Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Accumulation Project

Instead of tossing out all those AOL CDs, which are about as ubiquitous as weeds, you can make sure they end up in the service of art!

Eric Brown is collecting AOL CDs as part of the Accumulation Project. In November 2006, he will build "Pillars of Decency" with all the AOL CDs he will have collected. As of the end of November 2005, he had collected 2,792 AOL CDs. The project began in September.

There's information on the Web site linked above about how to get the CDs to him. Help spread the word! And check out some of the other fun stuff being accumulated by other artists.

Note: I'm slowly going through all my old blog entries and tagging them for I'll bookmark all the entries in chronological order once I've finished tagging. So for now, the categories aren't functional.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Odds and Ends Pt. 2

A friend told me about this man she saw on TV who owned a life-size, realistic-looking doll. The man looked like a fairly normal guy, except for the fact that he treated this doll like his girlfriend. He would have a neighbor come over to put makeup on the doll. He would also dress "her" up in provocative outfits. He talked about how he was satisfied with the arrangement -- although his girlfriend wasn't real, she was quiet, and he always knew where she was.

I took a look at the Web site of the company that manufactures these dolls, appropriately called RealDolls. Standard female dolls cost $6,499 while standard male dolls cost $6,999. (Shipping and handling is a whopping $450.)

The dolls are fully customizable. Not only can the dolls be made in a number of body types (e.g., "supermodel," "dancer," "voluptuous," with thoroughly listed measurements), one can choose from among a range of faces, skin tones, and umm, pubic hair colors and styles.

The company also offers "SheMale" RealDolls!

For amusement of a less provocative nature, check out this 2000 paper from the Annals of Improbable Research titled "Postal Experiments." (The same people who publish "Annals" are responsible for the annual Ig Nobel awards.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The New York City Transit Strike Cont.

On the Brooklyn Bridge during the evening commute, walking toward Brooklyn.
I've posted some pictures that I took yesterday during the transit strike. You can view them here.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The New York City Transit Strike

Due to the transit worker strike, only vehicles with at least four occupants are allowed to enter Manhattan between 5 and 11 a.m. (More on the city's strike contigency plan can be found at its official Alternative Transportation Information Center.) I've heard some people express doubts about jumping into a car with complete strangers for the rush-hour commute into Manhattan. An Auto Club of New York spokesperson who was interviewed on the news this morning even discussed liabilities and insurance and how you can't trust a stranger to drive safely.

Obviously, these people are not aware of the fact that in the Metropolitan D.C. area, commuters are "casually carpooling" every workday. It's a phenomenon called slugging.

Here's a description of this unique form of transit from

A car needing additional passengers to meet the required 3-person high occupancy vehicle (HOV) minimum pulls up to one of the known slug lines. The driver usually positions the car so that the slugs are on the passenger side. The driver either displays a sign with the destination or simply lowers the passenger window, to call out the destination, such as "Pentagon," "L’Enfant Plaza," or "14th & New York." The slugs first in line for that particular destination then hop into the car, normally confirming the destination, and off they go.

No money is exchanged because of the mutual benefit: the car driver needs riders just as much as the slugs need a ride. Each party needs the other in order to survive. Normally, there is no conversation unless initiated by the driver; usually the only words exchanged are "Thank you" as the driver drops off the slugs at the destination.

There's a bevy of information on the Web site, including advice on how to start a slug line and a lost-and-found bulletin board. Oh, and the term "slug" apparently comes from the use of the word to describe counterfeit coins, which people try to pass off on buses. According to, bus drivers began referring to carpool passengers as "slugs" because they would stand at bus stops when actually they were waiting for a ride from a car (i.e., they were "counterfeit" bus riders).

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Operation Santa Claus

On Saturday, I went to the main Manhattan post office to check out Operation Santa Claus, which I wrote about in a previous entry. I was pleasantly surprised by the numbers of people there, both men and women of different races and ages, including some parents with kids. The post office had separated the letters to Santa by area -- the five boroughs, New York state and out of state -- and there was also a bin exclusively for letters in Spanish.

Although many of the kids requested items like an XBox or an iPod, a good number also wanted stuff like a new winter coat because they had grown out of their old one. I also didn't expect the letters from adults, some of whom wrote of losing their jobs or only making enough to pay for rent and utilities. Probably most distressing, and exasperating, to me were the letters from single mothers asking for clothes for their six children. Distressing and exasperating because I don't understand (OK, maybe a little) why these women chose to have so many children when they can't provide for their basic needs.

Operation Santa Claus operates through Friday, Dec. 23, so I'd urge anyone with some time to participate. You can look through as many letters as you like to find one (or more) you think you can fulfill. I think some of these kids would be grateful to receive anything, however small, so you don't necessarily have to spend a lot of money to make a child's Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2005 Maps

I've been looking for apartments on Craigslist and found the Web site Maps to be helpful. Maps, a subsidiary of Amazon, provides images of selected cities, block by block. The photos are taken from the street, from a perspective perpendicular to the flow of traffic on the street. Both sides of a block are usually documented.

Not all blocks have been covered (on the Web site, you can choose whether or not you want to see which blocks have been covered -- otherwise you just get a street-level map image). I also found the interface a little confusing. And, of course, if you're interested in seeing a place outside of the 24 cities currently listed on the site, the service isn't going to do you much good.

But in terms of just getting a general sense for a neighborhood, in a city that I'm already familiar with, it's nice to know what's in the direct vicinity of a listed apartment. Is the neighborhood more industrial? In transition? Very trendy? Do the streets look uncomfortably deserted? Are there any trees?

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Apartment Camping

The Orikaso Bowl

I've never gone camping before, but I'm endlessly fascinated with camping equipment. They feed into my dream that one day, I'll own only so much that I can throw everything into a car and take off.

I also admire the design of some of these products. I recently saw the Orikaso Bowl at a sporting goods store. Orikaso, the company that makes the bowl, also sells foldable cups (it even has handles!) and plates. Awesome.

Then there are those nesting camping cooksets, where the pans can be pots and the lids double as plates. How ingenious is that?

On a completely different note, I found out about an effort similar to NYCares' Winter Wishes program. Called Operation Santa Claus, the program originated with the USPS, which every year receives letters from kids addressed to Santa. In 1912, the Postmaster General authorized the use of these letters for "philanthropic purposes."

If you wish to help answer one of these letters, you can visit Manhattan's General Post Office at 421 8th Ave. (33rd and 8th) between now and Dec. 23, between the hours of 9-4:30 Mondays through Fridays except on Thursdays, 9-7 on Thursdays and 10-4 on Saturdays. You can also send donations, which will be used to throw a Christmas party for underprivileged kids.

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The Wonder of Craigslist Pt. 2

I've become slightly addicted to Craigslist. As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been visiting some of the forums, and I'm continually amazed at the stuff I see. It's like an ever-improving cultural encyclopedia -- for example, I learned that "420" is slang for marijuana (did everyone know that already?).

I've been looking in Craigslist's Wanted forum to see if I can unload any of my crap before I move. I also found this useful city-maintained Web site, which lists items accepted by various New York City nonprofits. You can donate your furniture to Furnish a Future, a free furniture bank for formerly homeless families. Other organizations accept everything from school and art supplies to bikes to tools.

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Ethical Lapses in Recent Procedures

I keep meaning to post about the world's first partial face transplant, which was performed in France earlier this month. Of course the procedure would be pioneered in France, I thought. One of the most disturbing films I've ever seen -- Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face -- came out of France. The movie is about a man who kidnaps a succession of young women so he can transplant their faces onto his daughter's disfigured one.

Now the New York Times reports that there might have been ethical lapses in the case. The face donor might have committed suicide, and the patient might have tried to commit suicide as well, raising questions about whether she was mentally stable enough to consent to such a risky surgery.

The article also says this about the patient:

Whether her overdose was a suicide attempt or not, Ms. Dinoire's doctors say that she had argued with one of her daughters earlier in the evening before taking the pills. She passed out on a sofa in her apartment as the pills took effect and her black Labrador, Tania, apparently tried to wake her, pawing at her face and eventually biting and chewing at her lips, nose and chin.
I can't help but think of the movie Hannibal!

Questions have also been raised in another pioneering operation, this one in South Korea and involving stem cell research. I don't know that much about it, only that there are questions about the egg donors (one of whom was? or possibly might be? a junior member of the research team, leading to speculation that she might have been pressured to donate). NPR also reported yesterday that one of the paper's co-authors wants to remove his name from the paper due to his concerns about its accuracy.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Who Should Pay for Healthcare?

Tuesday's Brian Lehrer Show will be a discussion of who pays for healthcare in the United States. Visit this Web site to download a copy of the Wal-Mart memo leaked last month. The memo includes possible strategies for reducing the company's healthcare costs.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Honor Killings Not about Honor

Recently heard this chilling report on NPR's All Things Considered about so-called honor killings in Iraq. NPR Foreign Correspondent Anne Garrels speaks to one family in which this occurred.

A daughter was kidnapped and threatened with death unless her brother quit the police force. The brother complied, and the girl was returned to the family. But because everyone assumed the girl had been raped while she was a captive, the family killed the girl. All for the sake of maintaining the family honor. The report is particularly chilling because the father, in his interview, is so forthcoming about what happened. Without any apparent shame, he explains that honor killings are a tradition.

That story typifies one of the reasons why I am wary of traditions. It's one thing to have turkey on Thanksgiving and another when people use the term tradition to justify, or excuse, hateful behavior. It's a shame that so many people accept injustices as a part of society instead of challenging injustices to further society.

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The Wonder of Craigslist

So I've been bumming around Craigslist (an online bulletin board) lately, looking for sublets and rideshares and items wanted as I prepare to move yet again. I'd known there's a lot of stuff on Craigslist, but I didn't realize just how crazy some of that stuff is. It seems that there is a forum for everything and anything that people might want to purchase/sell/trade/give away.

For example, I saw the following post, titled "2 free* dave matthews band for explanation," in the "free" forum:

i found two dave matthews tickets in the park. i have something to do that night, plus i know there are some really hard core fans out there who would appreciate it more than me, so here's what's going on. because i found them i A) have no idea if they are real and B) they might be tickets that were lost and therefore reissued to whoever tried to buy them originally. in that case they may get you into the event, but then the original buyer might be sitting in the seats in which case you have to just move around during the is also possible that at this point if the original buyer cancelled these then they might not even work to get into the that case i would say avoid any hassles by saying "oh man somebody on craigs list sold me these oh my gosh!" since there is no way to prove that they'll haveto just let you i guess these are perfect for someone who was going to try there luck with scalpers anyway...this way if you can't get in you were already prepared to buy a ticket : ) i will post the free ticket exact location later tonight around 8pm...the pick up area will be hidden in the vicintiy of the broadway/houston street train station somewhere.
I like the fact that the person went to so much trouble to explain what happened and what might happen at the concert. And that the person was going to hide the tickets somewhere for someone to pick up.

The "wanted" forum is also a goldmine. For example, I learned something when someone replied to another post:

If people didn't know, Cartoon Network was a recently busted marijuana delivery network. They used "cartoon" as a code word. Add it to the list of drug slang idiots use on craigslist because they think they're slick and no one knows what they're talking about. Original: Seeking replacement for Cartoon Network
I found the following post -- titled "Are you (or do you know of) an old wooden door?" -- particularly well-written:
I'm looking for an old wooden door to perform tasks not usually performed by a door. Ideal candidate should possess or be capable of possessing the following attributes: 1. 100% wood. The kind from living trees as opposed the the compressed paper-fiber-pressboard crap that comes from the genetically engineered square-trunked trees in New Jersey. 2. Solid core. Not a hollow interior door covered with veneer. 3. Character. Unpainted or very old paint, panels, small windows, heavy hardware, etc. 4. At least an 18" width along its entire length (height) without rot or severe damage. 5. The door must be willing to be ripped (not on booze or like a phone book) to the above mentioned 18" width and attached to my wall as a sort of counter/bar. If you know of or have a door that you feel is highly qualified, please respond with the door's relevant statistics and coordinates for consideration. As this is an internship of sorts, no significant payment is offered. A small finders fee may be negotiated for an extraordinary candidate and transportation is provided.

Another thing I've realized in my online browsing is that no one seems to know what to do with old futons.

I've seen listings for free futons and futons for sale, but I haven't found many non-profits that specifically request futon donations. I tried to look for information online about deconstructing a futon, but that proved fruitless. There must be some way to reuse/recycle an old futon by taking out the cotton batting, and, I don't know, turning the futon cover into pillow covers or something.

Anyone have any ideas, let me know.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Threat of Transit Strike in NYC

There's the possibility that a strike by New York City transit workers will take place Dec. 15. The Gotham Gazette provides some background on the situation here.

I wasn't aware that a transit strike had occurred in New York City in 1980. For a city so dependent upon public transportation, it boggles my mind to imagine how people would move about without it. There are taxis and car services -- though I heard a taxi driver say on public radio that he and other drivers would support the strike by refusing to make multiple pickups -- but that would mean spending more money when I already have an MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) pass. And because I travel between Brooklyn to Manhattan, I'd be even more concerned about the cost of using private transportation.

I'll refrain from making any judgments about the strike threat until I've learned more. In the meantime, you might want to check out the transit workers' union's Web site at The MTA does not seem to have released an official statement on the negotiations, but the agency's Web site is

Well, my commute is only 5.5 miles. Maybe it's time to break out ye olde running shoes.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Riding the NYC Subway

A few weeks ago, I boarded the train and noticed an empty stroller at one end of the car. A woman was sitting across the aisle from it, but the stroller did not seem to belong to her. I looked at it warily. This wasn't exactly a suspicious package, but it was suspicious nonetheless. Why would someone leave an empty stroller on the train? Did its owner get sick of it and ditch it on the train, deciding to carry the child instead? Was the woman seated nearby homeless? But why would a homeless person want a stroller?

Apparently I wasn't alone in my thinking because a few stops later, two men got on together. They walked to my end of the car, where there were plenty of seats, but then turned around and took seats toward the other end of the car.

I wondered whether or not I should tell someone. The NYC transit system is always broadcasting announcements about reporting suspicious packages in the subway. But if it turned out to be nothing, I knew the other riders would curse at me for messing up the rush-hour commute.

The other problem is that even if I'd decided to alert someone, I don't know how I would have gone about doing it quickly. There's the train operator who opens and closes the train doors -- I could have called out to this person when the train stopped at the next station. But the lack of call systems in the individual cars is worrisome. The trains on the 4/5/6 lines, which I occasionally use, do have intercoms. But if there's an incident where immediate action is necessary, it seems that riders on the older, crappier trains have their work cut out for them.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Strike at New York University

Some of you might have heard about the graduate assistant strike at New York University. It's been going on for three weeks now, longer than I think most people expected. It's been an inconvenience: my one class has bounced from location to location, meeting at a coffee shop one week, then in a theater space (the rent for which my professor paid) the next. But, it's not really more inconvenient than getting anywhere else in New York City, so I don't really mind.

To be honest, I don't know too much about the strike, and it seems that many of my classmates (who aren't GAs or TAs, teacher assistants) don't know either. But everyone is either for or against the strike. I've heard some grumblings in class, and after three weeks, quite a number of people are tired of not knowing where their next class will be held.

I decided it was time to educate myself on the strike.

The NYU administration's response can be found at Here is a passage from a FAQ the administration put together about NYU's GAs:

The financial aid package is worth some $50,000 dollars per year for doctoral students carrying a full course load, including:

  • a full tuition scholarship (the value of which for most students ranges from $25,183-$33,880 per year)
  • a minimum stipend of $19,000/year for doctoral students ($14,000 for masters students)
  • 100% payment by NYU of the premiums for the student health insurance plan for each GA (approximately $2,000)

    (For fully-supported graduate students, this same financial aid package applies even in those semesters in which graduate students do not have assistantship duties).

    On average, a graduate assistant is expected to spend about 20 hours per week during a 30-week year satisfying the requirements of his or her assistantship, typically through teaching or research related to his or her degree.

  • The union's Web site is (The GAs are part of United Auto Workers Local 2110.) What does the union have to say? Here is a passage from their Web site:
  • Economic Package: NYU suggested pay increases of $1000 for the first three years of the contract, followed by four years of 2 per cent increases (a significant reduction from the current 4 per cent increases enjoyed under the current contract, in the case that your stipend is above the minimum). The administration's offer fails to address many other concerns that are important to GSOCers [Graduate Student Organizing Committee], like housing, child care, job security, and overtime protections.
  • Healthcare: While there would be no premium costs for individual health care, NYU would be allowed to reduce benefits over the life of the agreement. Moreover, their offer does not include any of the improvements that our members asked for in our bargaining survey, like dental and vision coverage.
  • So now I know a little bit more about the strike. But mucking around online, one might come across media coverage like this New York Daily News op-ed:
    New York University's graduate assistants are learning a valuable life lesson: You don't always get want you want. ... For 20 hours a week of classroom-related work, they get at least a $19,000 stipend with guaranteed raises, free tuition and free health insurance. They get the money and benefits even for semesters when they don't teach. That's a good deal. And NYU has committed to maintaining it. What the university will not put up with is further disruption of classes for undergraduates, who pay $31,000 a year in tuition alone.
    What bothers me about the op-ed is that the writer basically rewrote the administration's press release. Is the situation really that simple?

    But even the New York Times glosses over the reasons for the strike. A Nov. 1 article states, "The university said that some of the grievances the union had filed interfered with academic decision-making. The union denied that it had encroached on N.Y.U.'s academic rights and rejected the offer."

    A Nov. 29 Times article says, "N.Y.U., which was the first private university to be told to allow the unionization of graduate students, in 2000, said the union had tried to interfere with setting academic policy. It said it would continue to recognize a union only if it would forgo grievances. The union said the university exaggerated the impact of the grievances filed."

    Neither Times article tells me what the grievances filed were. Instead of delving into the exact claims made by each side, it's as if the writer acknowledges that no one party is right and that it boils down to a case of he said, she said.

    It's possible the writer talked to a number of representatives on both sides and that the article was edited for length. But then, how are the interests of the reader served? If I'd wanted a summary, I'd read a story off a wire service.

    What I'd like to see is an article that breaks down the numbers. NYU thinks the GAs are paid a fair amount, and the GAs think what they received as the result of negotiating as a union got them a living wage.

    My own quick search reveals that, according to the NYU Office of Financial Aid, grad students living on or off campus can expect to pay $22,934 in living expenses alone (room and board, etc.). (Students living with their parents get a reprieve from New York City's high rents -- the estimated cost of their living expenses is $8,214.) So even though a GA does not have to pay tuition nor health insurance premiums, the minimum stipend he or she might receive still barely covers the cost of living in New York City.

    One might argue that all students should expect to take out loans, whether or not they work. GAs do teach classes, however, classes that count equally toward students' degrees and for which students pay full tuition. The university saves money by having GAs teach classes instead of hiring more tenured professors, who are obviously paid a lot more.

    Those are just my initial thoughts on the strike. Maybe with more reading, my sentiments will change.

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    Friday, December 02, 2005

    Extreme Makeover: Christmas Tree Edition

    Hardrock, Coco and Joe, only slightly less pitiful than the Charlie Brown tree.

    If you think you've got those magic hands, and all you have to do is wave them around a few times to make a Christmas tree look special, you might want to enter the Chicago Tribune's tree-decorating contest. The newspaper may no longer be accepting entries -- the article states that the three entrants chosen to make over the trees will get them by Dec. 4 -- but I'm nevertheless looking forward to the contest results. Who will prove more adept than the Peanuts Gang?

    And I appear to be late by a few years in covering this product (I just noticed them for the first time the other day at an arts supply store), but at least I can catch up on all the latest slang with Knock Knock's Slang 2 Flashcards.

    The flashcard reads, "I'm going to be up in your grill for just a second now."