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October 11, 2001, Thursday



By Pamela LiCalzi O'Connell (NYT) 1020 words

Ooh, Circa '94

Are America Online's promotional CD-ROM's -- those shrink-wrapped discs that regularly appear in your mailbox -- junk mail or pop-culture artifacts?

To John Lieberman and Jim McKenna, technology professionals from San Francisco, those seemingly ubiquitous CD's, which cannot be used for any other computer-related purpose, are ''needless pollution.'' Through their Web site, at www
.nomoreaolcds.com, the two have embarked on an online mission to amass one million of the discs and deliver them to AOL's headquarters in Dulles, Va.

Since August, Mr. McKenna said, he has received more than 2,600 discs as a result of his effort. An affiliate site is gathering discs in Britain, and other sites are being readied in Australia, France and Germany.

A spokesman for AOL, Nicholas Graham, emphasized that the company has an internal recycling policy, adding, ''We think the number of people who are pleased to get the discs far outweighs those who are not pleased.''

In fact, there is a growing segment of the population that can't wait for the next AOL CD to pour out of cereal boxes: collectors. AOL has distributed more than 1,000 versions of the discs, and there are people who want to collect all of the many permutations. Some versions with distinctive artwork have sold on eBay for more than $100 each.

Lydia Cline, an architect in Overland Park, Kan., has collected more than 500 AOL CD versions. Far from detritus, AOL's discs ''are destined to be among the antiques of the digital age,'' she said. ''Ten years from now everyone who has tossed them out might wish they had saved a few.''

Mr. McKenna found that some people could not resist turning their discs into art objects. ''Many people are submitting CD's with statements or poems on them,'' he said. ''A good number of them are not fit to print. My favorite haiku read: 'Mailbox is full of surprises, Square round thing arrived, Yet another 1,000 free hours.' ''

Dark Prophecies

At the Foresight Exchange
(ideosphere.com), a virtual stock market where you can bet with play money on events from the political to the trivial, the odds have shifted in a sobering direction since last month's terrorist attacks. For example, one of the most active issues in the week after the attacks was the betting on whether a nuclear weapon will be used somewhere in the world by 2010. The chances, according to the site's 4,000 players, are better than 50 percent.

The site, which is not for profit, began seven years ago on the basis of an idea floated by Robin Hanson (hanson.gmu.edu
/ideafutures.html), now an assistant professor of economics at George Mason University. He argued that citizens should have the opportunity to bet in policy markets in such a way that their views would help shape the priorities of politicians and researchers.

Players at the Foresight Exchange test their prognostication abilities by making ''claims'' about future events. Shares in those claims are then bought and sold, driving their value -- the probability that they will occur, according to market consensus -- higher or lower. While not all predictions involve earth-shattering concerns (Will the Clinton marriage last through 2003? More than 80 percent say yes), most deal with serious topics.

A claim by one player, Randall Burns, that a major act of war or terrorism would occur on American soil by 2010 was recently judged to have come true, and trading was halted. Ken Kittlitz, who manages the site, said that claim had typically traded above 50 percent, its perceived probability, before Sept. 11.

Recently there has been active trading in Mr. Burns's next prediction, that another terrorist attack in the United States will claim more than 200 lives before 2010. That claim is trading at more than 70 percent.

Binding Memories

While mainstream publishers prepare quick books on the events of Sept. 11, the online world is busy cataloging its own reaction, some of which has already made it into printed form.

Blue Ear (blueear.com), one of the more literate discussion forums on the Web, has produced a work with help from New York University's journalism department titled ''09/11 8:48 AM: Documenting America's Greatest Tragedy.'' It is a form of oral history consisting mostly of accounts posted online by survivors, witnesses and what Blue Ear's editor in chief, Ethan Casey, called ''helpless onlookers.''

The book is available as an e-book for $6 and as a print-on-demand paperback for $14.99 from Booksurge.com. Profits are being donated to Red Cross relief efforts related to the attacks.

On the graphic arts front, more than 200 artists worldwide are contributing online works to Project091101.com, created in reaction to the events for a combination CD and book. Joost Korngold (www
.renascent.nl), a new-media artist in the Netherlands, said that a publisher was still being sought and that a charity would be designated to receive the proceeds. Unlike the contributors to Blue Ear's project, the artists will remain anonymous. ''This was a touchy point,'' Mr. Korngold said. ''Some artists were questioning the purity of this project as a means for getting their work published. Therefore we have decided no name- or logo-dropping. Only art.''

Filling a Rice Bowl

In August I wrote of the demise of The Hunger Site (thehungersite.com), one of the first and most popular sites to let Web users donate to charity by looking at online ads. The concept was simple: If you clicked on a banner ad, a cup of rice was donated to international food programs.

The site has returned under new management: Tim Kunin and Greg Hesterberg, the owners of EcologyFund.com, which operates in a similar way to buy and protect wilderness lands. They have also acquired and revived The Breast Cancer Site (www
.thebreastcancersite.com), which finances mammograms, and they plan soon to revive The Rainforest Site, which conserves rain-forest acreage.

At its peak, more than 220,000 people visited The Hunger Site daily. Mr. Hesterberg said that traffic now approached half that level. ''We're hoping that everyone that dropped us from their bookmarks will come back,'' he said.

CAPTIONS: Drawings (Chris Gash)

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company