Saturday, March 18, 2006

It only takes one.

Wanted: A Few Good Sperm


One day last October, Karyn, a 39-year-old executive, pulled her online dating profile off JDate and, two sites she had been using, along with an endless series of leads, tips and blind dates arranged by friends and colleagues, to search for a man she wanted to marry and raise a family with. At long last, after something like 100 dates in the past 10 years and several serious relationships, she had found the man she refers to, tongue only slightly in cheek, as "the one." It all began last summer, when she broke off a relationship with a younger man who wasn't ready for children and got serious about the idea of conceiving on her own. She gathered information about fertility doctors and sperm banks. "Then a childhood friend of mine was over," she told me. "I pulled up the Web site of the only sperm bank that I know of that has adult photos. There happened to be one Jewish person. I pulled up the photo, and I looked at my friend, and I looked at his picture, and I said, 'Oh, my God.' I can't say love at first sight, because, you know. But he was the one."

Sperm donors, like online daters, answer myriad questions about heroes, hobbies and favorite things. Karyn read her donor's profile and liked what she saw. "You can tell he comes from a warm family, some very educated," she said. He had worked as a chef. He had "proven fertility," meaning that at least one woman conceived using his sperm. Like all sperm donors, he was free from any sexually transmitted diseases or testable genetic disorders. "People in New York change sex partners quicker than the crosstown bus," Karyn said. "I'd be a lot more concerned about my date next week." But she especially liked the fact that he was an identity-release donor (also called an "open donor" or a "yes donor") — a growing and extremely popular category of sperm donors who are willing to be contacted by any offspring who reach the age of 18.

The next morning, Karyn called the bank and spoke with a woman who worked there. "She said: 'I have to be honest. He's very popular, and I only have eight units in store right now. I'm not sure how much longer he might be in the program,"' Karyn told me. "Most women in New York impulse-buy Manolo Blahniks, and I said, 'I'll take the eight units.' It was $3,100." The price included six months of storage.

That hefty purchase, and the strong sense of connection she felt to the donor, galvanized Karyn: she made an appointment with a reproductive endocrinologist and gave up alcohol and caffeine. At work, she took on a position of greater responsibility and longer hours — with a higher salary — to save money. She went on a wait list to buy more of the donor's sperm when it became available. (All donor sperm must be quarantined for six months — the maximum incubation period for H.I.V. — so that the donor can be retested for the disease before it is released.) She told her parents and married sister what was going on, e-mailing the donor's picture to her father with an invitation that he meet his son-in-law. She also printed the donor's picture and kept it on the coffee table of her Manhattan studio apartment, where she sleeps in a Murphy bed. "I kind of glance at it as I pass," she said of the picture. "It's almost like when you date someone, and you keep looking at them, and you're, like, Are they cute? But every time I pass, I'm, like, Oh, he's really cute. It's a comforting feeling."

When I suggested that she must be a type who is prone to love at first sight, she just laughed. "With online dating, friends used to say: 'What about him? What about him?' I'd say: 'Don't like the nose. Ah, the eyes are a little buggy. He really likes to golf, and you know I don't like golfing.' There was always something. If I said this about everyone," she concluded, "I would have married someone about 75 dates ago."

Karyn said she hoped to join a population of women that everyone agrees is expanding, although by how much is hard to pin down because single mothers by choice (or choice mothers), as they are sometimes called, aren't separated statistically from, say, babies born to unwed teenagers. Between 1999 and 2003 there was an almost 17 percent jump in the number of babies born to unmarried women between ages 30 and 44 in America, according to the National Center for Human Statistics, while the number born to unmarried women between 15 and 24 actually decreased by nearly 6 percent. Single Mothers by Choice, a 25-year-old support group, took in nearly double the number of new members in 2005 as it did 10 years ago, and its roughly 4,000 current members include women in Israel, Australia and Switzerland. The California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the country, owed a third of its business to single women in 2005, shipping them 9,600 vials of sperm, each good for one insemination.

As recently as the early 60's, a "respectable" woman needed to be married just to have sex, not to speak of children; a child born out of wedlock was a source of deepest shame. Yet this radical social change feels strangely inevitable; nearly a third of American households are headed by women alone, many of whom not only raise their children on their own but also support them. All that remains is conception, and it is small wonder that women have begun chipping away at needing a man for that — especially after Sylvia Ann Hewlett's controversial 2002 book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," sounded alarms about declining fertility rates in women over 35. The Internet is also a factor; as well as holding meetings through local chapters around the country, Single Mothers by Choice hosts 11 Listservs, each addressing a different aspect of single motherhood. Women around the world pore over these lists, exchanging tips and information, selling one another leftover vials of sperm. (Once sperm has shipped, it can't be returned to the bank.) Karyn found both her sperm bank and reproductive endocrinologist on these Listservs. Three-quarters of the members of Single Mothers by Choice choose to conceive with donor sperm, as lesbian couples have been doing for many years — adoption is costly, slow-moving and often biased against single people. Buying sperm over the Internet, on the other hand, is not much different from buying shoes.

In the 25 years since she founded Single Mothers by Choice after becoming pregnant by accident, Jane Mattes, now 62, has seen her group's membership conceiving at younger ages (the median age among members is 36) and more often having second children. But the biggest change, Mattes says, is that the stigma attached to this form of single motherhood has largely faded. "People used to come into our meetings literally afraid to walk in," she told me. "We don't see that as much anymore. Everyone seems to know somebody who did it, which wasn't the case even 10 years ago."

Karyn, who asked that I use only her middle name, never imagined her life unfolding in this way, she told me over dinner at Caliente Cab, where we sat outdoors on an unseasonably warm November night. She has big blue-green eyes, shiny brown hair past her shoulders and an ironic appreciation of certain parallels between her life and Carrie Bradshaw's. She has always known she wanted to marry and have kids. "I certainly never thought I would be the last one standing," she said. "You feel a little bit resentful, like, Gosh, how did I get here? Blind date after blind date — why can't it be easy for me like it was for other people? Right up until I ordered the sperm and made the doctor's appointment, I was filled with anxiety. I felt sad, overwhelmed. Now I'm completely at peace with it."

In the month since we had first talked, she had seen the reproductive endocrinologist and received a clean bill of health. Her hormone levels looked excellent. She planned to have her first insemination in December. Her decision had meshed seamlessly with what had been, until now, a conventional life; her parents were driving in from Long Island the next morning to take her for a medical test to check that her fallopian tubes were clear. Of her mother, Karyn said: "She used to call me once a week with a blind date. Now she'll call once a week with a friend of a friend of a friend who has a daughter who became a single mother by choice."

Karyn carried a wallet-size copy of the donor's photo between her MetroCard and her work ID: a fair, sharp-featured young man in a crisp white shirt, his arms crossed. In the past month, she had had a couple of residual online dates, but now she seemed relieved to let that go. "People would say, 'Oh, it's just a date — don't expect anything,"' she said, sipping her ice water. "'Just go out and have a good time.' But then you'd get four calls that night: How was it? What did you think? Did you like him? Why wouldn't you go out with him again? There was so much pressure. It became a job." Online dating has, if anything, made the search for a partner more callous and mystifying than ever; disappearing has become so easy. "I imagine one day when I get to heaven there will be a whole room full of missing socks and men :)," Karyn once wrote to me in an e-mail message. "I hope the men will be wearing the socks."

Now, as we sat outside, she said: "There's nothing I'd like more in life than to have the whole picture and to share it all. To have the baby, to have the miniwagon, to have the husband, morning soccer games and P.T.A. — he's out manning the grill, and I'm mixing the margaritas. But I think if I had to choose today between becoming a mom or finding the perfect man and I could only have one today, I would choose becoming a mom. And hope that I have my lifetime to find the other."

Discussion of single motherhood nearly always leads to talk of divorce. More than a third of American marriages end that way; often there are children involved, and often the mothers end up caring for those children mostly on their own, saddled with ex-spouses, custody wrangles and nagging in-laws. Considered this way, single motherhood would seem to have a clean, almost thrilling logic — more than a third of the time, these women will have circumvented a lot of pain and unpleasantness and cut straight to being mothers on their own.

Last October, when I visited the Manhattan apartment of Daniela, a 38-year-old German advertising executive who had recently been inseminated with the sperm of a male friend, her guest room was peppered with toys belonging to the young son of a visiting friend who had broken up with the boy's father by the time he was born. "They got a child out of love, and the parents couldn't deal with one another," Daniela, who asked that I use only her first name, told me. "And now she lives in Germany; he lives here. He doesn't pay any money if he doesn't see the child. So there's a constant battle over it. The child is torn in between. She has to deal with the father. I won't have to deal with the father."

Daniela's apartment is neat and spare, with hardwood floors, a basket of colorful slippers by the front door for guests and an entire wall devoted to pictures of her family in Germany. (She also has a married sister with three children who lives in New Jersey.) A 6-foot-1 blonde who speaks with disarming frankness, she came to America 10 years ago with the man she would later marry, only to find that he didn't want children. After their divorce, she was engaged to another man who kept postponing their wedding — she still has a set of "Save the Date" cards in her closet. Having always wanted passionately to be a mother, she decided to use a "known donor," a close gay friend, also German, to help her conceive. Known donors have some big advantages over anonymous ones: they can contribute fresh sperm, which is more motile and long-lived than frozen. (As much as half of a man's sperm dies during freezing, which is why sperm-bank donors need to have extremely high sperm counts.) With a known donor, there is a theoretically endless supply, and it's free, whereas "washed" sperm, cleared of debris for an intrauterine insemination, or IUI (recommended for women using frozen sperm because the sperm is placed directly into the uterus and doesn't have to swim past the cervix), generally costs between $200 and $400 a vial, plus $100 for shipping, not to mention another $100 if the donor is "open."

The big disadvantage to using a known donor, as Daniela learned when she posted a query on a Listserv of Single Mothers by Choice (she had been avoiding the meetings, finding them too full of "personalities"), is that in most states the donor will always have full parental rights, regardless of whatever deal he and the mother might have worked out in advance. This didn't worry Daniela; she wanted her child to have a father, even a partial one. "His parents are ecstatic about it," she said of her donor friend as we sat drinking tea at her dining table. "He's smart; he has a great character; he's a friendly person. I said, You don't have to pay for the child, but if you want to have it with you or you want to participate, you're more than welcome."

An unforeseen hitch emerged at the reproductive endocrinologist's office, where Daniela and her friend were posing as an engaged couple to avoid having to quarantine his sperm, as required by federal and New York State regulations before a woman can be inseminated by a man who isn't already her sexual partner: he had an extremely low sperm count. The doctor "spun" the sperm to concentrate it before placing it in Daniela's uterus, and she and her friend had already tried three inseminations, the last one a few days before my visit. She was now in the middle of what is known in fertility parlance as the "two-week wait" to find out if she was pregnant. She wasn't optimistic. In vitro fertilization might be more successful, but she has a stressful job and was leery of the intense hormone treatments.

Daniela also found anonymous donors deeply unappealing. "These people don't do that because they want to help the population, let's face it," she said. "They're doing it for the money and because they maybe want to populate the earth. A) you're going to have a lot of siblings out there. B) I question what kind of personality these people can be. You read characteristics like height and ethnicity, what kind of education — it's the information that you don't get that is much more important. I'm thinking about happiness or moods, these kind of things."

Sperm banks do try to address the amorphous question of character; many include psychological studies of donors as well as "staff impressions." Some offer audiotaped interviews in addition to the lengthy written questionnaires, but Daniela said she felt that these materials would only confuse her. She did have a few ideas of what she might look for: she wanted a man of her same blood type, O positive. Because she herself is so tall, she preferred a medium height. (Short donors don't exist; because most women seek out tall ones, most banks don't accept men under 5-foot-9.) She was also attracted by the idea of a donor of another race. "I believe in multiculturalism," she said. "I would probably choose somebody with a darker skin color so I don't have to slather sunblock on my kid all the time. I want it to be a healthy mix. You know how mixed dogs are always the nicest and the friendliest and the healthiest? If you get a clear race, they have all the problems. Mutts are always the friendly ones, the intelligent ones, the ones who don't bark and have a good character. I want a mutt." Her African-American friends questioned this strategy, suggesting that her child's life would be harder if he or she was perceived as nonwhite, but Daniela said: "If that's what I believe, I have to go by that. And it might help the world also if more people are doing it that way."

While many single mothers look for donors whose features and coloring resemble their own, Daniela's attraction to a diverse gene pool isn't so unusual. A 40-year-old African-American woman I spoke with wanted a Latino donor so that her child would have lighter skin and nonkinky hair. "I'm the African-American," she told me. "The child will get that from me." Q., a 43-year-old health-care manager who attended a yeshiva from kindergarten through high school (she asked that I use only one of her initials), first sought out a Jewish donor. "Everybody either had glasses, they're balding or their grandmother was diabetic and had heart disease — typical Jewish population," she told me. Her solution: a 6-foot-2 Catholic, German stock on both sides, with curly blond hair and blue eyes. "He really was the typical Aryan perfect human being," she said, laughing. "He was a bodybuilder. He played the guitar and the drums, and he sang. He was captain of the rugby team in college. When I had the in vitro process done, the embryologist said: 'This is some of the best sperm I've ever seen. It just about jumped out of the test tubes."' Q.'s golden-curled, blue-eyed daughter has just turned 2.

For the moment, though, Daniela was still hoping that this recent insemination with her friend's sperm would take. She dreamed of a little girl. And like virtually all of the prospective single mothers I spoke with, she had every intention of finding a mate after the child was born. "Taking this whole 'I have to find the father of my child' out of the equation might make it a lot more relaxed and easier," she said. "The guys are smelling it, and they run." And even if the guy held still, he might not be the one you'd pick — or even consider — if you weren't desperate for kids. "I see so many women who are in unhealthy relationships, where they really just try to get married and then have a child and break it off," Daniela said. "If they would consider this as an option, I think they would be happier, and the children would be happier."

I went to a special meeting of the New York chapter of Single Mothers by Choice a few weeks later, in mid-November. It had been arranged for members willing to have a reporter present. We met on the Upper West Side, in a long rectangular rented room whose high ceiling magnified the yelps and stomping feet of toddlers who had come with their mothers. Women contemplating single motherhood or trying to get pregnant ("thinkers" and "tryers") arrived an hour later, Karyn among them. It was her third meeting.

The mothers' discussion was mostly practical: a pretty blonde in a black T-shirt that read "Sweet and Toxic" had noticed a sign in her health club forbidding children over the age of 3 to change in opposite-sex bathrooms: what would she do in a year when her son was 3? She also wondered about teaching him how to urinate into the toilet bowl; a friend had suggested throwing Cheerios in for him to aim at. (A mother of a 4-year-old boy discouraged this practice; it might tempt him to throw other things into the toilet.) A woman trying to arrange a domestic adoption asked about nannies versus day care.

When the general meeting began, each woman in the largely white group introduced herself. Two were pregnant; another had twins; one had adopted a daughter from Haiti. One had not been able to conceive and planned to become a foster parent. Anyone walking into the room would have assumed that the women with kids had husbands or partners at home, but in three hours of discussion, the only men who were mentioned were donors, anonymous and known. These women's independence of male partners in their family-making often brings a corollary reliance on one another — for sympathy and information, for companionship (Single Mothers by Choice sponsors vacations every year for single mothers and their kids) and the chance to show their children other families like their own. At times, the relationships can become even more enmeshed: one mother I spoke with, whose twin sons were conceived using both donor eggs and donor sperm, gave her leftover frozen embryos to a friend who was having fertility problems. The friend is now pregnant with a child who will be this mother's own sons' full sibling.

While nearly every woman I spoke with had her own history of romantic near misses and crushing disappointments, most also saw advantages to proceeding on their own. "This baby will be my baby, only my baby," Karyn told me that night at Caliente Cab. "The thing I'm afraid of is that after doing this, I might not want to get married. It seems like a lot of hard work, a lot of compromise. Someone ends up short, and usually it's the mom, because by the time you get to the child and your husband and the dog, there's not much left."

After introductions, the group broke into smaller discussion groups, mothers and pregnant women at one end of the room, thinkers and tryers at the other. Among the thinkers, two women were holding off on making a decision while they looked for work — something I heard a lot. Such delays put these women in a bind, though; each month is precious in terms of fertility. "I can't stress enough how much money worries me in this process," I was told by a 35-year-old Canadian woman who will soon begin trying to get pregnant. "I'm alone; there's no safety net. If you picture it like the scales, on the one side there's my money and on the other are the years left to have children."

Karyn had moved from the thinkers group into the tryers since her last meeting. She had brought a bag of pretzels, which she shared with the others, most of whom were slightly older than she — slightly in real terms, but through the telescopic lens of a woman's fertility, the difference was vast. "Trying to get pregnant at age 41 is nothing like trying to get pregnant at age 38," a 41-year-old grimly remarked when Karyn asked if she had begun trying. "My gynecologist wouldn't even do any of the tests. She said because of my age, just go to deal with infertility, don't waste any time."

Because many single women have waited years, hoping the right man would come along, and because the majority use sperm that has been frozen, they are disproportionately at risk for fertility problems when they finally decide to have children. Many report being stunned that their fertility was so fragile. "I thought I could have kids until my period ended, and menopause is 50, right?" said another woman I met at a Single Mothers by Choice meeting in Washington, who began trying to conceive at 44. The sense of not having been informed, of being too late, is so often expressed by would-be single mothers in their 40's that it has doubtless spurred some younger women in the Single Mothers by Choice network to act more precipitously. (I interviewed two women who conceived while still in their 20's.) Still, the near-miraculous success of some older mothers can give hope — often unrealistic — to those still fighting the odds. Most doctors refused to take the 44-year-old Washington woman except as an egg-donor patient, but one did — and she became pregnant with a girl who is now almost 4. Another woman in the D.C. group went through 16 attempts and a miscarriage, using both IUI and I.V.F., before her son was finally born.

At 39, Karyn was still on the right side of this equation, but just barely. "I'm waiting for my next period to start the beginning of December," she told the older woman. "I'm about to start trying, either before or after Christmas Day."

But it didn't work out like that. A few days before Christmas, after receiving a string of e-mail messages from Karyn chronicling her march toward insemination, I found one with the subject line, "Do you believe in signs?" She had written: "Sit down, ready for this one? I arrived home from work again at 11:30 last night to be greeted by my doormen telling me how very sorry they were — a steam pipe explosion blew right through my apartment with a flood.. . .My apartment is destroyed and needs to be gutted.. . .I am taking all of the events as a sign that this is not the right month to get pregnant."

She planned to wait three months, at which point she would be weeks away from her 40th birthday.

In November, I met Daniela in her Midtown office, which has a modern industrial design and faces east into what that afternoon was a bleak gray day. As she had feared, the last insemination with her donor friend hadn't worked, and she had resigned herself to the idea of using an anonymous donor instead. She had even found two that appealed to her, both from a small Manhattan sperm bank where she would save money on shipping by picking up the samples herself and carrying them to her doctor's office. As I sat across her desk, she pulled up the donors' descriptions on her computer. One was Indian: "He's got black straight hair," she told me, "brown eyes, he's six feet but he only weighs 150. Which is good. If I have a girl, she wants to be skinny, and if she can eat what she wants, that's perfect. You don't have to get in fights about food." The Indian donor's complexion was described as "medium/dark," and he had proven fertility. He had a master's degree in business. He was bilingual, Hindu, single and liked traveling and music. His family-health history looked good.

The second donor was a mix of Chinese, Peruvian and Italian. He was olive-skinned, 5-foot-9 and weighed 169. "Thick hair, which is also nice," she said, "because if I happen to get a son, I don't like bald guys. He's Catholic, which I would obviously like, because I am. He has a very interesting book collection: he likes Hesse, Henry James, Lorca. Excellent vision. His parents are pretty boring professionally, so I was a little concerned about that. But when they started their businesses, they probably didn't have all that many chances, the father being Peruvian and the mother being Chinese-Italian." She especially liked the fact that he was a full-time student in theater. "He has creative aspirations," she said. "Those things are hereditary."

Mostly from a sense of obligation, she Googled "sperm" and began scanning lists of donors at other banks, using O-positive blood type as her first criterion. "This one is a Hispanic fair," she mused. "But Hispanics can still be very, very fair. Then we have a Dominican-Honduran, black straight hair, olive skin — he is really too heavy, 220, are you kidding me? Now here we have a Caucasian. Research assistant in psychology — no. You don't study that if you haven't touched upon it somewhere."

At the California Cryobank site, the donors numbered in the hundreds. "All those Germans," Daniela murmured, scrolling down. "How am I proving my healthiness if I do the same race again? Black African, they do have three of them. Look how tall they are. And see how heavy the two O-positives are?"

Eventually she happened on a search engine that listed donors from all of the banks without revealing which bank they were from without payment. Visibly weary as she scanned the list, she reflected: "I still like my Chinese-Peruvian-Italian. He seems a little bit more special somehow. From this little bank . . . it's like a little country. There he is. There he is! Chinese-Peruvian-Italian, full-time student!"

The sheer familiarity of the Chinese-Peruvian-Italian made him leap from the haze of anonymous data like an old friend. And that feeling counts for a lot. It's no wonder that a number of single mothers I spoke with used the phrase "I felt a connection" in explaining their choice of donors. Despite the obvious parallels between shopping for sperm and dating online, there is finally no comparing them — a sperm donor is providing half the DNA for your child, and whether or not you choose to think about it, he'll be there forever in the child's tastes and choices and personality. No one wants a decision like that to feel arbitrary.

Daniela had other news: she had met a man she was interested in. It happened during a business trip the week before; he was meeting friends in the bar of her hotel. "He was so good with his friend's kid," she said. "I'm, like, 'Oh, you must have three kids.' He said, 'No, just nieces and nephews."' They struck up a conversation, and she ended up joining his group for dinner. She was honest with him about her plans to get pregnant, but the news may not have sunk in; he had been calling ever since, eager to see her again. He was in his 40's, African-American, and had his own business. "It's nice to know that just because you have these plans, you're not unattractive or undesirable," Daniela said. She felt more at ease with this man than she had with other men in recent years and attributed this to her decision to move ahead with motherhood. "It was a completely different feeling," she said. "It empowers one, because you're not relying on somebody else. You don't have to bring up the big life conversations."

While many women, like Karyn, relish their emancipation from the grind of dating and pursue motherhood with a single mind, others are intrigued by what romance could mean, absent the imperative of finding a father for their children. One woman, a 40-year-old graduate student in biology in the Midwest, told me shortly after her first insemination: "One of the things that was so powerful about deciding to have a baby on my own was saying, I'm taking charge of this piece of it; I'm not going to wait around for a guy to give it to me. And my feelings about what I want from men right now are really changed. I don't actually want a big relationship. Now I want occasional companionship and sex."

On a recent date, between inseminations, this woman noticed the difference. "It was one of these dates where the guy's just telling you his sad story and his complicated relationship with his mother. In my previous dating life, I would have been, like, I'm not going to get seriously involved with a man like this. I'm going to get rid of him. This time I was, like, I think he's hot, so if I just keep listening, maybe eventually we'll have sex. And we had great sex. It was really hot." At one point, she had sex with two different men in the same weekend (both times using condoms) not long after an insemination. Observing her own behavior, she said: "Maybe in six months or a year I'll have more insight about it, but something radical is going on in my brain about my relationships with men. O.K., so I'm not going to keep trying to have this picket-fence-y life. I'm waving the white flag. And now I have permission to directly pursue what I want. It's a very curious and ambivalent liberation, because I would rather not be single. It's not my first choice."

Daniela told me that regardless of what happened with the new man, she was certain of one thing: she would go ahead with her plan to inseminate. "I've done the mistake of putting this on hold several times, and I cannot afford it," she said. We looked together at her November calendar on her office computer; sandwiched among coming trips and meetings were her expected days of menstruation and ovulation, noted in German. She planned to inseminate in December, so she would have to pick the donor by the end of the month. Meanwhile, the new man had proposed coming to New York in mid-December, which happened to be the time when she thought she would be ovulating. Daniela said she wouldn't feel comfortable using protection with him while she was going to a doctor's office to be inseminated. "That would be weird," she said. "But leave it up to destiny? That's a possibility, I think."

I was astonished. Had she thought through the implications of having this man's child? I asked. What if the relationship didn't last? What if she turned out not to like him at all? Daniela countered that his parents were happily married, and he had good relationships with his siblings, but what I heard in her voice was confusion. Then I recalled something she had told me in a previous conversation: "I have this big fear in my life that I never will be pregnant. You see these pregnant women on the street, and you're, like, How does it feel? What's going on in your mind, in your heart? I want to feel it!" Remembering this helped me to understand: it is hard to want something so badly and to try to prevent it.

As it turned out, he didn't visit in December. Daniela didn't inseminate, either. Her Indian donor was out of stock, and the Chinese-Peruvian-Italian's sperm was in quarantine until early January. Meanwhile, she had learned that her health insurance had a $2,000 annual cap on fertility treatments that she had already exhausted on the inseminations with her gay friend.

So it was early January when I finally met Daniela at 8 a.m. outside the Empire State Building, where her sperm bank is located, to pick up two vials of sperm from her Chinese-Peruvian-Italian donor. She had hardly slept the night before from excitement, she told me. At the bank, a nondescript lab, Daniela paid $450 and was given an 18-pound white canister with an orange "Biohazard" sticker on it. She had been there once before; her donor friend had had to go out of town and left frozen sperm for her. "You walk out on the street, and you've got the container in your hand," she said, "and then there's all these containers on two legs."

One such two-legged container was in the elevator when we got on: a workman surrounded by tools. "You're unbuttoned, you know that," Daniela said, looking at his fly.

The guy's fair skin turned crimson, and he buttoned up, grinning but avoiding her eyes.

She explained, "I think it's better that I tell you now, so you don't go through the day like that."

"If they notice, they shouldn't be looking there," he said in a strong Irish accent, smiling right at her now.

Daniela smiled back. "Are you Irish?" she asked. "I'm German. That's why I don't understand a word you're saying."

This was flirtation, right? I was still asking myself that question as we left the elevator, but I wasn't sure: what does flirtation even mean in the context of a woman hauling a canister of sperm to a doctor's office so he can inseminate her? Or, to put it another way, what's the point?

"He was a sweet kid," Daniela said briskly as we left the building and stepped onto the dusty, bacon-smelling street.

At the doctor's office, we repaired to an examining room, where Daniela's doctor, an avuncular man in wire-rimmed glasses, took a sonogram of her ovaries and uterus. "The lining looks very good," he said. "It's the proper time to do this. We'll thaw out the specimen."

In a different room, he removed a "straw" of frozen sperm from the canister of nitrogen and placed it into a tub of warm water to thaw. Most sperm banks use plastic vials nowadays, but this particular bank had stuck with an old system. The doctor left the room while the sperm was thawing, and Daniela filled me in on the new man. They hadn't seen each other since that first meeting two months ago; trips had been arranged and fallen through, often because he was short of money. Still, they were in close touch. Three days ago, she told him on the phone about the planned insemination, and his response was wary. "How do you react to dating a person that would be pregnant with somebody else?" Daniela said, paraphrasing his reaction. "Just like I am feeling completely weird carrying that bucket, it must be the same feeling for him when he meets a person like me." Yet she was hopeful that things might still work out. "If we're going to be great together," she said, laughing, "we're going to be great together with that Eurasian child."

The doctor came back and placed the straw of clear, yellowish sperm in a slim glass cylinder and removed a drop to look at under a microscope. "We have very good motility," he said. "This is a good specimen."

Daniela looked, too. "I see lots of them," she said, excited. "Last time I had to look for four."

The doctor left so Daniela could change into a gown and lie down. When he came back, he drew the yellow liquid into an oversize syringe that tapered into a skinny tube. It is hard to say what Daniela's chances of becoming pregnant would be; statistics on the success rates of IUI using frozen sperm suggest that they are between 8 and 15 percent in a given cycle. Daniela would return the next morning for a second insemination; many doctors believe that consecutive inseminations increase the chances.

Wearing a small miner's light around his head, the doctor went to work. He was done in three minutes. Daniela lifted her hand, fingers crossed, as he left the room.

A week into Daniela's two-week wait, I heard from Karyn again. She had been living in a friend's apartment for weeks while the various insurance companies haggled about how much to pay out for the damage to her apartment. Her computer had been destroyed, along with many of her possessions, including her file of medical records and donor materials. "That's one thing that made me cry," she said. "Just to see all the papers with his information and history and his picture. . .seeing it all soaked."

She had resigned from her job — the brutal hours were wearing her down — and said she believed she had other good prospects. Meanwhile, she had decided to go ahead with her insemination plan. The big day came two weeks later, in late January. Her mother went with her, and Karyn called me a few hours after, elated. The next day I received an e-mail message whose subject line read, "I think I already feel a kick :)."

Over thanksgiving vacation, I took the train to Darien, Conn., to meet Shelby Siems and her 2-year-old son, Christopher, who had driven down from their home in Marblehead, Mass. Shelby, 44, grew up in Darien and had come to visit cousins and friends over the holiday weekend. She is part of a rising number of single mothers who are having second children; when we met in Connecticut, she was four months pregnant with a second son by the same donor who sired her first. She and Christopher picked me up at the train station, and we drove to a nearby pizza restaurant that was still quiet at that midmorning hour. Shelby is fair, with long blond hair and pale blue eyes that are prone to tears. Christopher is also pale, a watchful, intelligent child with wispy reddish hair. At lunch, he said "please" and "thank you" and rolled a small green train engine over the laminated tabletop while Shelby and I talked. For a 2-year-old he was remarkably patient, but occasionally he cried, "Mama, Mama, I want to hold you."

"I'm right here," Shelby said.

Once a journalist for The Christian Science Monitor, Shelby was finishing up an M.F.A. in nonfiction. Her thesis project is a book about her experience as a single mother, an experience that has been more grueling than Daniela's or Karyn's will most likely be because Shelby has no immediate family; she was an only child of older parents who died by the time she reached her early 30's. She inherited money that has allowed her to go back to school and to support Christopher, but she is alone in the world. In Christopher's first weeks of life, there were periods of many days when they saw no one but each other.

Shelby does have a boyfriend: a 52-year-old bachelor who works at a pharmaceutical company, whom she met at a party when Christopher was a month old. "He's been a great person in my life and Christopher's life, but he's not going to marry me," she explained over the phone when we first spoke. "Some people just don't want to do that, and he's one of those people."

The fact that Shelby is in a relationship at all is unusual; the majority of mothers I spoke with — even those with older children — had remained single. Many expressed a willingness to date if the opportunity were to come along, but they work long hours to support their kids, and when they're not working, they want to see them. For all the comparisons between being divorced with children and having them alone, there are critical differences: an ex-husband who spends any time at all with his kids frees up pockets of time when a woman could potentially see someone new. Even minimal child-support payments would reduce the financial burden on her, and substantial ones could allow her to work less. Perhaps most important, a child with only one parent is immensely dependent on that parent, and the mother of such a child tends to feel her responsibility acutely. It can be painful — and expensive — to leave your child with a baby sitter after a whole day away, just to go out on a date.

Despite her age — Shelby was 42 when Christopher was born — she was determined that her son have a sibling. "He has even less of a family than I do, because he doesn't have his whole father's side of the family," she told me. "The only person he has is me." She wanted to use the same donor again and put the matter to her boyfriend, who made it clear that he wasn't interested in fatherhood. She began stocking up on the donor's sperm (most banks keep a reserve supply of each donor's sperm for women who want second children) when Christopher was still an infant. "I want my son to have a full sibling," she said. "I want to feel like he has one person in the world who is a complete blood relative after I'm gone. I did not want my son to feel deprived, that the other sibling had a father and he didn't." To be sure that there was no chance the child would be his, Shelby and her boyfriend were celibate for the year it took her to conceive, which she finally did at 43, after eight tries, using I.V.F.

The fact that a child born of an anonymous donor knows only half his biological family concerns single mothers with more robust families than Shelby's, too. The Donor Sibling Registry, a Web site where families can register children conceived by donor insemination in hopes of being matched with half-siblings or even the donor himself, has proved a boon for many single mothers. The site's founder, Wendy Kramer, estimates that the majority of the 7,400 registered members are single. Recent publicity has prompted a jump in the registry's membership and matches — more than 1,500 have been made so far, not just among half-siblings but also among sperm (and egg) donors, 320 of whom are registered on the site, and their progeny.

Q., the former yeshiva student who ended up choosing the 6-foot-2 German rugby player as her donor, developed severe hypertension during her pregnancy and had to be hospitalized several times. Her symptoms lingered even after her daughter was born, and she became preoccupied with what would happen to the baby girl if she were to die. Her brother and a sister are selfish, she says, and her mother is elderly. Last fall, she went to the Donor Sibling Registry and got a shock: the Aryan bodybuilder with the leaping sperm has fathered 21 children (and counting — he is still an active donor), including four sets of twins. These children are all 3 and under, and their families — four lesbian couples, three heterosexual couples and six single mothers — have formed their own Listserv, where photographs of the children (all blond, with a strong familial resemblance) are posted, and daily e-mail messages are exchanged about birthdays, toilet training and the like. They are planning a group vacation in 2007. "I was elated," Q. told me. "To quote the granny on 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' I wanted her to have kin. Now here's kin that look like her; that're in her same age range. I even thought that if I get to know somebody really well from this group, maybe I would pick one of these other mothers, if they would be interested, to be designated as a guardian for my daughter."

Q. is one of several people in the group with a keen desire to meet her donor one day. And they aren't sitting idle; one woman had magnified his baby picture, in which the donor is blowing out candles on his birthday cake, to the point at which a first name may be legible. Another mother has a hunch about the donor's provenance based on the way he pronounced certain words on his audiotape. At the Washington Single Mothers by Choice meeting, I met a woman who had easily identified the donor for her 9-month-old son using Google. "The person left specific enough information for me to just type in those words and click," she told the group. "But what to do with that information? I'm bound to keep him anonymous as per the contract, but what about when my son says: 'What do you know? Tell me anything about my dad."'

When we'd finished our pizza and salad, Shelby drove to a playground. The brightly colored equipment was empty in the frigid cold, but Christopher bounced in his car seat. "Slides!" he cried.

He bounded out of the car, refusing mittens, and commenced to climb, panting plumes of steam. Whenever he was in earshot, Shelby spelled out the word D-A-D; lately Christopher had become fixated on the idea of a daddy. "He goes to a day care, and he's the only child of a single mother in his class. I think they spend a lot of time talking about Daddy," she told me. Christopher had referred to a neighbor as Daddy, as well as Regis Philbin. "Interestingly, he doesn't call my boyfriend Daddy; he's 'mamma's friend.' The other day, I said, 'Someone special's coming to see you today — do you know who it is?' I expected him to say [her boyfriend's name]. But he said, 'Daddy?"' The single mothers by choice I spoke with generally hold that the story of their children's origins should be told to them from the time of birth, long before the child is old enough to understand it. But Shelby feels that at 2, Christopher is too young to hear that he doesn't have a father.

Shelby's son is part of a population of kids that is only now beginning to be studied, though a 1992 survey of teenagers raised by single mothers found that they experienced markedly fewer adolescent problems than children of divorce. A continuing study of a group of children in England, now 2, who were conceived by single women using donor sperm concludes that so far they are healthy and well adjusted. But the long-term questions of how these children will fare or about the different experiences of girls and boys have yet to be answered.

As we watched Christopher tear around the playground, Shelby reflected on her occasional frustration at the distance her boyfriend maintains from her family. Over Christmas, he would be leaving town for two weeks to visit his family, and Shelby and Christopher would spend the holiday alone. They had no plans, and Shelby felt pressure to make Christmas festive for her son. "On the other hand," she said of her boyfriend, "he's still attracted to me physically through all my body changes, and he and Christopher are so fond of each other. They have a very sweet relationship." Her boyfriend usually visits on Sunday mornings. "A huge wave of relief comes over me," Shelby said. She can relax or do dishes or take a nap. "I feel, like, Wow, this must be what it's like to have a husband every day of the year. I can do my own thing, but I love to just stand across the room and watch them together."

When I next spoke to Daniela, in late January at the end of her two-week wait, she was on a business trip. Her voice sounded weak and tired. She had just gotten her period. And the new man had finally made it to New York, but the visit had been a disaster. "I guess it has to do with the fact that I'm going through this," she said. "You kind of protect yourself. He was saying he was one of these what he calls old-fashioned guys: if his wife is going to have a child, he's going to be in the waiting room until the child is delivered and washed. I'm, like, wait a second. Don't you think you should go through this together? He said, 'No, I'm going to faint, and I'm going to throw up."'

His visit to New York was supposedly a business trip, but in the end he didn't have much to do. "He's not cut out to be a provider, to be a protector or to be a patriarch," Daniela said. "He can't be there when the child is born; he can't make the living for the family. Maybe what bothered him is that he couldn't offer what he would like to offer. So he made it, like, taste bad."

I had never heard her so low. "Everything is so hard, and it's so degrading," she said. "You always think that you'd go through this with somebody that would support you. You don't think about having all the problems, let alone doing it on your own."

I was humbled by the grueling ordeals many women had undergone on their paths to single motherhood: years of trying to conceive, hormone treatments, hospitalizations, miscarriages, untold thousands of dollars spent — all without a partner to buffer the strains and disappointments. And being a single parent is no easier: whether it's a matter of trying to get a photo taken of you with your child or finding a way to shower without worrying that you won't hear your baby cry or accommodating a difficult work schedule, being a single parent can require compromises and jury-rigging that might awe a person with a partner. A longtime employee of New Jersey Transit spent a year working the 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift, which meant waking her daughter at 4 and walking her across the street in her pajamas to a neighbor's house. Her daughter slept on the sofa until the neighbor woke her and took her to school with her own children. "It's probably harder than you ever think it's going to be," this mother told me. After a moment, she added, "My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner." It is a measure of how deep the pull toward motherhood can be that thousands of women from many different walks of life are making this choice, using reproductive and communications technology in ways that not only break with tradition but also make it seem obsolete.

Daniela did another insemination in early February, this time mingling the sperm of her Chinese-Peruvian-Italian with another donor from the same bank who had proven fertility. It didn't work. Neither did Karyn's first try. When I spoke with her early this month, she was preparing to move back into her apartment, whose renovation would soon be complete. There was still one last chance to become pregnant before her 40th birthday in April. "In a perfect world, I'll get pregnant this cycle," she told me. "I'll start working the first week of April before I'm officially really pregnant, and we'll live happily ever after."

When I spoke to Daniela a couple of weeks ago, she had recovered from her disappointments and had just been inseminated again with the sperm of a French-English-German-Scandinavian attorney with proven fertility. She had also struck up an e-mail correspondence with another woman on the Single Mothers by Choice Listserv. They had met for a drink and hit it off, and Daniela planned to go with her to a Single Mothers by Choice meeting. She seemed reconciled to the fact that it might take a while to become pregnant, but she was no less determined. Her fellow would-be single mother is 36, Daniela told me, but her situation is complicated by a boyfriend who has children.

"Why don't you tell him you've got some kids, too?" Daniela recalled suggesting to her friend. "They're just not born yet."

Jennifer Egan last wrote for the magazine about online dating. Her new novel, "The Keep," will be published in August.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Friday, March 17, 2006

Slacking on?

Was pitching a fine argument until citing the example of Google...notoriously workaholic. Still, some valuable thoughts.


Be smarter at work, slack off

In a world of too much work and too much multitasking, the best way to beat the competition may be to do less.

By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

Remember the story of Archimedes lolling in his bathtub? To an observer, he'd have seemed to be wasting time. While ostensibly doing nothing, however, he discovered the principle of displacement, a cornerstone of physics. Would he have reached the same insight in a quick shower?

Unlikely. And while you might say that's ancient history, don't be too sure.

Consider that for most industries, the U.S. can't hope to be the low-cost producer in a global economy. With innovation now our main competitive strength, creativity is crucial for anyone who wants to move up.

But it's really, really hard, if not impossible, for the human brain to come up with fresh new ideas when its owner is overworked, overtired, and stressed out. And in today's wonderful world of nonstop work, 40% of American adults get less than seven hours of sleep on weeknights.

"The physiological effects of tiredness are well-known. You can turn a smart person into an idiot just by overworking him," notes Peter Capelli, a professor of management at Wharton.

Still, putting in more than 50 hours a week at the office has become routine -- and that doesn't count time spent doing paperwork at home, answering e-mail at the airport, or talking on the phone in the car.

Sooner or later, companies' performance has to reflect that, Capelli says. "On the organizational level, what you get is, everyone is so focused on running flat-out to meet current goals that the whole company is unable to step back and think."

Indeed, "the notion that busyness is the essence of business can only do us long-term harm," writes consultant Tom DeMarco in a book called Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency.

DeMarco knows the word "slack" has some not-so-hot connotations -- slacking off, slacker, slack-jawed... -- but his definition is different: the degree of freedom required to effect change.

"Companies need to respect the time it takes to do strategic thinking," he says. "Task-oriented thinking is important too, of course. But bigger thinking is slow."

The late Peter Drucker agreed. He wrote in The Effective Executive (an eerily prescient 40 years ago), "All one can think and do in a short time is to think what one already knows and to do as one has always done." Gulp.

Moreover, in Drucker's view, simply working longer and longer hours won't help. "To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive...needs to dispose of time in fairly large chunks," he wrote. "To have small dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours."

Hmm, small dribs and drabs of time...and, just think, the BlackBerry hadn't been invented yet.

The multitasking trap

It's not really news that so-called multitasking can actually make people less effective at their jobs. One detailed study five years ago by psychologists at the University of Michigan demonstrated that, because the human brain needs time to shift gears between tasks, the more switching back and forth you have to do -- between, say, talking on the phone, reading e-mail, and thinking about your next meeting, all while scarfing down a sandwich at your desk -- the less proficiently you will tackle any of it (except maybe the sandwich).

The "time cost" of refocusing your attention may be only a few seconds with each switch, but the researchers found that, over time, it reduced people's total efficiency by 20% to 40%.

Seeing connections, when you have time

What scientists have only recently begun to realize is that people may do their best thinking when they are not concentrating on work at all. If you've ever had a great idea pop into your head while you were washing your car, walking your dog, or even napping, you already know what a team of Dutch psychologists revealed last month in the journal Science: The unconscious mind is a terrific solver of complex problems when the conscious mind is busy elsewhere or, perhaps better yet, not overtaxed at all.

This brings us back to Archimedes, whose "Eureka!" moment in the bath -- or, to cite another example, Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity while loafing around under an apple tree -- was a classic example of a kind of creativity known as remote association, or associative thinking. As the name implies, it's a knack for seeing connections among things that appear on the surface to be unrelated to each other.

For example, consider this sample question from the standard test for this trait, as developed by a University of Southern California psychologist named Sarnoff Mednick: "What word is related to the following other three? Cookies, sixteen, heart."

If you answered "sweet," well done.

Great innovators score off the charts in associative thinking, but most of us are capable of it to some degree -- if given enough slack, in Tom DeMarco's sense of the word.

So it could well be that, in the era of knowledge work, the most prosperous companies will turn out to be those that encourage people to build some slack into their days. (A first step, according to DeMarco, might be to cancel as many meetings as possible.)

The Google example

If you doubt it, consider Google. On February 23, the company unveiled a new product called Page Creator, which allows people who can't write HTML code to create their own web pages quickly and easily.

Within hours, this was such a smash hit that the company had to put a temporary limit on the number of Google (Research) users who can sign up for it.

Page Creator is the brainchild of an engineer named Justin Rosenstein whose relatives were constantly bugging him to build web pages for them. He came up with the elegant technology behind the product while noodling around at the office on a project unrelated to his regular job.

Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., is a famously laid-back place, replete with lap pools, massage rooms, pool tables, free haute cuisine, and loads of other stress-reducing amenities like onsite dry cleaners and hair stylists.

"We want to take as much hurry and worry out of people's lives as we can, because a relaxed state of mind unleashes creativity," says Stacy Sullivan, the company's HR director. "And everybody's on flextime here, so we don't reward face time or working super-long hours. We just measure results."

In the end, what else matters? Of course, not every workplace can match Google's. But plenty of companies might do a lot worse than to emulate the thinking behind it.

Furiously wagging away.

It is virtually impossible to descend into hyperbole when discussing the significance of the long tail. Wait...just did it.


As Internet TV Aims at Niche Audiences, the Slivercast Is Born


ANDY STEWARD, a successful London computer consultant and sailboat racer, became exasperated when trying to watch his favorite sport on television. There were a few half-hour recaps of some major sailing races, but they were always shown late at night.

Mr. Steward looked into creating a sailing channel on the Sky satellite service in Britain, but his idea was soon dead in the water. He would have had to pay £85,000 (nearly $150,000) to start the channel and £40,000 a month (nearly $70,000), as well as the production costs. That was a lot of money for an untested concept.

But in January, he did introduce a sailing channel, one that is rapidly filling with sailing talk shows, product reviews, programs on sailing techniques and, most important, intense coverage of the sort of smaller races that don't make it onto traditional television.

His new channel, however, will not be available over the air. And it won't be found on cable or even on satellite, at least not yet. The channel, called, is broadcast only on the Internet, which enables video to reach a much larger worldwide audience at a much lower initial cost than a satellite channel. Because "we didn't have any idea how big the audience would be," Mr. Steward said, he wanted to keep his expenses as low as possible. "Internet television is an investment we can grow into," he said.

In the last six months, major media companies have received much attention for starting to move their own programming online, whether downloads for video iPods or streaming programs that can be watched over high-speed Internet connections.

Perhaps more interesting — and, arguably, more important — are the thousands of producers whose programming would never make it into prime time but who have very dedicated small audiences. It's a phenomenon that could be called slivercasting.

In 2004, Wired magazine popularized the phrase "the long tail" to refer to the large number of specialized offerings that in themselves appeal to a small number of people, but cumulatively represent a large market that can be easily aggregated on the Internet. Plotted on a graph along with best sellers, these specialized products trail off like a long tail that never reaches zero.

Indeed, the Internet's ability to offer an almost infinite selection is part of what makes it so appealing: people can find things that don't sell well enough to warrant shelf space in a neighborhood music store or video rental shop — think of the obscure books on The ease of digital video production and the ubiquity of high-speed Internet connections are sending the long tail of video into the living rooms of the world, live and in color.

"The next wave of media is to unleash the power of serving people's special interests," said John Hendricks, the chief executive of Discovery Communications, which is developing a series of specialized video services. "Every time I walk into a Borders bookstore, I spend a lot of time looking at the magazine rack — because staring at you are all the passions of America. The bride who is about to get married, there is a magazine for her. And for the person who is a little older, there are wonderful travel and leisure magazines."

Already, there are specialized video services serving hundreds of specialties, including poker, bicycling, lacrosse, photography, vegetarian cooking, fine wine, horror films, obscure sitcoms and Japanese anime. There is also a growing market for Webcasts of local news and entertainment from every country and in every language, aimed at expatriates.

"We're adding two or three new channels a week," said Iolo Jones, the chief executive of NarrowStep, a company in London that provides technology and support for specialized Webcasts. Among his clients is, which says it attracted 70,000 viewers in its first month.

NEARLY 15 years ago, when the advent of digital cable offered the possibility of 500 channels, many people were skeptical that there would be enough programs to fill them. But then came specialized broadcasters — including the Speed Channel (for auto racing fans), the Military Channel and Home and Garden Television — and now cable and satellite systems are largely full.

"It has become almost impossible for a channel to increase its distribution the old way," said Lauren Zalaznick, the president of Bravo and Trio, two cable channels owned by NBC Universal. "To get distribution it takes a lot of effort and negotiation. You have to give up a lot to get very little."

Indeed, after DirecTV dropped Trio, a channel devoted to pop culture, among other things, Ms. Zalaznick decided to move it from pay-TV systems to the Internet. "To survive we had to find a new way," she said. The new way, she quickly realized, could also help Trio resolve its identity crisis. The cable channel mixed documentaries about pop culture, original music programming, reruns of obscure television shows and a fair bit of programming aimed at gay and lesbian viewers.

Moving to the Internet allowed her to break Trio into three distinct sites; they will be introduced over the rest of this year. One, called, will have the music and pop culture programming. Another,, will have the old TV shows. And the third,, will have gay and lesbian programming created in conjunction with PlanetOut, a media and entertainment company focused on that audience.

Other big media companies are also creating narrower Internet extensions of their channels. Scripps Networks, which runs the HGTV network, for example, created HGTVPro, with programming aimed at contractors and builders.

Discovery Communications, which has been a master of the current system, creating 15 different cable channels including Animal Planet and Discovery Health, is now exploring even more specialized services over the Internet. One will be introduced tomorrow for $9.95 a month. It will offer 30,000 video clips excerpted from its library of documentaries and other educational programs to help grade school and high school students with their homework. In the future, other services will offer content focused on narrow topics in travel, science and health.

Discovery, Mr. Hendricks says, is in a good position to create such services because of its large archive. "We have a wealth of programming just related to cancer, just related to Alaska and so on," he said.

In addition to offering Internet distribution, Discovery will start to broadcast some of these programs late at night on its regular channels and encourage people to record them, he said.

To be sure, there are doubters. "I've never been a believer that we should create channels for all these niches like beach volleyball," said John Skipper, a senior vice president of ESPN, a unit of the Walt Disney Company. "They just don't pencil out. Because if you have 12,000 people, you can't afford to do it. And if you can't afford to do it, you can't make any money on it."

One reason that ESPN has shied away from this sort of niche programming, he said, is that its brand stands for a level of high-quality visual production that would be difficult for small channels to afford. Indeed, ESPN has been investing millions of dollars to produce programs in high-definition formats.

But reticence by some big media companies is making room for independent programmers to explore all sorts of niches.

Marie Oser, a vegetarian cooking writer and food promoter, has been creating television programs for cable networks for several years. She is now working on developing a site,, which features 160 clips, mainly cooking demonstrations, as well as coverage of events like the Tofu Festival in Los Angeles and interviews about vegetarianism with celebrities including Jane Goodall and Daryl Hannah. The most popular viewing times, perhaps not surprisingly, are at lunch time and just before dinner.

Viewers call up about 1,000 videos each day, Ms. Oser said. "That's not huge," she said, "but it's growing." She makes money promoting her books, the food products she creates and the products of paying sponsors.

She offers her video by way of the Roo Group, a New York company that handles the technology for storing and sending the video to users; it also sells advertising on behalf of VegTV and a stable of other specialized sites. In the past, Roo has brought American Express, Honda and other national advertisers to Ms. Oser's site, although no major campaigns are running now. Roo also provides links to her programming from some other sites it works with, including, the site of WPLG, a Miami television station, which supplements clips from its local news with additional video from Roo.

Another Roo-based slivercaster is Yuks TV (, started by Dailey Pike, a Los Angeles comedian who earns most of his money these days warming up studio audiences for sitcoms. Mr. Pike said he was outraged when he saw a Comedy Central poll asking viewers to rate the 100 best comedians of all time. "Bob Hope was well below Bill Maher," he said.

He decided to create programming around clips from classic comedy television shows that have fallen into the public domain, including routines by Jack Benny, Red Skelton and George Burns with Gracie Allen. Mr. Pike also has some exuberant classic commercials, like ones featuring the dancing Lucky Strike cigarettes and the skydiver who delivered a can of Colt 45.

At first, he, too, made a program for late-night cable television, but in 2004 he switched to the Internet. The site has had as many as 200,000 visitors in a month, he said, but only if he buys advertising to attract them. "I can't make enough money to cover my costs at this point," he said. But he hopes that this will change, he said, as Roo builds up its advertising sales prowess.

Robert Petty, Roo's chief executive, has been trying to build an Internet broadcast system for years, but the idea has attracted attention only recently. "In the last few weeks, we've had a lot of people in saying they want to build out five TV stations for broadband," said Mr. Petty, a former executive at Telstra, the Australian telephone company. "We went for a lot of years without any attention at all. We're really enjoying it now."

He added that viewers were quickly warming up to Internet video. "Now we are talking about three- to five-minute videos," he said, "but there's no question that in a year's time we are talking about 22-minute to one-hour videos." Roo works with 100 sites, which show 40 million videos a month, Mr. Petty said.

While advertising on small video sites has been sporadic so far, many companies, including Roo and NarrowStep, say they see an opportunity to match video commercials to specialized audiences, as Google does with Internet searches and Web pages.

"The real analogy here is not with television but with magazine publishing," said Mr. Jones of NarrowStep. "Narrow publications can get very high rates."

In any case, companies that have thrived largely by selling specialized DVD's, often through obscure mail-order dealers, are now turning to the Internet as well. One company, Brain Damage Films, which produces and distributes horror films too obscure to show in theaters, has started renting its movies through Akimbo, a service that uses the Internet to distribute video programming. (Brain Damage's biggest hit so far has been "Death Factory," which involves an accident in a chemical plant and a worker who starts to mutate.) Akimbo can send programs either to a specialized set-top box that it sells for $69 or to a PC with Microsoft Media Center software.

Darrin G. Ramage, the chief executive of Maxim Media Marketing, which runs Brain Damage, says the company has no choice but to move to online distribution. "The bottom line is that for independent horror movie fans — people from 18 to 25 — the Internet is where they are," he said. "Anything they want to know about, they go on the Internet. If they want a movie, they go on the Internet."

Online distribution now accounts for 10 percent of Brain Damage's revenue, he said, and the company plans to start selling downloadable versions of its films directly from its Web site.

Kostas Metaxas is also shifting his video production online, although he serves an older audience more interested in diamonds than blood. Mr. Metaxas runs Exero, an Australian company that produces interviews with jewelers, fashion designers, chefs and others who cater to the preoccupations of the rich. "It's eyeball candy, basically," he explained.

He has accumulated 500 such interviews and packaged them for cable networks, DVD sales and in-flight viewing on Malaysia Airlines. Exero, too, is now finding a new audience through Akimbo, offering some programs free and selling others.

Instructional videos are also becoming available on the Web. TotalVid, which is owned by Landmark Communications, the parent of the Weather Channel, offers 2,300 programs for download, many of them videos teaching everything from how to play a guitar to the best techniques in tae kwon do. "There is a huge group of men who aspire to do martial arts," said Karl B. Quist, TotalVid's president. "They are not going to take lessons at a dojo, but they will watch a 60-minute video."

Viewers can pay for limited-time access to individual TotalVid programs, which include videos on extreme sports, music, parenting and travel, or they can pay $9.95 a month for a subscription that allows unlimited viewing of its films.

"I offered to help my son's basketball team, and I wound up as head coach," said Michael Katz, a marketing consultant in Hopkinton, Mass. A friend recommended TotalVid, and Mr. Katz used it to find a 45-minute video about how to coach youth basketball.

"The production quality wasn't great, but I could actually see the demonstrations of how to do the drills," he said, boasting that his team finished third in its league.

Looming over all of the smaller companies that distribute specialized video is the question of Google's ultimate role. Google's early video service was criticized as hard to use, but it is nonetheless attracting a lot of programming from major networks as well as independents — and of course, it has a huge traffic flow that no independent site can match. Google allows programmers to offer video free, to rent it or to sell copies that viewers download to their computers; Google gets a commission for videos that are sold and rented. Eventually, it plans to sell advertising on some videos as well, sharing the revenue with the producers.

Mr. Quist, for one, says he plans to deal with Google as a partner rather than as a competitor by making much of the TotalVid's accumulated content available for rent through Google Video. Some producers who license programs to TotalVid can cut out the middleman, of course, and deal with Google directly. Mr. Quist said he hoped to help these producers market their programming on Google as well as on Apple's iTunes and other online video stores.

Among the niche audiences that are considered both large and attractive to Internet broadcasters are immigrants and expatriates seeking news and entertainment from their home countries. But arranging cross-border deals, especially those in less-developed countries, can be difficult, complex and sometimes harrowing.

Kaleil Isaza Tuzman was reminded of this last month when someone stole his watch while he was taking a shower in a shared bathroom at his hotel in Khartoum, Sudan. Still, Mr. Tuzman said he considered the trip a success because he was able to secure the rights to broadcast Sudan TV, the national television station, on JumpTV, the company he runs.

JumpTV, which is based in Toronto, has evolved into a service that offers live Internet transmission of television station broadcasts from more than 60 countries to expatriates around the world. Among its channels are VTV4 from Vietnam, Channel 10 from Greece, Amazon Sat from Brazil and, perhaps most notably, the original Arabic-language version of Al Jazeera, the news channel based in Qatar.

This service has made a great difference to Joe Wityk, 83, of Calgary, an immigrant from Ukraine.

His son, Steve Wityk, said, "My dad has been bugging me for 20 years to get TV from the Ukraine." The younger Mr. Wityk did not want to buy a receiver to get the specialized satellite channels, which could have cost as much as $1,000, he said. So he was delighted to find that he could subscribe to TV5 from Ukraine through JumpTV. He installed an inexpensive computer in his home that he connected through a hole he drilled in his ceiling to the television set of his father, who lives above him.

"He had subscribed to Ukrainian newsletters but by the time the news got to him it was old," the son said. "The TV is much better."

MR. TUZMAN travels the world to manage relationships with television stations and oversee construction of the global network of satellite receivers and Internet servers needed to operate the system. He declined to say how many subscribers he had, but each typically pays $9.95 a month for a single channel, or up to $26 a month for a package of related channels.

Mr. Tuzman — a founder of during the dot-com boom, allowing people to pay parking tickets and otherwise deal online with local governments — faces competition from cable and satellite services. That is especially the case in the United States, where there is already much programming for the largest ethnic groups. So he focuses on smaller groups.

"The Bengali community in the U.S. is not the size of Dominicans'," he said. "But guess what? They can't watch Bengali TV anywhere else." Moreover, the audience for the Internet is worldwide.

"If you are a Mexican in North America, you are much better served by cable and satellite than if you are a Moroccan in Europe," he said. "Our company is a very exciting company because we aggregate a lot of different audiences, but any one of those audiences is a very small niche."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

A yearning for the tangible.

In the Age of the Overamplified, a Resurgence for the Humble Lecture


PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER, director of public programs at the New York Public Library, is the kind of person who, when he gets excited, literally bounces in his chair.

"My purpose is not only to make the lions roar," he cries. Bounce. "But to trigger people's imagination." Bounce. Bounce. "It's not only sex that's exciting," Mr. Holdengräber says, "but the life of the mind. When you come into contact with a great idea, it can change your life."

Mr. Holdengräber is riding the crest of a renewed interest in spoken-word events, lectures, debates, readings and panel discussions, in many corners of the city, from university auditoriums to the 92nd Street Y and bookstores and bars.

A spokesman for the library said that attendance at public events had doubled since Mr. Holdengräber, the founder and former director of the Institute for Arts and Culture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, arrived a year and a half ago. Dr. Paul LeClerc, the library's president, added that since Mr. Holdengräber, 45, began making his imprint on public programming, the audiences had "a different energy."

"They tend to be much younger," he noted.

In January, Mr. Holdengräber said, when the French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was interviewed at the library by Tina Brown, "900 people showed up."

"Diane Von Furstenberg and Lauren Bacall were there," he continued. "There was a line 150 meters long of people who couldn't get in. It went around the corridors of the library."

In October, similar numbers lined up to see Bill Clinton interview the historian John Hope Franklin about race relations and to see the song-cycle version of "The Elements of Style," by Maira Kalman and Nico Muhly. "Several hundred non-ticket holders had to be turned away from all the events," Mr. Holdengräber said.

"I feel like I'm running a rock concert series," he said (though unlike at rock concerts, the performers at the library are rarely paid; many do it because they have a book to plug). "I wanted to go beyond academic discourse and speak to a very large public, and to the common reader."

To be sure, some of the increase in attendance can be attributed to Mr. Holdengräber's efforts to liven up the programming. One of the first things he did when he arrived was to change the name from the Public Education Program to Live From the N.Y.P.L. It also helped that he changed the time most lectures began, to 7 p.m. or later, from 6 or 6:30, to make it easier for people with jobs to attend. And he increased the library's e-mail database of potential attendees to 7,000 from about 500. He says he relies on e-mail messages now to publicize events rather than brochures, a change that enables him to program more spontaneously.

But the library is not the only place that has seen an increase in attendance at spoken-word events. Uptown at the 92nd Street Y, Helaine Geismar Katz, the associate executive director who is in charge of public programs, said she had seen "a big change" in the size of audiences at the Y's lectures and panels. Like the library, the Y has increased the number of its lectures, debates and forums to feed the public appetite.

"We have had poetry for over 60 years, every Monday night," Ms. Geismar Katz pointed out. "Now we have programs almost every single day and night."

In addition to the Y's usual literary fare and forums on politics, it presents interviews with actors and comedians — Carl Reiner, Jay Leno, Ralph Fiennes and Philip Seymour Hoffman are among those who have appeared — most of which are sold out far in advance.

Similarly, the New School for Social Research has a heavy schedule of readings and discussion groups on the arts, careers and politics, often in conjunction with the World Policy Institute. "Last spring we did not have more than 500 people coming to any event," said Linda Dunne, dean of general studies. But a year later, three weeks into the semester, she said, the New School has had five events with more than 500 people each. On April 6 through 8, the New School will hold a three-day tribute to the poet John Ashbery, with readings and symposiums by other poets and scholars.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has always had good crowds at its panels and lectures, said Hilde Limondjian, general manager of concerts and lectures. Its musical performances are often accompanied by talks as well.

Smaller outlets have seen a steady increase in attendance. Denis Woychuk, the principal owner of KGB Bar at 85 East Fourth Street, which is a center for readings by authors, said: "We set up our first in 1994 on Sundays because Sundays were slow. Things were dead. I said, 'Let's do something that's going to be fun.' The business was secondary, but there was certainly that." Every eager young writer attending a reading means, of course, that at least one drink is bought at the bar.

"Now we do 20 to 25 readings a month," Mr. Woychuk said. "There is fiction on Sunday, poetry on Monday. Tuesday is mainly nonfiction. On Wednesday there are special events with different literary groups, magazines, journalists. We have science fiction."

"Thursdays is becoming more like Wednesdays," he said, with special events. Fridays are the same, he said.

"We're starting to do more and more on the weekends," Mr. Woychuk added. "Used to be that if you did a literary event on a weekend, nobody wanted to come. But now we're getting a very good early crowd on Saturdays."

KGB holds about 75 people, and when celebrity authors like Billy Collins or Michael Cunningham read, he said, "it's spilling out the door, and we have to basically cut it off."

"People come hours early and camp out, as though they're trying to get World Series tickets," Mr. Woychuk said.

Another, very different small site, the Frick Collection, is also attracting crowds to its lectures. Last November, when the novelist Colm Toibin delivered a talk on Henry James, the hall was full, and latecomers had to be seated in another room to watch the event by videocast. The Frick's chief curator, Colin B. Bailey, said that the museum was offering more programs than ever before and that it hoped to add two more spoken-word events this year.

"We think there's an audience for it," Mr. Bailey said. "There's a kind of authenticity about having a living writer or artist in front of you."

The current enthusiasm for lectures and spoken-word events calls to mind the 19th century, when crowds flocked to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain and Henry Ward Beecher lecture, said Donald M. Scott, a historian at Queens College of the City University of New York. At the peak of the country's lecture craze in the 1850's, nearly 400,000 people a week attended lectures in the northern and western parts of the country, he once wrote in an essay on the topic. In 1856, when Beecher lectured in Springfield, Mass., the organizers had to provide a special train so people from the surrounding areas could attend.

But why the resurgence now? In the 19th century the increase in the number of lectures and debates came at the same time that "there was an explosion in print," Mr. Scott said in an interview. It was "staggering, equal in its scope to the kind of explosion we are seeing in electronic and TV and visual media."

"I think it's a symbiotic relationship," Mr. Scott said. "There is something to listening to a figure you may have read or heard about. Even though what they have to say may be something you can get in another form, it's a way to feel you are actually in touch with these ideas and these figures."

Ms. Geismar Katz of the 92nd Street Y said that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have contributed to a renewed interest in public conversations. For years, the Y has had a lecture series with James F. Hoge Jr. of Foreign Affairs and Ralph Buultjens, a professor at New York University.

"Before 9/11," she said, "it was difficult to sell a ticket to something on foreign affairs." But now, Ms. Geismar Katz said, "we can't keep a ticket in the house."

"It's not enough only to read — our audiences are reading audiences," she added. "But you always have that question you didn't get answered. Or at least, to hear it differently."

The increase may also have something to do with the demographic bubble of baby boomers, who are aging out of the group catered to by Hollywood and other producers of popular culture. "They make the same 10 movies," said Mr. Woychuk of KGB, who is 52. "How many times can you see the same movies?"

But a spoken-word event is a two-way street, a symbiosis between performer and audience, with the performer nourished and encouraged by sometimes invisible cues of posture and attitude from those in crowd. Mr. Cunningham, whose novels include "The Hours," has been reading at KGB for years, to standing-room-only crowds. "It's very much about storytelling," he said. "There's the sense of you're all gathered around the campfire — 'I'm going to tell you about these people, and what happened then.' "

"I love it," he continued. "It's the best way to be reminded of who's out there actually reading and who books are for, and to be reminded that writing is a highly energized, sexy, deeply complex relationship between writer and reader. It's something you tend to forget when you're sitting alone in your room writing something for people you don't know and will never see."

Meanwhile, Mr. Holdengräber of the Public Library is setting his sights on even bigger audiences. "I'm asking people to give me two or three hours of their time," he said, "and I will entertain them."

"I will bring them into contact with other people," Mr. Holdengräber promised. "They will feel something happen that night that they have never felt before."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

My fast.

link to original article.

37signals: Programming At Warp Speed

The lesson: Create a simple product as fast as you can, then get feedback from customers and make it better

Back in the old days -- say, 2003 -- it typically took a couple of years for a software product to go from bright idea to market. Nowadays? Try months. 37signals LLC, a small Chicago company, has an ironclad rule: Never take more than 3 1/2 months to get a product out the door, not counting holidays or vacations. "This is a new model, not just for building a product but for running a company," says Chief Executive Jason Fried.

In fact, 37signals turns the old ways upside down. For starters, its applications are delivered on the Web for a monthly fee, not sold in boxes. The company's seven employees don't believe in planning, either. They just start creating and trying things out. And rather than loading products with bells and whistles, they design them to do a few things well. "The way to get really good software is to make the simplest thing you can as fast as you can and get reaction, then see where it goes from there," says Paul Graham, a pioneer in Web-based software and now a guru for software entrepreneurs who operate like those at 37signals.

The story behind 37signals' Backpack product shows how the company innovates. Fried and two colleagues were at a restaurant in Seattle at the end of 2004, griping about the difficulty of keeping track of their travel, meeting, and contact info while on the road. They asked themselves: Why not handle it with a simple Web application?

Back in Chicago in mid-January, Fried launched the project by sketching out what it might look like. Then he and his colleagues spent the next few weeks tapping out ideas on their computers and firing them back and forth to one another on e-mail and Web chat. It's stressful. One of the designers, Ryan Singer, chills out during design binges by twisting himself into yoga positions.

The company takes advantage of the latest Net technologies to hasten innovation. They use a quick-and-easy programming language called Ruby. Then they tap into a set of premade software pieces, called Rails, which was designed by 37signals programmer David Heinemeier Hansson, to build the foundation of their application. That frees them to spend their precious hours writing code for the parts of their programs that are unique. Ruby and Rails are open-source packages used free of charge by Web developers.

By mid-April the team had created a simple, smooth-functioning application. Fried declared it done, and they stopped adding features -- spending the time before a May 3 launch testing the software and building a marketing Web site. Three weeks after the launch, they added a version for cell phones.

There's a downside to this way of doing business. If one upstart can deliver a new product in a snap, so can others. The guys at 37signals aren't sweating it. In fact, between projects they travel the country giving seminars and promoting their book, Getting Real, about how they build applications. Unlike many dot-comers who followed the get-big-fast credo, Fried has no plans to add to his staff. The goal: Stay small and agile -- and keep pumping out those programs.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Strength in numbers?

From Harper's: a pretentious but fascinating history and theory of the flash mob, by the person who invented it.


Whole Earth Layaway.

City Planet
by Stewart Brand

Get ready for cosmopolitan slums with thriving markets, aging residents, and the most creative economies in history.

“In the village, all there is for a woman is to obeyher husband and family elders, pound grain, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children.” I heard this remark, made by a global community activist, in 2000 at a Fortune magazine conference in Aspen, Colo. It was enough to explode my Gandhi-esque romantic notions about the superiority of village life.

Ever since, I’ve been asking travelers back from remote places what they noticed out in the countryside. Their universal report: The world’s villages are emptying out, everywhere. People are moving to cities far more rapidly than most of us realize.

Increasing urbanization is accelerating the economic development of the world with remarkable speed. The consequences are going to be profound, particularly for the institutions that serve people — government agencies, corporations, and the creators of infrastructure. Although a growing number of people have noticed the change, few civic and corporate leaders are prepared to deal with it.

The growth of cities has led to demographic trends exactly the opposite of what many experts have predicted. Only 15 years ago, it was widely assumed that the human population would continue to increase exponentially, as it had since the Industrial Revolution. Few experts foresaw the dominant effect that urbanization would have.

But it was obvious by the beginning of the 21st century. “Some 59 countries, comprising roughly 44 percent of the world’s total population, are currently not producing enough children to avoid population decline,” wrote journalist Phillip Longman in Foreign Affairs in 2004. “The phenomenon continues to spread. By 2045, according to the latest U.N. projections, the world’s fertility rate as a whole will have fallen below replacement levels.” In the article (titled “The Global Baby Bust”) and in his subsequent book, The Empty Cradle, Mr. Longman went on to explain the cause: “As more and more of the world’s population moves to urban areas in which children offer little or no economic reward to their parents, and as women acquire economic opportunities and reproductive control, the social and financial costs of childbearing continue to rise.” After I absorbed these ideas, my lifelong worries about population growth, instead of disappearing, reversed. Now I worry about the disruptions of depopulation.

Demographically, the next 50 years may be the most wrenching in human history. Massive numbers of people are making massive changes. Having just experienced the first doubling of world population in a single lifetime (from 3.3 billion in 1962 to 6.5 billion now), we now are discovering it is the last doubling. Birthrates worldwide are dropping not only much faster than expected, but much further. It used to be assumed that birthrates would get down to the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman and level off, but in most places the birthrates continue to decelerate with no bottom in sight. Meanwhile the “population momentum” of the already born and their children will carry world population to a peak of 7.5 to 9 billion around 2050 and then head downward.

Even those who note the trend correctly tend to think of it as a developed-world phenomenon: “aging Japan” and “senescent Europe.” Indeed, the long-urbanized developed nations have an average birthrate of 1.56 children per woman, and in some places the rate is as low as 1.3. Those are radical depopulation numbers. It is already in the cards that Russia, Japan, Italy, Spain, and Germany will have fewer people in 2050 than they do now. And by then the majority will be old, past childbearing. Just as the population exploded upward exponentially when the birthrate was above 2.1, it accelerates downward exponentially when it’s below 2.1. Compound interest cuts both ways. Fewer children make fewer children.

But the main event of the demographic circus is in the cities of the developing world — and most of it in squatter cities, the teeming slums of the uninvited. A billion people live in squatter cities now. Two billion more are expected by 2050. Squatters are nearly one-sixth of all humans now, one-fourth to one-third pretty soon.

Already, as a result of the headlong urbanization, birthrates have plummeted in the developing world from 6 children per woman in the 1970s to 2.9 now. Twenty “less developed” countries, including China, Chile, Thailand, and Iran, have already dropped below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.

And what about the young and fertile couples in developing countries? If current demographic trends continue, 2 billion of them will live in the cities, choosing to have fewer children. It’s not because they’re poor. They were poor in the countryside. In town they see opportunity to come up in the world. Having fewer children, who are better educated, is part of that equation.

The long-anticipated “demographic transition” is happening now, sooner and more rapidly than expected, and it’s a world-changer. First, the cities of the developing world will see dramatic population increases over the next 30 years. An equally dramatic maturing of their population will quickly follow as migration levels off and the urban birthrate drops. No one knows what, if anything, will forestall the depopulation trend in this century, but then no one predicted that the population explosion would be leveled off mainly by people moving to cities.

Meanwhile, this overwhelming demographic shift is only one of the changes in store from the new cities of this century. As cities always do, they will foster new forms of culture and technology, and they will lead to often surprising shifts in business and trade patterns. The proposed solutions to most of the problems of the world — and the problems of individual enterprises — will either take hold or wither depending on their success or failure in cities.

Urban Legions

Every week 1.3 million new people arrive in the world’s cities (about 70 million a year). It is the largest movement of humanity in history, one that started at least 100 years ago and is still accelerating. Signs are that the flood will continue for decades.

Three percent of humanity was urban in 1800, 14 percent in 1900. Sometime in 2006 or 2007 the proportion of urban dwellers will pass 50 percent worldwide, which may represent an economic tipping point. United Nations projections put the world’s city dwellers at 61 percent in 2030, continuing upward to an expected equilibrium in which, at any given moment, only about 20 percent of the population will live in rural areas, balanced against an 80 percent urban majority. The transition point from a “developing” to a “developed” country seems to occur when the country becomes 50 percent urban. (Most developed nations arrived at that point and their present state of about 75 percent urbanization much more gradually than the developing nations currently undergoing breakneck growth in cities.) In that light, Earth as a whole is just now becoming a developed world — a city planet.

Cities are remarkable organisms. They are the most long-lived of all human organizations. The oldest surviving corporations (Stora Enso in Sweden and the Sumitomo Group in Japan) are about 700 and 400 years old, respectively. The oldest universities (in Bologna and Paris) have lasted a thousand years. The oldest living religions (Hinduism and Judaism) date back about 3,500 years. But the town of Jericho has been continuously occupied for 10,500 years. Its neighbor Jerusalem has been an important city for 5,000 years, though it was conquered or destroyed 36 times and it suffered 11 conversions from one religion to another. Many cities die or decline to irrelevance, but some thrive for millennia.

Perhaps one cause of their durability is that cities are the most constantly changing of organizations. In Europe, cities replace 2 to 3 percent per year of their material fabric (buildings, roads, and other construction) by demolishing and rebuilding it. This means, in effect, that a wholly new city takes shape every 50 years. In the U.S. and the developing world, that turnover occurs much faster. Yet within all that turnover something about a city remains deeply constant and self-inspiring. Some combination of geography, economics, and cultural identity ensures that even a city destroyed by war (Warsaw, Tokyo) or fire (London, San Francisco) will often be rebuilt.

A hundred years ago, the biggest cities were almost all in the West — London (7 million in 1900), New York, Paris, Berlin. These days there are 428 metropolitan areas with more than a million inhabitants. The top 10 list now reads: Tokyo (34 million), Mexico City, Seoul, New York, São Paulo, Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Delhi, Los Angeles, Jakarta, and Osaka (Japan, 16.7 million). Barging into the top 10 by 2015, according to U.N. demographers, will be Lagos (Nigeria), Dhaka (Bangladesh), and Karachi (Pakistan).

One of the few popular writers studying the phenomenon is Mike Davis, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant who wrote brilliant muckraking analyses of Los Angeles in City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. Turning his attention to cities in the developing world, he writes in his forthcoming book Planet of Slums (Verso, 2006), “In Africa…the supernova-like growth of a few giant cities like Lagos (from 300,000 in 1950 to 10 million today) has been matched by the transformation of several dozen small towns and oases like Ouagadougou, Nouakchott, Douala, Antananarivo, and Bamako into cities larger than San Francisco or Manchester. In Latin America, where primary cities long monopolized growth, secondary cities like Tijuana, Curitiba, Temuco, Salvador, and Belém are now booming, [in the words of demographers Miguel Villa and Jorge Rodriguez] ‘with the fastest growth of all occurring in cities with between 100,000 and 500,000 inhabitants.’” In other words, more and more significant news will be coming from cities most people in the West have not yet heard of.

Demographers talk about “push” and “pull” motivations driving the huge migration to the cities. Push feels like this: Life in your village is dull, backbreaking, impoverished, restricted, exposed, dangerous, and static. In the countryside, you are at the mercy of bad weather, bandits, and disease, with nowhere to go for help. But visit your relative in town and you see what “pull” means. In the city, life is exciting, less grueling, far better paid, free, private, safe, and upwardly mobile. Will you put up with slum conditions for all that? In a heartbeat. “City air makes you free,” said the Renaissance Germans. History may view the European Renaissance as mild compared to the change going on now.

Squatter Vibrancy

Let no one romanticize the conditions of slums. New squatter cities usually look like human cesspools and often smell like them. There is usually no infrastructure at all for sanitation, for water, for electricity, or for transportation. Everyone lives in dilapidated shacks jammed together wall to wall, with every room full of people. A typical squatter city, which may stretch for miles, has grown without a plan or government, in an area generally deemed uninhabitable: a swamp, a floodplain, a steep hillside, a municipal dump; clustered in the path of a highway project, squashed up against a railroad line.

But the squatter cities are vibrant. Each narrow street is one long bustling market of food stalls, bars, cafes, hair salons, churches, schools, health clubs, and mini-shops of tools, trinkets, clothes, electronic gadgets, and pirated videos and music. What you see up close is not a despondent populace crushed by poverty but a lot of people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can.

Considered together, squatter cities are the scene of an enormous economic event, but it escapes notice because it’s designed to escape notice. Squatters don’t formally own land or property. They don’t pay taxes. They take no part in any permit or licensing process. They pay no attention to government-approved exchange rates. And yet they thrive economically, charging each other rent for space in unowned buildings, employing each other in their unlicensed businesses, and selling each other all manner of goods and services. This is what is called the informal economy, and it is to economic theory what “dark energy” is to astrophysical theory. It’s not supposed to be there, but it is, and it is huge. How else do we explain slum-laden Mumbai (half of its 12 million residents are squatters) accounting for one-sixth of India’s entire GDP? Its actual impact on the economy is probably greater still, because GDP figures don’t typically reflect the full value of the underground economy.

Two recent books have penetrated the clouds of wrong theory about squatter cities because the authors spent time actually living in the shantytowns. The books are The Challenge of Slums, the 2003 global report by the United Nations Human Settlements Program, and Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, by journalist Robert Neuwirth (Routledge, 2004). The U.N. book is based on 37 case studies conducted all over the world. Robert Neuwirth did his research by learning the relevant languages and then living for months as a resident in Rocinha (one of 700 favelas, or shantytowns, in Rio de Janeiro); in Kibera (a squatter city of 400,000 adjoining Nairobi); in the Sanjay Gandhi Nagar neighborhood of Mumbai; and in Sultanbeyli, a now fully developed squatter city of 300,000 with a seven-story city hall, next to Istanbul, Turkey. (If you want a vivid film experience of real squatter cities, see the work of Brazilian film director Fernando Meirelles. His City of God takes place in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and much of last year’s The Constant Gardener was shot in Kenya’s Kibera district.)

Contrary to a common assumption, the U.N. researchers and Robert Neuwirth found that the wretched quality of housing in squatter cities is never the main concern of the inhabitants. Indeed, when governments and idealistic architects provide public housing, those buildings often turn into the worst part of the slums. The people who build the shanties take pride in them and are always working to improve them. The real issues for the squatters are location — they want to be close to work — and what the U.N. calls “security of tenure.” They need to know that their homes and community won’t suddenly be bulldozed out of existence.

Another piece of conventional wisdom that turns out to be wrong concerns crime. Far from being the hotbeds of criminal activity that everyone assumed, the squatter cities are often victimized by criminals from outside, because they have no protection by government police. (The exception is in Brazil, where the favelas are the safest areas in Rio, thanks to drug gangs taking on the role of community police; in the absence of government police, they enforce their own stronger version of public security.)

Squatters are tremendously resourceful and productive. In aggregate they are the dominant builders in the world today. They will do much of the work and innovation of building the cities of the 21st century and the global urban economy. All that the keepers of the formal economy have to do is meet them halfway — help them secure their tenure and give them time to gradually join the formal world, which will no doubt be reshaped by their joining it.

Though the squatter communities have what the U.N. researchers describe as “cultural movements and levels of solidarity unknown in leafy suburbs,” they are seldom politically active outside the defense of their own community interests. Nevertheless, governments sometimes fear their solidarity, and that’s why the bulldozers are sent, as in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, to eliminate squatters (thereby helping commit national economic suicide). According to the U.N., three-quarters of all countries with large urban squatter populations have programs to keep people back in the countryside, and all are failing. That is fortunate.

Migrant Boomers

Gradually a consensus is emerging about the economic value of rural-to-urban migration. This migration, “on the whole, acts to alleviate poverty in both the urban and rural sectors,” wrote geography professor Ronald Skeldon in 1997. He explained that the urban “informal sector, with its capacity to create an almost infinite variety and number of activities” and its “considerable potential for self-organization…can create a dynamic economy and society.”

The 2003 United Nations report on slums is yet more optimistic. The authors estimate that 60 percent of urban employment in the developing world is in the informal sector, and it has essential links to the success of the formal sector: “The screen-printer who provides laundry bags to hotels, the charcoal burner who wheels his cycle up to the copper smelter and delivers sacks of charcoal…the home-based creche to which the managing director delivers her child each morning, the informal builder who adds a security wall around the home of the government minister all indicate the complex networks of linkages between informal and formal.”

Unemployment rates, the U.N. report notes, are irrelevant in an economy that is largely informal, “because virtually everyone (including children) is involved in a number of economic activities in order to live, and the conceptual separation of workers and non-workers is meaningless.” Also meaningless is the separation of production and consumption when a family’s business is home-based. Some workers who have gathered skills and savings in the formal economy use them to set up shop in the informal world: “By adopting the triple role of entrepreneur-capitalist-worker, they can achieve total incomes greater than comparable waged workers in the formal sector,” the U.N. report asserts.

Squatters bring rural skills and values to town with them. Building their own shelter is what they’ve always done, at a minute fraction of the cost of city-provided housing. Collaborating with extended family and neighbors in close proximity is nothing new to them, and neither is doing without elaborate infrastructure.

Social cohesiveness is the crucial factor differentiating “slums of hope” from “slums of despair.” This is where CBOs (community-based organizations) and the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that support local empowerment play such an important part. Typical CBOs include, according to the 2003 U.N. report, “community theater and leisure groups; sports groups; residents associations or societies; savings and credit groups; child care groups; minority support groups; clubs; advocacy groups; and more.… CBOs as interest associations have filled an institutional vacuum, providing basic services such as communal kitchens, milk for children, income-earning schemes and cooperatives.”

Cities have been the wealth engine for civilization since its beginning. Thus the bottom line in the U.N. report: “Cities are so much more successful in promoting new forms of income generation, and it is so much cheaper to provide services in urban areas, that some experts have actually suggested that the only realistic poverty reduction strategy is to get as many people as possible to move to the city.”

The role of women in all this cannot be overemphasized. The U.N. report notes that CBOs “are frequently run and controlled by impoverished women and are usually based on self-help principles, though they may receive assistance from NGOs, churches and political parties.” One of the major effects of the move from country to city is the unleashing of woman power. Experience shows that microfinance credit works better when provided to women, not men, and women are the more responsible holders of property deeds. The U.N. report summarizes: “In many cases, women are taking the lead in devising survival strategies that are, effectively, the governance structures of the developing world when formal structures have failed them. However, one out of every four countries in the developing world has a constitution or national laws that contain impediments to women owning land and taking mortgages in their own names.”

It is so important to free up newly urbanized women from their traditional role as fetchers of water and fuel that the U.N. report dryly recommends, “The provision of water standpipes may be far more effective in enabling women to undertake income-earning activities than the provision of skills training.”

The significance of religious groups also cannot be overemphasized. According to Mike Davis, “Populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early twentieth-century socialism and anarchism. In Morocco, for instance, where half a million rural emigrants are absorbed into the teeming cities every year, and where half the population is under 25, Islamicist movements like ‘Justice and Welfare,’ founded by Sheik Abdessalam Yassin, have become the real governments of the slums: organizing night schools, providing legal aid to victims of state abuse, buying medicine for the sick, subsidizing pilgrimages and paying for funerals.” He adds that “Pentecostalism is…the first major world religion to have grown up almost entirely in the soil of the modern urban slum” and “since 1970, and largely because of its appeal to slum women and its reputation for being colour-blind, [Pentecostalism] has been growing into what is arguably the largest self-organized movement of urban poor people on the planet.”

As the cities of the next 20 years evolve, they will increasingly bargain with the older cities, and with corporations, as equals. What will that bargaining look like?

Aspirational Shantytowns

To me the most compelling image of hope in squatter communities is something you see everywhere — masonry and concrete building walls with rebar sticking out of the top. The rebar — reinforcing bars of steel — is there as an anchor for a potential new wall, in the expectation that eventually, when there’s enough money, another story will be added to the building. It may provide more living space for the family or another source of rent. The magic ingredient of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and gradually, increment by increment, by the people living there. Each home is built that way, and so is the whole community.

Another common sight in squatter towns is a network of wires strung everywhere, carrying pirated electricity and cable TV, and pipes snaking in all directions, illegally distributing water. In Brazil, a country with a good reputation for helping squatters, Mr. Neuwirth reports that the cable, power, and water companies decided to stop treating the gatos (“cats,” the squatters who siphon off public services) as thieves and instead treated them as people trying to become customers. Working with the communities, sometimes through nonprofit organizations, they are gradually improving the infrastructure and building revenue in cahoots with a particularly entrepreneurial new customer base.

Over time, usually decades, squatter cities become real cities, part of the formal economy. Mr. Neuwirth points out that all of the world’s present major cities began as disreputable shantytowns. Step-by-step, the new towns will join the global economy that caused them in the first place. It was the industrialization of agriculture for global markets that reduced the rural jobs. Global corporations often provide the best-paying jobs and best working conditions in town, raising the standard for everyone. Global NGOs, having learned to distrust national governments, go straight to the burgeoning new cities, where the neediest can be served most directly. The “agglomeration economies” that make cities wealth producers are accelerated, and in turn they speed the global economy.

It’s easy to gloss over the enormous variety among the thousands of emerging cities with different cultures, nations, metropolitan areas, and neighborhoods. From that variety is emerging an understanding of best and worst governmental practices — best, for example, in Turkey, which offers a standard method for new squatter cities to form; worst, for example, in Kenya, which actively prevents squatters from improving their homes. Every country provides a different example. Consider the extraordinary accomplishment of China, which has admitted 300 million people to its cities in the last 50 years without shantytowns forming, and expects another 300 million to come.

The new levels of communication and trade linkage worldwide mean that every city of size becomes in effect a world city, with the accompanying multipliers of cultural diversity, financial flow, and people flow. In the vast worldwide migration toward jobs, the poor hardly limit themselves to cities in their own countries. There is also a large population of global urbanites who live at large, at home not in any one locale but “in cities.” These peripatetics include thousands of professionals and many of the world’s wealthy. We’re still discovering how the totality of an urbanized world will differ from our experience of urbanized nations and regions.

How does all this relate to businesspeople in the developed world? One-fourth of humanity trying new things in new cities is a lot of potential customers, collaborators, and competitors. C.K. Prahalad’s book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (Wharton School Publishing, 2005) spells out how companies can reach the poor and deliver goods and services at the interface between the formal and informal economies. Those concerned about widespread piracy of intellectual property (such as music, movies, books, software, and brand names) in emerging-market cities may want to follow the example of the Rio water and power companies and find ways to treat the pirates as people trying to become customers. The world should be attuned to what is going on in the squatter communities, because more than just music is coming out of them. Lively new forms of self-organizing behavior are taking shape there.

For environmentalists, the massive urbanization could represent a huge opportunity, though most haven’t realized it yet. The “ecological footprint” of cities is indeed large (and well studied), but the per-person environmental impact of city dwellers is generally lower than that of people in the countryside, and it can be made lower still. In many regions the emptying of the countryside means that the pressure on natural systems is suddenly reduced. Replacing the widespread subsistence farmers and herders, who treated wild animals as pests or food and wild trees and shrubs as firewood, is efficient industrialized agriculture in more localized areas (with less herbicide and pesticide impact thanks to genetically modified crops). The trees and wild animals are coming back. Now is the time to set in place protection for the rural natural systems, so when people return, as they surely will, the places they return to will be on a path of increasing biodiversity and health.

As reflected in the United Nations’ “Green Cities Declaration” last year, a worldwide movement is under way to reshape cities toward better ecological and economic fitness. The “new urbanists” rightly push for dense, mixed-use urban forms (articulated in a vocabulary of lot sizes, building shapes, use mixes, and code nuances), plenty of mass transit, and limitations to diffuse sprawl. I would like to see ecological-footprint analysis of squatter cities, with their extreme density, low energy use, and ingenious practices of recycling everything. Maybe there are ideas there that could be generalized.

What the world has now is new cities with young populations and old cities with old populations. How the dialogue between them plays out will determine much of the nature of the next half century. The convergence of the two major trends, globalization and rampant urbanization, means that all cities are effectively one city now.

The demographic literature refers often to the “bright lights” phenomenon that draws people to cities. People want to be where the action is. Thanks to satellite imagery, those lights and that action are now visible from space. The night side of the Earth, these decades, displays dazzling webs of light, with incandescent nodes at all the metropolitan areas and a bright tracery of transportation corridors between them. That web of light is the sign to visitors that they are approaching not just a living planet, but a civilized planet.


Mumbai Highway

by R. Gopalakrishnan

I wish to offer five perspectives, influenced by my experiences as a marketer in a consumer goods company (Hindustan Lever Ltd.) for three decades and working in a large industrial conglomerate (the Tata Group) for eight years after that.

1. Political and business leaders are already changing their attitudes about the legitimacy of squatter cities. Even 50 years ago, Dharavi in Mumbai might well have been the world’s biggest slum, largely settled by Tamils and Telegus from southern India. It has even produced one of the well-known dons of crime, Varadaraj Mudaliar, a character who has inspired a major Bollywood film (Nayakan, directed by Mani Ratnam).

As a young sales manager marketing to grocery shops in urban slums, I used to wonder how these slums could possibly survive. At that time, Mahatma Gandhi’s view seemed to be right: He had advocated keeping people in the rural areas by promoting the charkha, the village spinning wheel.

Today, Dharavi is brimming with entrepreneurship. It boasts households with television sets, shops selling mobile telephones, and restaurants serving multiethnic cuisine. It is no longer “illegitimate” in any way. Civic amenities like bus service, schools, and hospitals took several decades to come, but they exist now.

Many political leaders, over the past 50 years, have contemplated stopping urban migration through regulation: for example, by monitoring entry into Mumbai. Leaders now realize that this will not work; they should manage the situation rather than attempt to eliminate it. In November 2005, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in Delhi, “Urban areas are the nodes from which enterprise, creativity, and prosperity radiate in all directions.… We need a new wave of city buildings for the 21st century.” China’s leaders are thinking similarly. As the Financial Times noted on November 15, 2005: “Beijing aims to manage, rather than halt, rural migration which it accepts is important for economic growth.”

2. The new cities represent a new kind of global melting pot. People of different regions, subcultures, and even nationalities constitute an invisible and uncontrollable proportion of the immigration wave. Rural Bangladeshis, for example, are enticed by organized syndicates, which operate over the 4,000 kilometers from Kolkata to Mumbai, to cross the porous border in Bengal to seek a livelihood in the burgeoning Indian cities. In a multilingual country like India, the “real” language spoken among the slum-dwellers is invariably not the local one (Marathi in Mumbai) but one from elsewhere (Tamil, Telegu, Hindi, or Bengali). All of them are commingling in the urban slum population.

As all these people mix, the economic vibrancy of the urban slums is providing an escape valve for the pressures and tensions of inequality. Economist Albert Hirschman likened a society with recognizably distinct groups to a multilane highway. If none of the lanes is moving, then people will sit through a traffic jam patiently. However, if one or two lanes are moving faster and they see no hope of a movement in their own lane, then they will jump lanes. History shows that great disparities in wealth cause economic depression, and in repressed political situations, even revolutions. A release mechanism for inequality is best found before the pressure becomes unmanageable.

Informal-sector employment and entrepreneurship in the urban squatter cities represent a short-term solution. But will that be enough in the long run to absorb enough people into the formal economy and society with dignity and opportunity? Or will some kind of intervention, from either the government or the private sector, inevitably be called for?

3. One should not judge squatter colonies and urban slums by the standards of the urban rich. I used to think that people would quit the slums with the slightest inducements from government. Even today, if a person like me visits there, the situation appears intolerable. And urban planners continue to think that rehabilitation apartments are a solution. But they are not.

Journalist Suketu Mehta captures the reason in this passage from his book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Knopf, 2004): “I asked…if she wouldn’t rather live in a decent apartment.… She replied, ‘There is too much aloneness there, a person can die behind closed doors of a flat and no one will know. Here there are a lot of people.’”

4. Because squatters are real consumers with real needs to be satisfied, they represent an opportunity. Companies have learned to design their products by comprehending the needs of such consumers. They live on an economic escalator; if a company can connect with them early on, there are legitimate business rewards to be reaped in the course of time. They provided my company with a market for consumer goods — a large and attractive one.

Initially, my company did not sell them Lux, “the bathing soap of the film stars,” but sold them Lifebuoy, “the soap that washed away germs.” Today, those consumers buy Lux, and even more expensive soaps.

In the early 1970s, they had no running water in their dwellings, so they could not use synthetic powdered detergents — there was no receptacle to soak their clothes in, let alone the water to rinse after the soak. My company designed a synthetic detergent bar called RIN, one of the first such bars in the world, so consumers without access to large quantities of running water could wash by rubbing the clothes. Such soaps are flourishing consumer products today. It is the same story with shampoos, TV sets, bicycles, and two wheelers, electric bulbs, and even banking.

Microcredit — the use of pooled credit to help lower-income people start businesses and find opportunities — is no longer just a rural phenomenon. There is an association of Indian microcredit lenders, and its members feel that the conditions of growing urbanization today represent “the big moment; it couldn’t be bigger.” The central bank of India promotes this idea, on the grounds that microcredit helps the poor, but it also allows banks to increase their business, enhance their profit, and spread the risk. A recent World Bank report indicates the growth potential in India by pointing out that microcredit touches only 5 percent of the poor. In Bangladesh, microcredit touches two-thirds of the poor.

5. Asians should not be too complacent; we Asians will also face the problems of an aging population. China and East Asia’s working-age population will peak in 2010; India’s will peak about 30 years later. Thereafter, there will be progressively fewer consumers (as is the case in the West and Japan already) but, more importantly, the number of pensioners will increase without an increase in the working population.

This will have an adverse effect on market sizes and cost structures in geometrical progression, just as the beneficial converse happened in the earlier phase when the working population increased. For India, there may actually be a demographic bonus between 2010 and 2040, when its working population is still increasing, while populations in the rest of Asia level off and decline.

The rabbit is in the middle of the python, and because the process of depopulation will happen over 30 years, the subject does not engage much of the attention of Asian corporate leaders. But it will.

R. Gopalakrishnan ( is the executive director of Tata Sons, the holding company of the Tata Group, India’s largest industrial conglomerate.


Tomorrow’s Markets

by C.K. Prahalad

For those focused on building the markets of tomorrow, the visible poverty and squalor of the “city planet” hides a less visible reality. Whether located in São Paulo, Mexico City, or Mumbai, any emerging shantytown is a vibrant economic hub. The people who live there have the same aspirations as the urban rich and brand-conscious middle class. They are tomorrow’s market for televisions, cell phones, pharmaceuticals, and video games. They are also entrepreneurs. For example, in Dharavi, one of the largest shantytowns in India, local manufacturers make leather goods (jackets, wallets, handbags), gold jewelry, packaged food, recycled plastic (which they sell as raw material), and medical supplies. There are one- to two-person entrepreneurial shops, and well-organized workshops employing 50 to 100 people.

Unfortunately, this emerging, vibrant economic hub of consumers and producers tends to exist in what is called the extra-legal or unorganized sector. These terms are often used to dismiss this sector’s importance. But they simply indicate that the sector is not part of the formally recognized economy of the country. It is important for governments to recognize these emerging hubs of economic activity and make it easier for them to become integrated with the formal economy.

Large firms can help in this process. For example, banks can simultaneously double their customer base (if not assets under management) and learn how to provide world-class financial services at low cost. The opportunity for “doing well by doing good” for global firms is considerably enhanced by the urbanization of developing countries.

The poor are voting with their feet. They seek market-based work opportunities for themselves, through proximity to higher-paying nonseasonal and nonagricultural employment; and they seek opportunities for their children to escape the “poverty trap.” Because of the negative side of this urbanization process — congestion, pollution, shantytowns, transportation bottlenecks, and crime — some critics argue that we have to stop this trend. But with imaginative public–private–civil society partnership, this trend can lead to a new approach to eradicating poverty through social and business innovations.

C.K. Prahalad ( is the Paul and Ruth McCracken Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (Wharton School Publishing, 2005).