Aaron Fraser: I Am Not a Crook (Anymore)

In the early 2000s, Aaron Fraser was an ex-con, finally free after a ten-year stint for cocaine distribution.

Struggling to find a job with a felony on his record, Fraser turned to writing books like Homo Thug and The Birth of a Criminal, and it was going well for him too — until he implicated himself in the crime for which he would serve he second prison sentence: tricking the women he met in AOL chat rooms into cashing fraudulent checks on his behalf.

Out again after serving 20 months for that crime, and then five years of probation, Fraser is looking to reinvent himself once more: this time as a U.S. Congressman for New Jersey’s 10th District.

District 10’s Essex County sends more residents to prison than any other county in New Jersey. “That’s a large bloc of people in the community who will be sympathetic to someone who’s made mistakes,” Fraser says.

Read the full story: Ex-Con for Congress: Aaron Fraser Swears He is Not a Crook (Anymore)


Pride Issue: Why Don’t Lesbians Hook Up Online?

Ever since hookup websites (and subsequently apps) became the way gay men play, lesbians have been asking, “Where’s our Grindr?” But perhaps the better question would be, do lesbians want to bang or just hang with friends? And if you build a women-seeking-women app, will they come?

Women have been saying they want to be able to hook up the way the guys do at least as far back as 2001, when Elizabeth Perlman complained on a website called The New Gay, “I certainly wouldn’t mind competing with the gays to take back my right to be a slut if it meant being a normal person who collects vagina photos on my cell phone.” The reality, however, is that while gay men quickly monopolize new technology to find the fastest way to get laid (remember those AOL chat rooms?), lesbians tend to use social media to be more, well, social. That means holding out for the first few dates anyway, in stark contrast to those gay men for whom “date” means “fuckfest this Friday.”

Last year, Grindr, far and away the preferred cruising app for gay men, introduced Blendr for heterosexual users. Grindr founder Joel Simkhai tells the Voice he “just didn’t see a big enough demand” for a female-only version.

Even so, a new wave of dyke entrepreneurs are attempting to lure visitors by offering more than just nearby potential bedmates. Women want more than just the location and stats Grindr provides. If they’re virtually cruising, it’s for “that perfect soulmate they can enjoy the high life with,” according to Nicola Chubb, co-founder of FindHrr. Like Grindr, FindHrr, GirlDar, Dattch, and the forthcoming Parlez use geolocation to enable users to find and connect with others users in their immediate vicinity. All begin with a non-paying tier; FindHrr, Dattch, and Brenda (a chat app) offer upgrades for extra functionality like sending videos.

Unlike Grindr, however, they all take pains to distance themselves from projecting an explicitly sexual vibe. Brenda even makes users confirm that they understand it’s not to be used as a sex app. Krysten Milne tells the Voice that when she was building GirlDar, she wanted to give lesbians who live outside the major urban centers a way to connect with each other. It never even occurred to her that these women might have only been looking for sex.

What’s true in the hinterlands, however, may also pertain to the big city, where, for now at least, women still prefer face time. None of the new apps have attracted the critical mass needed to make them cruisable. On a recent Wednesday evening, only 21 FindHrr users were online—all far from lesbian-centric Williamsburg. True, the app only launched in February. But compare the 8,000 total users on FindHrr, one of the more successful lesbian apps, to Grindr’s claim of an astonishing 844,785 in New York City alone. If true, that means 10 percent of Gothamites are men who, at one time or another, have taken the time to upload personal information in pursuit of man-on-man sex.

Even the very few women using these apps are more likely to equate intimacy with a relationship. “Women know it doesn’t only take a few hours to learn about another body,” xoJane UK writer Lisa Luxx tells the Voice. “Hookups are fun, but in my experience women, including myself, prefer to have incredible sex rather than average ‘wham, bam, and thank you ma’am’ sex.”

Diana Cage, author of Mind-Blowing Sex: A Woman’s Guide, feels that current apps don’t go far enough in allowing users to define sex roles. “I’m a femme lesbian who’s attracted to butch lesbians,” she says. “So if the person has long hair, earrings, and lipstick, I know we’re probably not going to hit it off.”

As Kristen Ford, of lesbian website Autostraddle, tells the Voice, one of the biggest problems looming over all such women-centric endeavors is the failure of a neutral technology to screen out men. Luxx was appalled when one Brenda user offered her several hundred dollars in an attempt to lure her into a lesbian sex show for her boyfriend.

It’s the same problem lesbian-for-lesbians porn has long had to deal with. In back rooms or online, gay men have never had to fend off advances from women, but straight men have long fantasized about sex with lesbians—and inevitably, male looky-loos act on their porn-fed desires and invade women-only turf, overwhelming and eventually turning away the women themselves.

The creep factor has already infested apps like Dattch: Founder Robyn Exton estimates that one in 10 users may be a man posing as a woman. For single women living alone, this presents far more than a mere nuisance. Male stalkers are a real threat to their personal safety. When giving out their location, women are naturally going to be far more cautious than men—who have their own safety issues.

The problem would appear to be intractable. FindHrr requires a photo, but has accepted a photo of a dog, which would seem to defeat the purpose. Exton requires an active Facebook account and said she has other security protocols to verify gender (transpersons self-identifying as women are welcome).

Even so, some women would still like more mystery than the TMI other lesbians require before even a coffee date. “Part of the fun was meeting someone who didn’t know me and who I knew very little about,” says Brooklyn attorney McCormack-Maitland, who tells the Voice she found her current partner online.

Some sex-positive lesbians believe they’ve located the real reason why so many of their sisters won’t try to hook up virtually: Sinclair Sexsmith, the blogger known as Sugarbutch, tells the Voice lesbians are often “deeply afraid” of making the first move. That’s why New York lesbian event producer Milly DuBouchet plans to offer talking points in her forthcoming Parlez to boost come-ons. “If an app came around that took away the awkwardness in lesbian hookups,” Sexsmith says, “it would help hundreds get laid.” ❤


The Decade in Film: A Timeline


1/10: America’s top Internet-service provider announces plans to acquire the world’s largest media conglomerate. At $182 billion in stock and debt, AOL + Time Warner = the largest deal in history.

8/01: Time Warner announces that three million Matrix DVDs have been sold, solidifying its position as the bestselling DVD of all time.


1/01: 2001 arrives, 22 months after Stanley Kubrick dies.

6/15: Paramount opens Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which becomes the top-grossing movie based on a video game.

9/03: Pauline Kael dies at age 82.

9/12: Warner Bros. acknowledges the fall of the WTC with the postponement of Collateral Damage.

11/16: Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opens, the first installment of a franchise on track to gross $2 billion by 2010.


1: Two Boots Pioneer Theater begins weekend midnight screenings of Donnie Darko that continue for 26 months, through March 2004.

3/24: For her performance in Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry becomes the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar.

12/31: Four out of five top worldwide grossing films are sequels, in what will be Hollywood’s top-grossing year of the decade: LOTR: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and Men in Black II. The fifth is Spider-Man, which will spin off sequels in Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007).


3/09: Avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage dies. A year later, he appears in the Oscar necrology.

5/30: Disney presents Finding Nemo, Pixar’s greatest hit and the highest-grossing G-rated movie of all time.

8/01: Gigli tanks, Bennifer crashes and burns, paving the way for Brangelina.

8/27: Five months into the Iraq War, the Pentagon holds an informational screening of The Battle of Algiers.

9/08: Nazi pin-up girl and documentarian Leni Riefenstahl dies at 101 in Berlin.

10/07: Arnold Schwarzenegger is elected governor of California.

10/19: Forty-seven years after he began shooting, Ken Jacobs premieres his epic Star Spangled to Death at the New York Film Festival.


2/27: With more pre-sales than any movie in history, The Passion of the Christ opens for Lent and becomes the highest-grossing independent film of all time.

5/24: Fahrenheit 9/11 snags the Palme d’or at Cannes, sets the record for documentary grosses, and wins John Kerry the 2004 election.

6/05: Ronald Reagan, star of Bedtime for Bonzo, dies in Bel-Air at 93.

8/08: The last living adult star of silent movies, Fay Wray, dies at age 96.

10/29: Saw opens, the first of six installments—with a seventh slated for 2010.


2/02: Pierce Brosnan resigns as James Bond; six months later, Daniel Craig is named as his replacement.

2/25: Diary of a Mad Black Woman introduces Tyler Perry, high school dropout and one-man media conglomerate, to moviegoers. Perry makes lots of money, introduces a confused film industry to the idea of a middle-class black audience.

4/23: First YouTube Video uploaded.

6/17: IFC Center opens with Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know.

8/19: The 40-Year-Old Virgin opens. The Judd Apatow era begins.

9/30: The Weinstein brothers leave Miramax (which remains with Disney).

12/12: Paramount buys DreamWorks for $1.6 billion.


1/24: Disney announces acquisition of Pixar for approximately $7.4 billion.

3/05: Brokeback Mountain loses Best Picture Oscar to Crash.

3/14: A History of Violence is the last major Hollywood film to be released on VHS.

7/06: After 20 years, Roger Ebert makes his final appearance on At the Movies.

11/20: Robert Altman dies.

12/09: The ultimate cult film, Jacques Rivette’s 14-hour Out 1, has its New York premiere at the Museum of the Moving Image, 35 years after it was shown in Paris.

12/15: The first Hollywood film to depict the war in Iraq, Irwin Winkler’s Home of the Brave, opens for the holidays and flops.


2/25: Al Gore wins an Oscar for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

2/25: Netflix announces the billionth DVD delivery. Two years later, the company announces its two billionth.

3/30: Twenty-eight years after it played the Whitney Museum, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep opens at the IFC Center and is acclaimed as a modern American classic.

4: Premiere publishes its last issue—with Will Ferrell (promoting Blades of Glory) on the cover.

5/27: 4 Months, 3 Week and 2 Days (a/k/a The Romanian Abortion Film) wins the Palme d’or at Cannes.

7/30: Art-house maestros Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni die on the same day.

11/05: Hollywood writers go on strike, through 2/12/08.


1/22: Heath Ledger, 28, is found dead of an overdose in his Soho apartment.

7/18: The Dark Knight sets opening weekend record, grossing $158,411,483, en route to worldwide grosses in excess of $1 billion.

10/06: Paramount sells DreamWorks.

10/13: A week after the Dow suffers a five-day 1,874-point decline, 20th Century Fox announces Wall Street sequel.  

11/07: Two Boots Pioneer Theater closes.

12/11: Manoel de Oliveira turns 100, and starts working on Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, his 15th feature of the 21st century.


1/17: Kim’s Video, in the East Village, closes.

2/21: Heath Ledger wins posthumous Oscar for Dark Knight, which has supplanted Return of the King as the decade’s top-grossing movie in North America.

6/10: Andrew Sarris, the dean of American film critics, is laid off by The New York Observer.

8/31: Disney spends $4 billion to buy Marvel Entertainment.

9/26: After 31 years on the lam, Roman Polanski is arrested in Switzerland.

11/09: The New York Times estimates Avatar‘s price tag at nearly a half-billion dollars.

11/20: The Twilight Saga: New Moon has the biggest opening day of all time.

12/09: The Merger of the Century ends: Time Warner and AOL split.

Research: Anna Bak-Kvapil


Real American Zero

Q. I’m enamored of those “Candidate Zero” ads that NetZero is using to plug its cheapo Internet service. Makes me wonder if I’m a total sucker for paying upwards of $20 a month for my AOL dial-up account. What’s the deal with NetZero’s $9.95 plan?

A. The bargain-basement $9.95 service will satisfy your most basic surfing jones, but let’s also take a gander at NetZero‘s $14.95 plan. You still don’t get the full digital experience, but it is cheap and quick. Just don’t get Mr. Roboto started on the customer service for either one.

Granted, AOL’s not much fun, either, not when you’re paying a Jackson or more every month for the privilege of using so-so dial-up. It’s not as slow as back in its laughingstock days, but AOL remains a Mr. Roboto pet peeve—you’d think they’d give you halfway decent speed in exchange for living with that abysmal browser. And, as you note, too many customers get locked into the overpriced $23.90 unlimited plan.

Small wonder that a crop of bargain alternatives have popped up recently. NetZero’s parent company, United Online, also owns the low-priced Juno and BlueLight brands, which offer $9.95 deals, too. (Juno and NetZero also offer a free dial-up plan that makes you stare at a gigantic ad banner and limits your e-mailing to 10 hours a month. Not recommended.) Earthlink has a $10.95 plan through its PeoplePC subsidiary.

But stop Mr. Roboto if you’ve heard this part before: The cheapest services don’t work all that great. There’s ample uptime, but the connections are achingly slow for today’s image-filled Web pages. If you’re a NetZero $9.95er and you try to access a site with high-quality pictures, you better have a Rubik’s Cube or other time-waster at hand; it’s going to take eons for the pages to load.

That’s why it’s worth upgrading to NetZero’s $14.95 plan, which includes acceleration software from SlipStream. Internet accelerators make pages load a lot faster by compressing graphics and photos. It won’t make your connection five times faster, as Candidate Zero so forcefully claims in those cheeky ads, but it’ll at least double the speed, and even triple or quadruple it if you set the compression on high.

The problem with compression, of course, is that it makes images all fuzzy, like you’re viewing them after accidentally inhaling some wood varnish. You’re supposed to right-click on any photos you’d like to see in their true glory, which can be sort of a pain. Also, keep in mind that even with the accelerator, you’re still pretty much out of luck with MP3s or other large media files.

The other downer about NetZero is the tech support, which Mr. Roboto will charitably describe as infuriating. Do they really have to charge $1.95 per minute to speak to a NetZero rep on the phone?

True, there’s online support, but c’mon—haven’t the NetZero pooh-bahs ever read Catch-22? How are customers supposed to query an online techie if they can’t get online in the first place? Not the sort of quandary you want when you’re stuck in Cedar Rapids and need to check your e-mail.

Cooler than iPod, an e-commerce site that specializes in Japan-only gadgets, has been a Mr. Roboto favorite for ages. Whatever’s hot among the teen packs in Shibuya makes its way there, including the Takara ChoroQ audio player. Shaped like a Volkswagen Beetle at just 1.8 ounces, the ChoroQ is even more eye-catching than a certain plain-white MP3 player that’s all the rage. A cool way to earn some sidewalk attention, though only you can decide if it’s worth 279 smackeroos.

I robot, you chatty

Much respect to‘s Japan correspondent for publishing a tidbit about Sony’s Intelligence Dynamics Laboratory. The lab is giving itself five years to create a robot that can function as an effective conversationalist—that is, a robot who can laugh at your tepid jokes, as well as reel off plenty of BS about how the Mets need a better bullpen. Sony claims its conversation ‘bot would be a world’s first, but your humble narrator begs to differ: Mr. Roboto’s been boring cocktail party guests for years.


Phish Bait

Q: My “credit card company”—the quotes are intentional—just sent me an e-mail alert, saying there’s been some unauthorized activity on my account. They’re asking for my card number, so they can verify my identity and cancel the charges. Sounds fishy, right? Is this the real deal, or what?

Repeat after Mr. Roboto: “I, [insert name here], will never, ever, ever transmit my credit card information via e-mail.” The only time you should enter your magic digits is on a secure Web form, and even then you should be vigilant. Kudos, though, for sniffing out one of the hottest scams going nowadays, spoof e-mails that try and tease out your vital financial info. Once you’ve got your guard up, they’re easy to spot, and they can even afford you the chance to sharpen your Internet sleuthing skills.

The Federal Trade Commission refers to this latest e-mail racket as “phishing.” As you noted, it all starts with an alarming e-mail, reputedly from a well-known online enterprise; lots are designed to look like epistles from banks, AOL, or the payment service PayPal. They say something’s wrong with your account and ask for your particulars. For example, a Pennsylvania-based scammer just pled guilty to sending out fake AOL e-mails, which included a link to a phony “AOL billing center.” A couple hundred gullible folks actually entered their credit card numbers. (The lady and her accomplice got rousted when they hit the spammer’s whammy—one of their phishy e-mails ended up in the inbox of an FBI agent.)

So, how do you avoid getting taken? Start by realizing that financial institutions and ISPs usually have policies of never asking for sensitive information over e-mail—and if they don’t, well, perhaps you’d better take your business elsewhere, ja? If you’re really concerned, call the inquisitor’s toll-free number. What, the e-mail doesn’t list one? That’s a tip-off right there, and it leads to one of Mr. Roboto’s most hallowed Laws of Online Security: Never do business with someone who doesn’t provide off-line contact info, preferably of the 1-800 variety.

The more sophisticated phishing bait will feature a clickable link, like the one that guided dupes to the ostensible AOL billing center. Of course, you should always be wary of clicking on e-mail hyperlinks, as they can sometimes conceal worms and other online contagions. Instead, highlight the link and paste it into your browser.

Be aware, though, that it’s pretty easy to make a Web con appear realistic, especially to the untrained eye. Be alert to the lack of a padlock icon at the bottom of the page, which means the form isn’t secured. Hucksters try to blind you to this by oversizing the window, thus obscuring the bottom bar; play around with the window size to get the real skinny. However, this past summer some real sharpies managed to fake the security lock on a shyster PayPal site. This advanced deception can be sussed out by double-clicking on the padlock; the details reveal the true location of the page, probably on some shady ISP you’ve never heard of.

You can also play Encyclopedia Brown by checking out the e-mail source code. Outlook users can do this by right clicking on the message body and selecting “View Source.” Hunt around for the URLs mentioned in the resulting notepad file; you’re likely to find that lots of ’em don’t trace back to the supposed sender.

Also worth a visit is Hoaxbusters (, a government site that lists all the newest scams. If you’d like to be part of the proverbial solution, forward your scam spam to the relevant company—for example, phishy PayPal come-ons can be sent to No guarantee the no-goodniks will be nabbed, as lots of them tend to reside abroad, but it’s worth a shot. While you’re at it, cc the FTC at Get Uncle Sam all riled up.

Mr. Roboto may be made of titanium, but he’s still got feelings of the tingly, climbing-the-rope-at-gym-class variety, dig? So he’s super-excited about the debut of Fleshbot (, a porn blog from the geniuses behind Gawker and Gizmodo. Not safe for work, but otherwise the perfect way to conceal your animal urges beneath a veneer of geek intellectualism.


Diminished Capacity

It may have been the easiest raise ever won in city government. Approximately every two weeks in 2001, someone with access to the computerized payroll system at the city’s Housing Development Corporation typed in a new, higher figure for Russell Harding’s paycheck, a federal investigator said in an affidavit compiled last year.

“The effect of this periodic manual override,” wrote Marcus Castro, a senior special agent with the United States Customs Service, “was to cause the [agency’s] payroll company to issue paychecks to Harding in amounts approximately 10 percent greater than he would have received based upon his approved salary.”

Harding, the son of Liberal Party chief Raymond Harding, was appointed president of the corporation in 1998 by then mayor Rudy Giuliani, who said he’d bring “exceptional skill” to the job. By 2001, Harding’s official salary was $162,780, but records show he inexplicably received $27,000 extra.

The computer manipulation was just one of several schemes revealed in the affidavit, which was prepared last May in support of a search warrant for Harding’s East Side apartment that was placed in court records for the first time last week. Among them:

• Just before resigning from the agency in February 2002, Harding awarded himself a $60,000 bonus—a windfall that was never approved by the corporation’s board of directors, investigators determined. The money was part of a mystery $128,000 check received by Harding that was disclosed by the Voice last year. At the time, officials refused to explain it, citing the investigation. But the affidavit reveals that the check included the bonus plus $68,000 in “unused annual leave.” This was another no-effort scam: Someone electronically “increased the amount of annual leave accrued by Russell Harding from four weeks per year to eight weeks per year,” the affidavit states.

• After the Voice requested Harding’s travel and expense records under the Freedom of Information Law, Harding allegedly ordered his secretary to stop logging all such data in her computer. Instead, Post-Its were used and then shredded at the end of each day.

• In the two weeks before he resigned his position, Harding (apparently unaware of city rules governing document retention) “directed and supervised the shredding of almost all records maintained in his administration, including . . . his schedule, travel and appointments.”

• In the same frantic last days, Harding had agency computer technicians “delete information from [his office] computer in such a fashion as to render the information permanently unrecoverable.”

• Not taking any chances, on his final day in office, Harding allegedly “directly and personally supervised the reformatting of his computer.” It worked. Investigators said they were unable to retrieve “most of the relevant information that had been stored on his computer.”

Harding, 38, now faces a maximum of 45 years in federal prison, stemming from four counts of fraud for allegedly stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the agency and two more counts involving child pornography reputedly found on his home computer. He has pleaded innocent. His explanation, as the Daily News‘ Robert Gearty reported last week, is this: He never meant to do it.

Russell Harding
(photo: Keith Bedford)

“[Harding] intends to introduce expert testimony in support of a defense of diminished capacity and/or mental disease or defect and/or incapacity to form specific intent as to the offenses listed as Counts One through Four of the Indictment,” wrote Harding’s able defense attorney, Gerald Shargel, in court papers attached to motions filed last week.

In medical terms, Harding suffers from “a non-verbal learning disability” stemming from “severe bi-polar disorder,” according to his attorney. To counter the claim, federal prosecutors are seeking Harding’s psychiatric records, including sessions with a shrink while he was at HDC.

Whatever Harding’s malady, it didn’t affect his high-tech interests. According to the affidavit, after Harding resigned, the agency was missing $30,000 worth of electronic equipment, including a 21-inch NEC computer monitor that cost $4,525, four Palm Pilots worth $2,200, three laptops, a $3,200 Compaq desktop computer, and a $920 Blackberry organizer.

Some of those gizmos were recovered from Harding’s apartment, prosecutors charge. What investigators didn’t learn until later was that Harding also had the agency pre-pay $4,482 to cover a year’s rent for a 500-cubic-foot, walk-in storage locker at a Manhattan Mini Storage facility at East 62nd Street and First Avenue, just two blocks from his apartment. By the time agents searched the locker, it was empty.

There was other evidence as well. The affidavit says that a friend of Harding’s told agents about a summer 2000 jaunt to Portland, Oregon, and the Northwest. The friend is identified only as the recipient of a plane ticket to Portland in his name. HDC documents, obtained in the Voice‘s records request, show that person to be Vincent LaPadula, then and now a top City Hall official.

The affidavit described LaPadula’s story this way: “According to the individual in whose name the plane ticket was issued, he met Harding in Portland, and the two men enjoyed several days of leisure time together. He indicated that charges to the Heathman Hotel in Portland, as well as charges for meals and a rental car, were incurred in connection with this personal trip.” All told, Harding charged the agency $4,200 for the excursion, listing his expenses as business related, and LaPadula’s plane ticket as “Bus. Travel per City Hall.”

LaPadula has refused to answer Voice questions about his conduct or to say whether he has reimbursed the city.

Harding’s motion papers don’t directly address the child pornography charges. Instead, attorney Shargel is seeking to have that evidence—a computer disk containing 10 photos and a movie—thrown out of court altogether, a move that would sharply reduce the prison time Harding would face if convicted. The argument here is that the search warrant affidavit pertaining to the porn allegation was based on information from “a demonstrably unreliable source.” The reference is to Fred Sawyers, a spurned former cyberpal who spent more than three years sharing often intimate thoughts with Harding from his home computer in Indianapolis.

Sawyers, 34, cooperated with authorities and shared copies of e-mails and online chats in which Harding allegedly talked about his expense account stunts. The search warrant affidavit refers to Sawyers as a confidential source who “is believed to be reliable because [his information] has been corroborated in numerous instances.”

Sawyers showed investigators (as well as the Voice) original copies of records showing that a $360 DVD player Harding sent to Sawyers in September 2000 was charged to his agency credit card. Agents were also able to confirm that Harding was in fact visiting places, such as San Diego and Las Vegas, at the same time that he was allegedly chatting about his travels with Sawyers. They also received confirmation from America Online that the screen names allegedly used by Harding in the chats (one was “JockCop7”) were listed on Harding’s AOL account.

Shargel, however, says the government “ignored startlingly obvious clues” that Sawyers was fabricating the chats. He points to an inconsistency, revealed last year by the Voice, in a September 2000 chat in which Harding allegedly badmouthed Bill Clinton for locating his office in Harlem. At the time, Clinton was still president and didn’t make the move to Harlem until several months later. Sawyers said he assumed that he had somehow merged separate chats.

In addition, a computer forensics expert hired by Harding has offered an affidavit suggesting that manipulating the chats would be a relatively simple matter and that he had found inconsistencies in the computer-generated headings.

“If you can get a search warrant based on chat rooms and e-mails, then any person with a grudge can have anyone in America searched,” Shargel told the Voice.

Sawyers insists the chats are authentic. “It would be awfully hard for me to make all that up, since I’ve never even been to New York,” he said. For Harding’s trial, however, the matter may be moot. Prosecutors have told the judge that they have no intention of using Sawyers as a witness or entering the chats as evidence at the trial, now scheduled for late September.


What I Like About You

Whenever Mom caught the teenaged me mooning about, she’d put one hand on her forehead and lay the other on the table, palm up: “I, too, am a Suffering Romantic Poet. Woe is me. Now do the dishes.” She was usually right. Most despair doesn’t deserve the name and is often dispatched with a doughnut, a bit of loud music, and some jazzercise.

Most, but not all. For those times when only darkness will bring out the light, there are people like Dr. Nick Cave, High Romantic. There is little distinction between most High Romantics, be they Celine Dion, Sigur Rós, or Nick Cave. They’re all mannered artists with unique voices and dodgy lyrics, but that’s not the important commonality. Romantics are primarily functional, like James Bond movies and hot dogs. When you’re in the mood, nothing else will do. (Personality, texture, and skill all take a powder when the functional functions.) It’s beside the point to say Nick Cave’s late-Elvis hummana-hummana love action is overdone, any more than you would say Vicodin is a lousy picker-upper. That’s not why you take it.

In the introduction to The Complete Lyrics 1978-2002 (Penguin), Cave says, “I have written about 200 songs, the bulk of which I would say were Love Songs. Love Songs, and therefore, by my definition, sad songs.” He goes on to discuss how “sadness of ‘duende’ needs space to breathe. Melancholy hates haste and floats in silence.” The idea that dark truth is better than light truth goes all the way back to 1645 at least, when John Milton gave grudging props to the ‘lincked sweetness’ of easy, sonorous words in his poem “L’Allegro” but reserved his real love for “these pleasures Melancholy give” in “Il Pensoroso.”

This mistaken conflation of the Bummed-Out Individual Experience with the General Truth sapped much of the vigor of rock in the ’90s (out with the Stooges as reference points, in with Leonard Cohen). So much so that, at this point, any rock music that kills the moonlight feels like a Good Thing. The fact remains that music, for most of us, much of the time, is used for comfort. Bad things happen to everyone, allatime, and Timbaland can’t distract you from Donald Rumsfeld forever.

The morning after a Kafka day spent marching toward a rally we never reached and a night spent drinking with people from another planet, Nocturama was a balm. Cave’s molasses ballads take you to a warm spot where the big bad world’s cynicism gets disabled and the numb parts thaw. Well, of course. In Cave’s world love is all around, surviving despite every forecast, and if the lyrics favor love’s labors lost, these are welcome topics after the negligence, selfishness, and 1000 other mundane indignities that sent us into the arms of a Romantic in the first place. Heartbreak is goddamn lemonade next to nothingness.

But Cave’s routine works when it works because of the Bad Seeds. “Still in Love” on Nocturama is rumpled and resonant enough to put across the title (which says it all), and on “Babe I’m on Fire,” the Seeds rock a 14-minute rumpus indebted to Cave’s very good and not very sad work in his fabulous ’80s band the Birthday Party. (He used to be funny—check “A Dead Song.”) When the Cavester gets too studied, the Seeds counter with something raw and hard. But remember—the singer leads the band, and the balance between his theatrical and their intuitive is no 15-year-long coincidence. The Seeds’ shambling cabaret sound was the foundation Cave needed beneath him so he could leap out toward the improbable. Use only as directed.

Cave is Katie Couric next to Michael Gira, a musician for whom humor and moderation are useless. In the early ’80s, he started the ultimate all-or-nothing band, Swans, who actually made good on downtown’s fascination with terror and power. The standard Swans approach was two basses, an unidentified mass of guitar, and Gira’s baritone howl all laying into a drastically slow riff for what felt like an hour. No fun, my babe, no fun, but also kind of beautiful. The excess might suggest a romantic, but Gira’s always been a puritan. His early lyrics combined the disembodied pronouns of Jenny Holzer’s slogans with critical flags (rape, flesh, power, slaves, cops). Repeat it like liturgy and the result is performance-art rock that industrial goths watered down for big bux throughout the ’90s: “Unconscious repression degrades the real thing/You can’t kill a criminal need/When you’re polluted with fear you need comfort/You can’t kill what you don’t see.” My brother went to New York and all he got was this lousy art-rock record!

Everyone else sounded tentative next to the Swans, even if you wanted nothing to do with them. Swans’ ability to return every measure like an ox as strong as the ox they had been five minutes before was no joke. That claustrophobic uni-riff punishment, which mirrored Gira’s nightmares of physical confinement, had run its course by the late ’80s. So he guided Swans toward something like modern plainchant, a move that suggested repentance for all the tinnitus Swans had caused the first time. Swans ended in 1997, and Gira has fused the two phases for his current band, the Angels of Light, who sound not unlike an amateur community orchestra—guitars submerged but grim determination intact. Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, the third AOL album, follows 2001’s near perfect How I Loved You. Gira’s voice is a more powerful instrument than Cave’s, able to go credibly from Barry White implications to unchecked hollering. His lyrics still face the horror, and the subject pronoun is generally “she,” but he’s traded abstractions for people: “She waited too long, then she waited some more. Counting the hours, how much can you hate? And what does she feel, when she finally breaks?”

Wonderfully unpredictable, the Angels of Light sound a bit like a grouchy Eastern European folk band, or the CliffsNotes version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Just when their plodding begins to, you know, plod, a tack piano or harmonica surges up and over the edge of the mix to keep hope alive. (If anyone was going to score the Red Army’s march toward Berlin, it would be the Angels.) The album’s success depends on a great ambient room sound courtesy of Martin Bisi, the guy who recorded a lot of ’80s groovy ghoulie music the first time around.

Gira’s move from Calvinism to Protestantism, so to speak, was a tipping-point move; adding a little air to his vision has made it geometrically easier for the rest of us to join in. He’s playing chicken with some bad, bad forces, driven by the need to figure out how redemption works and what pain is for. They’re the same questions he’s always asked, but he’s listening for the answers now. Whether Gira’s religion is better than Cave’s valentine depends on what ails you. Consult your doctor.


Smoke Gets in Your Thighs

On a normal Tuesday, Taimie Hannum, a 33-year-old former Playboy model (“Say I’m 29”) wakes up just before noon, has her nails and toes trimmed, shops for watermelon or microwave pizza, comes home to her Hollywood apartment, and flips on her “spy” webcam, finally ready to perform her labor: She lights up a Marlboro Light 100.

People pay to watch her, among other things, smoke.

“It’s much easier for me to smoke in the privacy of my own home,” Hannum says while live recently from her Web site, “Especially while it’s being broadcast to the world!” she adds, gingerly blowing smoke rings at her webcam.

As New York and other cities try to ban smoking in public places like parks and beaches, there may be few places but the Web for smokers to congregate.

“As physical public space becomes increasingly inhospitable to smokers, it’s quite natural that they would shift to virtual public space,” says Dr. William J. Mitchell, MIT Dean of Architecture and Planning and author of City of Bits and e-topia, books that discuss how digital communities will transform the shape of urban areas.

“Virtual smoking,” he adds, “may not be such a bad thing. Smokers get to smoke in peace, and they don’t bother the rest of us in doing so.”

Not a bad point. Why not take a five-minute smoke break at Even non-smokers can get some virtual secondhand smoke, courtesy of “Want to see people smoke, but don’t want to have to breathe in those nasty cancer-filled fumes?” the latter site’s designers ask. “Now you can see cigarettes in action with the handy Ashtray Cam.”

Virtual smoking has turned into a giant industry. Hold your breath and type “smoking” and “fetish” into any browser, and you’re liable to get over 100,000 hits. Pregnant women puff down at, and other sites offer amateur short stories revolving around virgin smokers and carcinogenic fantasies.

Naturally, smoking also spills into other identities. “As a lesbian with a fetish for cigarette smoking,” one person writes on an AOL message board, “I tend to focus primarily on the awareness of my shared ‘identity’ as a ‘smoker’ with other smoking women, especially those that are similar to me in terms of being feminine and sensually aware of their OWN smoking.

“I am further enraptured by the thought that whenever I smoke a particular cigarette, I am having essentially the same sensual experience as any other woman in the world who is smoking the same brand of cigarette at the same time that I am; we share a sort of deeply intimate bond inside our bodies that transcends all distance . . . thinking about these things drives me wild!!!”

However, Mike Williams, editor of the smoking fetish magazine Smoke Signals, says the pictures and visual fantasies posted on his site don’t necessarily have to do with nudity or sex. “My readers,” he explains, “would much rather see a regular man or woman French inhaling than the most beautiful woman in the universe just holding a cigarette.”

Taimie Hannum, on the other hand, does it all. Once a week she puts on a special show in front of her “naughty cam.” Her favorite trick? “Smoky blowjobs, definitely,” she says. “I can also smoke out of—well, you know, my private parts—if I want. I’ve trained my muscles to inhale and ex.”

Normally, she just hangs out at home and does nothing, with the webcam running. On a recent evening on the spy cam, Hannum, naked but for a skimpy tube top dangling around her neck, could be seen chatting up a few of her cyber-smoking fans, watching TV, and sucking on a bottle of Corona. “This is just my everyday life,” she explains, writhing on her office chair, rocking it back and forth doggy-style. “One day my friends said, ‘Taimie, you might has well get paid for this.’ ”

And she does, claiming to make over six figures a year—not all of it, of course, from smoking online. “It’s great,” she says. “I don’t have to do any real work and I can sit here and chill and smoke and talk to different people.”

Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-smoking crusade is “absurd,” she says. “Outside. Way outside.” Her fans, questioned in her chat room, say the same thing, more or less. Some deride the “thought and action police” for “taking things too far,” or they compare it to Prohibition. Others blame the “damn hippies” or the “damn liberals.” And then there are those who just can’t help themselves when it comes to either Taimie or smoking. “I’m against smoking in public places cuz I have a two-year-old—but I want you [Taimie] to smoke wherever your fine azz wants,” one fan writes. Another adds, “I’d like to quit, but when I see a girl like Taimie, it just slips my mind.” The guy with the two-year-old finally admits, “Dude, you’re asking the wrong group of guys—we’re about as deep as a saucer.”

Others can provide the deep stuff. Sally Schwager, for instance, is both a psychologist and a former smoker, so she can see how cyber-smoking could develop. “Some people have places inside them that feel empty, like there’s something missing, like there’s a literal hole inside their body,” she says. “To feel better, they unconsciously look for stuff to fill in the holes in their body: eating, drinking, other people, and now, obsessive Internet use coupled with smoking—it’s anything they go after addictively.”

Schwager says she has a friend who, in the moment of drawing smoke into her lungs, feels like she’s being hugged. “Her hole is the feeling of lack of love,” says Schwager. “Even a dim awareness of it causes anxiety, and she reaches for a cigarette. Literally, she tries to plug the hole up.”

But nothing’s forever. Even Taimie Hannum’s smoking gig. “I think of quitting all the time, for my health, and for my boyfriends that don’t smoke,” she says. “But for now, I think I’ll continue to show the wilder side.”



• • • art

Before applying brush to canvas or chisel to stone, you might—or might not—need to know what art is in the first place. Along with courses on Native American art, performance art, and 20th-century artists, the New School (229-5600) is taking it back to basics with a course on what art is anyway. The class will discuss how definitions of art, and its role in society, have changed over the course of history, and will look at recent attacks on art funding in the United States.

Collage is one of the most important art forms of the new millennium. Or so says the School of Visual Arts (592-2000), which is devoting a course to the medium this fall. Mosaic, cut paper, mixed-media and photomontage will be covered.

If a less high art is more of interest, Hunter College (650-3850) offers instruction in “basic drawing for graphic communication.” The class, “Cartoon & Caricature,” is taught by Irwin Hasen, creator of Dondi and the Green Lantern. —Kurt Gottschalk

• • • cooking

Every fine wine starts with good dirt. Andrew Harwood (917-838-8591; has had plenty of fertile soil on his hands. He’s made wine in Hungary, France, and California, and now teaches a semiweekly wine appreciation course that emphasizes understanding wine “from the ground up.”

Sharpening your skills through cutting class: This would be an oxymoron anywhere but at the New School (255-4141;, which offers a one-day “Knife Skills Workshop’’ for those interested in chopping, mincing, slicing, boning, carving, and filleting like a TV chef.

Dare to surpass Smuckers, transcend Welch’s, and put Bonne Maman back on the étagère. The Institute of Culinary Education (847-0770) provides “Jams, Jellies and Preserves,” a one-day crash course in preserving berries, apples, and other fruits. Grandma would be proud. —Danial Adkison

• • • dance

“Belly dancing, to me, is a uniquely feminine form of expression—unfathomably deep and powerful, yet playful and joyous at the same time,” says Stella Grey, who teaches the Middle Eastern dance at the New York Open Center and the 92nd Street Y. Contact her for her private classes at a Tribeca loft: 541-5054. Cost: $10-$15 a class.

Mamadou Dahoue, who danced with the National Ballet of Côte d’Ivoire, is from a family of traditional masked dancers, teaches the distinctive leaps and bounds of West African dance with live drummers on Thursdays and Saturdays at the Rod Rodgers Dance Studios on East 4th Street (674-9066). Cost: $12 a class.

Beginners and those with physical challenges are welcome at the New York Contact Jam (Monday nights at the Children’s Aid Society in Greenwich Village; $5 donation) to experience the wild, early-’70s–born communal modern dance form known as contact improvisation. Contact Jim Dowling (718-768-3492) or go to for info on classes and jams. —Anya Kamenetz

• • •

Augusto Boal developed the Theater of the Oppressed to serve political groups in Latin America, helping them to seek solutions through direct action. In this workshop at the Brecht Forum (242-4201;, on September 21 and 22, you can learn the same problem-posing techniques that have been utilized by organizers for decades. Explore the role of power, learn how to transform the spectator into a participant, and find ways to build consensus. Cost: $60-75, sliding scale.

You may not master the art that dare not speak its name, but you can certainly try to get inside the comedy. In the New School’s “Mime and Comedy Workshop” ( on September 28, you’ll start off learning how to slam a hand into a window, or how to trip on a rug, and then graduate into breaking a priceless vase or choking during opera singing. Cost: $80.

The projector is broken, and the needle on your record player just snapped. A roomful of guests and no entertainment. Time for some face-to-face storytelling. At the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies (998-7200;, from September 25 to December 4, you can learn the complex process of incorporating voice, body, and movement and adapt the folklore performance of your ancestors. You’ll be prepared for anything. Cost: $415. —Ariston Anderson

• • • fashion

So you’ve finally found the closet apartment of your dreams. Now the only problem is how to add a few decorations while still being able to maneuver around the 4 x 6 space. Learn the secrets of the pros at NYU’s “Interior Design: Manhattan Style” (, from September 18 to October 9, and master the secrets of lighting, color, storage, and furniture. Recent classes have visited apartments by Jamie Drake and Clodagh. Cost: $235.

You’ve spent 18 years in the PR industry. And yet your closet is full of handmade designs, and your desk crowded with patterns and prints. It’s time to quit your office stint and chase after your natural calling. Start at the Fashion Institute of Technology (, the place to learn the industry. With “Image Consulting” or “Decorative and Wearable Arts,” you’ll be able to make up for lost time.

At the Learning Annex’s “How to Start Your Own Cosmetics Line” ( on Tuesday, September 24, makeup gurus Anthony Gill and Christina Bornstein show you how to capitalize on your homemade pomegranate lipstick and turn it into your own company. They’ll give you the lowdown on their own visualization technique for success, as well as provide advice for every business starter. Cost: $49. —Ariston Anderson

• • • film

For the past week your kitchen has been full of pie tin flying saucers and ketchup blood, and you forced your own mother to hold up the Super-8 camera while you dragged your G.I. Joes across the linoleum floor. There’s a little more to it than that. The New School’s “Independent Filmmaking from A to Z” ( gives you the ins and outs of everything you need to know, from directing to producing, and yes, even how to make a masterpiece with a low budget. Course begins September 18. Cost: $425.

If you’re serious about breaking into the biz, get it all through the Digital Film Academy‘s 14-week course (333-4013). They’re the only school that starts you off writing your own screenplay, which they’ll copyright. Then you’ll move into directing, complete with live talent. On top of that you’ll get 24-7 unlimited lab time and master three editing forms; when your movie’s complete, they’ll teach you Web streaming and DVD authoring.

TV sucks, but you can change that. DV Dojo (477-2299; favors revolutionizing video. Whether you’re ready to dive into a career in digital video, or want to start with night classes, this Lower East Side school has a variety of workshops to fit your schedule, as well as regular screenings. You’ll make several beginning projects in the five-week, full-time course, which begins on September 3 or October 7. Get the lowdown on shooting and editing as well as broadcasting and film festivals in the eight-week evening course, which begins on September 2. —Ariston Anderson

• • • finance

Get started in the sizzling-hot creative bookkeeping field now with “Fundamentals of Accounting” at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (998-7080;, Monday evenings from September 23 to November 25. Tighten your belt, though, ‘cause this prerequisite for more advanced courses costs $655—shredder not included.

The six-hour “One-Day MBA Workshop: Practical Knowledge It Takes Years to Learn in Biz School” at the Learning Annex (; 371-0280)
on August 24 runs $124. Learning good business planning from a CEO who’s made good by. . . teaching folks good business planning sounds. . . good, but the
circularity’s distracting; Dale Carnegie, eat your heart out.

Leave it to Borough of Manhattan Community College (220-8350; to give it to you under budget during these grizzly-market times: “The ABC’s of Investing” has two-day sections for $50—that’s four AOL shares plus change—beginning in October, surveying basic investment outlets plus education and retirement finance. —E. McMurtrie

• • • international study

If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. So why not try Vietnam, South Africa, or Nicaragua? The School for International Training (888-272-7881; specializes in semester-long study-abroad programs like “Revolution, Transformation, and Civil Society in Nicaragua.”

International studies heavyweight Columbia University gives select non-degree students the opportunity to take such courses as “Politics and Society of Pakistan’’ and “Human Rights in Post-Soviet Eurasia’’ through its Continuing Education and Special Programs division. (854-9699;

If you aren’t the type who could spend a semester unravelling the intricacies of Uzbek monetary policy, try the smorgasbord at the 92nd Street Y (415-5500; “Great Decisions 2002,” a foreign affairs colloquium that shifts its focus for each of eight weekly sessions. —Danial Adkison

• • • language

Voulez-vous parler avec moi? At the French Institute/Alliance Française (355-6100;, serious classes at several levels of difficulty and intensity will have you pronouncing the wine list in no time. Registration for the fall term begins September 17. (Cost: $400)

NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (998-7080; offers three-week intensives for $995 in standard Arabic, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish; you study in the classroom and practice on field trips to ethnic neighborhoods. They teach over 25 languages, in a broad range of schedules and formats.

The Lexington School for the Deaf/Center for the Deaf in Queens (718-899-8800; teaches American Sign Language classes, two hours a week, to the general public as well as staff and parents of Lexington students. Register early for the $120 nine-week session. —Anya Kamenetz

• • • music

Picking up where 1970s matchbook covers left off, Hunter College (772-4490) will help you turn your poems into songs. Their lyric-writing course, through the Music Department, promises to help hone your heartfelt verse into commercial product and to help composers learn to work with lyricists.

The New School (229-5600) doesn’t just offer instrument instruction and appreciation courses (Al Jolson, Bob Dylan, and a reggae primer), but will make you an audio engineer as well. A five-course sequence covers the nuts and bolts of engineering, using Pro Tools, producing pop and hip-hop, and an internship.

If a percussion orchestra at your fingertips is what you’re after, tabla master Samir Chatterjee offers classes at Lotus Music & Dance (718-335-3465) in the small Indian drums that can make you sound like you’re hearing a trumpet here, a cat there—the high-speed patterns behind traditional ragas. —Kurt Gottschalk

• • • nature

If you think New York would be the worst place to study botany, than you’ve never been to the New York Botanical Garden. Offering over 750 courses, the garden has been teaching the ways of plants for over 70 years. With “Great Women in the Garden” (September 8, $35) you’ll learn the secrets of the world’s greatest female horticulturists. In “Plants That Changed History” (September 14, $35) you’ll discover how plants have radically altered commerce, medicine, and even stories of love and war. Visit or call 718-817-8747.

The average American uses more than twice the amount of land resources than the average European. Fortunately there is Vermont’s Institute for Social Ecology (802-454-8493;, an independent institution for activists. “Ecological Land Use” explores organic agriculture and permaculture with the goal of creating a self-sustaining community. Don’t let the “free society” fool you, though. The programs carry university-sized fees ($8900 for the fall semester), so look into their financial aid packages.

Strengthen your gardening skills while adding a little color to your neighborhood. Since 1978, GreenThumb (788-8070) has transformed vacant land into community spaces. It is the nation’s largest urban gardening program, with over 650 groups in all five boroughs. GreenThumb provides resources, materials, and seasonal workshops to jump-start groups and individuals. —Ariston Anderson

• • • photo

Somewhere between your old Instamatic and the age of digital was the Poloroid era. The International Center of Photography (857-0001) offers a weekend course in October on the creative use of Polaroid materials. Previous coursework at the center, or a portfolio review, is required.

Is there anything better to catch in a shutter than New York? The city loves to be photographed, and a nine-session course at the New School (229-5600) will use the city as its model, looking for patterns, colors, and shapes in field trips from the river to the parks.

And if New York is the place, the last year has certainly been the time. The School of Visual Arts (592-2000) offers instruction to budding documentarians in “Photography on Assignment: Witness to Our Times.” The class covers researching subjects, building a portfolio, and aspects of working in the publishing world. —Kurt Gottschalk

• • • religion

The Tibetan Studies Program at Professor Robert Thurman’s Tibet House ( offers meditation instruction, courses based on the Dalai Lama’s teachings, and a variety of lectures on dharma East and West. Call the New York Open Center to register at 219-2527. Cost: $20 per session.

Evening classes at the New York Kollel (Hebrew for “community”) at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (674-5300, ext. 272; cover fundamentals—liturgy, history, theology, major Jewish texts in a “transdenominational, pluralistic, egalitarian environment.” Ask about their comprehensive Mechinah program. Cost: $160 for a five-week class.

The international Theosophical Society (753-3835;, founded in New York in 1875, sponsors study of various aspects of the universal “Wisdom Tradition” through their Quest Bookshop (758-5521) in midtown. Discover the fundamental unity of existence, as revealed through various religions and ancient wisdom. —Anya Kamenetz

• • • sports

David Lee Roth recently disclosed a yen for kendo, the sport of Japanese fencing. Intrigued? The New York City Kendo Club (874-6161) holds beginners sessions Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6:30 to 8 p.m. If you adopt the Way of the Sword, regular practice is $80 per month—cheaper than Van Halen reunion tix.

Sailing lessons from friends or loved ones can entail plenty o’ cussing. The nonprofit New York City Community Sailing Association (Port Imperial Marina, Weehawken, New Jersey; takes lubbers on gentle three-hour “Introduction to Sailing” jaunts for 30 clams; a $300 “Basic Keelboat” course advances you toward ASA certification. Remember: The icebergs are melting.

World Cup fever’s fine on TV, but your own fifth-grade soccer skills need upgrading. The Field House at Chelsea Piers (336-6500; hosts adult league play for skill levels (like “over 30”) this fall; registration starts August 26, and the season’s $200 per head. —E. McMurtrie

• • •

Looking to receive expertise in a less formal, yet productive environment? Louis Reyes Rivera (, author and co-editor of Bum Rush the Page, gives an all-inclusive workshop at Sistas’ Place in Brooklyn starting September 1. Contributions are accepted in lieu of an enrollment fee!

Do you feel you didn’t get that perfect promotion due to your hang-ups with assertiveness? If so, you don’t need counseling to pinpoint your issuesjust attend Ken Wydro’s “Write Yourself” at the Harlem Institute for Higher Learning (280-1045), starting October 9. Cost: $125

It’s time for a lot of us closet writers to put down the latest Anne Rice book and get to work on our own. Do it at Pace University’s “Introduction to Creative Writing” (346-1244;, starting October 14. This course will utilize exciting methods like visual imagery and aromatics. Students will develop their talent through memoirs, short stories, and journals. Cost: $265.
—Celeste Doaks



Q: I’ve had it with Internet Explorer—the browser crashes, like, every two minutes, and it’s lousy with video. I tried the latest Netscape, but all the AOL add-ons give me the willies. Any alternatives?

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer is, indeed, a maddening piece of code. Crammed with useless features and obscure plug-ins, it’s about as reliable as a $10 Rolex knockoff. Netscape’s sturdier, but has gotten bloated since AOL took over. Still, 98.7 percent of surfers use one of the behemoths, according to the research firm OneStat.

Don’t get freaked by the whopping numbers. The Web teems with excellent alterna-browsers that’ll make you regret sticking with Explorer for lo these many years. If you can spare 10 megabytes, give one of the indies a test drive. That’s what Mr. Roboto did last week, putting three popular upstarts through their paces. One flunked badly, but two get gold stars for speed and value.

The laggard was NeoPlanet (, the browser equivalent of an over-tanned dating-show contestant. The appearance is lovely, with a sleek tool bar (available in 595 different color schemes) and a disembodied female voice cooing, “Welcome to NeoPlanet!” It also aims to make sense of mistyped URLs, a godsend for stubby-fingered keyboardists. But NeoPlanet’s a bit of a con; it needs to run atop Internet Explorer, so forget about trashing your built-in browser. A slowpoke on big downloads—Mr. Roboto made coffee while waiting for one Acrobat file—it tried to log on automatically after every reboot. Oh, and there’s no Mac or Linux version. Goodbye, and good riddance.

Norway’s Opera ( was a big step up in terms of speed. Streaming videos, JPEGs, WAV sounds—Opera powered through every multimedia task with flair. The keyboard shortcuts also delighted, especially the ability to toggle graphics on and off with a press of the G, a must-have if you’d prefer to save your color printer some needless wear and tear. Best of all, it’s able to fool Web sites into thinking you’re using Explorer, which means pages rarely render incorrectly.

The free version of Opera is ad-supported, so you’ll either have to deal with banners or ante up the $39 purchase fee. Mr. Roboto didn’t take the plunge (note to editor: how ’bout an expense account?), but word is the pay version features a less cluttered tool bar. Let’s hope so—the freeware’s a visual mess.

Rounding out the trio was Mozilla (, an open-source version of Netscape. If you’re of a certain age, it’ll conjure up memories of your first Web forays, when browsers were still simpler than fighter jets. Mozilla’s performance was top rate, on par with Opera in terms of multimedia. It can’t mimic Explorer, however, so sites like the Microsoft-funded Slate loaded poorly, and there were issues with a few e-mail services. Neophytes might find the options a bit user-unfriendly; changing the security levels, for example, is trickier than sliding Explorer’s tabs from “medium” to “high.”

Mozilla makes up for the geekery with the coolest feature of the bunch—a pop-up killer that zaps any unrequested window. Opera has an ad buster, too, but it’s skittish, killing too many windows you actually need. That’s not the case in Mozilla, which’ll spare you the worst commercial excesses.

So which should you go for, Opera or Mozilla? Depends on your tastes—the former if speed and accessibility are priorities, the latter if you prefer smooth interfaces and smart features. Mr. Roboto wavered, but Mozilla’s the one he kept. Perhaps he was subconsciously swayed by the browser’s mascot, a fire-breathing dragon reminiscent of Lizzie from the ’80s video game Rampage. Sometimes it’s the little things that count.

Cracking Microsoft’s Xbox has been a hacker Holy Grail since the gaming console debuted last year. MIT student Andrew Huang has finally figured it out. Last month he published a paper detailing how he snagged the software “key” with a homemade circuit board. Huang’s keeping the key secret for now, lest he run afoul of copyright laws. But he’s creating a legal boot disk that’ll let hackers write their own Xbox programs. The joys of controlling your toaster with a joystick are, of course, obvious.

Input questions at