”

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Why Detroit Can't Keep Up

By Bernard Avishai

It has become conventional wisdom that the reeling U.S. auto industry desperately needs to innovate. The hard part for Detroit is working out how.

There is hope, even for an entrenched, sprawling company such as General Motors. We don't need Michael Moore to imagine the misery that would be unleashed if GM were to go under. But before we spend more taxpayer money bailing anyone out, let's recognize that Detroit's worst failure is a recent one, not the long-gone blunder of betting that SUVs were the future.

The real problem is failing to stay competitive with global rivals in the realm of advanced principles of design and manufacturing -- principles that exploit global, peer-to-peer information platforms to increase the variety of smash hits a firm might produce. While Volkswagen, Toyota and Renault-Nissan have used these platforms to build flexibility and beauty into their product lines, positioning themselves for long-term profitability, GM and Ford have played catch-up on manufacturing "quality" -- in effect using the proceeds from SUV sales to fight the last war.

What's the next one? The key to making any manufactured product profitable these days is lowering the transactional costs of designing it. Look at Sony or Samsung or Apple or Honda. What these companies (really, groups of companies) have cultivated is the capacity to experiment. Product teams within each group design prototypes that will appeal to their niche customers. Company leaders then dump the likely losers, batting for singles and the odd home run. (Apple, remember, had no idea that the iPod would be a grand slam.) The point is, you don't want that much riding on each try. You want (if you'll pardon more sports metaphors) to transform your design-to-manufacturing paradigm from football to basketball -- that is, to set yourself up to rush the basket many times per game, not painfully drive your way toward the end zone just a few times.

Pulling this off in auto groups such as GM does not mean (except in special cases such as Chevrolet's much-hyped plug-in car, the Volt) a design program driven from the top. It means having product teams within every brand unit share data about customers, technical specifications on components, relationships with suppliers and so forth with their peers in every other unit. You want design and production managers in each unit to be able to gain access quickly to cutting-edge components developed throughout the group -- and find new ways to integrate them into new products. Notice how parts of today's Lexus migrate into tomorrow's Camry. This is not the same as such Detroit tactics as, say, repackaging the German-engineered Opel and calling it a Saturn.

Take Skoda, the Czech auto manufacturer (slogan: "Simply Clever"), which in 1991 became a part of the Volkswagen Group, the largest car manufacturer in Europe. Skoda is thriving today because its elegance-minded Bohemian designers have learned to exploit the access VW management has given them to virtually the entire spectrum of the conglomerate's components.

At first, Skoda also simply put a Czech skin around the German-engineered Golf. But today, the company creates original cars for low-end, low-tech markets whose boundaries are carefully negotiated with other VW Group members (it reportedly exports 80 percent of its vehicles to 92 countries). Skoda's former CEO, Detlef Wittig, told me that his firm's latest model, the adorable Roomster, would break even after selling only 60,000 units a year. He said that Skoda now accounts for about 20 percent of VW Group profits. (In case you're wondering: Yes, the Roomster may take some customers away from the VW brand, but the VW Group as a whole will be better off for it. And no, Skoda's competitive advantage is not cheap labor: Czech labor is no cheaper than South Korean.)

Skoda is a stirring example. But all global automotive groups need to decentralize their vehicle design this way: empowering interconnected product teams to integrate components, information, code and so forth. Innovation won't spring from a CEO mandate to invent something radically new. The goal should be to introduce new models in ever shorter development cycles (to be competitive these days, car makers have to roll them out in less than 36 months) and to break even on ever smaller production runs -- say, 50,000 vehicles, which is less than a third of the U.S. standard on genuinely new models. Sharing components means that suppliers will have to find new ways to achieve economies of scale and plant managers will have to learn assembly operations from one another. Would Ford be in crisis today if its designers worldwide had had access years ago to Volvo and Mazda engineering and parts?

Innovation is mainly a matter of integration. These "modular" principles have been true for consumer electronics for years; car companies are simply getting up to speed. In fact, this set of principles applies to pretty much every high-tech product and every high-tech manufacturing process that produces a low-tech product. It applies to delivering professional and financial services. Peer-to-peer networks have changed the rules. Nobody is as smart as everybody.

Washington cannot save GM and Ford by handing them money and waiting for them to produce (or even demanding that they produce) an advanced hybrid. You can't order up innovation; you have to empower entrepreneurial teams to assemble delight, piece by piece, for specific customers. The Volt will need to be a part of a family of cars for GM to succeed. The Volt's key power-train components should quickly be absorbed into an environment-friendly Saab, for instance, or into some California-style sports car built around an iPhone. Even the coolest of these models will face stiff competition from global rivals, so they had better be made right.

Government -- or, more precisely, governments -- can help only if they grasp the way manufacturing companies work. The shakiest firms will need a tariff regime that permits an auto group to import components from the country where they are designed or most competitively produced. (The European Union's trade rules were a huge help in making it possible for Skoda to acquire components from VW Group companies, including the Spanish firm SEAT.) Federal and state governments should help jump-start a grid for electric cars, as Israel is doing. Most important, perhaps, Washington should move to stimulate innovation in entrepreneurial companies along the whole supply chain -- companies aspiring to provide new generations of components.

In particular, Washington should make patent protection harder to come by lest big companies become complacent and would-be competitors get stifled. In much the same way that the U.S. government is now taking stakes in banks that it's bailing out, it should also take stakes in car companies it invests in (remember, the German state of Lower Saxony still owns about 20 percent of Volkswagen).

Washington should also work with Detroit's management to make critical R&D programs (for batteries, fuel cells and so on) more transparent and less vulnerable to battles over intellectual property -- which would let university labs and freelance inventors join in the quest to innovate. Washington should encourage supplier companies to find new ways to share intellectual property, such as global ideas exchanges that apply something similar to copyright rules to unpatented technological innovations. And the United States should create incubators especially tailored for new auto suppliers and offer tax holidays for all new manufacturing businesses.

None of these actions will guarantee that U.S. car companies will use funds from a bailout to create cars that customers will actually want to buy. But think of these measures as the roads and bridges of a knowledge economy. If, after several years, U.S. auto companies don't improve, some of their key assets and manufacturing capacity could be sold to global firms such as Toyota (which is not exactly a Japanese company anymore). Such sales might reinvigorate these plants and suppliers, and they would keep their workers afloat. Of course, entirely new automakers may emerge from among innovative suppliers, as they have in the computer industry.

The question is not whether the U.S. auto industry faces extinction or whether GM is too big to fail. The question is how the healthy parts of Detroit's behemoths might survive into a new generation and in a changing business landscape. The time it takes to generate a new car, like the life span of a company, is only going to get shorter. During the 1980s and '90s, as Arie Lewin of Duke University discovered, it took about 13 years for a third of the Fortune 500 to be "selected out" -- to fail or be acquired by other firms. Today, it takes about four years.

The coming contraction need not spell disaster for Detroit. But we must understand that financial capital isn't the only kind that flows around the world or is managed and regulated. The same is true of intellectual capital -- the sheer capacity to turn learning into stuff. The good news is that the United States still has the world's largest proven reserves of intellectual capital. The bad news is that, unlike oil, the fact that we have it doesn't mean that others do not.

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$1 million holiday to beat credit crunch blues

By Andrew Alderson, Chief Reporter

The Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi: The perfect way to see off those credit crunch blues - the world's first $1 million dollar 'package' holiday.
The $1 million dollar break is advertised on the Emirates Palace website as a 'special offer' Photo: AFP/Getty

As one might expect with the £700,000 price tag, no luxury is spared for the two people arriving at the ultra-luxurious Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi for their "once in a lifetime" holiday.

The week-long break begins with a first-class flight from any destination in the world to the hotel, where the guests will stay in the 680 square metre Palace Suite. After that, luxury is heaped upon luxury for the next seven days.

Once the guests have arrived, they have a 24-hour private butler service, 24-access to a chauffeur-driver Maybach car and their suite is equipped with a 61-inch interactive plasma screen, large private balcony and personal laptops.

They can choose from 12 restaurants, including the Al Majilis Caviar Bar – which has its own resident harpist – whenever they want to eat.

The Palace Suite – their "home" for the week – is equipped with "three regal bedrooms", an elegant dining room and an entrance hall with gold and silver chandeliers. It is one of 92 suites at the 394-room hotel, built on an unspoilt stretch of coastline.

During their break, the guests will spend three separate days travelling on a private jet to different countries in the Middle East to experience exotic treats. The first excursion is to Iran, where guests will get the chance to create their own Persian carpet with the help of a leading local designer. Next comes a day trip to Jordan to visit the Dead Sea and an exclusive local spa.

But perhaps the highlight of the entire holiday is the visit to Bahrain for deep sea pearl diving. The pearls that are found on the day will then be hand designed with jewellery settings, which can be kept at the end of the week.

The hotel is a favourite stop-off for celebrities and politicians. President George W. Bush, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, are among those to have stayed at the hotel earlier this year, while actors Sir Ben Kingsley, Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve have all stayed there in the past two months.

Although the trips are the highlight of the $1 million holiday, the rest of the week is anything but dull: guests will go on a champagne sunset and desert island tour, a deep-sea fishing trip, make their own perfume and will enjoy a round of golf at the magnificent Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Work is probably going to be the last thing on the guests' minds while staying at the hotel – set in 200 acres with landscaped gardens – but visitors can also use the 1,100-seat auditorium and other facilities at the Conference and Banqueting Centre.

It is much more likely, however, that guests will head for the near mile-long hotel beach, one of the two giant swimming pools or the ultra-modern spa, gym and tennis courts.

The $1 million dollar break is advertised on the Emirates Palace website as a "special offer". The website says of the trip: "No expense is spared during the week. The stunning grandeur of one of the most expensive hotels ever built demands ultra-luxury offerings for its guests, including unrivalled facilities and incredible tailor made designer packages. The Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi, exceeds all expectations."

But has anyone yet booked the "once in a lifetime holiday" – or is the cost simply too prohibitive? A spokesman for the hotel said: "We can confirm that two people have booked the package [each for two people]. They are both Arabs but we cannot reveal their names."

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Designer Vaginas: Protesters Speak Out Against Labiaplasty

By Sally Chew

cosmetic-gynoplasty-vulva
Leonore Tiefer

Plastic surgery for your breasts? How passé. Whether you’re looking for better sex or hoping to look like a 25-year-old porn star, now you can get your vulva plumped and sculpted too. As demand for these once secret procedures has picked up, so have concerns about the safety of permanently rearranging sex organs for a beauty fad that may be fleeting.

Between 2005 and 2006, there was an increase of more than 20% in cosmetic gynoplasty. Alarmed at this trend, the New York–based group New View Campaign organized a demonstration this week outside the office of a cosmetic surgeon who performs the procedures. The group says doctors are preying on women’s “self-critical anguish” with untested techniques and Internet-fueled ideas about what’s normal.

“Say No to Designer Vaginas!” read a sign at the event, which included a protester dressed as a vulva before undergoing a labiaplasty (surgical reduction of the inner vaginal lips) and another who personified after. The number of labiaplasties in the U.K. apparently doubled from 2002–2007.

It’s hard to know how many women choose this surgery and regret it later, probably because it’s such a private thing and generally inspired by embarrassment. But the spirited discussion on this Australian website
shows the vacillating opinions about what is attractive and whether you should alter your body to achieve your ideal.

In September 2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued a statement “advising against” cosmetic genital surgery, saying that women who consider them “should be informed about the lack of data supporting the effectiveness of these procedures as well as their potential complications, including infection, altered sensation, dyspareunia (pain), adhesions, and scarring.”

Other sex-health professionals agree. Jennifer Bass, of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, told ABC News earlier this year: “This is a medical procedure, it is invasive, it involves inserting something into the vagina. It has never been tested, and it has never been approved by the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration].”

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Children 'risking liver disease'


Louise Rhymes describes how she lost her daughter to alcohol abuse

Excessive drinking by children and teenagers is storing up a time bomb of health problems, a charity has warned.

The British Liver Trust says it fears the amount children are drinking is rising, despite a slight dip in the numbers who are actually drinking.

This is putting them at risk of liver disease and liver cancer as they enter their 20s and 30s, the trust says.

The Department of Health said tackling harmful and binge drinking was a priority for the government.

The latest figures show 49 people in their 20s died in 2006 from alcohol-related liver failure - the highest number on record.

Jaundice

The figures, released by the Office of National Statistics, also showed 40% more young people aged between 25 and 29 died from liver disease in 2006 than in the previous year.

Doctors and health campaigners fear these figures could rise over the coming years as children drink more.

Until recently, cirrhosis of the liver, a condition brought on by long-term alcohol abuse, mainly affected older men.

But now doctors are seeing it in men and women in their 20s brought on by excessive drinking.

The week that she passed away, she had liver disease, kidney failure, a hole in her stomach... they told us there was nothing else they could do
Louise Rhymes, on her daughter Stacey

Professor Ian Gilmore of the Royal College of Physicians said: "We are sadly seeing young people in their 20s coming in with jaundice, with swollen bellies because their liver won't process liquids.

"These people didn't make a conscious decision to kill themselves."

Louise Rhymes, who lost her 24-year-old daughter to long-term alcohol abuse earlier this year, said Stacey had been drinking heavily since her teens.

"By the time she was 18, she was drinking every night, probably five litres. She would drink until she'd got none left.

"The week that she passed away, she had liver disease, kidney failure, a hole in her stomach where the alcohol had rotted her stomach. They told us there was nothing else they could do."

Imogen Shillito, the British Liver Trust's director of information and education, said she was worried about the amounts children were drinking.

"The burden on their developing bodies is even greater," she said.

"It means we are storing up a ticking time bomb for the future. As they grow up in their 20s and 30s they could be putting themselves at risk of really serious liver disease and liver cancer.

"This is the progression of the epidemic we and the medical profession have been predicting for several years.

"We continue to ignore the signs of developing liver disease in younger and younger people and earlier deaths are now reality."

She said the latest figures reinforced the charity's call for urgent work to improve early diagnosis and encourage prevention and a national framework to support the NHS.

The Department of Health said it was working to implement a comprehensive strategy to tackle harmful and binge drinking.

"Among other things, the strategy commits £10m for a new public information campaign, tougher enforcement for underage sales and more help for people who want to drink less," said a spokesman.


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Having a big brother 'cuts your chances of children'

By Daily Mail Reporter

An elder sibling can have a profound effect on your future life

An elder sibling can have a profound effect on your future life

Whether you idolise or resent him, there's no doubt a big brother can really shape your childhood.

But it seems an elder sibling's influence can have a much more profound effect in later life.

Researchers believe he can affect the fertility of a younger brother or sister - potentially reducing their chance of having a family of their own.

It is thought the phenomenon has its roots in the womb - and that the physical cost of carrying a boy may take so much out of a woman that the health of her next child suffers.

Sheffield University researchers made the link after looking at birth, marriage and death records of three generations in pre-industrial Finland.

Although the effects are small, their study clearly showed that having an older brother cut a sibling's chances of parenthood.

Those with an older sister had a 67 per cent chance of having children. Having an older brother cut

the odds to 62 per cent. Men and women with an older brother also had children later in life and had bigger gaps between births, the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour reports.

The researchers said it was significant that both men and women were affected by the presence of a big brother.

This meant the phenomenon had a biological basis and couldn't simply be explained away by cultural aspects - for instance, the eldest son being favoured over younger brothers as he stood to inherit the family business.

'The fact that men and women have a similarly reduced probability of reproducing when their elder sibling was male, suggests that the cost of being born after an elder brother may have consequences spread over a variety of physiological systems, affecting overall adult quality of both men and women,' the researchers wrote.

A previous study has shown that boys and girls with older brothers tend to be shorter as adults than those with older sisters.

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Taste Test: Pepsi White

By Josh Modell

Here at Taste Test Labs, we heartily regret missing the last two flavors of limited-edition Japanese Pepsi: "ice cucumber" and "blue Hawaii." Neither got very high marks from the world of Internet tasterati, but still—we'd like to know. And then there are the other Japanese Pepsi flavors from days gone by: Pepsi Gold (with ginger), Pepsi Red (spicy), and many more. Here's a dang Wikipedia page with all the craziness. Anyway, when we saw that Pepsi White was being released, we thought this would be as good a time as any to swear to you, dear readers, that we would never miss another—God and eBay willing.

cucumber

That said, we used eBay—always more reliable than God when we're looking for unusual snacks—to procure a couple of bottles of this fascinating new product. The bottle is delightfully cute (like everything in Japan! Just kidding, dude who thinks we don't take Japan seriously enough), with a white label and a bunch of little Pepsi logos swirling around. The word "white" is in silver, and the label proclaims "Pepsi & yogurt flavor." That's right, friends, Pepsi and yogurt, together at last. (And yes, we're aware of Calpis Soda, a.k.a. Calpico, but it doesn't have the word Pepsi in it.)

The liquid itself would qualify, I guess, as a "suspension." It looks cloudy, not quite mixed, though perhaps that's just some trick of the manufacturing process. There's something a little off-putting about the color, to be honest. And the name seems a little Jim Crow to me. But let's put it to the test—the Taste Test, that is.

The taste: Pretty damn not-bad, I have to say. No one spit it out in disgust, and given how strange it looks (we eat with our eyes first, remember), it had an uphill battle. That said, it doesn't taste anything like yogurt, which isn't too surprising considering it doesn't have any yogurt in it. (I'd provide the ingredients list, but it's in Japanese, and even our resident speaker couldn't accurately translate for us.) There's definitely a hint of lemon and a slight aroma of vanilla, which led more than one Taste Tester to declare that it reminded them of cream soda. (As a cream-soda aficionado, I disagree—it's nowhere near as sweet.)

There's also a very slight hint of baking-soda flavor, which led some to remark that it tastes medicine-y. Tasha found it incredibly sweet, but I actually had the opposite reaction: It seems almost tart to me. (Then again, I like Jones Cream Soda, which will screw up your face into a twisted pile of sweet.) There was little to no cola taste, which is surprising, since it's billed as "Pepsi & yogurt." (Unless in Japan, that translates to "no Pepsi and no yogurt.")

But overall—a new soda flavor that's isn't disgusting and isn't more of the same. And way better than Red Bull Simply Cola. Maybe someday the American PepsiCo will free itself from the bondage of boring flavors and introduce some of these wacky styles to this great land of ours. In the meantime, it's gonna be Coca-Cola Classic—red, white, and you.

cloudy

Office reactions:

• "It tastes kinda soapy."

• "It's kinda cream soda-ish, but not as sweet."

• "Do the Japanese realize they are being sold mislabeled cream soda?"

• "Ooh, it's weirdly sparkly as you pour it."

• "It smells like Slice or one of those fruity sodas. And initially it tastes exactly like that: a generic lemon-lime soda. But there's a strong secondary taste that's much harder to pin down."

• "I really can't get over the smell. I feel like I'm sticking my face in a scented candle every time I take a sip, and it's throwing me off."

• "The carbonation bubbles are iridescent! I think I like looking at this more than drinking it. It's the prettiest pop I've ever seen!"

• "Tastes like Crystal Pepsi plus white."

• "It starts off fine, but afterward, the distinct flavor of Maalox lingers in my mouth."

• "Usually we say everything tastes like cough medicine, but this actually tastes more like Pepto."

• "It tastes like when they sneak vitamins into food and drinks."

• "There's a disconcerting cloudiness to it."

• "Still, it's pretty sweet. I think America's ready for it."

• "It just has to be relabeled as something else... I'm not really getting the yogurt."

• "I think this is pretty refreshing and tasty. Maybe a little too sweet to drink a whole bottle of. I bet it isn't any sweeter than normal Coke or Pepsi, but because the flavor is so odd, we aren't inured to it like we are with stuff we drink all the time."

• "When you first taste it, you're like, 'Hey, this isn't bad at all, especially for a Pepsi product.' Then that aftertaste just hangs around saying 'Fuck you.'"

• "It tastes like the Big Boob Jellies. It tastes like white."

• "Not bad, but I don't think I'd want it again. And I immediately had two Tic-Tacs afterward to cleanse my palate."

• "Koski, what booze would this work with?" "I dunno, take your pick. It's too odd a flavor to think of an easy complementary booze option. It's going to overpower whatever you put in it. So vodka, I guess."

• "It wasn't unpleasant, but it's probably not the first thing I would reach for in the fridge."

• "It reminded me of Crystal Pepsi mixed with some sort of berry. 7-UP with a little less fizz—but more sugar."

• "Overall, it's not quite 'meh' but also not tasty. It might make a good complement to goldfish crackers, but I think I might get sick if I had a full glass/can."

• "Smells a little perfumey. Tastes nothing like yogurt, which I think is a good thing. I think it tastes like Sprite with a fruity twist, but I can't quite place the fruit. Decent."

• "Not as sour as actual yogurt, and definitely not as slimy. Put both in front of me, and I'd reach for this every time."

• "There's a Japanese dessert called nata de coco, jellied coconut water, which is similar in taste and appearance. We used to eat it with fruit salad."

• "Calpis Soda is another mass market beverage in Japan which is supposedly yogurt flavored. Pepsi White tastes like regular Pepsi and Calpis combined."

• "It's more like yogurt milk plus club soda. Slightly sweet, tangy, but a little chalky. I think it's pretty good, but it would probably not be a big seller in America."

• "It's not truly white like milk, it's a cloudy white. They should have named it Pepsi Fog or Pepsi Haze. I'd drink Pepsi Haze."

• "It smells and tastes a little like potpourri, so I can't imagine drinking it in a large volume."

• "It has a curiously faint taste, almost nonexistent. It's kind of like carbonated sugar water with a slightly yogurty aftertaste. It's surprisingly not bad, but it's not what I'd call good either."

Where to find it: eBay, or your local 7-Eleven, if you happen to live in Japan.

Original here

A High-Mileage Masterpiece

By LAWRENCE ULRICH

WHEREVER menfolk gathered for Thanksgiving, before the turkey and after exhausting discussion of that seventh-round draft pick from Clemson, the phrase “What kind of mileage does she get?” was a reliable conversation starter.

Heads would nod sagely, but until recently nobody cared a lot. In surveys of car shoppers, fuel economy often didn’t make the top 10 on the priority list.

So now, with interest in the Prius exceeding that in pickups, you know times have changed. While the recent dip in gas prices has some analysts worried about an S.U.V. sequel — Return to Guzzle Beach? — I suspect that most middle-class consumers aren’t ready to bet five years of car payments that a gallon of unleaded will stay around $2. Many won’t be betting on a new car at all.

That makes the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI a smart hedge play.

This diesel-powered sedan or wagon is frugal on the front end, starting at $22,640 with a six-speed manual transmission. A $1,300 alternative-fuel tax credit becomes a de facto rebate, cutting the base price to about $21,000.

The Jetta is frugal in the middle years, with a rating of 30 miles a gallon in town and 41 on the highway. The tiny two-seat Smart is the only nonhybrid car that can match the 41 m.p.g. rating.

But like many new clean diesels, which meet even California’s tough emissions rules, the Jetta scoffs at its sticker. Hoarding fuel like a mobile Scrooge, I averaged a remarkable 48 m.p.g. over more than 150 miles of freeway driving. That’s the best mileage of any American-market car I’ve tested — gas, diesel or hybrid. I never knew that driving a steady 60 m.p.h. could be so gratifying, and I vowed to try it more often.

Finally, the Jetta should be frugal on the back end. Diesel VWs have historically retained more value than gas-powered models. Diesel aficionados seek them out on the used-car market. Their engines are famously durable.

Among a wave of diesel cars and trucks — whose advanced emissions systems let them meet pollution rules in all 50 states -- the Jetta is the people’s choice, costing half as much as diesels from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The VW is also the current champion of diesel economy. And its 4-cylinder engine achieves impressively low emissions without the need to carry several gallons of liquid urea, which helps to cleanse the emissions of larger diesel cars and S.U.V.’s.

Like most new diesels, the Jetta combines a turbocharger and ultra-high-pressure fuel injectors to raise power and precisely tailor combustion, with up to five sprays of fuel for every big bang. Gone are the drawbacks of older diesels: there’s no smell, no smoke, no shake. With 140 horsepower and an impressive 236 pound-feet of torque, the TDI is barely louder at idle than a gasoline Jetta; it actually seems quieter on the road.

While the Jetta is officially a compact, in practical terms it bridges the gap between small and midsize models. The enormous trunk has more usable space than those of many bigger sedans. The back seat is spacious enough to handle three adults in a pinch, with a relatively broad and comfortable center perch.

The interior looks mildly Spartan, but in a German, Hugo Boss way that softens the blow. Handsome gauges and shapely, supportive seats are familiar VW items. All told, the Jetta feels more sophisticated and comfortable than the Toyota Prius.

With all the torque hunkered at low engine speeds, the diesel doesn’t rev to the sporty heights of gasoline Jettas. The suspension is mildly underdamped, meaning the TDI rides softly but seesaws briefly after absorbing high-speed dips. Standard 16-inch wheels and low-resistance tires save fuel, not time.

But compared with a docile Prius or Civic Hybrid, the Jetta is virtually a road warrior. The VW churns up all the passing power you’d want from 30, 50 or even 70 m.p.h. The steering is sporty and precise. Add a stiff suspension and sticky tires, and the TDI would be a credible Euro-style sport sedan, sacrificing perhaps 1 or 2 m.p.g.

The Jetta also brakes like a normal car. In contrast, applying a hybrid’s brakes — connected to regenerative systems that return energy to the battery — is like stepping into a tuna casserole.

The manual transmission is a bit easy to stall in first gear, but you can crawl in second with no need to hold the accelerator, making for less clutching and rowing in traffic. VW’s terrific dual-clutch automated manual transmission — which has been mimicked by Porsche, BMW and others — costs $1,100 extra and brings a 29/40 mileage rating.

In my week with the Jetta it became clear that the VW can indeed top 50 m.p.g. if you stay under 60 m.p.h. and treat the gas pedal as if there’s an egg under it.

After my long 48-m.p.g. run, I started over and switched personalities, transforming into a late-for-school Autobahn instructor. Never dipping below 75 m.p.h., flogging every curve, the Jetta still returned a reasonable 36 m.p.g. When I flowed with traffic at 65 to 70 m.p.h., and made no effort to goose the mileage, the VW posted 42 m.p.g. And in city driving, the Jetta hit 32 m.p.g, again topping its official rating.

The Jetta TDI can get close to 50 m.p.g., and sometimes more.

Yet my thrift was no match for Helen and John Taylor. In September, the Taylors, from Australia, drove a production Jetta TDI to a Guinness world record, averaging an incredible 58.8 m.p.g. for a 9,400-mile run through the 48 contiguous American states. The Taylors used just 11 tanks of fuel over 20 days, averaging 850 miles for each tank.

My test car had a garish hood decal proclaiming that achievement and the rear bumper advertised goodcleandieselfun.com.

More recognition came Thursday at the Los Angeles auto show, where Green Car Journal named the Jetta TDI the Green Car of the Year. Judges included prominent envionmentalists and auto enthusiasts including Jay Leno.

Drive a diesel for even a few weeks and you realize that the supposed scarcity of pumps is an urban myth. More than 40 percent of American stations dispense diesel, so if one doesn’t have it the next one usually does. All those semis and work-crew pickups are fueling up somewhere, right?

For now, the downer is the price: $2.95 a gallon on average compared with $2.05 for regular unleaded. The current price gap offsets most of the Jetta’s 10 m.p.g. advantage.

But diesel prices, which have been unusually volatile of late, may yet return to something closer to parity with gasoline. (For many years, diesel cost less.) Even with today’s high diesel prices, a TDI owner is likely to spend $50 to $150 a year less than someone with a gasoline Jetta (though perhaps $500 more than a Prius owner).

The TDI costs just $700 more than the gasoline model (including the federal tax credit). Just a month ago, the diesel engine would theoretically pay for itself in 1.5 years of driving. Today’s higher premium for diesel has stretched that payback period to some five to seven years.

Since hybrids are the golden child in the public’s mind, talking about diesels necessitates a head-to-head comparison. But I’ve always argued that diesels and hybrids aren’t a zero-sum game. It’s possible to extol diesel’s virtues without dismissing hybrid technology, and vice-versa.

In that vein, if your commute involves tearing your hair out in freeway gridlock, a Prius or Civic Hybrid will still beat the mileage of a comparable diesel car. Diesel fans, no matter what you say on your blog, your old soot-spewing Rabbit will not touch those hybrids’ 40-50 m.p.g. in low-speed traffic. The same goes if you live in an urban paradise and spend 20 minutes driving 20 blocks.

But if you cruise relatively unhindered through suburban hill and exurban dale, the modern diesel has the clear edge in both economy and entertainment value. Even in the city, the Jetta’s 30-plus m.p.g. is a quantum leap over a conventional gasoline car.

That makes the VW a real solution to real problems. The TDI is easy on money, fuel and the planet. It just needs Americans to give it a spin and a fair shake.

Original here

Crisis on Dealers' Row

The freeze
I recently walked down Northern Boulevard, the center of auto sales in the New York City borough of Queens. There I found varying degrees of fear, hope and anger among dealers whose livelihood depends on selling people cars. The problem is - no one's buying them.

"I used to be proud of this country," said one dealer, who did not wish to be identified by name. A recent immigrant, he now managed a small lot. "I used to shout wherever I went, all over the world, how great America is. The land of opportunity. You can achieve whatever you want. Now, look at all this."

His dealership was empty, not only of customers, but of staff. No one greeted me as I entered because the receptionist had already been laid off - so had most of the salespeople.

When I found the manager in a back office, he first said he couldn't help me. But then he talked for about a half hour about the poor state of his business. Sales have fallen 80% from last year. He used to have 20 sellers on staff; now he has five.

He talked about the independent used-car lots on Northern Boulevard that were shuttered and for sale. Real estate agents used to want $200,000 up front for a lot like that, he said. Now they're not moving at all.

The prospect of major auto manufacturers getting $25 billion from a government bailout struck him as a pathetic waste. "Why give that money to them?" he asked. "Give that to the people. Give it to us, the small-business people."

He blamed the banks, which had once financed the cars he sold, for causing the crash that now threatened to wipe him out. He said lenders recklessly gave auto loans to buyers who clearly weren't able, or willing, to pay their debts.

"I would say, 'Why in the world are you financing this guy!'" Now those same lenders won't write loans for the very few customers that do come through his doors.