Monday, November 10, 2008

Audi RS6 gets stupid fast treatment

It seems Audi was getting tired of having sand kicked in its face by the 500 hp V10 BMW M5 and the 507 hp V8 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, so they slapped a couple of turbos on the Lamborghini-derived 5.0 L V10 in the S6 Avant, et voilĂ : 580 horsepower and 479 lb.-ft of thundering torque available from 1500 to 6250 rpm. In a wagon. Pure insanity.

For 2009, the sedan gets the RS6 treatment.

The Europe-only package is completed by dark-finish 19-inch alloys lurking within blistered bodywork, three-stage electronic damping, a six-speed paddle-shiftable auto-box, and Quattro all-wheel-drive with a 60 per cent rear bias.

Inside you'll find highly bolstered sport seats and a flat-bottomed steering wheel (all real suede in this tester that costs the equivalent of about $150,000) that signal things to come.

Press the start button on the console and the V10 barks to life and settles into a somewhat off-beat, flatulent idle. Not pretty but ominous as a pea-green sky.

Rumbling down the dirt road from Schloss Dyck Castle, the ride was firm but not harsh. Once on a straight stretch of tarmac, the hammer went down and the RS6 exploded towards the horizon. The blown V10 bellows like a moose in heat, the wastegates wuffle between shifts and your corneas come perilously close to meeting your retinas. On the autobahn, it was pulling with this ferocity at 225 km/h.

The RS6 does not drive like the lithe 420 hp V8 RS4. It's big, it's front heavy, the steering is a bit numb but it does have more grip than you'll ever use on public roads. Most of all, it's just stupid, laughably fast.

And they say the Germans don't have a sense of humour.

Friday, November 7, 2008

5 important tips to preserve your independence

We all hope to stay active and independent for the rest of our lives. And as we age, most of us want to stay in the familiar surroundings of our own homes and neighborhoods for as long as possible.

A 20-year nationwide survey of people ages 45 to 74 identified five health problems that substantially boost the risk of admission to a nursing home: smoking, inactivity, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Over time, these problems contribute to many chronic illnesses that can cause disability and death, including heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, and certain cancers.

What to do. Here are five things you can do to preserve your independence throughout life. Keep in mind that these changes interact and reinforce one another; the more you adopt, the greater the potential payoff:

  1. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about options for quitting. We all know that smoking is bad for health, but here’s a quick reminder of how bad: it’s harmful from before birth to the end of life, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease, osteoporosis, macular degeneration, and cataracts.
  2. Become more active. Just 30 minutes of brisk walking five days per week reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes; lowers blood sugar levels; decreases depression; and helps activate genes that clear fat and sugar from the bloodstream.
  3. Improve your diet through some simple changes. Add more servings of dark green, red, orange, or yellow vegetables or fruits to your daily intake, with a goal of reaching nine servings per day. And switch to healthier fats: skip trans fats, choose fewer saturated fats, and get more healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils and omega-3 fatty acids). Plant oils, nuts, and fish are all good sources.
  4. To get your blood pressure under control, exercise regularly, don’t smoke, and consider adopting a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products and low in red meats (and other sources of saturated fats), sweets, and sodium (salt). If improved diet and increased exercise alone don’t bring your blood pressure under control, prescription antihypertensive medications may help, as long as you take them consistently.
  5. Talk to your primary care provider about bone mineral density (BMD) testing. All women ages 65 and over should have their BMD tested. If you’re at high risk for osteoporosis, your clinician may recommend screening at an earlier age. Be sure to get adequate calcium (1,000 to 1,200 mg per day) and vitamin D (800 to 1,000 IU per day).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Preventing falls

Among older people, men are more likely to die from a fall, but women are more than twice as likely to suffer a fracture — especially a hip fracture, which often results in long-term impairment and nursing home admission.

If you’re concerned about falling, have your clinician assess your situation, prescribe a plan to put you on a safe track, and help set your mind at ease. To avoid falls, try some of these proven strategies:

  • Exercise. Weak muscles, poor balance, and limited flexibility due to arthritis often turn trips into falls. In one study, a fall-prevention program comprising strength training and balance exercises reduced falls and fall-related injuries by 35% in people ages 80 and over. Yoga or tai chi is also helpful.
  • Check your vision. Age-related vision changes also contribute to accidents and falls. Have regular eye exams, and keep your glasses or contacts up to date.
  • Review your medications. The body’s response to medication, prescription or over-the-counter, changes with age. Regularly review your medications with your clinician, and discuss the possibility of dropping or changing those that may be causing troublesome side effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, or impaired balance.
  • Remove home hazards. Improve your home’s lighting with higher wattage, fluorescent bulbs, or additional lamps. Night-lights or other nighttime lighting may also help. Coil loose electrical wires, and affix them safely along walls. Keep stairs and walkways uncluttered. Repair torn carpeting. Remove throw rugs or secure them with nonslip backing or double-sided tape. Rearrange kitchens and closets so that you can easily reach the items you use most often. Install handrails on stairways and landings, and put light switches at the top and bottom of stairways. Use nonslip strips or rubber mats in tubs or showers. Install grab bars in tubs or showers and near the toilet.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Magic missing in Criss Angel Cirque show

Not all marriages, alas, are made in heaven.

Despite the fact that both partners have great appeal on their own, the partnership of a Long Island Goth and a Montreal sophisticate that was unveiled at the Luxor Hotel on Halloween night is going to need a lot of work if it's to emerge as the successful union that everyone hoped for.

The show is called Criss Angel BeLIEve and it combines the wildly popular illusionist with the even more beloved Cirque du Soleil, marking the sixth show that Cirque has on display in Sin City, with the longest running one, Mystere, about to celebrate its 15th anniversary next month.

But ever since BeLIEve started previews in September and postponed its opening, the word on the Strip was that the show was in trouble.

A lot of changes have supposedly been made to it in the interim and what's finally onstage is certainly not a disgrace.

In fact, large sections of it work very well, redeeming Guy Laliberté's initial impulse to match up Criss Angel with Cirque. But there are problems still to be solved.

It all begins almost as if Angel was doing one of his typical shows, only in a Cirque setting. Then a near-death experience during one of the illusions sends Angel into a dark fantasyland, kind of like The Wizard of Oz with Alice Cooper replacing Judy Garland.

Surrealistic rabbits run rampant, Angel levitates and director Serge Denoncourt weaves visual magic within a world of lush red velvet drapes and spectral black presences.

By the time we reach a nightmarish wedding sequence where two sides of femininity fight for possession of Angel and he literally rips himself in half, it's all working in a way that fulfills whatever dreams you may have had for the show.

It's just that it takes a long while to get there.

Part of the trouble is that Angel loves to talk to his fans; it's part of his charm. But Cirque shows are usually wordless. This causes a curious disconnect off the very top that we never really recover from.

Angel is all openness, sharing his thoughts and feelings freely; Cirque is about leaving things opaque and making us stare with added intensity to discover their true nature.

This isn't to say that either party is really at fault here. Some of the illusions that Angel comes up with are indeed spectacular and they're given added resonance by being part of the ebony-hued fable that Cirque is spinning.

And a lot of the images Denoncourt has designed for the surrounding performers are breathtaking in their depth. It's just that they don't always go together.

Many of the newspaper critics have been unduly harsh to the show, almost as if they were taking out a personal vendetta against Angel for his past successes, or on Cirque for working with an established star. The public doesn't seem to care about that, however, and the advance sales are among the strongest in Cirque's Vegas history.

There is also a history of Cirque shows that stumbled when they first opened (like Zumanity) righting themselves after a few months in front of an audience.

One feels that will be the destiny of BeLIEve. Angel is too canny a showman and the Cirque team too skilful to leave something up that doesn't dazzle. My advice is to wait and let the Angel fans fill the theatre while the show works out its problems. Then go see it.When BeLIEve works, even now, it's impressive enough that you wait in anticipation for it to reach its final form.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Can Hoodia help you lose weight?

Hoodia is a succulent plant that grows in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, where the indigenous people (San) are said to chew the plant to help stave off hunger. The Hoodia species with purported appetite-suppressing properties is Hoodia gordonii. In the 1990s, researchers isolated an extract of the plant called P57, which is thought to stimulate feelings of satiety in the brain.

Phytopharm, an English biopharmaceutical company, was licensed in 1997 to develop P57. In collaboration with Unilever, it hopes to incorporate Hoodia as a food additive in meal replacement products pending clinical studies of its safety and effectiveness. So far, efforts to synthesize P57 on a large scale (an important step in developing an appetite-suppressant drug) haven’t panned out.

There’s no good evidence that the Hoodia products you mention are safe or effective weight-loss agents. Internet vendors often cite a trial showing that after two weeks, subjects taking Hoodia ate 1,000 fewer calories per day than those taking a placebo. But the study involved only 18 people, was never peer-reviewed or published, and was sponsored by Phytopharm. The only published study has been in rats, which consumed less food after P57 was injected into their brains (Brain Research, Sept. 10, 2004). Although that study shed some light on the extract’s activity (it affected neurons in the hypothalamus), the results clearly don’t apply to humans swallowing a pill or capsule.

Also, it’s uncertain what’s actually contained in Hoodia supplements, which aren’t regulated by the FDA. Experts say there aren’t enough Hoodia plants in the world to account for all the alleged Hoodia products on the market. Some may contain little or no Hoodia gordonii, include the wrong plant parts, or use questionable plant sources. We also don’t know the dose needed to achieve weight loss or the drug’s safe upper limit.

There’s simply too little evidence to say whether any of the Hoodia now on the market works or is safe to use. We may know more down the road, but until then, you should probably avoid it.

— Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Women’s Health Watch

Is Canon EOS 50D better than 40D?

The EOS 50D is the latest incarnation of a product line that has always reliably delivered on image quality and you won't find any nasty surprises in this review either. The 50D delivers a lot of detail and clean images with well balanced contrast and colors that leave some latitude for 'customization' in post processing. Canon's standard-across-the-range Picture Style tone and color combination also produce consistent performance between models, which is useful if you're moving up from a 'smaller' model.

Having said that, in terms of detail the 50D is not quite the step up from the 40D that we would have expected. After all the new model's nominal resolution has increased by approximately 22% in both dimensions. There is only a very small amount of extra detail in the 50D output though (in fact even at 100%, if you scale the 40D's output up to match the 50D the results are almost indistinguishable). While the new sensor makes the 50D the highest megapixel APS-C DSLR currently on the market it also makes it the one with the highest pixel density and it appears that Canon has reached the limit of what is sensible, in terms of megapixels, on an APS-C sensor (using current technology). At a pixel density of 4.5 MP/cm² (40D: 3.1 MP/cm², 1Ds MkIII: 2.4 MP/cm²) the lens becomes the limiting factor. Even the sharpest primes at optimal apertures cannot (at least on the edges of the frame) satisfy the 15.1 megapixel sensor's hunger for resolution. The result is images that look comparatively soft at a pixel level and only show marginally more detail than images from a good ten or twelve megapixel DSLR. If all you end up with is a larger image (and file) one starts to wonder what the whole point of pushing the resolution up to these dizzying heights is.

Considering the disadvantages that come with higher pixel densities such as diffraction issues, increased sensitivity towards camera shake, reduced high ISO performance and the need to store, move and process larger amounts of data, one could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that at this point the megapixel race should probably stop.

Just to make it clear, the 50D's image quality is (at identical viewing size) and by no means worse than the competition's but it's also not significantly better than the 40D's (Dynamic range and high ISO performance are even slightly worse) and that simply makes one wonder if the EOS 50D would have been an (even) better camera if its sensor had a slightly more moderate resolution.