Friday, June 29, 2007

Freerunning LA


June 29, 2007
Throwing Yourself Against the Wall

THE brick wall was only three feet high, but thick, capped by an unforgiving slab of concrete. “So you want to dive headfirst at it,” Cliff Kravit, 27, standing by my side, was explaining, his waist-length hair pulled back in a ponytail. “You have to commit to it. Trust yourself.”

To demonstrate the move, known as the Kong jump, Mr. Kravit’s fellow traceurs flew at the wall, and just when it looked as if they would snap a shin, rib or collarbone, slapped their hands on the far edge of the top of the wall and whipped their legs through like gorillas hurtling a pommel horse. They went over in succession, each landing beyond the wall and segueing fluidly into a roll on the grass. Silverton Nguyen, 21, the last to go, dispensed with the wall-slap altogether, diving gracefully over headfirst, as if the patch of grass were a swimming pool, and landing in midroll.

Mr. Kravit nodded. “So just like that,” he said. Then he laughed. “Well, not like Silverton.”

I was there to learn the basics of parkour, a French discipline of urban gymnastics with philosophical underpinnings. Earlier, Mr. Kravit had encouraged me to “learn how to not be confined by what so many people take as boundaries, and learn to move past those boundaries.”

I was finding this difficult. It was a wall. Walls are built to bound things, forcibly separate them, in this case this pathway from that patch of grass on the U.C.L.A. campus.

The crux of the parkour philosophy, Mr. Kravit explained, is usefulness and efficiency. A parkour practitioner, or traceur, trains his or her body and mind to be able to get from Point A to Point B in the quickest way possible in order to be useful to others.

“If someone is in a burning building, you’re not going to necessarily have to walk up all the stairs or take an elevator up,” Mr. Kravit said. “You might find a new way to get up and save that person.”

I looked at the wall again. I wasn’t sure how diving at it headfirst would make me more “useful,” except if I were taken an emergency room doctor in need of practice. Nevertheless, I took a deep breath, a running start, and dived.

Parkour, along with its cousin freerunning, is a burgeoning discipline in the United States, one popular among athletic young men with limitless energy and bodies like Gumby. It is like skateboarding without the board, a set of movements designed to allow the practitioner to pass fluidly and often beautifully through an urban environment without hindrance from obstacles like railings, walls and even parking garages.

It has attracted adherents through documentaries, YouTube videos, commercials, Madonna’s latest tour and the opening sequence of the recent James Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” which features Sébastien Foucan, the founder of freerunning, bouncing off cranes and rooftops like a SuperBall.

But although the online videos of men scaling drainage pipes and jumping from rooftop to rooftop make it seem like the latest extreme sport, its metaphysical component makes it more of a nascent martial art. Freerunning focuses on the feeling and aesthetic expression of freedom, thinking that can be traced to the transcendentalism of Rousseau and Thoreau. And parkour’s “utility,” of which Mr. Cliff and other traceurs speak, is akin to the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham in its application of mathematical principles to everyday life.

Each movement and progression is scrutinized and evaluated according to its efficiency: sure, that Kong jump got me over the wall, but was it the fastest and easiest way over?

Cliff Kravit and Silverton Nguyen are members of PKCali, a loose-knit group of California traceurs. Like many of the grassroots organizations of its type that have formed over the last few years, PKCali offers a monthly indoor gym session to teach parkour techniques to those who wish to try it, without the ripped skin and bruises that inevitably result from doing it outdoors.

WHEN Mr. Kravit started the gym session two years ago, 10 to 15 people came each week. Now he breaks the program into basics and advanced classes, and the basics class alone has as many as 40 students.

After the Kong jumps, Mr. Kravit suggested I try a “cat leap” — a jump at, not over, a wall where the hands clasp the top of the wall at the same time that the feet slam into its face, like a feline bracing for a fall.

The team demonstrated by leaping nine feet over a fountain, but I confined myself to repeated short jumps at a gravelly concrete wall not much taller than I am. As I wiped the blood from my hands, Mr. Kravit showed me his own mitts, which were as calloused as a construction worker’s. The final move he showed me was a “tic-tac,” in which you run at a wall from one angle, jump, then kick it with one foot, sending yourself flying in another direction.

Although it seems like child’s play, the discipline has a life-changing impact for some practitioners. The youngest of the five that day was Devon Martinez, 16, who is almost 6 feet tall with long, powerful legs and matted, curly brown hair. When Devon started doing parkour at 13, he was faring poorly in school. But after a year or so of training and reading the philosophy behind the sport, he started to apply his training to his life.

“I would be like: ‘Here’s an assignment. If I don’t do it, I’m going to fail, and I’m useless,’ ” he said. “So I have to do it to be useful. I have to do it to get past the obstacle.” Now he does well in school and in parkour; the shoe company 510 recently asked to sponsor him, he said, because of his influence in the California parkour community.

Parkour developed into its current form through David Belle, a Frenchman whose father was a soldier and a firefighter. Growing up in Lisses, south of Paris, Mr. Belle met Sébastien Foucan, and together they developed their techniques and prowess to their current movie-ready form.

But over the years, Mr. Foucan and Mr. Belle disagreed over the philosophy behind parkour. Mr. Belle wanted the definition restricted to a useful form of motion, while such limits did not sit well with Mr. Foucan.

So they split, with Mr. Belle’s useful and efficient form remaining “parkour” — from the French word “parcours,” meaning “course” or “journey” — and Mr. Foucan’s artsier discipline becoming “freerunning.” Today, the two exist side by side, sometimes practiced by the same people or simply assumed to be the same thing. Small cults of personality have built up around the two men and their philosophies.

To the casual viewer, the main difference between freerunning and parkour is that freerunners will use techniques like flips that are beautiful but not necessarily useful. But beneath the surface, the philosophical focus is quite distinct.

“In freerunning, we use obstacles creatively to add to our movement or as launchpads to create new movement,” said Levi Meeuwenberg, 20, a freerunner from Traverse City, Mich., who, along with Mr. Foucan, recently toured with Madonna. “When you come upon obstacles in life — relationships, money troubles, whatnot — you can use the obstacle to your advantage, like learning a lesson from it.”

Both parkour and freerunning are, on some level, the art of doing all those things you wanted to as a 5-year-old on the playground that your mother wouldn’t let you do. But the brain of a conscious adult performs a more mature calculus, factoring in an adult body’s capabilities, adding up the consequences of messing up, and asking, “Do you really need to try this?” That calculus, that fear and the successful overcoming of both, can be a strong draw.

IN a patio behind one of the U.C.L.A. buildings, Devon stood at the edge of a fountain, contemplating the 10-foot gap between the ledge on which he was standing and the gravelly wall beyond it. The idea was to do a cat leap, jumping the gap and sticking to the wall beyond it like Spider-Man. Beneath the wall was a slim ledge, less than a foot wide, so if the jump failed, he would fall quite a way to the shallow pool of water below.

He walked through the approach several times, planning his steps. After exhaling deeply through puffed cheeks, he began his run, only to stop at the last second.

Finally, one of the group, familiar with Devon’s routine and knowing exactly which buttons to push, called out, “You can’t do it!” Devon spun around, sprinted straight for the gap and leapt it, his hands and shoes scraping as they caught the wall beyond. Continuing the motion, he pulled himself up onto the wall, turned and squatted.

Waggling a finger, breathless, grinning, he said, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”


Parkour and freerunning groups have been formed in many urban areas across the country, and several offer gym or outdoor sessions for beginners.

LOS ANGELES The home page at has news of sessions in California, as well as monthly gym sessions, which are divided between beginner and advanced ($15; check Web site for dates).

BOULDER, COLO. Two gym sessions are conducted every Saturday by Colorado Parkour, one beginner and one advanced ($12 for drop-ins, $10 each for a 10-week course;

CHICAGO The local parkour Web site,, is under construction, so make contact through the forums at to join a weekend outdoor jam session for training.

WASHINGTON Primal Fitness, a parkour gym, offers a range of classes for different levels, schedules and ages (

NEW YORK NYPK posts information on New York and New Jersey jam sessions on its Web site ( and is also host to a forum for traceurs in the area.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Summer drinks

Iced Coffee? No Sweat

BEFORE I go telling everybody that the secret to great iced coffee is already in the kitchen, my friend Keller wants me to confess: I didn’t know from iced coffee until he showed me the light.

It’s important to cop to this now, because not a summer goes by that he does not painstakingly remind me, a rabid iced-coffee drinker, that he’s the one who introduced me to the wonders of cold-brewed iced coffee. The funny thing is, when the subject came up we were holed up in a summer rental with three friends off the coast of Puerto Rico, on a tiny island not exactly swimming in upmarket coffee houses.

Our first morning there I brewed a blend from the local grocery in the coffeepot, laced it with a little half-and-half and sugar, then let it cool. Classy, I thought, carrying the pitcher to the table. “I’ll just take it hot,” he mumbled, while I blinked in disbelief.

Clearly, this boy didn’t know any better. A drink has a time and place. Surely he didn’t subscribe to drinking hot coffee in summer?

“No, I only drink iced coffee if it’s cold-brewed,” he said.

For five days we watched him sullenly sip his hot coffee on a broiling Caribbean island in the dead of summer. We chided him for his pretensions, ridiculed him, tried valiantly to break him, but he patiently waited us out. Once we tried it we would understand, he explained. Like friends disputing a baseball stat in a bar with no access to Google, we had no way to settle the argument.

Two weeks later, back in Brooklyn, I saw a sign: “Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee Served Here.” Fine, then. I threw down two bucks and took a sip. Though it pains me to admit, the difference was considerable. Without the bitterness produced by hot water, the cold-brewed coffee had hints of chocolate, even caramel. I dropped my sugar packet — no need for it. The best brews hardly need cream. It really is the kind of thing a gentleman might spend five days in hot-coffee solitary confinement for.

Most days I’m too lazy to hunt down the elusive cold-brewed cup. But recently I discovered an interesting little fact. Cold-brewed coffee is actually dirt simple to make at home. Online, you’ll find a wealth of forums arguing for this bean or that, bottled water over tap, the 24-hour versus the 12-hour soak. You can even buy the Toddy cold-brew coffee system for about $30.

But you can also bang it out with a Mason jar and a sieve. You just add water to coffee, stir, cover it and leave it out on the counter overnight. A quick two-step filtering the next day (strain the grounds through a sieve, and use a coffee filter to pick up silt), a dilution of the brew one-to-one with water, and you’re done. Except for the time it sits on the kitchen counter, the whole process takes about five minutes.

I was curious to see how it would taste without all the trappings. The answer is, Fantastic. My friend Carter, something of a cold-brewing savant, turned me onto another homegrown trick: freeze some of the concentrate into cubes. Matched with regular ice cubes, they melt into the same ratio as the final blend.

Very fancy. Can’t wait to tell Keller.

Chapter 1: I Drank the Water

IN Mexico City, where I live sometimes, I have a routine. I get out of the gym at about 9:30 and walk across the park to my favorite cantina, where the waiters know to bring me a shot of Herradura blanco tequila and a Victoria beer immediately. I love tequila and I believe that Herradura blanco, fiery and peppery, those first sips going down with the combustion of a space shuttle liftoff, is the great commercial tequila. I like mezcal too. Nothing macho about it: I just like the clean cactus and earth flavors, the warm ebullient high, and that you can drink a number of shots without feeling bloated.

I don’t often drink frozen drinks. How many of those can a person actually drink in a long night? But one night in Mexico City six years ago I drank frozen daiquiris, and I will never forget it, or at least I will never forget one of those drinks, the last one.

It was at a party in the writer Mario Bellatin’s house: crowded kitchen, someone manning the blender, bags of purified ice like the ones you get at gasoline stations. Slushy daiquiris in clear plastic cups, an appealing light lime color suggesting late afternoon drinks at the beach, when the salty bracing tartness of Mexican limes is especially delicious. I had one daiquiri and then another. Then they ran out of ice. Some of us were standing there, holding out empty cups. What, no more? There was still rum, there were still limes. But the blender guy was reaching deep into the freezer, struggling to dislodge an old ice cube tray, buried in furry ice. Enough for a few more daiquiris. Half an hour after drinking mine I felt a mule kick inside my stomach. Then I felt cold.

I went home. For the next two days I shivered and thrashed around in bed, burning with fever. A mesmerizing sensation of physically dwindling away. I hallucinated a strange scene, or dreamed one with my eyes open: convent servants searching the dawn streets of 19th-century Guatemala City for just the right Indian man to bring back to their Mother Superior.

I’d been waiting all summer for book and archival research to come alive. Suddenly, it had. I got out of bed, wrote it all down, went back to bed. Another scene came to me. That’s how I finally began that novel. Thanks to a daiquiri and bad Mexico City ice.

Forbidden Pleasure in the Desert

WE’D walked together down a road lined with craters. Walked slowly, of course. Looking for wires, animal carcasses, that sort of thing. The telltale signs of hidden bombs. It was a sweltering Iraqi morning, with the mist of the Euphrates infiltrating our lungs.

Later on, the captain regaled me with stories. We were both from Florida. His best tale concerned a tactic his men had devised to search Iraqi villages. A blond woman was in the unit he led, and all she had to do upon entering an Iraqi village was stand atop a Bradley fighting vehicle and pull off her helmet, letting her golden locks tumble to her shoulders.

Within minutes — blond hair being a thing of fascination in Iraq — much of the male population would be gathered round the Bradley. The Americans would then quietly search the village for guns. Worked every time, the captain said. We had a great laugh.

The talk turned to beer. If you could just get us a couple of cans, the captain said. He looked longingly at me. The captain hadn’t had a drink since he had arrived in Iraq, he said; none of his troops had. General Order No. 1, as it is called, decrees, among other things, that no American soldier shall consume alcohol in a war zone. Alone in the Iraqi desert, cold beer is something soldiers dream about.

Traveling around Iraq was still easy in 2003; so was buying alcohol. A couple of nights later, with a case of Carlsberg in the trunk, a photographer and I drove at high speed across the black Iraqi desert and pulled into the base. The captain came out to meet us. We’d put the beer in a black garbage bag. He cradled the sack like treasure.

“Oh, you guys are great,” the captain said, hustling it away. “Anything you want. Anything.”

I never saw the captain after that. My only regret is that I didn’t share one of those beers with him.

June 27, 2007
The Cherries of Persia

THE ruby-colored iced drink came in a tall glass set on a painted tray. There were other offerings: ice water, hot tea. But the bright color beckoned.

It was the summer of 1999 and I was in Shiraz, the Iranian city of calm, good sense and mystical poetry, a place not of religious pilgrimage but of roses, nightingales, rich people who smoke opium and some of the best wine-producing grapes in the world.

I had been invited to lunch at the home of Ayatollah Majdeddin Mahallati, a senior Shiite cleric whose family had once wielded extraordinary power and influence.

The drink I chose — a sour cherry confection — had the taste of summer. Bitingly tart and soothingly sweet rather than sour, it blocked out the noise and heat and rules of the Islamic Republic just outside the doors of the ayatollah’s house.

The sour cherry season in Iran is short — only about three weeks from mid-June to early July. The harvest triggers a mad rush to preserve the fruit’s electric vibrancy. Sour cherries boiled in sugar and water with just a hint of vanilla produce a rich syrup called sharbat-e albalu. It is stored in bottles to be mixed with water and masses of ice to drink on special occasions throughout the year.

On the day of our lunch, the learned ayatollah looked at the glowing liquid and recited from memory a poem of Iran’s greatest epic poet, Abolqasem Ferdowsi: “Two things are my favorite, a young companion and an old wine. The young companion takes away all your sorrows, the old wine gives richness to your life.”

The ayatollah said he was speaking only metaphorically, of course. Shiraz grapes once produced the finest wine in Iran. But we were in the Islamic Republic, which bans all alcohol. Shiraz also produces some of Iran’s best sour cherries. So, blissfully, we sipped on sour cherries instead.

June 27, 2007
A Taste of Freedom

ONCE when I was about 13 years old, my best friend, Renee, and I did that thing where you each tell your parents that you are sleeping over at the other’s house, and they don’t even check. With relative ease, we found ourselves distinctly unchaperoned and hitchhiking the 20 miles to the Trenton, N.J., train station and catching a train to New York City.

With even greater ease, we found ourselves — such is the power of the teenage sense of immortality — perched on bar stools at an Upper West Side restaurant saying, “Um, I think I’ll have a Long Island iced tea, please.” It was the only drink we knew to order. We’d been getting blitzed on them for some time by siphoning off our parents’ liquor and replacing it with tap water. I remember being curled up on the orange shag rug, feeling the whole planet spin.

The bartender did not card us. The bartender did not roll his eyes to the heavens. He filled — freehand — two giant tulip-shape glasses that could have doubled as hurricane lamps with well liquors, prefab sour mix and cola from a sticky soda gun. And set them down in front of us.

We were both the youngest in our families and in so many ways by the time we were 10 we were practically 20. We blew smoke rings. We wore eye shadow. But we were, decisively, not 20. We pooled our crumpled bills and quarters, parsed out in stacks of four, and paid our bill to the penny. We did not tip. Poor service? No, we just didn’t know to. That’s how young we were.

Renee and I made it back unharmed. We caught the last train to Trenton and because we were lit and he was the only other guy in our car, we met a young comedian on the train. We fell over in our seats laughing at all his jokes. And he drove us home and let us out at the end of Renee’s silent driveway and we were safe and unmolested, and we grew up and lived our lives. And I am now in my 40’s and still drink Long Island iced tea.

In spite of having had the kind of adolescence that had orange shag and startlingly distracted parents — some of the things that have made people my age fashionably full of irony — I have never succumbed to that deadly stance. I drink Long Island iced tea sincerely. It is not part of a fashion trend that favors Peter Frampton haircuts and Tab.

To be sure, I am not drinking exactly the same Long Island iced tea. Now it is a carefully measured cocktail, made in a tall pint glass packed with ice cubes, filled with premium liquors, topped with Coke from a freshly cracked glass bottle. And I usually stick to just one, with some very delicious fried thing to eat, like fat-bellied clams or oysters with a spicy tartar sauce. The food absorbs the alcohol in just the right way so you get high but not blitzed. Which is safer when hitchhiking.

For a Future That’s Always Rosy

HIDDEN within our current tastes and penchants are the persistent and often ignoble residues of our former selves. I call it the Holly Golightly-Lula Mae Principle. Allow me to demonstrate how it works.

Of late, my summer drink of choice is a white sangria. It’s a floral concoction of white sparkling wine, Cointreau, apple juice and a splash of club soda, generously perfumed with thin slices of white nectarines, green pears and sweet navel oranges.

This is my reverse-engineered recipe for a drink that I had first at a restaurant so incandescently hip and cool that it saw no reason to cook its food. An editor at a fancy magazine was paying, so I allowed myself to be taken to a raw foods restaurant. In lieu of a proper meal, I decided to drink myself full and I did.

I don’t remember too much about the raw foods, but that nutty place really had a way with the white sangria. I serve pitchers of it now on summer evenings and nod with delight when my friends comment on its subtle beauty and intoxicating charm. I hesitate to share with them, though, why my inner Lula Mae adores this chic little quaff.

White sangria reminds me of the bottles of convenience store wine coolers that my girlfriends and I consumed in alarming quantities in the back seat of cars while stuck in Texas in the prime of our teenage years. Sweet, cheap and perversely and resolutely not beer (long necks being the patriotic drink of the Republic of Texas), wine coolers were our fast ticket out of sobriety and the confines of our suburban youth.

As we twisted off their caps and guzzled their artificial flavors, we were imagining the future. Beautiful and transporting, ambrosial with promises, and complex but never complicated: we wanted it so much we could taste it. The future for us finally arrived and, of course, wasn’t quite what we had desired, but a sip of white sangria on a summer night comes pretty close.

Dry Dock It’s Not

DAVID BERSON is a gallivanting boat captain who runs an electric launch, Glory, out of Greenport, N.Y., on the North Fork of Long Island. Captain Berson has been a deck monkey, a guitar hero and a yellow-cab hack over the years, an instructor of celestial navigation and a fair handler of canvas and rope. He smokes a pipe, is a friend of the masses and counts himself a fan of both Emma Goldman and Blind Willie Johnson. He sails cautiously and well, then pours rum with a heavy hand.

This is his recipe, a modification of that great Caribbean libation the Painkiller, which itself found birth at the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. The Painkiller features dark rum over shaved ice, frothed with orange and pineapple juice along with some sweetened coconut cream, topped with a shaving of nutmeg. It is rich stuff, a little complicated, a bit much for a long Saturday night of drinking under sea grape and palms.

Captain Berson, who served under Eben Whitcomb on the great coasting schooner Harvey Gamage, used to anchor off Jost Van Dyke and has put down his fair share of Painkillers, both at the Soggy Dollar and at the more rough-and-tumble Rudy’s Mariners Inn above Great Harbour. He has, over time, whittled down the ingredients for his own version of the drink, for reasons of both thrift and flavor, to come up with a minimalist take on the classic. His friends call it the Greenport Shuffle, for its eventual effect on one’s gait.

The color should be yellow, cut with bruised brown, like a pineapple left to ripen two days too long, sprinkled with rust. It should taste of summer, and offer the feeling of night air on sunburned skin.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Online restaurant reservations


June 18, 2007
Restaurant Reservations Go Online

SAN FRANCISCO, June 17 — Town Hall, one of the busiest restaurants in this food-crazed city, seems the very model of old-fashioned dining. Patrons who arrive to claim their reserved seats are greeted by a hostess who consults a piece of paper with the day’s reservations and leads her guests to the appointed table.

But upstairs, in the restaurant’s office, a different scene is playing out. In a veritable mission-control setting, a reservationist answers eight phone lines while seated in front of two computers that log reservations and hold an archive of past and future electronic bookings.

The software also reveals the idiosyncrasies of thousands of guests. The restaurant staff knows in advance, for instance, that a regular always insists on a table under a particular piece of artwork. They know about another person’s request for kosher food — but only when dining in certain company. And there is the guest so reliably late that staff members know to add 45 minutes to the reservation time.

After decades of relying on telephones to book tables, and piles of index cards — or a maitre d’hotel’s memory — to collect information about diners and their quirks, the restaurant business has finally gone unabashedly high-tech.

Technology may not make it any easier for diners to get a reservation at the most sought-after spots, like the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., or Babbo in New York City. But the perseverance of a San Francisco-based company called OpenTable, which has come to dominate the business of online restaurant reservations, is making it much easier for restaurants to manage reservations and improve customer service.

The change is subtle, but sweeping. Some 7,000 high-end restaurants around the world now use OpenTable, with the highest concentration in New York and San Francisco. Hundreds more are signing on every month.

“All restaurants have to do it, whether you like it or not,” said Charles Phan, the owner and executive chef of the Slanted Door, currently ranked as the most popular restaurant in San Francisco on “There’s no way around it. At this point, there’s no other technology or easy solution for making Web reservations.”

Making a reservation through OpenTable costs the diner nothing. And it reduces the inconvenience. Say you want a table on short notice at a busy Manhattan restaurant — Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe. Placing a phone call there usually requires calling during business hours, enduring loud jazz for hold music, and talking with a reservationist for a while before finding an acceptable time. OpenTable might give you the same results, but it will do the work in 10 seconds.

Andrew Shapiro, a business strategist who lives in Manhattan, said OpenTable was the first place he turned to for reservations. His loyalty was recently cemented when he used OpenTable to snag a reservation at a popular sushi restaurant around the corner within 15 minutes of his desired mealtime.

Mr. Shapiro said he and his wife had a couple of favorite restaurants that did not take reservations. “The truth is, those places have gotten less attention from us lately,” he said. “It would be as if an airline didn’t allow you to buy tickets online.”

Mr. Shapiro said he also liked the one-click cancellation feature. And he likes the convenience of making a reservation at 2 a.m. (One-third of OpenTable’s reservations are made between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m.)

The other end, however, is where the service has real benefit.

The reservations that pop up on the restaurants’ computer screens, especially those made by regulars, are accompanied by an important tidbit or two.

Doug Washington, a co-owner of Town Hall, said the notes were not just helpful, they are occasionally indispensable. Next to the name of one regular, who has a habit of bringing in women he is not married to, is an instruction to make sure the man’s wife has not booked a separate table for the same day.

Another frequent guest asks the restaurant to send over dessert compliments of the chef but to put the charge on the guest’s bill. Of another, who takes many of his first dates to Town Hall, the instructions read, “Do not treat like a regular!”

But unlike owners of most OpenTable restaurants, Mr. Washington will not use a computer at the door. “When you’re coming into a restaurant you should still feel like you’re walking into someone’s home,” he said.

OpenTable, which started in 1999, did not take off right away. The restaurant business greeted OpenTable with a shrug at first, even contempt. Few restaurant owners could see the advantage of paying a dollar per diner to an Internet company, especially when they already had more business than they could handle.

But the company deployed an aggressive sales force, and went to work persuading owners that dining reservations would eventually go the way of hotel and airline reservations by requiring fewer personnel. Restaurant owners began to see how the service increased the number of customers, and they liked the way the software managed the reservation process. Many of the restaurants discovered that they had to surrender to the automation because their popularity suffered if they did not.

“It was a long, long time before that was proven,” said Bill Gurley, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist whose company, Benchmark, has invested $21.6 million in OpenTable over the years.

It took three years for OpenTable to seat its one-millionth diner. But now, the company seats two million diners every month. And Zagat, the restaurant rating service, has adopted OpenTable for reservations made through its site,

“It’s not a cheap solution, but it’s a good one,” said Laurence Kretchmer, who, together with Bobby Flay, owns three restaurants, including Bar Americain in Manhattan, all of which are on OpenTable. New York now has more restaurants on OpenTable than San Francisco does.

New York restaurant owners are still resisting the surcharge, especially when it means paying for people who would have eaten at their restaurants anyway. “It adds up,” said Steven Pipes, vice president of hospitality at the Jack Parker Corporation, owners of Le Parker Meridien, home to Norma’s, a popular brunch spot in Midtown Manhattan.“We spend thousands of dollars.”

Still, Mr. Pipes is quick to appreciate the high ranking on OpenTable’s most-booked list. And he likes the information he gleans from the system. “We can know what kind of seating people like,” Mr. Pipes said. “And we can know if they have a favorite server.” And that favorite server can note, ever so discreetly, whether a customer happened to order the restaurant’s $1,000 frittata, or that he is a reliably generous tipper.

“In the old days, the question was, ‘Where should we eat?’ Now it’s, ‘Where can we eat?,’ said Danny Meyer, a prominent New York restaurant owner who is an OpenTable investor and board member. OpenTable, he said, offers diners ideas for the first question and answers for the second. “You literally get all that information within four seconds.”

Among the top-tier establishments, there are still some holdouts. Chez Panisse, the famed restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., is not on OpenTable. But that is not for lack of trying on OpenTable’s part. “We’re in discussions with them,” said Jaleh Bisharat, vice president of marketing at OpenTable.

Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, on the other hand, arguably the most popular restaurant in the nation, signed up in early 2003 and Per Se, his New York version, is also there. “Thomas Keller needs more reservations like a hole in the head,” Mr. Meyer said. “But even he knows that anyone truly into hospitality is being disingenuous to say they wouldn’t benefit from all that great guest information provided automatically.”

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Carl Pavano


Money for Nothing: What makes Carl Pavano not tick?
by Michael Weinreb

SOUTHINGTON, Conn. — There is a photograph gathering dust atop a television set in a suburban Connecticut basement, a joyous and wholesome image for which Carl Pavano, of all people, was the catalyst, and in which he does not implicitly appear. But I have been assured he is down there somewhere, in the depths of that pile, amid the tangled mass of arms and legs and cleats and hats. And given that he has just thrown the final pitch to win the Connecticut high school baseball championship, given that he was the impetus for this spontaneous celebration that took place more than 13 years ago, in the shadow of a scoreboard badly in need of an electrician, he is most likely trapped near the very bottom.

The man in possession of this photograph, and of this basement, is John Fontana, and there is one particular story that Fontana, who has since retired as the baseball coach at Southington High, likes to share about that state championship game. It is an anecdote he has crafted and shaped and retold over and over again when people have queried him, at various junctures, about Carl Pavano's apparent dearth of testicular fortitude. It goes like this:

Top of the seventh and final inning, Southington High up 4-1. Fontana has a reliever warming up, just in case Pavano tires, but mostly, he admits, because he knows how to push Pavano's buttons. So he calls timeout.

Pavano says, "Coach, don't come out here."

Fontana keeps on walking toward the mound. Pavano says, "Don't embarrass yourself." Fontana takes a few more steps, and Pavano says, "If you reach for this ball, I'm going to sit right down on the rubber and embarrass you."

So it progresses, in archetypal fashion: Fontana backs away, Pavano strikes out the next hitter, completes the game, and is mobbed by his ecstatic teammates. By the next season, at age 19, he is pitching for the Red Sox Class A League franchise in Battle Creek, Mich., a 6-foot-5, 225-pound alpha male, a cocksure ladies' man with a willful streak and a bright future, the envy of all those around him. His early career path is peripatetic, but, like an episode of "Entourage," it always seems to wind up just fine: At age 27, after a series of stops and starts and nagging arm injuries and Zelig-like brushes with fame, after he allows Mark McGwire's 70th home run and is traded once for Pedro Martinez and again for Cliff Floyd, he pitches his way to a World Series ring with the Florida Marlins. And the following season, after a brief tryst with Alyssa Milano (Alyssa Milano!), he wins 18 games and becomes a free agent with leverage and several clamoring suitors.

And then just a few days before Christmas 2004, Pavano signs a four-year, $39.95 million contract with the New York Yankees, the team his mother adores, and the team his grandfather envisioned him pitching for, because while Southington is located on the cusp of Red Sox Nation, Pavano's was always a Yankees family.

But what has happened since that day is the reason I am here, sitting in Fontana's basement, bearing witness to his recollections while staring at a photograph of a teenaged boy with a square jaw who bears a resemblance to a young Elvis Presley. Because what transpired between Pavano and the Yankees will take its place among the most bizarre and sad and pathetic sagas in the history of a franchise that has borne witness to decades of inexplicable behavior. In the course of 30 arduous months, Pavano has not merely endured the very public and very embarrassing breakdown of his body and his pitching arm, he survived the wreck of his Porsche while speeding in Florida (he broke two ribs, a fact he did not disclose to the Yankees until 11 days later, when he was scheduled to return to the team from a rehab assignment) and he also survived a nasty breakup with an aspiring model from Queens (which ended when she accused him, on the front page of the New York Post, of cheating) and so many extended stints in the purgatory of the disabled list that even his own teammates gave up on him. In turn, his reputation has devolved from a promising (if overpriced) free-agent to that of a con artist, an idler, a curse, a walking punch line, a target for YouTube parodies and mocking blog posts, and a metaphor for all that had been going wrong with these floundering Yankees, and with the string of pitching failures signed by their general manager, Brian Cashman, and, for that matter, with every overpaid and pampered free agent in the history of modern sport who has failed to live up to his value.

It is nothing new for Yankees fans to devour one of their own — this is considered an almost inevitable byproduct of living and playing baseball in the world's most unforgiving city, for the game's most absurdly competitive and deep-pocketed franchise. The list is long, and includes a wide range of personalities and talents, from outright busts like Don Gullett to Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield to more recent Cashman-acquired disasters such as Jeff Weaver and Javier Vazquez. In the 1980s, New York swallowed Ed Whitson, another free-agent signing who became so psyched out by the venom directed toward him that he could no longer pitch at Yankee Stadium. And there is, of course, always the ongoing tragicomedy known as Alex Rodriguez, whose reputation serves as a daily reminder that money cannot begin to purchase street cred.

But what makes Carl Pavano's tale unique is the sheer improbability of his failures to perform; in one particularly ignominious moment, the Yankees told reporters that Pavano had actually injured his buttocks while lurching for a ground ball in spring training — the man, they said, had a bruised ass. At another point, teammates sniped about Pavano's indifference to his plight, citing his fondness for eating candy bars and getting massages in the Yankees clubhouse while unable to throw a single pitch. And what makes his fall from grace so fascinating, from a psychological perspective, is that it leads to questioning whether Pavano's body actually broke his spirit, or whether, as a legion of Yankees fans will forever be convinced, the spirit broke the body.

"It was one of those things where you're in a bathtub, and you increase the temperature one degree a minute until you're scalding yourself," says Mike Vaccaro, a columnist for the New York Post. "Every couple of days, it was something new and weird and different and strange with him. You can't ever get inside someone's head, and you don't want to accuse them of faking it, but it's hard to believe there isn't something else going on here. At some point, you have to earn your 40 million bucks."

It seems improbable, at this moment, that Pavano will ever do such a thing. In early June, after yet another bizarre and prolonged dispute with Yankees management over whether he actually needed reconstructive Tommy John elbow surgery — allowing one last time for the implication, true or not, that Pavano did not want to pitch — he finally had the surgery done. By the time he completes his rehabilitation, the 2008 season will most likely have ended, and Pavano's tenure with the Yankees will most likely have been euthanized along with it.

And in four years, Pavano will have won five games, a simple calculation that works out to nearly $8 million per victory.

"Say I live in New York and I've never met him," says Dave Marek, one of Pavano's high school teammates, one of the joyous figures in that photograph on Fontana's television set, and a lifelong Yankees fan. "I'd probably be saying, 'Who is this guy? What a clown.' That's the hardest part of this whole thing."

Understandably, Carl Pavano's Yankees legacy has become a rather awkward subject to address; and not just because Fontana, once Pavano's mentor, still keeps in touch with Pavano's parents, who operate a dry-cleaning business set in a strip mall just a few miles from Fontana's home — and who declined to speak to, apparently at the behest of their son. ("Carl's hurting right now," his father, Carmen, said. "Let it go the way it is.") It is awkward because Fontana is as baffled by this absurdist chain of events as Pavano's childhood friends and his ex-girlfriend and the former high school teammates who have witnessed his implosion from afar.

"People are always saying to me, 'What's going on with Carl?'" Marek says.

"Like we're the doctors," says another Southington teammate Bob McKee. "Like we're supposed to know what's going on in his head."

Ask Fontana that question — What's going on in Carl's head? — and he will tell you of a boy he once coached who was so precise that they not only called pitches but the locations for him. He will repeat once more the story of that high school championship game, and tell how Pavano once drove several hours to visit him when Pavano was playing in the minor leagues and Fontana was having heart problems. And he will insist that Pavano dotes on his sisters and his nephews and nieces and can't wait to start a family of his own, once he finds the right partner, once he is finished with what all involved will admit is a storied ability — with regard to women, at least — to play the field.

"Maybe a nice country girl," Fontana says. "Sometimes people need someone like that, for stability. But I'm guessing. I'm not telling him what to do. I don't think anybody's gotten to know Carl that well."

I met up with the latest of Carl Pavano's ex-girlfriends ("I think if he were a professional ladies' man, he'd do pretty well," says one of his high school teammates) on a humid afternoon at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. She was wearing a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes and carrying a Louis Vuitton bag she had "inadvertently" taken home for free because of a cashier's error. She was also more than an hour late, in part because she was rushing from a meeting with a movie producer; when I asked her the name of the movie, she batted her eyelashes and said she had no idea, only that she was likely to be cast as "the seductress." Her name, by the way, is Gia Allemand, and she is most certainly not a country girl, unless a country girl can be defined as a 23-year-old aspiring bikini model from Howard Beach in Queens, who recently posed half-naked for Maxim magazine's Web site — I will pause here to allow you to Google the photos — and shows up with her new manager, a man by the name of Horacio Blackwood, in tow.

It should be noted, for the record, that Allemand was not particularly interested in discussing her relationship with Carl Pavano. She would rather forget it ever happened, in the same way Yankees fans would rather forget their own tormented relationship with Pavano ever happened. "We had a bad breakup," she says. "I'm trying not to be mean."

But Allemand is also a firm believer in the inalterable cosmic force known as karma; and this, she says, is what happened with Pavano. Karma caught up with him. Karma dragged him down by his gluteus maximus.

In truth, karma might have already collided with Pavano by the time he met Allemand, which, she says, is what they bonded over in the first place. Allemand was in a professional ballet company, until she injured her hamstring and Achilles tendon and couldn't dance anymore. Pavano still aspires to be a pitcher but has always been fragile. Fontana says Pavano's parents told him he'd had arm problems since Little League, something that the Yankees and Cashman, on the basis of one good season, presumed was behind him. And once he joined the Yankees, coincidentally or not, that fragility became renowned. In July 2005, five weeks after he was booed off the mound during a 17-1 loss to the Red Sox, Pavano went on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis. In mid-August, right shoulder tendinitis became rotator cuff tendinitis, and Pavano was finished for the season.

The following February, Pavano complained of back problems. He began the season on the disabled list. He pitched one inning of an exhibition game, then departed to have an MRI performed on his left buttock (in case you are in need of specifics), began the season on the disabled list, then in May complained of soreness in his right triceps, and in June had surgery for a bone chip in his right elbow.

In the meantime, Allemand says she infused Pavano with the power of positive thinking, and with the dime-store spiritual principles she'd picked up in an Oprah-endorsed tome called "The Secret," which breaks down the meaning of life into a facile equation that goes something like this: Think about something positive, and you can attract positivity. (When I asked her why, if this is the case, she didn't return to Louis Vuitton and insist they charge her the proper price for her new purse, she shrugged and laughed and said this was a case of karma repaying her.) But none of this came naturally to Pavano, who is inherently distrustful of all but a few people in this world, who is on his third agent after a legal dispute with his previous representative, Scott Shapiro, that has been publicly attributed to Pavano's contract being worth only $39,950,000 instead of the $40 million Pavano expected (though one of his lawyers insists this is not the cause of the dispute).

"Carl's a really private person," says childhood friend Shawn LaBonte from his home in Florida. "He loves skiing and four-wheeling and fishing and boating. He just wants to be left alone. He doesn't want to be in the spotlight. But then again, it comes with the territory. And he's just not a city guy — but then again, he's always wanted to be a Yankee."

Allemand wanted Pavano to give back. She preached and cajoled him about manufacturing positive karma, and she was naive enough to assume she was actually making progress. She was, she says, on the verge of starting a charitable foundation with Pavano. She was in the passenger's seat of the Porsche with him in August 2006 when he hydroplaned and crashed into a truck. ("He's always been a maniac," LaBonte says, "a hundred and twenty miles [an hour], full-speed ahead; I hope that was a wake-up call.") Allemand stood up for him in the tabloids a month later, when the news emerged that Pavano had made three rehab starts while hiding his broken ribs from the Yankees (headline: CRASH TEST DUMMY). To the fans, to the media, to his teammates ("I hope his car didn't get dinged up too bad," Johnny Damon joked), and to a man like Brian Cashman, who had staked his reputation on this signing, it was an inexplicable and unnecessary deception. But this is the nature of Carl Pavano, who was perhaps the last person to comprehend a rather obvious truth: The worst thing in the known universe a man who supposedly values his privacy can do, beyond establishing an exploratory presidential campaign or marrying a thespian Scientologist, is to sign a contract with the New York Yankees.

"Emotionally, I was not a big believer in Carl making the move to the Yankees," Fontana says. "He had other offers, from other teams. What's the difference between making $36 million and $39 million? If you hadn't won a World Series, I'd say go to the Yankees. Or if it was $60 million versus $30 million. But it wasn't."

But how was he supposed to resist such a temptation when this was what his family wanted for him? He was born in 1976, the only son of Carmen and Ann Marie Pavano, and by the time he was 2 years old, his mother was already dressing him in a wool Yankees jacket she had bought at a department store, a jacket she's kept preserved in plastic wrapping in a closet for almost 30 years.

I should acknowledge that I borrowed those details from a story that Tyler Kepner, the Yankees beat reporter for The New York Times, wrote in the spring of 2005 (in it, Pavano also insisted that his family hadn't affected his decision to sign with New York). In February 2007, Kepner wrote in a blog entry of the difficulty he had in convincing Pavano to comment for what was an unimpeachably positive article. "Pavano seemed surly and miserable, for no obvious reason," Kepner wrote, and this is how his teammates began to see him, as well: In spring training before this season, Mike Mussina said that Pavano "needs to show us he wants to pitch for us," leading to a closed-door meeting between the two, and more promises from Pavano that he was doing all he could to earn his money.

By then, almost no one believed him anymore.

A short time later, after his ugly public breakup with Allemand, and after a respectable outing as the team's surprise Opening Day starter (a horrifying prospect for the fans who had already mocked him for more than two years), Pavano's elbow acted up again. This, Gia Allemand might claim, was karma, biting Pavano on the posterior one last time. Still, with respect to the opinion of the woman who was recently named Miss Red Hot Taj Mahal, perhaps there was something else going on, something based in the psyche, in Pavano's inability to pitch with pain, or in his unwillingness to contribute to a franchise that, in his view, seemed to have publicly humiliated him — according to one source, Yankees management downplayed the seriousness of his injuries and would later admit Pavano's buttocks injury was actually based in a recurrence of a back problem, and the tendinitis that excused him in 2005 might actually have been a stress fracture.

Or perhaps it was simply a toxic combination of all these things, a simultaneous breakdown of body and spirit.

"I wish I could tell you what he thinks because I don't even know," says LaBonte, who has known Pavano "since we were born."

"I sometimes wonder if Carl could be doing more than he is doing. But then again, it's not my body."

And in the end, it would seem, the man's true motives are irrelevant. Because it is the perception that will linger. And the perception is that Pavano never wanted to be in this situation in the first place, and this attitude manifested itself in his broken physique; hence George King, the beat writer for The New York Post, dubbing him the "American Idle." And Will Carroll, a senior writer for Baseball Prospectus, who writes a regular column about injuries, claimed Pavano could likely have pitched through his pain, instead of having season-ending surgery, and was essentially "stealing money" at this point. ("I was probably more harsh in that assessment than I needed to be," Carroll says now. "Still, you do have to question whether the guy is going to be able to come back all the way.")

This was how his teammates saw him, so this was how the media saw him, and so this was how the fans saw him, as well. Steve Lombardi, of the Yankees blog Was Watching, offered one of the tamer nicknames bestowed upon Pavano in the blogosphere: Lucy Van Pelt. "The Yankees and their fans are Charlie Brown," Lombardi wrote, "and the football is the hope and promise that Pavano will help the team."

On some level, this is absurd: Comparing the Yankees to Charlie Brown is like comparing Warren Buffett to Elmer Fudd. But Pavano, coming as he has on the heels of Weaver, Vazquez and others, and coming in the midst of a fallow period in Yankees history, has done something remarkable: He has induced neurosis into a franchise that always somehow seemed above such things.

"He's become a poster child of sorts," says Dom Amore, who covers the Yankees for Pavano's local paper, The Hartford Courant. "Every time the Yankees sign a pitcher who gets hurt, they're going to say he's another Carl Pavano. He's going to be remembered for things that you don't want to be remembered for."

And so New York City and Carl Pavano are most likely finished. It was a bad breakup, perhaps the worst he has ever endured; depending on how his rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery progresses, it might signal an end to his baseball career. Of course, on some level, a breakup like this could occur only in New York, where nothing ends quietly. When a free-agent bust of this magnitude occurs anywhere else, the reaction is often forgiving — does anyone truly care that Wayne Garland blew up in Cleveland or Darren Dreifort self-destructed in Los Angeles?

But somewhere along the way, as the Yankees sank to the bottom of the American League East standings in the early stages of this season, it became personal between the Yankees and Pavano. Despite his protestations of innocence and helplessness, and even as Cashman told reporters that he "never once thought [Pavano] laid down on this club," it was far too late to offer apologies to the most impatient and impractical fan base in the known universe. In their minds, 13 years after Pavano threatened to sit down on the job and embarrass the hell out of someone, he actually did it. To them. And his own pitiful karma seemed to have dragged down the entire franchise, to the bottom of the division, to yet another Yankee summer in the new millennium, marred by discontent and desperation.

"Carl attracts negativity," Gia Allemand said.

On June 5, at a Manhattan hospital, Pavano finally had his elbow surgery. As if cleansing themselves of his aura, the Yankees painted over his space in the players' parking lot and reassigned it to Roger Clemens. That same night, they defeated the Chicago White Sox and commenced their longest winning streak in more than two years.

Michael Weinreb is a freelance writer and the author of "The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team," published by Gotham Books. He can be reached at

Skin & UV damage


Sun damage: The true price of tanning

The warm golden cast of the sun is very alluring. And many people can't resist spending hours beneath its glow.

But not all of the sun's rays are pleasing. Ultraviolet (UV) light, the invisible but intense rays of the sun, damages your skin. Some of those harmful effects — such as suntan or sunburn — are visible right away. But other skin changes, including liver spots or deep wrinkles, appear and worsen over time. With repeated sun exposure, the skin damage can even progress into cancerous tumors.

From the first clue that your skin has undergone a change to the development of cancer, here's how the sun damages your skin and what you can do about it.

The first signs of skin damage

You're likely familiar with two of the more common sun-induced changes to your skin: suntan and sunburn. But you may not know that the darkening and reddening of your skin are the first signs of skin damage.


A suntan is the result of injury to the epidermis, the top layer of your skin. A tan develops when UV light accelerates the production of melanin. Melanin is the dark pigment in the epidermis that gives your skin its normal color. The extra melanin — produced to protect the deeper layers of your skin — creates the darker color of a "tan." A suntan is your body's way of blocking out the ultraviolet rays to prevent further injury to the skin, but the protection only goes so far.


Eventually, ultraviolet light causes the skin to burn, bringing pain, redness and swelling. Depending on the severity of the burn, the dead, damaged skin may peel away to make room for new skin cells. Though the symptoms of sunburn may fade after several days, the damage to your skin remains. Sun exposure that is intense enough to cause a burn can also damage the DNA of skin cells. This damage sometimes leads to skin cancer.

People with darker skin pigment are less likely to burn because of the protective action of the melanocytes, which produce melanin. However, even those with darker skin types can burn with repeated exposures to UV light. This intense exposure can produce negative effects in the skin, including dry, rough patches, wrinkling and other skin disorders. So even though people with darker skin can tan and tolerate longer periods of sun exposure without "burning," the sun can still cause skin damage.

Illustration of the layers of your skin
Illustration of the layers of your skin

Ultraviolet light can damage all layers of your skin: the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous tissue (fat). To protect itself from damage, your skin increases the production of melanocytes, which ...
Enlarge Image

Photoaging: Looking older than you are

Over the years, your skin naturally begins to show signs of aging. For example, you may notice more wrinkles and thinner, more fragile skin. Exposure to UV light can accelerate these changes and make you appear older than you are. Skin changes caused by the sun are called photoaging.

The results of photoaging include:
# Weakening of connective tissues, which reduces the skin's strength and elasticity
# Thinner, more translucent-looking skin
# Deep wrinkles
# Dry, rough skin
# Fine red veins on your cheeks, nose and ears
# Freckles, mostly on your face and shoulders
# Large brown lesions (macules) on your face, back of hands, arms, chest and upper back (solar lentigines, or liver spots)
# White macules on the lower legs and arms

Serious skin damage: Noncancerous and cancerous skin tumors

Extended and repeated exposure to UV light can cause noncancerous (benign) and cancerous skin tumors:
# Seborrheic keratoses. The precise cause isn't known, but these lesions are seen in aging skin. These tan, brown or black growths have a wart-like or waxy, pasted-on appearance and range in size from very small to more than 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) across. Typically, seborrheic keratoses don't become cancerous, but they can resemble skin cancer.
# Actinic keratoses. Also known as solar keratoses, actinic keratoses appear as rough, scaly areas in sun-exposed areas. They vary in color from whitish, pink or flesh-colored to brown-to-dark-brown patches. They're most commonly found on the face, ears, lower arms and hands of fair-skinned people whose skin has been damaged by the sun. Many doctors consider actinic keratoses to be precancerous because they may develop into skin cancer.
# Skin cancer. Skin cancer develops mainly on areas of skin exposed to a lot of sun, including your scalp, face, lips, ears, neck, chest, arms and hands, and on the legs in women. Some types of skin cancer appear as a small growth or as a sore that bleeds, crusts over, heals and then reopens. In the case of melanoma, an existing mole may change or a new, suspicious-looking mole may develop. Other types of melanoma develop in areas of long-term sun exposure and start as dark flat spots that slowly darken and enlarge, known as lentigo maligna. See your doctor if you notice a new skin growth, a bothersome change in your skin, a change in the appearance or texture of a mole, or a sore that doesn't heal within two weeks.

Bottom line: Keep your skin healthy

All people, regardless of age, should take the necessary steps to protect their skin. For the most complete sun protection, use all three of these methods — in order of importance:
# Avoid the sun during high-intensity hours. The sun's rays are most damaging from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reduce the time you spend outdoors during these hours.
# Wear protective clothing. Cover your skin with clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, long pants and wide-brimmed hats. Also, keep in mind that certain clothing styles and fabrics offer better protection from the sun than do others. For example, long-sleeved shirts offer better protection than short-sleeved shirts do just as tighter fabrics are better than those that are loose.
# Use sunscreen. Apply sunscreen liberally 30 minutes before going outdoors so that your skin has time to absorb the sunscreen. Then reapply according to the directions on the label — usually about every hour.

You don't need to hide away indoors to protect your skin. Just be smart about your sun exposure and take precautions to keep your skin healthy for years to come.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Refractive materials for invisibility


June 12, 2007
Light Fantastic: Flirting With Invisibility

Increasingly, physicists are constructing materials that bend light the “wrong” way, an optical trick that could lead to sharper-than-ever lenses or maybe even make objects disappear.

Last October, scientists at Duke demonstrated a working cloaking device, hiding whatever was placed inside, although it worked only for microwaves.

In the experiment, a beam of microwave light split in two as it flowed around a specially designed cylinder and then almost seamlessly merged back together on the other side. That meant that an object placed inside the cylinder was effectively invisible. No light waves bounced off the object, and someone looking at it would have seen only what was behind it.

The cloak was not perfect. An alien with microwave vision would not have seen the object, but might have noticed something odd. “You’d see a darkened spot,” said David R. Smith, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke. “You’d see some distortion, and you’d see some shadowing, and you would see some reflection.”

A much greater limitation was that this particular cloak worked for just one particular “color,” or wavelength, of microwave light, limiting its usefulness as a hiding place. Making a cloak that works at the much shorter wavelengths of visible light or one that works over a wide range of colors is an even harder, perhaps impossible, task.

Nonetheless, the demonstration showed the newfound ability of scientists to manipulate light through structures they call “metamaterials.”

Obviously the military would be interested in any material that could be used to hide vehicles or other equipment. But such materials could also be useful in new types of microscopes and antennae. So far, scientists have written down the underlying equations, performed computer simulations and conducted some proof-of-principle experiments like the one at Duke. They still need to determine the practical limitations of how far they can bend light to their will.

The method is not magic, nor are the materials novel. Physicists are taking ordinary substances like fiberglass and copper to build metamaterials that look like mosaics of repeating tiles. The metamaterials interact with the electric and magnetic fields in light waves, manipulating a quantity known as the index of refraction to bend the light in a way that no natural material does.

“There are some things that chemistry can’t do on its own,” said John B. Pendry, a physicist at Imperial College London. “The additional design flexibility with introducing structure as well as chemistry into the equation enables you to reach properties that just haven’t been accessible before.”

When a ray of light crosses a boundary from air to water, glass or other transparent material, it bends, and the degree of bending is determined by the index of refraction.

Air has an index of 1. Water’s index of refraction is about 1.3. That is why rippling water waves distort the view of a pond bottom, for instance. It is refraction that makes a straw in a glass of water look as if it is bending toward the surface, and fish swimming in a pond look closer to the surface than they really are.

Diamonds have a refractive index of 2.4, giving them their sparkling beauty.

For visible light, transparent materials like glass, water and diamonds all have an index of 1 or higher, meaning that when the light enters, its path bends inward, closer to the perpendicular. Because the index is uniform throughout a material, the bending occurs only as the light crosses a boundary.

But with metamaterials, scientists can now also create indexes of refraction from 0 to 1. In the Duke cloaking device, the index actually varies smoothly from 0, at the inside surface of the cylinder, to 1, at the outside surface. That causes the path of light to curve not just at the boundaries, but also as it passes through the metamaterial.

Metamaterials first took center stage in a scientific spat a few years ago over a startling claim that the index of refraction could be not just less than 1, but also negative, less than 0. Light entering such a material would take a sharp turn, almost as if it had bounced off an invisible mirror as it crossed the boundary.

The refractive index depends on the response of a material to electric and magnetic fields. Typically within a material, electrons flow in a way to minimize the effects of an external electric field, producing an internal electrical field in the opposite direction. But that is not universally true. For some metals like silver, an oscillating electric field induces a field in the same, not opposite, direction.

Victor G. Veselago, a Russian physicist, realized in the 1960s that if it were possible to find a material that responded in a contrarian way not just to electric fields and but also magnetic fields, a result would be a negative index of refraction.

Dr. Pendry was among the first to start making metamaterials in the late ’90s, building a structure of thin wires that responded to electrical fields in a way opposite most materials. He also designed one that reacted similarly to magnetic fields.

Dr. Smith, then at the University of California, San Diego, attended a talk by Dr. Pendry at a conference in 1999. He and his colleagues built the first metamaterial to combine electric and magnetic behavior.

The journal Physical Review Letters rejected his scientific paper describing the experiment, considering it simplistic and uninteresting. Only then did Dr. Smith come upon Dr. Veselago’s work on negative refraction and the larger implications of the experiment. “We had it, but we didn’t realize it,” said Dr. Smith, who is now at Duke. “Then I rewrote the abstract, and it was accepted.”

That set off a contentious back and forth that lasted several years between researchers who made and measured negative-refraction metamaterials and those who said that the experiments showed nothing of the sort, that negative refraction was at best an illusion and violated the laws of physics.

Part of the difficulty in resolving the controversy was that the negative refraction experiments were at microwave wavelengths. Designing metamaterials for shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies like visible light is more difficult, because fewer materials are transparent at the higher frequencies.

“Just look around the room,” Dr. Pendry said. “How many things can you see through? Not many. You’re running out of road.”

This year, researchers at the Ames Laboratory in Iowa and Karlsruhe University in Germany reported making a metamaterial that had a negative index of refraction for a visible wavelength.

Some critics remain unmollified. Nicolás García of the Spanish National Research Council still calls Dr. Pendry’s statements on negative refraction “propaganda.” But today, most physicists accept the negative refraction interpretation.

The debate did highlight limits of metamaterials. They are dispersive, meaning the angle of refraction depends very sensitively on the frequency of light, and they are lossy, meaning that they absorb energy from the light as it passes through.

Nonetheless, Dr. Pendry has proposed that negative refraction materials can be used to make a “superlens” because they sidestep a process called diffraction that blurs images taken via conventional optics.

Researchers led by Xiang Zhang, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, have demonstrated that a thin, flat piece of silver can indeed produce such images, able to resolve two thin lines separated by 70 billionths of a meter.

“You put your object on one side and your image will be projected on the other side,” Dr. Zhang said.

The superlens can also preserve detail lost in conventional optics. Light is usually thought of as having undulating waves. But much closer up, light is a much more jumbled mess, with the waves mixed in with more complicated “evanescent waves.”

The evanescent waves quickly dissipate as they travel, and thus are usually not seen. A negative refraction lens actually amplified the evanescent waves, Dr. Pendry calculated, and that effect was demonstrated by Dr. Zhang’s experiment. A negative refraction could someday lead to an optical microscope that could make out tiny biological structures like individual viruses.

The main limit now is that an object has to be placed very close to the lens, within a fraction of a wavelength of light.

Another possible use would be for a DVD-type recorder. The finer focus could allow more data like high-definition movies to be packed in the same space, perhaps the entire Library of Congress on a platter the size of today’s DVD, Dr. Zhang said.

The metamaterials researchers also look for new problems to solve. “Now it’s sort of fired up our imaginations to do this cloaking thing,” Dr. Pendry said, “because we realized we could actually make one using these materials.”

In May 2006, Dr. Pendry and Dr. Smith proposed a design that would cloak a single microwave frequency. By October, Dr. Smith’s group at Duke demonstrated a working version, although simplified and imperfect. Dr. Smith’s microwave design cannot be adapted to visible light, because the energy absorption problem becomes too great.

This year, Vladimir M. Shalaev of Purdue displayed a different design, avoiding the absorption problem. He said it would cloak visible light, albeit just a single wavelength at a time. “We can make our cloak for any of these colors but not for all of them simultaneously,” Dr. Shalaev said. “At least, it starts looking like it’s doable.”

He said he hoped to build the design, which requires tiny rods arrayed around a cylinder, in a few years. Metamaterials could also be used for other novel devices. Dr. Shalaev suggested an “anticloak” that would trap light of a certain wavelength. “That could be used as a sensing device,” he said.

Whether the cloak could be made big enough to cover a teenage wizard or an alien spaceship is another question. “I’m fairly pessimistic knowing what I know now,” Dr. Smith said.

Dr. Shalaev said it would be a challenge. “I don’t know,” he said. “We hope it is possible.”

Monday, June 11, 2007

Oncologists and Medicare reimbursements


June 12, 2007
Incentives Limit Any Savings in Treating Cancer

When Medicare cracked down two years ago on profits that doctors made on drugs they administered to patients in their offices, it ended a windfall worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for each physician.

The change, which mainly affected drugs to treat cancer and its side effects, had an immediate effect. In all, cancer doctors billed about $4.4 billion for chemotherapy and anemia medications in 2005, down from $5.6 billion in 2004, with Medicare covering 80 percent of the bills in each year. The difference mostly represented profit that doctors had made on the drugs.

But the change did not reduce overall federal spending on cancer care, which increased slightly. And cancer doctors say the change did nothing to reduce a larger problem in cancer treatment.

Some physicians say that cancer doctors responded to Medicare’s change by performing additional treatments that got them the best reimbursements, whether or not the treatments benefited patients. Those doctors also say that Medicare’s reimbursement policies are responsible.

“The system doesn’t value the time we spend with patients,” said Dr. Peter Eisenberg, a cancer doctor in Greenbrae, Calif., and director of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “The system values procedures.”

The ballooning cost of cancer treatment, one of Medicare’s most expensive categories, offers a vivid example of how difficult it may be to rein in the nation’s runaway health care spending without fundamentally changing the way doctors are paid.

Cancer patients and their families play a role in rising costs, too, because they understandably want doctors to exhaust every possible treatment, even if the doctors might serve their patients better simply by talking and listening to them.

In general, oncologists make money by providing chemotherapy, even when it has little chance of success. Oncologists naturally dislike telling cancer patients that they have exhausted all available treatments. Ending chemotherapy, after all, means acknowledging that a patient’s disease has become terminal.

“There’s pretty good evidence at this point,” said Dr. Richard Deyo, professor of medicine at the University of Washington and an expert on health care spending, “that there are plenty of patients for whom there’s little hope, who are terminally ill, whom chemotherapy is not going to help, who get chemotherapy.”

With the new limits on cancer drug profits, some cancer doctors are searching for new income — like performing chemotherapy more often or installing multimillion-dollar imaging machines where they profit when their patients receive diagnostic scans.

They are also putting new pressure on cancer patients to make out-of-pocket drug co-payments, which can amount to hundreds of dollars a month. In some cases, they are requiring patients to get injections of certain drugs at the hospital instead of in their offices.

Some oncologists say that such changes are necessary because Medicare has not raised its fees for chemotherapy enough to make up the difference. They say they are losing money on Medicare patients and are pressing Medicare to reverse the changes.

Unless it does, a number of doctors say they will be forced to close their practices, and cancer patients, especially in rural areas, may not be able to get treatment.

But that does not yet appear to be a problem. An independent federal commission said last year that the Medicare changes had not reduced patients’ access to care.

The system under which cancer doctors profit on chemotherapy drugs — and so-called supportive care medications, like anemia medicine that is given to counter the side effects of chemotherapy — came into being more than two decades ago. That was when advances in treatment made it possible for patients to receive chemotherapy in doctors’ offices instead of hospitals.

Instead of writing prescriptions that patients filled at pharmacies, cancer doctors bought drugs themselves, then administered them to patients and billed Medicare or private insurers for reimbursement.

Today, the drugs range from relatively inexpensive treatments like Taxol, a breast cancer drug that costs about $150 a dose, to a new wave of biotechnology therapies like Avastin, a drug for colon and lung cancer that can cost as much as $8,800 a dose.

Before 2005, Medicare paid a markup of 20 percent to 100 percent on many drugs, and private insurers paid even more. Doctors pocketed the difference, after certain expenses, as profit.

Because the profits on different drugs varied enormously, doctors had an incentive to prescribe medications with the highest margins. Medicare requires a 20 percent co-payment by patients on chemotherapy medicines, but before 2005 doctors sometimes forgave those co-payments because their profits were so great.

The profits helped drive a vast increase in the amounts doctors billed Medicare for injectable drugs, which soared to $10.9 billion by 2004 from $2.9 billion in 1997. Besides drugs for cancer, the figures include injectable drugs for arthritis and other diseases, though chemotherapy and anemia medications were the largest categories.

The increase in spending, and concerns about the perverse incentives created by the system, caused Congress to change the reimbursement system to more closely tie Medicare payments to what doctors actually pay for the drugs.

Now, drug reimbursement is supposed to amount to only 6 percent more than the average price of the drug paid by all doctors. Because of the change, the overall amount that doctors billed Medicare for injectable drugs fell 6 percent from 2004 to 2005, to $10.3 billion.

Doctors who buy large quantities of medicine can still get big rebates from drug companies, so they can continue to make money on prescriptions — even if it is not at the levels of the past. But those who buy only small quantities get no rebates. And once expenses are calculated, they may actually lose money on certain drugs for Medicare patients.

Private insurers are slowly reducing their reimbursement levels as well, though for most cancer patients they are still paying more than Medicare does.

As a result of the Medicare cutbacks, some doctors say they have been forced to refer patients to hospitals for chemotherapy treatment. Because of the complexities of Medicare rules, hospitals can make money providing chemotherapy for patients even in cases when doctors cannot. But it can be a serious inconvenience for people who are very ill and may have a few months to live.

Dr. Arthur Hooberman, a Chicago oncologist, said his group had sent seven patients to hospitals for treatments in the last few months.

“Our feeling is if we break even on chemotherapy, we’ll give it,” Dr. Hooberman said. But, he added, “we’re not going to pay for people’s chemotherapy.” Dr. Hooberman said Medicare needed to start paying doctors more for other care to make up for their lost drug profits.

Geraldine Lotrich, a lung cancer patient of Dr. Hooberman who has had to receive chemotherapy treatment at a local hospital, said she would rather have remained in his office, where the nurses know her and the doctor can stop in during her five-hour infusion.

“It’s kind of upsetting,” Ms. Lotrich said.

Ari Straus, the chief operating officer of Aurora Healthcare Consulting, which works with doctors to increase their profits, said Medicare’s changes had squeezed oncologists. “Five years ago, many physicians were earning over $1 million per year on drug sales alone,” Mr. Straus said. “It created a perception problem for oncologists that they earn an enormous amount on drugs, but that’s not true anymore. Today, the majority of oncologists break even, and some lose money on drugs.”

A few oncologists and their colleagues see the professional situation as worse. “We’re seeing the dismantling of the community oncology system,” said Steve Coplon, chief executive of the West Clinic, a group of cancer centers in Tennessee that has 28 doctors and sees about 5,000 new patients a year.

Mr. Coplon said his practice had lost $3 million in 2006 on Medicare patients. But invoking confidentiality, he declined to explain how the group had calculated that figure, how much money it made on privately insured patients, how much money it made over all, or how much its doctors earned.

For now, even the oncologists most critical of the 2005 rule changes do not say that patients are being denied treatment, rather that they are being inconvenienced by being forced to receive it in hospitals. And no hard statistics exist to show how many patients have been affected in this way.

In testimony to Congress in July 2006, Mark E. Miller, executive director of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, said his group had found that “access to chemotherapy drugs remained good” and had “no evidence that quality of care declined” as a result of the reimbursement changes. The commission is an independent federal group that advises Congress on issues affecting Medicare.

Now, oncologists are lobbying Medicare officials and members of Congress to reverse some of the changes and again raise the prices the government pays for drugs.

But Dr. Robert Geller, who worked as an oncologist in private practice from 1996 to 2005 before leaving to become senior medical director at Alexion, a biotechnology company, said that increasing drug reimbursement might raise oncologists’ profits but would not relieve the system’s deeper flaws.

As long as oncologists continue to be paid by the procedure instead of for spending time with patients, they will find ways to game the system, however much money they make or lose on prescribing drugs, he said.

“People go where the money is, and you’d like to believe it’s different in medicine, but it’s really no different in medicine,” Dr. Geller said. “When you start thinking of oncology as a business, then all these decisions make sense.”

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Age of kids starting kindergarten


June 3, 2007
When Should a Kid Start Kindergarten?

According to the apple-or-coin test, used in the Middle Ages, children should start school when they are mature enough for the delayed gratification and abstract reasoning involved in choosing money over fruit. In 15th- and 16th-century Germany, parents were told to send their children to school when the children started to act “rational.” And in contemporary America, children are deemed eligible to enter kindergarten according to an arbitrary date on the calendar known as the birthday cutoff — that is, when the state, or in some instances the school district, determines they are old enough. The birthday cutoffs span six months, from Indiana, where a child must turn 5 by July 1 of the year he enters kindergarten, to Connecticut, where he must turn 5 by Jan. 1 of his kindergarten year. Children can start school a year late, but in general they cannot start a year early. As a result, when the 22 kindergartners entered Jane Andersen’s class at the Glen Arden Elementary School near Asheville, N.C., one warm April morning, each brought with her or him a snack and a unique set of gifts and challenges, which included for some what’s referred to in education circles as “the gift of time.”

After the morning announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, Andersen’s kindergartners sat down on a blue rug. Two, one boy and one girl, had been redshirted — the term, borrowed from sports, describes students held out for a year by their parents so that they will be older, or larger, or more mature, and thus better prepared to handle the increased pressures of kindergarten today. Six of Andersen’s pupils, on the other hand, were quite young, so young that they would not be enrolled in kindergarten at all if North Carolina succeeds in pushing back its birthday cutoff from Oct. 16 to Aug. 31.

Andersen is a willowy 11-year teaching veteran who offered up a lot of education in the first hour of class. First she read Leo Lionni’s classic children’s book “An Extraordinary Egg,” and directed a conversation about it. Next she guided the students through: writing a letter; singing a song; solving an addition problem; two more songs; and a math game involving counting by ones, fives and tens using coins. Finally, Andersen read them another Lionni book. Labor economists who study what’s called the accumulation of human capital — how we acquire the knowledge and skills that make us valuable members of society — have found that children learn vastly different amounts from the same classroom experiences and that those with certain advantages at the outset are able to learn more, more quickly, causing the gap between students to increase over time. Gaps in achievement have many causes, but a major one in any kindergarten room is age. Almost all kindergarten classrooms have children with birthdays that span 12 months. But because of redshirting, the oldest student in Andersen’s class is not just 12 but 15 months older than the youngest, a difference in age of 25 percent.

After rug time, Andersen’s kindergartners walked single-file to P.E. class, where the children sat on the curb alongside the parking circle, taking turns running laps for the Presidential Fitness Test. By far the fastest runner was the girl in class who had been redshirted. She strode confidently, with great form, while many of the smaller kids could barely run straight. One of the younger girls pointed out the best artist in the class, a freckly redhead. I’d already noted his beautiful penmanship. He had been redshirted as well.

States, too, are trying to embrace the advantages of redshirting. Since 1975, nearly half of all states have pushed back their birthday cutoffs and four — California, Michigan, North Carolina and Tennessee — have active legislation in state assemblies to do so right now. (Arkansas passed legislation earlier this spring; New Jersey, which historically has let local districts establish their birthday cutoffs, has legislation pending to make Sept. 1 the cutoff throughout the state.) This is due, in part, to the accountability movement — the high-stakes testing now pervasive in the American educational system. In response to this testing, kindergartens across the country have become more demanding: if kids must be performing on standardized tests in third grade, then they must be prepping for those tests in second and first grades, and even at the end of kindergarten, or so the thinking goes. The testing also means that states, like students, now get report cards, and they want their children to do well, both because they want them to be educated and because they want them to stack up favorably against their peers.

Indeed, increasing the average age of the children in a kindergarten class is a cheap and easy way to get a small bump in test scores, because older children perform better, and states’ desires for relative advantage is written into their policy briefs. The California Performance Review, commissioned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004, suggested moving California’s birthday cutoff three months earlier, to Sept. 1 from Dec. 2, noting that “38 states, including Florida and Texas, have kindergarten entry dates prior to California’s.” Maryland’s proposal to move its date mentioned that “the change . . . will align the ‘cutoff’ date with most of the other states in the country.”

All involved in increasing the age of kindergartners — parents, legislatures and some teachers — say they have the best interests of children in mind. “If I had just one goal with this piece of legislation it would be to not humiliate a child,” Dale Folwell, the Republican North Carolina state representative who sponsored the birthday-cutoff bill, told me. “Our kids are younger when they’re taking the SAT, and they’re applying to the same colleges as the kids from Florida and Georgia.” Fair enough — governors and state legislators have competitive impulses, too. Still, the question remains: Is it better for children to start kindergarten later? And even if it’s better for a given child, is it good for children in general? Time out of school may not be a gift to all kids. For some it may be a burden, a financial stress on their parents and a chance, before they ever reach a classroom, to fall even further behind.

Redshirting is not a new phenomenon — in fact, the percentage of redshirted children has held relatively steady since education scholars started tracking the practice in the 1980s. Studies by the National Center for Education Statistics in the 1990s show that delayed-entry children made up somewhere between 6 and 9 percent of all kindergartners; a new study is due out in six months. As states roll back birthday cutoffs, there are more older kindergartners in general — and more redshirted kindergartners who are even older than the oldest kindergartners in previous years. Recently, redshirting has become a particular concern, because in certain affluent communities the numbers of kindergartners coming to school a year later are three or four times the national average. “Do you know what the number is in my district?” Representative Folwell, from a middle-class part of Winston-Salem, N.C., asked me. “Twenty-six percent.” In one kindergarten I visited in Los Altos, Calif. — average home price, $1 million — about one-quarter of the kids had been electively held back as well. Fred Morrison, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan who has studied the impact of falling on one side or the other of the birthday cutoff, sees the endless “graying of kindergarten,” as it’s sometimes called, as coming from a parental obsession not with their children’s academic accomplishment but with their social maturity. “You couldn’t find a kid who skips a grade these days,” Morrison told me. “We used to revere individual accomplishment. Now we revere self-esteem, and the reverence has snowballed in unconscious ways — into parents always wanting their children to feel good, wanting everything to be pleasant.” So parents wait an extra year in the hope that when their children enter school their age or maturity will shield them from social and emotional hurt. Elizabeth Levett Fortier, a kindergarten teacher in the George Peabody Elementary School in San Francisco, notices the impact on her incoming students. “I’ve had children come into my classroom, and they’ve never even lost at Candy Land.”

For years, education scholars have pointed out that most studies have found that the benefits of being relatively older than one’s classmates disappear after the first few years of school. In a literature review published in 2002, Deborah Stipek, dean of the Stanford school of education, found studies in which children who are older than their classmates not only do not learn more per grade but also tend to have more behavior problems. However, more recent research by labor economists takes advantage of new, very large data sets and has produced different results. A few labor economists do concur with the education scholarship, but most have found that while absolute age (how many days a child has been alive) is not so important, relative age (how old that child is in comparison to his classmates) shapes performance long after those few months of maturity should have ceased to matter. The relative-age effect has been found in schools around the world and also in sports. In one study published in the June 2005 Journal of Sport Sciences, researchers from Leuven, Belgium, and Liverpool, England, found that a disproportionate number of World Cup soccer players are born in January, February and March, meaning they were old relative to peers on youth soccer teams.

Before the school year started, Andersen, who is 54, taped up on the wall behind her desk a poster of a dog holding a bouquet of 12 balloons. In each balloon Andersen wrote the name of a month; under each month, the birthdays of the children in her class. Like most teachers, she understands that the small fluctuations among birth dates aren’t nearly as important as the vast range in children’s experiences at preschool and at home. But one day as we sat in her classroom, Andersen told me, “Every year I have two or three young ones in that August-to-October range, and they just struggle a little.” She used to encourage parents to send their children to kindergarten as soon as they were eligible, but she is now a strong proponent of older kindergartners, after teaching one child with a birthday just a few days before the cutoff. “She was always a step behind. It wasn’t effort and it wasn’t ability. She worked hard, her mom worked with her and she still was behind.” Andersen followed the girl’s progress through second grade (after that, she moved to a different school) and noticed that she didn’t catch up. Other teachers at Glen Arden Elementary and elsewhere have noticed a similar phenomenon: not always, but too often, the little ones stay behind.

The parents of the redshirted girl in Andersen’s class told a similar story. Five years ago, their older daughter had just made the kindergarten birthday cutoff by a few days, and they enrolled her. “She’s now a struggling fourth grader: only by the skin of her teeth has she been able to pass each year,” the girl’s mother, Stephanie Gandert, told me. “I kick myself every year now that we sent her ahead.” By contrast, their current kindergartner is doing just fine. “I always tell parents, ‘If you can wait, wait.’ If my kindergartner were in first grade right now, she’d be in trouble, too.” (The parents of the redshirted boy in Andersen’s class declined to be interviewed for this article but may very well have held him back because he’s small — even though he’s now one of the oldest, he’s still one of the shortest.)

Kelly Bedard, a labor economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a paper called “The Persistence of Early Childhood Maturity: International Evidence of Long-Run Age Effects” in The Quarterly Journal of Economics in November 2006 that looked at this phenomenon. “Obviously, when you’re 5, being a year older is a lot, and so we should expect kids who are the oldest in kindergarten to do better than the kids who are the youngest in kindergarten,” Bedard says. But what if relatively older kids keep doing better after the maturity gains of a few months should have ceased to matter? What if kids who are older relative to their classmates still have higher test scores in fourth grade, or eighth grade?

After crunching the math and science test scores for nearly a quarter-million students across 19 countries, Bedard found that relatively younger students perform 4 to 12 percentiles less well in third and fourth grade and 2 to 9 percentiles worse in seventh and eighth; and, as she notes, “by eighth grade it’s fairly safe to say we’re looking at long-term effects.” In British Columbia, she found that the relatively oldest students are about 10 percent more likely to be “university bound” than the relatively youngest ones. In the United States, she found that the relatively oldest students are 7.7 percent more likely to take the SAT or ACT, and are 11.6 percent more likely to enroll in four-year colleges or universities. (No one has yet published a study on age effects and SAT scores.) “One reason you could imagine age effects persist is that almost all of our education systems have ability-groupings built into them,” Bedard says. “Many claim they don’t, but they do. Everybody gets put into reading groups and math groups from very early ages.” Younger children are more likely to be assigned behind grade level, older children more likely to be assigned ahead. Younger children are more likely to receive diagnoses of attention-deficit disorder, too. “When I was in school the reading books all had colors,” Bedard told me. “They never said which was the high, the middle and the low, but everybody knew. Kids in the highest reading group one year are much more likely to be in the highest reading group the next. So you can imagine how that could propagate itself.”

Bedard found that different education systems produce varying age effects. For instance, Finland, whose students recently came out on top in an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study of math, reading and science skills, experiences smaller age effects; Finnish children also start school later, at age 7, and even then the first few years are largely devoted to social development and play. Denmark, too, produces little difference between relatively older and younger kids; the Danish education system prohibits differentiating by ability until students are 16. Those two exceptions notwithstanding, Bedard notes that she found age effects everywhere, from “the Japanese system of automatic promotion, to the accomplishment-oriented French system, to the supposedly more flexible skill-based program models used in Canada and the United States.”

The relative value of being older for one’s grade is a particularly open secret in those sectors of the American schooling system that treat education like a competitive sport. Many private-school birthday cutoffs are set earlier than public-school dates; and children, particularly boys, who make the cutoff but have summer and sometimes spring birthdays are often placed in junior kindergarten — also called “transitional kindergarten,” a sort of holding tank for kids too old for more preschool — or are encouraged to wait a year to apply. Erika O’Brien, a SoHo mother who has two redshirted children at Grace Church, a pre-K-through-8 private school in Manhattan, told me about a conversation she had with a friend whose daughter was placed in junior kindergarten because she had a summer birthday. “I told her that it’s really a great thing. Her daughter is going to have a better chance of being at the top of her class, she’ll more likely be a leader, she’ll have a better chance of succeeding at sports. She’s got nothing to worry about for the next nine years. Plus, if you’re making a financial investment in school, it’s a less risky investment.”

Robert Fulghum listed life lessons in his 1986 best seller “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Among them were:

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Wash your hands before you eat.

Take a nap every afternoon.


Were he to update the book to reflect the experience of today’s children, he’d need to call it “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Preschool,” as kindergarten has changed. The half day devoted to fair play and nice manners officially began its demise in 1983, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education published “A Nation at Risk,” warning that the country faced a “rising tide of mediocrity” unless we increased school achievement and expectations. No Child Left Behind, in 2002, exacerbated the trend, pushing phonics and pattern-recognition worksheets even further down the learning chain. As a result, many parents, legislatures and teachers find the current curriculum too challenging for many older 4- and young 5-year-olds, which makes sense, because it’s largely the same curriculum taught to first graders less than a generation ago. Andersen’s kindergartners are supposed to be able to not just read but also write two sentences by the time they graduate from her classroom. It’s no wonder that nationwide, teachers now report that 48 percent of incoming kindergartners have difficulty handling the demands of school.

Friedrich Froebel, the romantic motherless son who started the first kindergarten in Germany in 1840, would be horrified by what’s called kindergarten today. He conceived the early learning experience as a homage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that “reading is the plague of childhood. . . . Books are good only for learning to babble about what one does not know.” Letters and numbers were officially banned from Froebel’s kindergartens; the teaching materials consisted of handmade blocks and games that he referred to as “gifts.” By the late 1800s, kindergarten had jumped to the United States, with Boston transcendentalists like Elizabeth Peabody popularizing the concept. Fairly quickly, letters and numbers appeared on the wooden blocks, yet Peabody cautioned that a “genuine” kindergarten is “a company of children under 7 years old, who do not learn to read, write and cipher” and a “false” kindergarten is one that accommodates parents who want their children studying academics instead of just playing.

That the social skills and exploration of one’s immediate world have been squeezed out of kindergarten is less the result of a pedagogical shift than of the accountability movement and the literal-minded reverse-engineering process it has brought to the schools. Curriculum planners no longer ask, What does a 5-year-old need? Instead they ask, If a student is to pass reading and math tests in third grade, what does that student need to be doing in the prior grades? Whether kindergarten students actually need to be older is a question of readiness, a concept that itself raises the question: Ready for what? The skill set required to succeed in Fulgham’s kindergarten — openness, creativity — is well matched to the capabilities of most 5-year-olds but also substantially different from what Andersen’s students need. In early 2000, the National Center for Education Statistics assessed 22,000 kindergartners individually and found, in general, that yes, the older children are better prepared to start an academic kindergarten than the younger ones. The older kids are four times as likely to be reading, and two to three times as likely to be able to decipher two-digit numerals. Twice as many older kids have the advanced fine motor skills necessary for writing. The older kids also have important noncognitive advantages, like being more persistent and more socially adept. Nonetheless, child advocacy groups say it’s the schools’ responsibility to be ready for the children, no matter their age, not the children’s to be prepared for the advanced curriculum. In a report on kindergarten, the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education wrote, “Most of the questionable entry and placement practices that have emerged in recent years have their genesis in concerns over children’s capacities to cope with the increasingly inappropriate curriculum in kindergarten.”

Furthermore, as Elizabeth Graue, a former kindergarten teacher who now studies school-readiness and redshirting at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, points out, “Readiness is a relative issue.” Studies of early-childhood teachers show they always complain about the youngest students, no matter their absolute age. ‘In Illinois it will be the March-April-May kids; in California, it will be October-November-December,” Graue says. “It’s really natural as a teacher to gravitate toward the kids who are easy to teach, especially when there’s academic pressure and the younger kids are rolling around the floor and sticking pencils in their ears.”

But perhaps those kids with the pencils in their ears — at least the less-affluent ones — don’t need “the gift of time” but rather to be brought into the schools. Forty-two years after Lyndon Johnson inaugurated Head Start, access to quality early education still highly correlates with class; and one serious side effect of pushing back the cutoffs is that while well-off kids with delayed enrollment will spend another year in preschool, probably doing what kindergartners did a generation ago, less-well-off children may, as the literacy specialist Katie Eller put it, spend “another year watching TV in the basement with Grandma.” What’s more, given the socioeconomics of redshirting — and the luxury involved in delaying for a year the free day care that is public school — the oldest child in any given class is more likely to be well off and the youngest child is more likely to be poor. “You almost have a double advantage coming to the well-off kids,” says Samuel J. Meisels, president of Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development in Chicago. “From a public-policy point of view I find this very distressing.”

Nobody has exact numbers on what percentage of the children eligible for publicly financed preschool are actually enrolled — the individual programs are legion, and the eligibility requirements are complicated and varied — but the best guess from the National Institute for Early Education Research puts the proportion at only 25 percent. In California, for instance, 76 percent of publicly financed preschool programs have waiting lists, which include over 30,000 children. In Pennsylvania, 35 percent of children eligible for Head Start are not served. A few states do have universal preschool, and among Hillary Clinton’s first broad domestic policy proposals as a Democratic presidential candidate was to call for universal pre-kindergarten classes. But at the moment, free high-quality preschool for less-well-to-do children is spotty, and what exists often is aimed at extremely low-income parents, leaving out the children of the merely strapped working or lower-middle class. Nor, as a rule, do publicly financed programs take kids who are old enough to be eligible for kindergarten, meaning redshirting is not a realistic option for many.

One morning, when I was sitting in Elizabeth Levett Fortier’s kindergarten classroom in the Peabody School in San Francisco — among a group of students that included some children who had never been to preschool, some who were just learning English and some who were already reading — a father dropped by to discuss whether or not to enroll his fall-birthday daughter or give her one more year at her private preschool. Demographically speaking, any child with a father willing to call on a teacher to discuss if it’s best for that child to spend a third year at a $10,000-a-year preschool is going to be fine. Andersen told me, “I’ve had parents tell me that the preschool did not recommend sending their children on to kindergarten yet, but they had no choice,” as they couldn’t afford not to. In 49 out of 50 states, the average annual cost of day care for a 4-year-old in an urban area is more than the average annual public college tuition. A RAND Corporation position paper suggests policy makers may need to view “entrance-age policies and child-care polices as a package.”

Labor economists, too, make a strong case that resources should be directed at disadvantaged children as early as possible, both for the sake of improving each child’s life and because of economic return. Among the leaders in this field is James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist who won the Nobel in economic science in 2000. In many papers and lectures on poor kids, he now includes a simple graph that plots the return on investment in human capital across age. You can think of the accumulation of human capital much like the accumulation of financial capital in an account bearing compound interest: if you add your resources as soon as possible, they’ll be worth more down the line. Heckman’s graph looks like a skateboard quarter-pipe, sloping precipitously from a high point during the preschool years, when the return on investment in human capital is very high, down the ramp and into the flat line after a person is no longer in school, when the return on investment is minimal. According to Heckman’s analysis, if you have limited funds to spend it makes the most economic sense to spend them early. The implication is that if poor children aren’t in adequate preschool programs, rolling back the age of kindergarten is a bad idea economically, as it pushes farther down the ramp the point at which we start investing funds and thus how productive those funds will be.

Bedard and other economists cite Heckman’s theories of how people acquire skills to help explain the persistence of relative age on school performance. Heckman writes: “Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation. Early failure begets later failure.” Reading experts know that it’s easier for a child to learn the meaning of a new word if he knows the meaning of a related word and that a good vocabulary at age 3 predicts a child’s reading well in third grade. Skills like persistence snowball, too. One can easily see how the skill-begets-skill, motivation-begets-motivation dynamic plays out in a kindergarten setting: a child who comes in with a good vocabulary listens to a story, learns more words, feels great about himself and has an even better vocabulary at the end of the day. Another child arrives with a poor vocabulary, listens to the story, has a hard time following, picks up fewer words, retreats into insecurity and leaves the classroom even further behind.

How to address the influence of age effects is unclear. After all, being on the older or younger side of one’s classmates is mostly the luck of the birthday draw, and no single birthday cutoff can prevent a 12-month gap in age. States could try to prevent parents from gaming the age effects by outlawing redshirting — specifically by closing the yearlong window that now exists in most states between the birthday cutoffs and compulsory schooling. But forcing families to enroll children in kindergarten as soon as they are eligible seems too authoritarian for America’s tastes. States could also decide to learn from Finland — start children in school at age 7 and devote the first year to play — but that would require a major reversal, making second grade the old kindergarten, instead of kindergarten the new first grade. States could also emulate Denmark, forbidding ability groupings until late in high school, but unless very serious efforts are made to close the achievement gap before children arrive at kindergarten, that seems unlikely, too.

Of course there’s also the reality that individual children will always mature at different rates, and back in Andersen’s classroom, on a Thursday when this year’s kindergartners stayed home and next year’s kindergartners came in for pre-enrollment assessments, the developmental differences between one future student and the next were readily apparent. To gauge kindergarten readiness, Andersen and another kindergarten teacher each sat the children down one by one for a 20-minute test. The teachers asked the children, among other things, to: skip; jump; walk backward; cut out a diamond on a dotted line; copy the word cat; draw a person; listen to a story; and answer simple vocabulary questions like what melts, what explodes and what flies. Some of the kids were dynamos. When asked to explain the person he had drawn, one boy said: “That’s Miss Maple. She’s my preschool teacher, and she’s crying because she’s going to miss me so much next year.” Another girl said at one point, “Oh, you want me to write the word cat?” Midmorning, however, a little boy who will not turn 5 until this summer arrived. His little feet dangled off the kindergarten chair, as his legs were not long enough to reach the floor. The teacher asked him to draw a person. To pass that portion of the test, his figure needed seven different body parts.

“Is that all he needs?” she asked a few minutes later.

The boy said, “Oh, I forgot the head.”

A minute later the boy submitted his drawing again. “Are you sure he doesn’t need anything else?” the teacher asked.

The boy stared at his work. “I forgot the legs. Those are important, aren’t they?”

The most difficult portion of the test for many of the children was a paper-folding exercise. “Watch how I fold my paper,” the teacher told the little boy. She first folded her 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper in half the long way, to create a narrow rectangle, and then she folded the rectangle in thirds, to make something close to a square.

“Can you do it?” she asked the boy.

He took the paper eagerly, but folded it in half the wrong way. Depending on the boy’s family’s finances, circumstances and mind-set, his parents may decide to hold him out a year so he’ll be one of the oldest and, presumably, most confident. Or they may decide to enroll him in school as planned. He may go to college or he may not. He may be a leader or a follower. Those things will ultimately depend more on the education level achieved by his mother, whether he lives in a two-parent household and the other assets and obstacles he brings with him to school each day. Still, the last thing any child needs is to be outmaneuvered by other kids’ parents as they cut to the back of the birthday line to manipulate age effects. Eventually, the boy put his head down on the table. His first fold had set a course, and even after trying gamely to fold the paper again in thirds, he couldn’t create the right shape.