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Delirium conjunctivitis

Ellen Marakowitz (anthropologist, Columbia University; independent researcher); Alicia Svigals (Klezmatics violinist); Benjamin, 2 1/2
Income: $100,000 to $135,000 (combined)
Health insurance: Ellen and Benjamin provided by one of Ellen’s employers; Alicia $325/mo.
Rent: $1452/mo.
Utilities: $85/mo.
Phone: $120/mo.
Food: $1200/mo.
Transportation: $400/mo.

“The intrauterine insemination was a bargain!” pregnant Alicia Svigals said, talking about her recent experience. “$175 for the prewashed sperm, $25 for thawing, and $150 for the procedure—less than a month of child care!”

A financial discussion was going on in the dining room of the family’s rambling Upper West Side apartment. Benjamin, 2 l/2, came in with his savings in a polka-dot blue piggy bank.

Alicia, 35, is expecting a child in January. Benjamin was born to Alicia’s partner Ellen Marakowitz, 40. The sperm for both children came from the same anonymous donor. Because of the high costs of having children, Alicia and Ellen are thinking about money more than ever.

Back in 1989 they were investing heavily in a French restaurant—by eating there all the time. “All our money was going to Les Routiers with no returns,” Alicia said. “We had just met. We were living across the hall from each other. I was earning $23,000 as a secretary. Ellen was still a grad student. We were starting our romance, so we were having fun. We ended up with a rather substantial credit card debt.”

The debt is nearly gone, Ellen said. She handles all their money. “Ellen finds money an emotional topic. Maybe because it was a female job in her family,” Alicia said.

Ellen, the daughter of a chemical plant manager in North Muskegon, Michigan, remembers that when her father was dying, he said everything they had financially was due to her mother’s management.

Alicia grew up in an eight-room colonial house in Spring Valley, New York. Her father and mother were, respectively, arts superintendent and special-ed evaluator for the NYC Board of Education. For whatever reason, Alicia is slightly more nonchalant about money. Once Ellen found a $2500 check that had been sitting for weeks in Alicia’s violin case.

Ellen wanted to merge their finances on the first date. “But I held off,” Alicia said. “You know, later I found out about an interesting mathematical theory about merging. I call it Svigals Law. If you’re a couple and at some point you merge, it comes out to be the exact same thing as if you merged your money on your first date. It all mushes together. Before we merged, we would keep these elaborate records of who owed who. It would take hours and hours of calculations and often it would come out that somebody owed somebody 36 cents.”

They were driven to finally merge by conjunctivitis. “We were both horribly sick with 104-degree fevers. There was no one to take care of us except each other. At that moment, we decided to merge.”

Now their lump sum of money is going primarily to pay babysitters. Though Alicia said they spend at least 30 hours a week each on child care—more than most of their peers who have nannies—babysitting ran more than $13,000 last year. When Benjamin is in preschool and their second child is born, they will be paying $16,000 to $18,000. They are also planning second-parent adoptions, legally adopting each other’s biological child, which can run $3000 to $5000 a piece. Ellen said, “We’ve waited because we thought it might be more financially efficient to do them together.”

Then there are the therapy bills. Alicia goes twice a week, which comes out to $7500 a year. The family has two other counselors, making a total of $11,860.

“But we’re doing all the therapy so the children won’t have to,” Alicia said, sliding down in the dining room chair, a little morning sick but smiling.

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Ground Zero

Back in April, Columbia University applied for a key $10 million National Science Foundation grant to reshape the school’s technology program–and potentially the city itself. The New York new media industry has exploded to almost $5.7 billion in revenues, but those profits hinge on surplus dollars from advertising budgets. By creating a digital storytelling and engineering hub called the New Media Technology Center, Columbia hopes to draw world-class talent into a nexus of hardware and software innovation, a kind of answer to MIT’s Media Lab.

While the result of the process won’t become public until March, recent augurs aren’t good: no NSF representatives have dropped by for the required site visit, all Columbia contacts quickly defer inquiries to the program director, and– as if to prepare grad students for a shriveling research teat–a flyer prominently displayed on the front door of the Shapiro Engineering Research facility reads, ”Starting a high tech company? It sure beats a real job.”

But perhaps the solution to New York’s technology development gap isn’t a massive new Ph.D. Parnassus. While the NSF grant is important, it’s not life or death: the city already has a handful of booming technology research labs, churning out patents and companies with rising speed–they just have yet to hit big. As the biggest player in the city, Columbia’s Innovation Enterprise office, which helps create businesses from academic projects, counts 13 companies spun off from patents developed at the university.

As behooves the city’s oldest university, Columbia is thinking largely long-term with its mountain of technology, and that might be risky. The impressive Augmented Reality unit–designed by associate professor of computer science Steve Feiner, professor of architecture Tony Webster, and two students–rests somewhere between immersive virtual reality and the Zagat Survey, providing instructions and details about the user’s local area through goggles where information is projected. But even Feiner admits it will take about 10 to 15 years for the product to reach the market. Who knows where VR technology coming out of the private industry will be by that point?

Meanwhile, one of the city’s rising research stars is NYU’s Center for Advanced Technology, a tiny, feisty four-year-old lab that plays the funky start-up to Columbia’s more staid, stoic IBM. NYU’s lab, one of 13 different CAT ventures across New York State, is funded by $1 million from the State Science and Technology Foundation and another million from private industry. (They did not apply for the $10 million NSF grant because NYU does not have a strong engineering program, generally a prerequisite for the funds.) It’s the kind of place where one of the head research scientists has an eyebrow ring and can’t make a morning meeting because he’s got to go to the gym. The CAT lab staff is fiercely entrepreneurial, prepared to make cold calls to get its technologies out into the market.

Run by Academy Award–winning software engineer Ken Perlin (whose texture-mapping work is now the industry standard), CAT is poised to become a technology-licensing engine. Jimm Burris, CAT’s ”technology transfer” officer, puts it bluntly: ”We’re product-focused.” In addition to vetting dozens and dozens of patentable advances from the medical and computer science departments, CAT, in conjunction with NYU’s Media Research Lab, is leading a two-pronged charge on two shibboleths of the industry, Windows and the video game Tomb Raider.

”I’m interested in moving beyond the Windows standard, and one plausible answer is 3-D,” says CAT project scientist Jon Meyer. ”But I don’t want to be reading e-mail in 3-D.” To challenge the Microsoft metaphor, Perlin’s PAD interface software lets users zoom into documents for information, allowing each single character to contain its own screen of information ad infinitum. It gives the sensation of falling into the screen or having the power to pass a magnifying glass over a document to reveal new layers of information beneath. ”Nesting” content this way stands to radicalize our understanding of the desktop.

CAT’s other major initiative, IMPROV, has clear potential for the video game industry. Currently, rendered bodies like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft move through redundant animation cycles with limited range of motion. But the IMPROV software gives polygonal figures–avatars–a huge boost in sophistication. Users can drive the animations’ movements in new ways, making them pirouette or swing-kick. When left alone, the animations could even busy themselves by tapping their feet and smoking.

Essentially, the center is about turning NYU’s engineers into entrepreneurs and vice versa. ”We’re the bridge between a complex university and a complex business world,” says Burris–just don’t call what he does public relations. ”Universities don’t do marketing. We call it ‘development.”’