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March 25, 2007

CouchSurfing.com — 'Grab your bag and go CouchSurfing with me'


It's the hottest thing on the planet.

Long story short: You register on the CouchSurfing website and then find places to stay — free, all over the world — with fellow members.

Terry Ward wrote an article about it which appeared in the March 11, 2007 Washington Post, and follows.

    Divan Intervention

    Why pay for a hostel? With CouchSurfing, you can find a bed — or at least a sofa — for free.

    Sure, there were cathedrals around every corner, interesting museums and hostels full of Australian backpackers keen to get their party on. But for University of Pennsylvania student Jim Goldblum, who spent the autumn of 2005 backpacking around Europe while studying abroad in Spain, something was missing.

    "It gets a little monotonous, honestly," he said, referring to hostel life. "You're constantly meeting Australians. Sometimes I felt like I was more in Australia."

    So when Goldblum, 22, decided to continue his European travels in 2006, he opted to change his tactic. He swapped bunk-hopping in hostels for CouchSurfing — just about everywhere.

    Goldblum is among a growing legion of independent young travelers turning to the CouchSurfing Project to stretch their budgets and to ensure that their travel experiences go beyond just ticking off the sights. The free Internet service, founded in 2004, connects travelers with hosts around the world offering floor space, a couch or sometimes an entire bedroom, all for the grand sum of nothing.

    The average age of a CouchSurfing member is 25, with more than 44 percent of the site's 173,000-plus members falling between the ages of 18 and 24. Most CouchSurfers hail from Europe, home to more than 75,000 members, with North America's nearly 60,000 members making it the second-most-active CouchSurfing continent.

    "It just completely changed things," Goldblum said, back home in Philadelphia. One time he had an entire wing to himself in a luxurious seaside apartment in Porto, Portugal. On another occasion, a University of Warsaw student acted as Goldblum's personal tour guide in Poland, taking him along with her everywhere — from local markets to the underground club scene.

    Divans are available in 213 countries, in places as diverse as Jamaica, Singapore and Ghana. One Florida member, "Captn Bob," offers travelers a private aft cabin on his sailboat. There are even a handful of couches on offer in Saudi Arabia (a member in Riyadh appears vaguely royal, pictured atop a stately white horse).

    Here's how it works: You create a profile at www.couchsurfing.com, choose your travel destination, then request accommodations by contacting potential hosts through e-mail that's routed through the site. If all goes well, you'll be welcomed to stay for a night or more. There's no obligation to host.

    CouchSurfing is the brainchild of Casey Fenton, 28. Before he came up with the idea, Fenton had his fair share of what are commonly referred to as "real jobs," among them working as a computer programmer in New Hampshire and as a legislative aide in Alaska.

    Preparing for a last-minute escape to Reykjavik, Iceland, Fenton went about looking for accommodations in a most unusual (some might say illegal) way: He hacked into the University of Iceland's student directory and e-mailed hundreds of female students, indicating a desire to experience the real Iceland with them.

    More than 50 people responded, and Fenton proceeded to have the time of his life.

    "When I got back from Iceland, I was like, 'Yeah, I get it now,' " Fenton said. "It all started clicking into place, and I started working on [the Web site]." Now, with more than 400 people joining every day, keeping up with CouchSurfing has become a full-time job.

    Fenton, who grew up in New Hampshire, lives in Nelson, New Zealand, the current base camp for the CouchSurfing Collective. That's the vagabonding brain trust behind the Web site, which is powered by Fenton and a bevy of dedicated volunteers. At any time, about 15 people are living at the Collective; nationalities and numbers fluctuate, with computer programmers and design-savvy folks coming and going — dedicating a few days to a few months — before moving on.

    Come April, Fenton said, the Collective itself will pack up and shift to Europe (with outposts planned in Paris and northwest Germany). Some of the New Zealand Collective members will move to the new locations; others will set off on solo travels; and still others will slink back to the dreaded "real world." It's no surprise that Fenton is headed for Europe.

    "There are a few times a year where, for weeks, I'll be CouchSurfing," said Fenton, who draws a salary from some of the money the nonprofit site receives in donations. "My goal is to have as many diverse experiences as I can in my lifetime. And CouchSurfing seems like the perfect way to do that."

    Chris Vourlias, 28, a CouchSurfer from Brooklyn, N.Y., would no doubt agree. Staying with people who actually live in a city allows a more realistic window into life there, said Vourlias, who has used the service to stay with hosts in such places as Fez, Morocco, and Catania, Sicily.

    The hosts "get up, and they go work," Vourlias said. "They don't live in the old part of town. They live in a little residential neighborhood 15 minutes away by train. You hear them complain about the rent and the public transport and the wages and how tourists are driving up the prices."

    Seasoned CouchSurfers make the experience sound welcoming enough, if not downright warm and fuzzy. But the idea of shacking up with strangers leaves most travelers with a trepidation or two, a point that the Web site addresses head-on.

    Collective member Rachel DiCerbo, a 29-year-old New Yorker charged with focusing on safety and member dispute issues, said that most of the complaints she has received are the result of personality conflicts between members. "Safety is important to us," she said, "but we are not the police."

    Members are urged to solve misunderstandings on their own, DiCerbo said, but CouchSurfing "ambassadors," who represent the site on a local level in many communities, can be brought into the equation to help mediate disputes.

    That said, a situation in December was considered serious enough that DiCerbo e-mailed 110,000 members to warn them of police reports received about a member accused of check fraud and credit card theft. It was the first time in the site's three years of operation that a police report about a CouchSurfer had been received and the first time that the Collective had sent out that type of mass e-mail, she said.

    "I have been getting a lot of responses from this e-mail, and so many people have said, 'Thank you,' " DiCerbo said. "This says to me that people do care about safety on the site."

    Fenton agrees that member vigilance sends a positive message regarding site safety. "It's been pretty surprising," he said, referring to the low number of negative incidents reported by members. "When you start something like this, you think, 'Okay, what's gonna happen?' "

    Safety measures taken on the site include "vouching," whereby members who have been vouched for by three other members can then vouch for other CouchSurfers. Essentially, it's a circle of trust among people who use the site often; members must meet face to face before initiating the vouching process.

    Additionally, a list of safety guidelines for both hosts and surfers includes tips for women traveling solo, as well as such basic advice as keeping a family member posted about your itinerary and making sure your luggage is locked.

    DiCerbo said the site emphasizes the importance of leaving detailed references after you have stayed with someone or hosted a fellow surfer. Members are encouraged to be brutally honest about their experiences to give future surfers an idea about what they can expect from a host or guest and what accommodations to expect. Members can edit their references, but they cannot remove them, she said.

    "We want people to leave factual references — not just say, 'This guy's a jerk,' " she said. "You really want to embody what the experience is like with that person. That's something we're trying to encourage."


In a sidebar Ms. Ward also wrote about her personal experience CouchSurfing in Limerick, Ireland; that piece follows.

    My One-Night Stay in Limerick: More Than a Couch

    In December, I became a CouchSurfer. Officially.

    An adventurous traveler by nature — and no stranger to staying at hostels or with friends of friends — I decided to give CouchSurfing.com a try during a one-night stop in Limerick, Ireland. About a week before my arrival, I created a profile on the Web site so I could contact other users.

    I selected a photo in which I appeared presentable but modest (this isn't MySpace, after all), then I started browsing for hosts.

    At the top of the list of nine options was a member with the user name "Limerick Male Couple." I read the profile and learned that Mike and Carlo are an American/Italian couple living in Limerick's city center. Their references — from both male and female surfers -- were predominantly "extremely positive," with one "positive" in the mix.

    The best part? They were offering an entire spare bedroom [top] in their apartment, not just a ratty divan in a home office.

    It sounded like an ideal situation for a woman traveling solo, so I e-mailed the guys, introducing myself. A few days later Mike responded, accepting my request for lodging. He included a map with bus routes, as well as some advice about what to see in Limerick.

    We exchanged a few more e-mails, and by the time I knocked on his door, Mike no longer felt like a complete stranger.

    Carlo was already out for the evening when I arrived (he works nights), and when I left in the morning he was still asleep, so I never met him.

    I gave Mike a bottle of Spanish wine, and we spent a good hour sipping orange pekoe and nibbling Amaretto di Saronno cookies in his cozy living room while sharing our experiences as Americans abroad. He showed me photos of the students in Limerick to whom he teaches English, and we exchanged ideas on how best to learn a foreign language.

    Before leaving to check out an Italian restaurant Mike recommended, I retired to "my" room for a rest.

    There was a fresh stack of towels and a plush duvet atop the double bed, a TV, a reading chair and a cheery mirror shaped like a sunburst on the wall. "When you're traveling, you want a place to feel safe and comfortable and to get clean," Mike told me. "That's what we offer."

    The next morning, after a great night's sleep and a hot shower, I made the bed and went on my way.


Finally, her helpful pointers on CouchSurfing etiquette.

    A Little Thank-You Can Get You a Long Way

    Just because you're sleeping on someone's sofa doesn't mean you have to be rude. Here are some pointers if you plan to CouchSurf.

    • When contacting hosts, allow time for an e-mail rapport to develop. The more comfortable you feel before meeting in person, the better the experience will be. Don't e-mail a host at the last minute expecting to find a place to stay.

    • Do not ignore your host. There are no rules about how much time you have to spend hanging out, but nobody wants to feel used. Be sure to engage your host in conversation to keep with the cultural exchange mission of CouchSurfing.

    • Though you don't have to bring a gift to your host, showing your appreciation never hurts. Consider burning a CD of your favorite tunes or toting along flowers or a bottle of wine. Offering to make dinner or do the dishes is another good way to say thanks. Keep in mind that, in certain cultures, showing up empty-handed is taboo.

    • If your host offers to pick you up at the airport or bus station, offer to pay for tolls, parking or any additional expenses.

    • Pack light. The goal is to respect your host's space and be as inconspicuous as possible. Stick to a small backpack that can easily be tucked away in a closet during the day. Don't leave your toiletries in the bathroom.

    • Don't be a couch potato. Get out and about so your host can have some downtime.

    • After you leave, send a thank-you note. A postcard from the road is a gracious way to show your gratitude.

March 25, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Remote Control Patio Umbrella Opener


I see all manner of mischief possible with this device, which works through walls, glass doors or windows.

From the website:

    Remote Control Patio Umbrella Opener

    Just press a button and your patio umbrella opens.

    What could be easier?

    Works with umbrellas up to 11' in diameter, and with wood or metal poles, hand cranks, manual lifts or rope lifts.

    Remote unit has a 40' range and works through walls, glass doors or windows.

    Comes with 25' cord and instructions.

    Uses 12 volt battery (included).




March 25, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Seed — 'Seeking dialogue between art and science'


SEED is a Dublin-based group devoted to developing creative projects connecting art and science, including informal salons, exhibitions, workshops and performances."

March 25, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Flexible Cutting Board


From the website:

    Flexible Silicone Cutting Boards Let You Chop Without Spilling

    Flexible cutting boards have "sides" that fold up, keeping diced vegetables, meat juices, bread crumbs and fresh fruit splatter contained and off your countertop.

    Just chop, grasp and fold the sides, and transfer ingredients to bowl.


    Made of dishwasher-safe silicone.

    18" x 13" x 1/2".

    Set of 3 (all one color) in Black, Copper or Silver.




March 25, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Who are you? On Google, it's never quite clear


Jennifer Seavey wrote an interesting piece for the February 21, 2007 Washington Post about what happens when you Google your own name, only to learn that there are others out there with the very same moniker.

Surprisingly often those "you imposters" — of course, they could say the same about you, if they even knew (or cared) that you existed — have striking similarities to you.

Here's the Post article.

    On Google, a Journey of Selves Discovery

    You know you're out there — somewhere, everywhere — in the boundless eternity of cyberspace. Complain about the invasion of your privacy, clutch at the shards of shattered anonymity — it's all a waste of your energy. Jennifer Seavey decided to find out about "herself" instead.

    The other day, my husband, Steve, told me of a series of weird coincidences. While conducting database research, he came upon an individual with his exact name. Now, if his name was Steve Smith, that wouldn't be much of a shock, but it's Steve Petracek. A name with Czech roots, there are relatively few families in the States. But the name similarity turned out to be the least of it. This other Steve Petracek has the same middle initial, the same civil engineering degree, serves as a Navy Seabee (my husband's former reserve commitment) and lived in several of the same places at different times. Identity theft? Apparently not. This other Steve is currently stationed in Kuwait.

    All this got me thinking. Do I have alter egos around the country? Again, my name isn't a common one. I never met another Seavey outside my family until a few years ago, when a student named Art Seavey appeared in my AP journalism class. Most of us come from New Hampshire, Massachusetts or Maine and have been here since 1621, when the original brothers, William and Richard, arrived from Devon, England, reasons unknown. We've fanned out, but the name remains uncommon.

    So I went to my trusty Google search engine and entered my name. Sure enough, the real me came up first. Navigating across the next three or four Google pages, I found myself popping up more often than the other Jennifer Seaveys in my various roles as journalism and English teacher. But who are those other women with my name?

    I found that Jennifer Seavey is a doctoral candidate at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., with deep knowledge of piping plovers in areas of high population density. I also have a namesake who appeared on the New Hampshire Supreme Court docket in May 2005. I suspect she's the one who usurped my first choice e-mail address on AOL. And I'm also an account director at the Overland Agency in Portland, Ore., as well as a programs committee contact for the American Society for Training and Development in Tampa Bay. Yesterday, I called Chico's to order a jacket and was told I have a counterpart in Athens, Ga.

    Does any of this research shed light on what it means to be Jennifer Seavey? Well, I, too, love biology, especially marine birds. While piping plovers aren't my forte, I can claim some expertise with blue-footed boobies and flightless cormorants. I once worked for a major public accounting firm, and I've regularly trained other teachers and students. Clearly, my counterpart in Georgia and I frequent the same clothing store.

    So what's in a name? Perhaps Shakespeare wasn't right when he wrote the question for Juliet. There might be something in a name after all. I wonder what cologne those other Jennifers wear?


I have long thought that when you see someone wearing an article of clothing identical to one you have on it's worth stopping the person and saying hi if only to mutually register the strangeness inherent in the fact that out of all the zillions of possibilities out there, each of you, for some arcane, unknowable series of reasons, selected the very same item.

It's a sign.

March 25, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

'Talk is Cheap' Speaking Consultant's Watch


You know the old saying, "A consultant is someone you pay to hold your watch and tell you the time?"

Now you can bag the consultant and get the same results for a whole lot less: how does $4.95 sound?

Bonus: For no additional charge they'll do it in Spanish.

From the website:

    Can-Talk Large Button Talking Watch

    A clear lady's voice announces the time when you press a large button on the front of the watch.

    You can set an alarm (beep, rooster, or cuckoo) and have the time announced every hour.

    All these useful features are available at a very affordable price.

    The face measures about 1.25" in diameter and has all the setting functions on its front.

    A matching black plastic band with a buckle can adjust to fit a very small to a large-sized wrist.


Talking Watch (Your choice of English or Spanish female voice) costs $4.95.

Prefer a manly man's voice telling you the time?

No problema.

The face of the testosteronized version (no habla Español — solamente Inglés) measures 1.5" in diameter.

The watch is identical in all other respects to the femme iteration, except that it costs $5.95.

March 25, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Official Major League Baseball Funerary Urn


Long story short: prove your team loyalty by living the baseball lifestyle for eternity.

The $699 urns (above and below) go on sale on opening day.


Here's Richard Sandomir's March 8, 2007 New York Times story about the new enterprise.

    Love of Your Team Can Soon Be Everlasting

    For the baseball fan who has everything in the here and now, how about a team-licensed urn for his ashes in the hereafter?


    Yes, Yankees fans, an aluminum urn with pinstripes, the interlocking NY logo, a place on top for a ball that you might have caught at the ballpark and a personalized name plate — all resting on a tiny home plate.

    Morbid? Bizarre? Not to Clint Mytych, the president of Eternal Image, the supplier of the urns (there are also coffins). Major League Baseball, he said, had little resistance to the idea.


    ''I think they're progressive minded,'' Mytych said by telephone from his office in Farmington Hills, Mich. ''We sold baseball the deal over the phone and never met in person. All they saw were concept drawings.''

    Mytych said that fans cannot directly order the urns, so they are unlikely to be hoarded by ghouls looking to get them signed and sell them on eBay. The $699 urns will go on sale opening day, a note of finality, of sorts, to start the season, and can be bought only from funeral homes. (Pet owners can order cat and dog urns from Mytych's company.)


    Mytych, 26, initially sought the approval of Corvette and Mustang to let him use the automakers' classic designs for urns and coffins, but they rejected the idea. But Precious Moments, a figurine maker, the Vatican Library and M.L.B., which reached a licensing agreement with Eternal Image last June, said yes. ''We feel the creativity's been bred out of the funeral industry,'' he said. ''Some of the Big 3 in the industry have been around since the 1880s, and they never tried a branded product.''

    He recognizes he has landed in what some might deem the bizarro wing of merchandising. But he insisted that he is marketing to the most ardent of fans, those who want to take their teams with them.


    ''If your uncle dies and he was a passionate Red Sox fan,'' he said, responding with a rhetorical question, ''is it really more fitting to have him cremated and just put him in a regular urn, or one like this that supports his passion, makes the remembrance that much sweeter?''

    The Red Sox and the Yankees are in the first group of team urns, along with the Braves, the Cubs, the Tigers, the Dodgers, the Cardinals and the Phillies. Coffins for those who want to follow those teams into the great beyond will be on sale for the stretch run of the pennant races.



Order yours here.

March 25, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

No-Spill Magnetic Dish


From the website:

    Quit chasing screws and nails — get Magnetic Dish!

    There you are, trying to finish some little repair job, and you dump screws all over the place. (Then step on ’em with your bare feet the next day.)

    Magnetic Dish keeps track of screws, nails and other pesky little metal fasteners, even if you tip it or joggle it — two earth magnets keep them from straying.

    A must for garage, shop, toolbag.

    Measures 9½"L x 5½"W x 1¼"D.

    Stainless steel so it won’t rust.




March 25, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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