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February 27, 2006

They do things differently in Norway

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Mike Wise wrote yesterday in the Washington Post Sports section about an extraordinary thing that happened during the Torino Olympics women's cross–country skiing team sprint relay final back on February 14.

Long story short: When Canadian skier Sara Renner (below)

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broke her pole in the midst of the race, within 15 seconds someone in the watching crowd reached out and gave her a new one.

Turns out that someone was Bjornar Hakensmoen (top), the coach of the Norwegian team.

Cross–country skiiing happens to be the national sport of Norway.

Canada finished second in the race, taking the silver medal; Norway finished fourth.

Read relevant excerpts of Wise's piece below to better appreciate what we almost didn't know happened.

    Honorable Move Made In a Snap

    Sara Renner was skiing the cross-country race of her life when she looked down at her pole and saw it had snapped.

    She flailed and struggled uphill as the field passed her in seconds.

    And then something happened, maybe the most serendipitous, skin-tingling moment of the 20th Winter Games.

    Another pole.

    Out of nowhere.

    Given to her by a person she would call "my mystery man."

    Renner was back in the team sprint relay final, trying for her first medal in three Olympics, thanks to a stranger.

    The stranger turned out not to be Canadian.

    Bjornar Hakensmoen is the Norwegian cross-country coach.

    His skier had just passed Renner and was now in medal contention.

    He didn't think twice about helping a competitor.

    "Winning is not everything in sport," Hakensmoen said.

    "What win is that, if you achieve your goal but don't help somebody when you should have helped them?"

    Hakensmoen is genuinely surprised people even want to talk to him about his deed.

    "I was just helping a girl who was in big trouble. If you saw her, you would do the same."

    Amazing, no, an Olympic moment we never saw or may not have even heard about?

    Crass behavior, commercialism and gigantism are conspiring to do in the Winter Games.

    They keep getting bigger, less quaint, less about the athletes and their obstacles and more about the event.

    Like the Super Bowl, it is becoming more about saying you went, attending the parties, than experiencing the moment.

    Yet Hakensmoen proved there is still an abundance of human majesty at the Olympics.

    He was working his last Olympics as Norway's coach.

    Cross-country skiing is the country's national sport, and Hakensmoen wanted dearly to bring medals back to his homeland.

    But he did not think twice when he saw Renner.

    This is what sportsmen do in Norway.

    Your opponent is down by means other than their own doing and you help them rise.

    Even if it means losing a medal yourself.

    "They expect me to do such things," Hakensmoen said.

    Sara Renner learned she had Graves' disease after the 1998 Nagano Games.

    Her thyroid was removed, but she refused to let the affliction end her career.

    She competed again in Salt Lake City, never finishing better than eighth in any event.

    In 2003, she married Canadian Alpine skier Thomas Grandi after the couple and their guests skied across the Continental Divide for a ceremony in the Canadian Rockies.

    Healthy again.

    Married.

    All that was missing was an Olympic medal.

    In cross-country skiing, a snapped pole makes you a bird with a broken wing.

    The race is often over.

    Within seconds, she watched skiers from Finland, Sweden and Norway go by with Canada's medal hopes.

    "I didn't even have time to have an 'Oh, [no]!' moment, it was all so fast," said Renner, who took three or four wobbly strides before Hakensmoen appeared, pole in hand.

    Maybe 15 seconds had been lost.

    Replacing a pole for an opposing skier is not a freak occurrence in Nordic skiing.

    In 2002, Italian gold medalist Stefania Belmondo went from first to 10th in the 15-kilometer race when her pole broke.

    Courtesy of a French coach, who handed her a pole, she caught and passed all nine en route to a stirring victory.

    The courtesy is even more prevalent in Norway.

    "We talked about this as a group before the Games," Hakensmoen said.

    "Our policy is to help others when they need help."

    Even when it costs your nation a medal?

    "How can you be proud of a medal if you win when someone else's equipment is not working?" he said.

    "You have to help."

    The pole Hakensmoen gave Renner was seven inches longer than she was used to, but she recovered in the team sprint relay final.

    Canada was a scant 2.5 seconds out of the lead again.

    She and teammate Beckie Scott would go on to win the silver, collapsing into the snow like jubilant children afterward.

    The Norwegians finished fourth.

    Not one person in Norway has sent Hakensmoen an angry letter about costing his country a medal.

    Quite the opposite.

    Norwegians have applauded his sportsmanship, as have Canadians.

    A maple-sugar farmer in New Brunswick has mailed 800 liters of maple syrup to Norway.

    A hotel in Banff has offered a two-week stay, Hakensmoen said.

    Flowers and letters cover the front steps of the Norwegian Embassy in Ottawa.

    Wild, huh, a 36-year-old man, admittedly never a good enough skier to make the Norwegian national team, is today an Olympic hero in Canada?

    Hakensmoen feels uncomfortable about the attention.

    He sounds like a man who returned a lost wallet to its owner.

    "Why would anyone think of doing something different?" he said.

    "I think a lot of people are lining up to give me poles now," Renner said, laughing.

    "You could really do well with all those vacations and food."

    A couple of days after the event Renner walked into the wax room in Pragelato, where the technicians prepare the skis for competition.

    The room was empty, so she left an expensive bottle of Italian Barolo wine with a note that featured a little picture of an Italian chef. "Grazia," it read.

    Inside, Renner wrote, "Thank you for the pole."

    The race had been on Feb. 14.

    "He was my valentine," Renner said.

    She met him a few days later.

    "Thank you so much," she said.

    "No, thank you," Hakensmoen said.

    Sometimes you get so caught up in thinking too deeply and analytically about the Games that you forget to go outside in the sun, amid the mountains, snow and the authentic heroes.

    Sometimes you forget how a simple act of kindness and sportsmanship is what the Olympics were supposed to be about.

February 27, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

'Fully Loaded' Shotgun Chair

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Designed by Alexander Reh.

The bright brass tips of over 450 .12–gauge shotgun shells "create a massaging texture on the top of the chair."

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Talk about hacking and unintended use.

"I will give up my shotgun chair when you pry it from my cold, dead...."

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I wonder what the NRA's position is on this creation?

[via Takashi Yamada and Yanko Design]

February 27, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Girl Bling Tattoos — 'For the sophisticated lady who lacks the cash but wants the class'

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I couldn't have said it any better.

$4.95.

The men's version

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is also $4.95.

February 27, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

'Do not say anything or push any buttons! It takes awhile, but eventually a human comes on the line!'

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Those are your instructions should you call the AT&T Universal Card toll–free telephone number in the hope of speaking to a live person sometime this decade.

This information — and much, much more where that came from — is courtesy of gethuman.com, a website started by Paul M. English to enable you to bypass the infuriating automated interactive voice–response systems of companies who'd much rather not speak with you.

I wrote about English's original list on November 22, 2005, at which time he had 110 companies on his list.

Since that time word has gotten out and there's been a huge upsurge of interest and contributions such that the current cheat sheet numbers nearly 400 companies.

[via William C. Taylor and the New York Times]

February 27, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Bellydance Radio

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It's what everyone who's into bellydancing listens to and it's right here on your dial.

Now you're ready to learn that Bellydance Superstars, a group of elite dancers (below)

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who've been dubbed "Middle Eastern Riverdance" and who tour constantly throughout the U.S. and Canada, will be alighting — for two nights only — in the Washington, D.C. area this week.

They'll be at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia on Wednesday and Thursday, March 1 & 2, for 7:30 p.m. shows.

Tickets are $25.

The Birchmere is at 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue; tel: 703-549-7500 or 703-573-7328; www.birchmere.com.

Will The Hollies please call your office — the act you ordered has arrived.

Yes, I'm quite aware that you recorded it on August 17, 1966, nearly 40 years ago, but some things take time.

February 27, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Personal 50–Foot–Long Red Carpet

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What with the Oscars coming up on Sunday why not amaze and delight your friends when they come over to watch with you?

From the website:

    Nothing like a red carpet to make your guests feel like A-list celebs!

    Roll it out and snap paparazzi shots of friends twirling and sashaying.

    Whether you're hosting an awards show bash or a simple cocktail party, a red carpet gets everyone in the mood to mug.

    3 feet x 50 feet.

    Plastic.

$16.

February 27, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Does hunger make you smarter?

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A new report by Sabrina Diano and her colleagues from the Yale University School of Medicine appears to answer this question with a resounding "yes."

Their paper was published online on February 19 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Melissa Lee Phillips, writing in the daily online journal The Scientist, on February 20 deconstructed the striking new finding and put it into perspective.

The study focused on the recently discovered hormone ghrelin, which is released into the bloodstream by the stomach when empty and travels to the brain where it stimulates appetite.

Until now ghrelin's function in other areas of the brain has not been characterized.

The Yale scientists created a line of mice genetically engineered to lack the gene necessary to produce ghrelin: these mice were found to have 25% fewer connections in the hippocampus, the brain area involved in forming new memories.

The investigators then injected normal mice with extra ghrelin: they formed additional connections in their hippocampal regions.

When these enhanced mice were tested, they demonstrated improved learning and recall.

Here's Phillips's The Scientist story.

    Hunger hormone tied to learning

    Study shows ghrelin improves learning and memory, but some researchers remain unconvinced

    The neurohormone ghrelin, best known for its role in appetite and energy metabolism, also influences learning and memory, according to a new study in Nature Neuroscience.

    Specifically, Sabrina Diano of Yale University School of Medicine and her colleagues found that high levels of ghrelin in rodents can alter hippocampal morphology and improve performance on memory and learning tasks.

    This pattern may have provided an evolutionary advantage, the authors speculate, by boosting memory skills during food searches when animals are hungry.

    The study doesn’t prove that normal levels of circulating ghrelin control learning and memory, said Robert Steiner of the University of Washington in Seattle, but "it still is a pretty interesting concept" that ghrelin can modulate hippocampal function and memory performance.

    "It establishes a nice platform for further investigation, particularly in the pharmacological realm," added Steiner, who was not involved in the research.

    Ghrelin is released primarily from stomach epithelial cells when the stomach is empty and binds to receptors in several areas of the body.

    It stimulates the release of growth hormone and also acts at hypothalamic feeding centers to increase hunger.

    Ghrelin receptors have also been found in many brain areas outside the hypothalamus, Steiner said, including in the hippocampus.

    Previous work has pointed to a correlation between ghrelin and spatial memory tasks, said Yogendra Shrestha of the University of Georgia in Athens, but Diano and her co-workers have "gone into great detail" by examining changes in anatomy and electrophysiology.

    The researchers first confirmed that peripheral ghrelin crosses the blood-brain barrier and enters the hippocampal formation.

    They next found that the density of dendritic spine synapses in the hippocampus—a measure of synaptic plasticity that correlates with spatial memory and learning—was significantly higher in mice that were injected with ghrelin versus non-injected controls.

    Ghrelin knockout mice also had significantly fewer dendritic spines than did their wild-type littermates.

    When ghrelin knockouts were injected with ghrelin, however, their spine synapse density increased.

    The authors also found that ghrelin treatment increased long-term potentiation (LTP) in hippocampal slice preparations.

    Diano and her colleagues then tested the effects of ghrelin administration in several learning and memory tasks.

    First, injecting rats peripherally with ghrelin or a ghrelin-receptor agonist improved their performance on a maze task that depends on hippocampal function.

    Next, injecting ghrelin into the cerebral ventricles after training on an avoidance task improved task learning not only in wild-type mice but also in mice that display the pathological and cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

    Lastly, the authors found that ghrelin-knockout mice fare worse during object recognition tasks that employ the hippocampus, but improve after peripheral ghrelin administration.

    The results are "quite surprising," according to Michael Cowley of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, who didn’t participate in this study.

    Showing that learning improves with ghrelin supplementation even in wild-type animals suggests that, "in situations of fasting, you can get increases in this kind of performance in normal animals," Cowley said.

    Learning and memory may be enhanced by high levels of ghrelin during food deprivation because animals need increased cognitive skills to track down food sources, Diano told The Scientist.

    However, Steiner cautioned that the researchers injected a concentration of ghrelin that's several orders of magnitude above what would be found in the bloodstream, which means that normal fluctuations in ghrelin due to food deprivation may have nothing to do with learning or memory.

    Ghrelin is also produced in the brain, suggesting that differences seen in ghrelin knockouts may be due to disrupted ghrelin expression there, rather than in the stomach, Christian Broberger of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, also not a co-author, told The Scientist in an Email.

    It’s also a bit surprising that ghrelin would have positive effects on learning and memory, according to David E. Cummings of the University of Washington, because the hormone insulin has also been shown to improve learning and memory, and ghrelin and insulin usually have opposite effects.

    Even if ghrelin fluctuations do not normally influence memory, Steiner said, high doses of ghrelin or an analog could still make good candidates for treatment of age-related memory problems.

    "I’m more enthusiastic about the pharmacologic and pharmacotherapeutic implications of the study than I am about whether or not the physiological arguments that they developed are true."

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Note that in the online version of the story above, there are numerous direct links to other work in this area as well as an excellent list of references, also live–linked.

I have long behaved as if hunger enhances memory and learning.

I intentionally delay eating when I'm famished and have intellectual work to do, for several reasons:

1) I'm just contrary

2) The reward is always better the harder the path to it

3) It just seems to me that I can remember things better when I hear my stomach growling, and that I work faster and more efficiently with food as the carrot dangling out there on the end of the stick. Even if it's a giant zucchini.

4) As a more widely experienced corollary, many — if not most — people find they are less alert and more relaxed after a large meal.

[via Rob Stein and the Washington Post]

February 27, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Leather Fly Swatter

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Back in the day plastics wasn't even an eight–letter word, much less the one word Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock needed to remember as he began to make his way in the world.

No, leather was where it was at and some places it still is.

From the website:

    Leather Fly Swatter

    Put an end to pesky flies

    Here in Ohio farm country, we've got fly–swatting down to a fine art.

    Now you can be an expert, too.

    Tough hand–sewn head of tanned cowhide is almost 1/8" thick.

    The extra weight of the head plus the extended 15" wire handle combines for the extra killing power you need.

    20" long.

    Amish-made in Ohio.

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Clearly the Dalai Lama has not had a whole lot of influence in Ohio farm country, as yet.

$4.95.

February 27, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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