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February 4, 2006

'Word Down' — New York City's Library Walk

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Mija Riedel took a walk around Manhattan last year with downcast eyes.

Here's her story, which appeared in the October 30 Washington Post, about what lies beneath.

    The Words on the Street

    In New York, 96 Reasons To Lower Your Gaze

    In New York, the wittiest, wisest ideas lie underfoot — literally.

    All you have to do is look down.

    I was heading west on East 41st Street between Madison and Fifth avenues, scanning the pavement for open cellar doors and rickety grates, when I walked across a bronze plaque embedded in the sidewalk.

    Roughly 2-1/2 by 1-1/2 feet, it illustrated in low relief a molecular diagram built around nine words: "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."

    A pair of black sneakers then crossed the panel (titled "Muriel Rukeyser, 1913–1980"), then white high tops.

    The unexpected appearance of Rukeyser's words beneath my boots stopped me in the middle of the sidewalk at the height of lunch hour.

    Intrigued, I moved on, keeping my eyes to the ground.

    At 41st and Fifth, beneath a dallying pair of moccasins, another plaque resembling an open book proclaimed: "Library Walk. A Celebration of the World's Great Literature, Brought to You by the Grand Central Partnership and the New York Public Library. Sculptor: Gregg LeFevre."

    In the two blocks of 41st Street between Park and Fifth avenues, LeFevre's 96 plaques quote 45 writers (11 women, 34 men) from 11 countries, spanning 20 centuries.

    Each is illustrated with images inspired by the text.

    The Grand Central Partnership (GCP), a nonprofit organization committed to revitalizing the neighborhood around Grand Central Terminal, conceived the project in the early 1990s.

    Quotes were submitted — many by New York City librarians — and selections were made by a panel of literary experts convened by the GCP, the New York Public Library and the New Yorker magazine.

    After 10 years and more than $100,000, Library Way (its official name) was dedicated in May 2004.

    On this cloudless afternoon, sunlight glinted on the edges of a third panel [top] depicting a row of books, two hen bookends and a quote from E.B. White: "I don't know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens."

    A pair of pointy, patent leather pumps stopped short where concrete bordered bronze.

    "Oh! Sorry," said a female voice.

    The shiny black stilettos pirouetted left and disappeared.

    Across Fifth Avenue, students and laptop-laden researchers climbed the main stairs of the New York Public Library, dodging the tourists being photographed between its iconic lions.

    I ducked in the front door to inquire further about the panels.

    Both volunteers at the Friends of the Library counter paused, clearly surprised that someone had noticed the plaques.

    "Did anyone else stop?" said one Friend, who wore the heavy, half-frame reading glasses that every child recognizes as visual shorthand for "librarian."

    "No."

    Then I remembered the moccasins.

    "One paused."

    "New Yorkers," she sighed, flipping through piles of brochures.

    "They're too busy."

    After a minute she located a pamphlet and passed it to me.

    "More people should read them."

    Outside I stood between the lions, Patience and Fortitude, as crowds flooded 41st Street.

    The people passed the Chemists Club, the Dylan Hotel, YuYu41 Spa and the Vegetable Garden Kosher and Dairy Restaurant.

    The modern, mirrored skyscraper on my left reflected the cast and chiseled facades of smaller skyscrapers, a passing cloud and the steel blue sky.

    I was accustomed to Manhattan's relentless dazzle from eye level up but here on 41st Street the city had finally and completely closed the gap, becoming 360 degrees of head-to-foot, skyscraper-to-sidewalk stimulation.

    Later that afternoon, I spent an hour on the GCP Web site studying photos of each plaque I'd missed, by the likes of Emily Dickinson, Gu Cheng, Lewis Carroll and Wallace Stevens.

    Rene Descartes' quote — "The reading of good books is like a conversation with the best men of past centuries" — is illustrated with nine men wearing stiff suit coats and top hats, engaged in animated discourse among themselves and oblivious to a bustled woman standing alone off to the side.

    Lucille Clifton wrote, "They ask me to remember but they want me to remember their memories and I keep on remembering mine."

    Willa Cather's two lines are repeated until her panel overflowed with her words: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before. There are only two or three human stories...."

    The Descartes panel, along with a Gu Cheng poem and the sandy, wavy imagery illustrating Georges Braque ("Truth exists, only falsehood has to be invented") are the sculptor's favorites.

    LeFevre has been making site-specific sculptures since 1984; all told, he has 127 projects around the country, including more than a dozen around New York City.

    Most of his works are bronze, terrazzo or concrete set in pavement, and many are, like Library Way, a series of panels with text and images.

    The following Saturday, I returned to browse Library Way without the stampeding weekday crowds.

    No delivery trucks crowded the sidewalks.

    No heels shuffled, tapped or clicked along the concrete.

    I strolled around each plaque as if it were a flower bed.

    Stevens' words were criss-crossed with bronze bird tracks.

    Langston Hughes' were illustrated with breaking chains.

    The bronze images and words were cast just high enough to register faintly through the soles of my shoes.

    In front of the Dylan Hotel at 52 E. 41st, a doorman in his mid–twenties with a longish crew cut and polished black lace–up shoes lingered on the steps.

    At his feet were the words of Thomas Jefferson: "Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."

    I nudged the plaque [below] with my toe.

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    "What do you think of these?"

    He shrugged.

    "They're nice. This one's the best," he nodded toward Jefferson.

    "Right in front? You're not tired of it?"

    "It's the only one I've read, but it's the best."

    A few steps ahead, just beyond the defunct Farmers' Loan and Trust office, another panel pictured the crumbling, crater-pocked surface of the moon with a view of Earth and North America.

    "I want everybody to be smart," Garson Kanin had writtten, "as smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in."

    Chained to a nearby pole was a shopping cart draped in plastic bags, rope and green tape that sported a sign of its own, written on cardboard in ball point pen: "Repent. Judgment is coming."

    The windows of the Library Hotel at 299 Madison Ave. pulsed with strips of color, its floor-to-ceiling lobby shelves stacked with leather volumes and gilded spines — "The Iliad," "Callas," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

    In front of a nearby office building, I discovered Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee: "Writing your name can lead to writing sentences. And the next thing you'll be doing is writing paragraphs, and then books. And then you'll be in as much trouble as I am!"

    The revolving door of the building whirled and a thin man in a blue windbreaker, black running tights and new Adidas spun onto the sidewalk.

    He halted in his trajectory — New Yorkers, I've realized, can stop on a dime.

    He glanced with concern at the ground by our feet.

    "Did you drop something?" he asked.

    "No," I told him, then tapped the Lawrence and Lee quote and asked, "Have you read these?"

    "Oh!" he focused on the plaque.

    "I haven't. I thought they were utility meters...."

    His voice tapered off.

    Inside a lobby at 41st and Park, a uniformed woman said, "People talk about them. All the time. They take pictures... I've read 'em all. My favorite is the one about problems with," she paused, "something and chickens."

    After pausing by my favorite Tom Stoppard — "Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light" — I tripped across the oldest author on Library Way.

    Between the 20th century Beaux-Arts style library and the smiling people on beach brochures in a travel agency window, the bronze panel depicts a page torn from the second century A.D. appointment book of Marcus Aurelius.

    His panel read like an emperor's to-do list.

    Amid meetings, parties and scheduled appearances at the Coliseum, Aurelius had tried to find time to "check out a new chariot."

    As I looked over his hectic calendar, full of scrawled, last–minute additions and changes in plan, I realized not much had changed in 19 centuries; the Roman emperor had written multiple reminders to himself: "Work on Meditations."

********************

Library Way is located on the north and south sides of 41st Street, for two blocks between Fifth and Park avenues. For more information and to view the plaques, check out www.grandcentralpartnership.org/.

Brochures are available at the Friends of the Library counter on the first floor of the New York Public Library (41st Street and Fifth Avenue).

February 4, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Gillette Fusion Power Razor — Available Now

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"Feels like the very first time."

Yes, the lyrics of a famous song but also an excellent pithy description of the guiding philosophy behind my bumbling approach to this thing called life.

For years I've known that Amazon often quietly starts selling things that don't officially go on sale until weeks later.

I always say to myself, next time some hot new product is announced, check Amazon before the official release day to see if you can get it early.

Once again I'm asleep at the switch, this time with Gillette's new Fusion Power razor, five blades of vibrating shaving goodness

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about to burst into America's consciousness tomorrrow with the company's Super Bowl commercials.

I read yesterday that each second of Super Bowl commercial time costs — are you ready for this? — $83,333.33.

Anyway, this afternoon it occurred to me that perhaps Amazon's already taking pre–orders for the Fusion so I wandered over there, to the Health & Personal Care section.

Guess what?

Not only are they selling these new razors right now — I just ordered mine, for $9.57, to be delivered free (Amazon Prime and all) on Wednesday, February 8 — but they've been doing so for the past two weeks.

Stores in Charlottesville almost certainly won't have them on the shelves next week, either because we're such a small market or because they've already sold out.

But get this: if I hadn't been asleep at the switch, I could've been shaving with mine all last week, like one Andrew Mogendorff of Minneapolis, Minnesota who, in his laudatory January 31 review on Amazon — the first one up reporting on the Fusion experience (as it were) — wrote that he'd received his razor last Monday, January 30.

To paraphrase the Everly Brothers, "When Will I Wake Up?"

February 4, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

'The Forever War' — by Joe Haldeman

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Joe Haldeman's science fiction classic, his first book, was published in 1974 to great acclaim.

The book won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best science fiction novel for its up–to-then unknown author.

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What with all the current hoopla about the new "Long War" orientation of the Pentagon, with plans to fight it for at least the next twenty years, why not cut to the chase and call it what it is?

Haldeman did — he was just 32 years ahead of his time.

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This is one superb book, from the very first sentence which reads, "Today we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man."

What's past is prologue.

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Where memory fades everything happens for the very first time.

February 4, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tilted Pitcher

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Official pitcher of the Bizarro World.

$60.99 here (scroll down about 3/4 of the way).

February 4, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Helpful Hints from joe–eeze: 'How often should I change the furnace filter?'

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Jeanne Huber, who writes a most informative column appearing every Thursday in the Washington Post Home section about things house– and home maintenance–related, offered a very useful primer on furnace filters in her January 19 installment.

Long story short: Surprisingly — and somewhat paradoxically — you're better off with the cheapest filter you can buy if you're not very diligent about changing them.

Here's the story.

    The Dirt on Furnace Filters

    Q. How often should I change the furnace filter? My furnace guy says every month. What do you think?

    A. The answer is a lot more complex than you might imagine.

    For decades, many heating experts recommended changing, or at least inspecting, furnace filters monthly.

    The filters at that time, like those that still come standard on many furnaces, were generally inch-thick fiberglass pads with so much space between fibers that you could almost see through to the other side.

    These filters do virtually nothing to stop the tiny particles that cause lung damage, but they are effective at blocking larger particles that could harm the furnace.

    "We call them 'sticks and stones filters,' " says Robert Moffitt, a spokesman for the American Lung Association's Health House program, which aims to help people build and maintain homes that don't trigger asthma attacks and other health problems.

    Today, though, there are other options.

    The Health House program, which is sponsored by 3M, recommends high-efficiency pleated filters with a built-in electrostatic charge.

    Filtrete™ (made by -- surprise! -- 3M) is the best-known brand of these filters, which look like felt pressed into a zigzag pattern.

    The folds add significantly to the filter's surface area, so a similar amount of air can flow through even though the filter medium is a much finer sieve.

    In laboratory tests, these filters remove up to 90 percent of mold spores and pet dander, which are in the range of 3 to 10 microns. (A human hair, by comparison, is about 70 microns in diameter.)

    The electrostatic charge, which is similar to the static cling in clothing fresh from a dryer, works like a magnet to grab even smaller particles, such as bacteria, the particles that carry viruses, and the soot in smoke and smog.

    These particles, under 3 microns, lodge deep in the lungs and cause the most health problems.

    Manufacturers typically recommend that the high-efficiency filters be changed every three months.

    The Health House program adds a suggestion to look at the filters monthly.

    "If filters are obviously dark and clogged, go ahead and replace them," Moffitt says.

    "Not everyone's house and habits are the same.

    If you have three or four cats, or if someone in your house smokes, you should change the filter more often."

    Based on all of this, the advice seems simple enough: Buy a better filter, look at it monthly and plan to change it every three months, or every season if you have a combination heating and air-conditioning system that runs year-round.

    However, here's where it gets more complicated.

    If you do switch to higher-efficiency filters, you really need to follow through in changing them regularly.

    And there are significant reasons why you might stick with the less-efficient filters, even if good air quality matters to you.

    With the old-style filters, if you forget to change the filter after a month, it's really no big deal.

    The dirt trapped on the fibers actually increases the filter's ability to block small particles, and plenty of air still gets through for the furnace to run relatively efficiently.

    The newer filters, however, significantly restrict air flow once they become somewhat clogged.

    This prevents your furnace from moving as much air as it was designed to do, which causes it to run longer to heat your house, which in turn adds to your gas or electric bill, according to Alan Veeck, executive director of the National Air Filtration Association, a trade group that represents filter manufacturers.

    So, not only are you paying more for the better filters (perhaps $15 to $20 each, compared with $1 to $2 for the flimsy kind), you also could end up paying several hundred dollars a year more in heating costs.

    The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the Canadian government agency that researches housing issues and provides financing, reached some surprising conclusions several years ago when it set out to determine whether upgrading to a better filter made much of a difference in the air quality inside houses.

    Researchers compared the air quality inside houses when furnaces ran with five different filtering arrangements, including old-fashioned filters; newer pleated, electrostatically charged filters; and electrostatic precipitators that cost hundreds of dollars.

    Particle counters installed in ducts before and after the filters showed that cleaner air flowed out of the better filters.

    But the actual difference inside the houses?

    Very little.

    It turns out that most of the dust, of all particle sizes, in the air in our houses becomes airborne because of our activities.

    When people walk across a dirty carpet, their feet stir up a cloud of dust.

    When someone leaves toast in the toaster too long, bits of soot go into the air.

    Even getting out of bed stirs up a "personal cloud," says Don Fugler, who directed the research.

    A furnace filter many yards away, connected to equipment that operates only periodically, doesn't do much to remove that dust before it settles.

    That's why a vacuum cleaner bag, which does pick up settled dust, collects far more dust over one to three months than you will find on your furnace filter when you change it after an equivalent length of time.

    "Unless the fan runs all the time, you're getting very little filtration for the extra money you are spending," Fugler says.

    Running the fan continuously allows the filter to remove more particles, but it adds to the power cost by at least several hundred dollars a year, and it subjects people to moving air all of the time, which many people find unpleasant.

    Fugler's advice?

    Focus on reducing the amount of dust that is stirred up inside your house by encouraging everyone to leave their shoes at the door; keeping pets and smokers out of the house; vacuuming regularly and thoroughly with a central vacuum system or a portable vacuum equipped with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter; and "using as effective a furnace filter as the homeowner's budget allows," changing or cleaning the filter as often as the manufacturer recommends.

    In his own house, Fugler uses the washable filter that came with the furnace.

    "It's just mesh, not very fine," Fugler says.

    "I vacuum it off every month and put it back in."

February 4, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

An idea to get rich with

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It just occurred to me, when I had to go get my wallet to get my credit card to buy something online.

Why not create a nifty little personal pop–up that, when you hit a personally–selected key combo, would show you your credit card info so you could execute your transaction in real time without having to tape the number and expiration date to your keyboard?

So simple, so elegant, so useful.

Do it.

I find it both amusing and pathetic that the credit card pictured above — shown as an example of the sort of work done by some media company — cannot even get the spelling of the word "preferred" correct.

Memo to anyone hoping to get anywhere in life: you instantly lose all credibility — and can't ever recover it — if you don't get the simple, easy stuff like spelling right the furst time.

February 4, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

You meet the most interesting people in the obituaries

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For a long time now I've been a regular reader of the New York Times and Washington Post obituaries.

From them I've learned of the existence of people who, after their deaths, began to powerfully influence my life.

The philosopher E. M. Cioran (above and below) is the first name to spring to mind but there have been — and continue to be — many others.

The fun never stops though the heart, alas, does.

So I was most interested to read, directly beneath the masterful Los Angeles Times obituary of bonsai master Frank Okamura — awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure with Silver Rays by Japan in 1981 — which appeared in the Washington Post on January 30, the following in the Post:

    News Obituaries

    A news obituary is a staff–written article that summarizes a person's life.

    It does not include funeral service arrangements or information on memorial contributions.

    For information on what is required for a news obituary, call 202-334-7389 or go to www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries.

    News obituaries can be faxed to 202-334-6553 or emailed to newsobits@washpost.com.

    After sending the information, you must call 202-334-6477 to talk with a reporter.

    We will not publish a news obituary more than a month after a death.

    There is no cost for a news obituary.

********************

Huh.

I read the above information about six times and I still don't understand exactly what's what.

Let me see: there are two phone numbers, a fax number, a website and an email address that need to be employed in a specific order.

And even then you may end up with nothing.

I think I'd rather just read the obituaries than try to become part of creating them: the Post's recipe seems alarmingly like that for sausage, which we really would rather not know.

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TMI is an acronym for things other than Three Mile Island.

February 4, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Heart Hot Water Bottle

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Well, less than two weeks until St. Valentine's Day.

Don't tell me you're gonna give her just a card — come on now.

Here's a sweet gesture: it's a soft, fitted turtleneck covering a good old rubber hot water bottle.

Made of wool and polyester.

$18 here (water not included).

February 4, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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