NYTimes.com Article: The Probability That a Real-Estate Agent Is
Cheating You (and Other Riddles of Modern Life)
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The Probability That a Real-Estate Agent Is Cheating You (and Other Riddles of Modern Life)
August 3, 2003
By STEPHEN J. DUBNER
The most brilliant young economist in America -- the one so
deemed, at least, by a jury of his elders -- brakes to a
stop at a traffic light on Chicago's south side. It is a
sunny day in mid-June. He drives an aging green Chevy
Cavalier with a dusty dashboard and a window that doesn't
quite shut, producing a dull roar at highway speeds.
But the car is quiet for now, as are the noontime streets:
gas stations, boundless concrete, brick buildings with
An elderly homeless man approaches. It says he is homeless
right on his sign, which also asks for money. He wears a
torn jacket, too heavy for the warm day, and a grimy red
The economist doesn't lock his doors or inch the car
forward. Nor does he go scrounging for spare change. He
just watches, as if through one-way glass. After a while,
the homeless man moves along.
''He had nice headphones,'' says the economist, still
watching in the rearview mirror. ''Well, nicer than the
ones I have. Otherwise, it doesn't look like he has many
Steven Levitt tends to see things differently than the
average person. Differently, too, than the average
economist. This is either a wonderful trait or a troubling
one, depending on how you feel about economists. The
average economist is known to wax oracularly about any and
all monetary issues. But if you were to ask Levitt his
opinion of some standard economic matter, he would probably
swipe the hair from his eyes and plead ignorance. ''I gave
up a long time ago pretending that I knew stuff I didn't
know,'' he says. ''I mean, I just -- I just don't know very
much about the field of economics. I'm not good at math, I
don't know a lot of econometrics, and I also don't know how
to do theory. If you ask me about whether the stock
market's going to go up or down, if you ask me whether the
economy's going to grow or shrink, if you ask me whether
deflation's good or bad, if you ask me about taxes -- I
mean, it would be total fakery if I said I knew anything
about any of those things.''
In Levitt's view, economics is a science with excellent
tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of
interesting questions. His particular gift is the ability
to ask such questions. For instance: If drug dealers make
so much money, why do they still live with their mothers?
Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What
really caused crime rates to plunge during the past decade?
Do real-estate agents have their clients' best interests at
heart? Why do black parents give their children names that
may hurt their career prospects? Do schoolteachers cheat to
meet high-stakes testing standards? Is sumo wrestling
And how does a homeless man afford $50 headphones?
people -- including a fair number of his peers -- might not
recognize Levitt's work as economics at all. But he has
merely distilled the so-called dismal science down to its
most primal aim: explaining how people get what they want,
or need. Unlike most academics, he is unafraid of using
personal observations and curiosities (though he does fear
calculus). He is an intuitionist. He sifts through a pile
of data to find a story that no one else had found. He
devises a way to measure an effect that veteran economists
had declared unmeasurable. His abiding interests -- though
he says he has never trafficked in them himself -- are
cheating, corruption and crime.
His interest in the homeless man's headphones, meanwhile,
didn't last long. ''Maybe,'' he said later, ''it was just
testimony to the fact I'm too disorganized to buy a set of
headphones that I myself covet.''
Levitt is the first to say that some of his topics border
on the trivial. But he has proved to be such an ingenious
researcher and clear-eyed thinker that instead of being
consigned to the fringe of his field, the opposite has
happened: he has shown other economists just how well their
tools can make sense of the real world.
''Levitt is considered a demigod, one of the most creative
people in economics and maybe in all social science,'' says
Colin Camerer, an economist at the California Institute of
Technology. ''He represents something that everyone thinks
they will be when they go to grad school in econ, but
usually they have the creative spark bored out of them by
endless math -- namely, a kind of intellectual detective
trying to figure stuff out.''
Levitt is a populist in a field that is undergoing a bout
of popularization. Undergraduates are swarming the
economics departments of elite universities. Economics is
seen as the ideal blend of intellectual prestige (it does
offer a Nobel, after all) and practical training for a
high-flying finance career (unless, like Levitt, you choose
to stay in academia). At the same time, economics is ever
more visible in the real world, thanks to the continuing
fetishization of the stock market and the continuing
fixation with Alan Greenspan.
The greatest change, however, is within the scholarly
ranks. Microeconomists are gaining on the macro crowd,
empiricists gaining on the theorists. Behavioral economists
have called into doubt the very notion of ''homo
economicus,'' the supposedly rational decision-maker in
each of us. Young economists of every stripe are more
inclined to work on real-world subjects and dip into
bordering disciplines -- psychology, criminology,
sociology, even neurology -- with the intent of rescuing
their science from its slavish dependence upon mathematical
Levitt fits everywhere and nowhere. He is a noetic
butterfly that no one has pinned down -- he was once
offered a job on the Clinton economic team, and the Bush
campaign approached him about being a crime adviser -- but
who is widely appreciated.
''Steve isn't really a behavioral economist, but they'd be
happy to have him,'' says Austan Goolsbee, who teaches
economics at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of
Business. ''He's not really an old price-theory guy, but
these Chicago guys are happy to claim him. He's not really
a Cambridge guy'' -- although Levitt went to Harvard and
then M.I.T. -- ''but they'd love him to come back.''
He has critics, to be sure. Daniel Hamermesh, a prominent
labor economist at the University of Texas, has taught
Levitt's paper ''The Impact of Legalized Abortion on
Crime'' to his undergraduates. ''I've gone over this paper
in draft, in its printed version, at great length, and for
the life of me I can't see anything wrong with it,''
Hamermesh says. ''On the other hand, I don't believe a word
of it. And his stuff on sumo wrestlers -- well, this is not
exactly fundamental, unless you're Japanese and weigh 500
But at 36, Levitt is a full professor in the University of
Chicago's economics department, the most legendary program
in the country. (He received tenure after only two years.)
He is an editor of The Journal of Political Economy, a
leading journal in the field. And the American Economic
Association recently awarded him its John Bates Clark
Medal, given biennially to the country's best economist
He is a prolific and diverse writer. But his paper linking
a rise in abortion to a drop in crime has made more noise
than the rest combined. Levitt and his co-author, John
Donohue of Stanford Law School, argued that as much as 50
percent of the huge drop in crime since the early 1990's
can be traced to Roe v. Wade. Their thinking goes like
this: the women most likely to seek an abortion -- poor,
single, black or teenage mothers -- were the very women
whose children, if born, have been shown most likely to
become criminals. But since those children weren't born,
crime began to decrease during the years they would have
entered their criminal prime. In conversation, Levitt
reduces the theory to a tidy syllogism: ''Unwantedness
leads to high crime; abortion leads to less unwantedness;
abortion leads to less crime.''
Levitt had already published widely about crime and
punishment. One paper he wrote as a graduate student is
still regularly cited. His question was disarmingly simple:
Do more police translate into less crime? The answer would
seem obvious -- yes -- but had never been proved: since the
number of police officers tends to rise along with the
number of crimes, the effectiveness of the police was
tricky to measure.
Levitt needed a mechanism that would unlink the crime rate
from police hiring. He found it within politics. He noticed
that mayors and governors running for re-election often
hire more police officers. By measuring those police
increases against crime rates, he was able to determine
that additional officers do indeed bring down violent
That paper was later disputed -- another graduate student
found a serious mathematical mistake in it -- but Levitt's
ingenuity was obvious. He began to be acknowledged as a
master of the simple, clever solution. He was the guy who,
in the slapstick scene, sees all the engineers futzing with
a broken machine -- and then realizes that no one has
thought to plug it in.
Arguing that the police help deter crime didn't make Levitt
any enemies. Arguing that abortion deterred crime was
In the abortion paper, published in 2001, he and Donohue
warned that their findings should not be seen ''as either
an endorsement of abortion or a call for intervention by
the state in the fertility decisions of women.'' They
suggested that crime might just as easily be curbed by
''providing better environments for those children at
greatest risk for future crime.''
Still, the very topic managed to offend nearly everyone.
Conservatives were enraged that abortion could be construed
as a crime-fighting tool. Liberals were aghast that poor
and black women were singled out. Economists grumbled that
Levitt's methodology was not sound. A syllogism, after all,
can be a magic trick: All cats die; Socrates died;
therefore Socrates was a cat.
''I think he's enormously clever in so many areas, focusing
very much on the issue of reverse causality,'' says Ted
Joyce, an economist at Baruch College who has written a
critical response to the abortion paper. ''But in this case
I think he ignored it, or didn't tend to it well enough.''
As the news media gorged on the abortion-crime story,
Levitt came under direct assault. He was called an
ideologue (by conservatives and liberals alike), a
eugenicist, a racist and downright evil.
In reality, he seems to be very much none of those. He has
little taste for politics and less for moralizing. He is
genial, low-key and unflappable, confident but not cocky.
He is a respected teacher and colleague; he is a
sought-after collaborator who, because of the breadth of
his curiosities, often works with scholars outside his
field -- another rarity for an economist.
''I hesitate to use these words, but Steve is a con man, in
the best sense,'' says Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at
Columbia University. ''He's the Shakespearean jester. He'll
make you believe his ideas were yours.'' Venkatesh was
Levitt's co-author on ''An Economic Analysis of a
Drug-Selling Gang's Finances,'' which found that the
average street dealer lives with his mother because the
take-home pay is, frankly, terrible. The paper analyzed one
crack gang's financial activities as if it were any
corporation. (It was Venkatesh who procured the data, from
a former gang member.) Such a thing had never been tried.
''This lack of focus,'' Levitt deadpanned in one version of
the paper, ''is perhaps partly attributable to the fact
that few economists have been involved in the study of
Levitt speaks with a boyish lisp. His appearance is High
Nerd: a plaid button-down shirt, nondescript khakis and a
braided belt, sensible shoes. His pocket calendar is
branded with the National Bureau of Economic Research logo.
''I wish he would get more than three haircuts a year,''
his wife, Jeannette, says, ''and that he wasn't still
wearing the same glasses he got 15 years ago, which weren't
even in fashion then.'' He was a good golfer in high school
but has so physically atrophied that he calls himself ''the
weakest human being alive'' and asks Jeannette to open jars
around the house.
There is nothing in his appearance or manner, in other
words, that suggests a flamethrower. He will tell you that
all he does is sit at his desk, day and night, wrestling
with some strange mountain of data. He will tell you that
he would do it free (his salary is reportedly more than
$200,000), and you tend to believe him. He may be an
accidental provocateur, but he is a provocateur
He takes particular delight in catching wrongdoers. In one
paper, he devised a set of algorithms that could identify
teachers in the Chicago public-school system who were
cheating. ''Cheating classrooms will systematically differ
from other classrooms along a number of dimensions,'' he
and his co-author, Brian Jacob of the Kennedy School of
Government, wrote in ''Catching Cheating Teachers.'' ''For
instance, students in cheating classrooms are likely to
experience unusually large test-score gains in the year of
the cheating, followed by unusually small gains or even
declines in the following year when the boost attributable
to cheating disappears.''
Levitt used test-score data from the Chicago schools that
had long been available to other researchers. There were a
number of ways, he realized, that a teacher could cheat. If
she were particularly brazen (and stupid), she might give
students the correct answers. Or, after the test, she might
actually erase students' wrong answers and fill in correct
ones. A sophisticated cheater would be careful to avoid
conspicuous blocks of identical answers. But Levitt was
more sophisticated. ''The first step in analyzing
suspicious strings is to estimate the probability each
child would give a particular answer on each question,'' he
wrote. ''This estimation is done using a multinomial logit
framework with past test scores, demographics and
socioeconomic characteristics as explanatory variables.''
So by measuring any number of factors -- the difficulty of
a particular question, the frequency with which students
got hard questions right and easy ones wrong, the degree to
which certain answers were highly correlated in one
classroom -- Levitt identified which teachers he thought
were cheating. (Perhaps just as valuable, he was also able
to identify the good teachers.) The Chicago school system,
rather than disputing Levitt's findings, invited him into
the schools for retesting. As a result, the cheaters were
Then there is his coming ''Understanding Why Crime Fell in
the 1990's: Four Factors That Explain the Decline and Seven
That Do Not.'' The entire drop in crime, Levitt says, was
due to more police officers, more prisoners, the waning
crack epidemic and Roe v. Wade.
One factor that probably didn't make a difference, he
argues, was the innovative policing strategy trumpeted in
New York by Rudolph Giuliani and William Bratton.
''I think,'' Levitt says, ''I'm pretty much alone in saying
He comes from a Minneapolis family of high, if unusual,
achievers. His father, a medical researcher, is considered
a leading authority on intestinal gas. (He bills himself as
''The Man Who Gave Status to Flatus and Class to Gas.'')
One of Levitt's great uncles, Robert May, wrote ''Rudolph
the Red-Nosed Reindeer'' -- the book, that is; another
great uncle, Johnny Marks, later wrote the song.
At Harvard, Levitt wrote his senior thesis on thoroughbred
breeding and graduated summa cum laude. (He is still
obsessed with horse racing. He says he believes it is
corrupt and has designed a betting system -- the details of
which he will not share -- to take advantage of the
corruption.) He worked for two years as a management
consultant before enrolling at M.I.T. for a doctorate in
economics. The M.I.T. program was famous for its
mathematical intensity. Levitt had taken exactly one math
course as an undergraduate and had forgotten even that.
During his first graduate class, he asked the student next
to him about a formula on the board: Is there any
difference between the derivative sign that's straight
up-and-down and the curly one? ''You are in so much
trouble,'' he was told.
''People wrote him off,'' recalls Austan Goolsbee, the
Chicago economist who was then a classmate. ''They'd say,
'That guy has no future.'''
Levitt set his own course. Other grad students stayed up
all night working on problem sets, trying to make good
grades. He stayed up researching and writing. ''My view was
that the way you succeed in this profession is you write
great papers,'' he says. ''So I just started.''
Sometimes he would begin with a question. Sometimes it was
a set of data that caught his eye. He spent one entire
summer typing into his computer the results of years' worth
of Congressional elections. (Today, with so much
information so easily available on the Internet, Levitt
complains that he can't get his students to input data at
all.) All he had was a vague curiosity about why incumbents
were so often re-elected.
Then he happened upon a political-science book whose
authors claimed that money wins elections, period. ''They
were trying to explain election outcomes as a function of
campaign expenditures,'' he recalls, ''completely ignoring
the fact that contributors will only give money to
challengers when they have a realistic chance of winning,
and incumbents only spend a lot when they have a chance of
losing. They convinced themselves this was the causal story
even though it's so obvious in retrospect that it's a
Obvious, at least, to Levitt. Within five minutes, he had a
vision of the paper he would write. ''It came to me,'' he
says, ''in full bloom.''
The problem was that his data couldn't tell him who was a
good candidate and who wasn't. It was therefore impossible
to tease out the effect of the money. As with the
police/crime rate puzzle, he had to trick the data.
Because he himself had typed in the data, he had noticed
something: often, the same two candidates faced each other
multiple times. By analyzing the data from only those
elections, Levitt was able to find a true result. His
conclusion: campaign money has about one-tenth the impact
as was commonly accepted.
An unknown graduate student, he sent his paper to The
Journal of Political Economy -- one professor told him he
was crazy for even trying -- where it was published. He
completed his Ph.D. in three years, but because of his
priorities, he says, he was ''invisible'' to the faculty,
''a real zero.'' Then he stumbled upon what he now calls
the turning point in his career.
He had an interview for the Society of Fellows, the
venerable intellectual Harvard clubhouse that pays young
scholars to do their own work, for three years, with no
commitments. Levitt felt he didn't stand a chance. For
starters, he didn't consider himself an intellectual. He
would be interviewed over dinner by the senior fellows, a
collection of world-renowned philosophers, scientists and
historians. He worried he wouldn't have enough conversation
for even the first course.
Instead, he was on fire. Whatever subject came up -- the
brain, ants, philosophy -- he just happened to remember
something pithy he'd read. His wit crackled as it had never
crackled before. When he told them about the two summers he
spent betting the horses back in Minnesota, they ate it up!
Finally -- disquietingly -- one of them said: ''I'm having
a hard time seeing the unifying theme of your work. Could
you explain it?''
Levitt was stymied. He had no idea what his unifying theme
was, or if he even had one.
Amartya Sen, the future Nobel-winning economist, jumped in
and neatly summarized what he saw as Levitt's theme.
Yes, Levitt said eagerly, that's my theme.
then offered another theme.
You're right, Levitt said, that's my theme.
And so it
went, like dogs tugging at a bone, until the philosopher
Robert Nozick interrupted. If Levitt could have been said
to have an intellectual hero, it would be Nozick.
''How old are you, Steve?'' he asked.
Nozick turned to the other fellows: ''He's 26 years old.
Why does he need to have a unifying theme? Maybe he's going
to be one of those people who's so talented he doesn't need
one. He'll take a question and he'll just answer it, and
it'll be fine.''
The University of Chicago's economics department had a
famous unifying theme -- the Gospel of Free Markets, with a
conservative twist -- and would therefore not have seemed
the most likely fit for Levitt. As he sees it, Chicago is
about theory, deep thinking and big ideas, while he is
about empiricism, clever thinking and ''cute but ultimately
But Chicago also had Gary Becker. To Levitt, Becker is the
most influential economist of the past 50 years. Long
before it was fashionable, Becker brought microeconomic
theory to offbeat topics, the family and crime in
particular. For years, Becker was demonized -- a single
phrase like ''the price of children'' would set off untold
alarms. ''I took a lot of heat over my career from people
who thought my work was silly or irrelevant or not
economics,'' Becker says. But Chicago supported him; he
persevered, winning the Nobel Prize in 1992; and he became
Steven Levitt's role model.
Becker told Levitt that Chicago would be a great
environment for him. ''Not everybody agrees with all your
results,'' he said, ''but we agree what you're doing is
very interesting work, and we'll support you in that.''
Levitt soon found that the support at Chicago went beyond
the scholarly. The year after he was hired, his wife gave
birth to their first child, Andrew. One day, just after
Andrew turned a year old, he came down with a slight fever.
The doctor diagnosed an ear infection. When he started
vomiting the next morning, his parents took him to the
hospital. A few days later he was dead of pneumococcal
Amid the shock and grief, Levitt had an undergraduate class
that needed teaching. It was Gary Becker -- a Nobel
laureate nearing his 70th birthday -- who sat in for him.
Another colleague, D. Gale Johnson, sent a condolence card
that Levitt still quotes from memory.
Levitt and Johnson, an agricultural economist in his 80's,
began speaking regularly. Levitt learned that Johnson's
daughter was one of the first Americans to adopt a daughter
from China. Soon the Levitts adopted a daughter of their
own, whom they named Amanda. In addition to Amanda, they
have since had a daughter, now almost 3, and a son. But
Andrew's death has played on, in various ways. They have
become close friends with the family of the little girl to
whom they donated Andrew's liver. (They also donated his
heart, but that baby died.) And not surprisingly for a
scholar who pursues real-life subjects, the death also
informed Levitt's work.
He and Jeannette joined a support group for grieving
parents. Levitt was struck by how many children had drowned
in swimming pools. They were the kinds of deaths that don't
make the newspaper -- unlike, for instance, a child who
dies while playing with a gun.
Levitt was curious and went looking for numbers that would
tell the story. He wrote up the results as an op-ed article
for The Chicago Sun-Times. It featured the sort of plangent
counterintuition for which he has become famous: ''If you
own a gun and have a swimming pool in the yard, the
swimming pool is almost 100 times more likely to kill a
child than the gun is.''
Trying to get his mind off death, Levitt took up a hobby:
rehabbing and selling old houses in Oak Park, where he
lives. This experience has led to yet another paper, about
the real-estate market. It is his most Chicago-style paper
yet, a romp in price theory, a sign that the university's
influence on him is perhaps as strong as his influence on
it. But Levitt being Levitt, it also deals with corruption.
While negotiating to buy old houses, he found that the
seller's agent often encouraged him, albeit cagily, to
underbid. This seemed odd: didn't the agent represent the
seller's best interest? Then he thought more about the
agent's role. Like many other ''experts'' (auto mechanics
and stockbrokers come to mind), a real-estate agent is
thought to know his field far better than a lay person. A
homeowner is encouraged to trust the agent's information.
So if the agent brings in a low offer and says it might
just be the best the homeowner can expect, the homeowner
tends to believe him. But the key, Levitt determined, lay
in the fact that agents ''receive only a small share of the
incremental profit when a house sells for a higher value.''
Like a stockbroker churning commissions or a bookie
grabbing his vig, an agent was simply looking to make a
deal, any deal. So he would push homeowners to sell too
fast and too cheap.
Now if Levitt could only measure this effect. Once again,
he found a clever mechanism. Using data from more than
50,000 home sales in Cook County, Ill., he compared the
figures for homes owned by real-estate agents with those
for homes for which they acted only as agents. The agents'
homes stayed on the market about 10 days longer and sold
for 2 percent more.
Late on a summer afternoon, Levitt is in his office, deep
inside one of the university's Gothic behemoths. The
ceiling is stained, the plaster around the window
crumbling. He is just back from sabbatical at Stanford, and
his desk is a holy mess: stacks of books and journals, a
green sippy cup and a little orange squeeze hippo.
This is his afternoon to meet with students. Levitt drinks
a Mountain Dew and talks softly. Some students come for
research assignments, some for advice. One has just written
her undergraduate thesis: ''The Labor Market Consequence of
Graduating College in a Bad Economy.'' For a thesis, Levitt
tells her, it's very good. But now she wants to have it
''You write like a college student, and that's a problem,''
he says. ''The thing is, you're telling a story. There's
foreshadowing going on, all those tricks. You want the
reader going down a particular path so when they get the
results, they understand them and believe them. But you
also want to be honest about your weaknesses. People are
much less harsh on weaknesses that are clear than
weaknesses that are hidden -- as they should be.''
Be honest about your weaknesses. Has there ever been a
prize-winning scholar as honest about his weaknesses as
Steven Levitt? He doesn't understand economics, he claims,
or math. He's a little thinker in a world of big thinkers.
He can't even open a jar of spaghetti sauce at home, poor
Friends say that Levitt's self-deprecation is as calculated
as it is genuine. Within academia, economists take pride in
being the most cutthroat of a cutthroat breed. Anyone who
writes papers on ''Weakest Link'' (contestants discriminate
against Latino and elderly peers, Levitt concluded, but not
blacks or women) and sumo (to best manage their tournament
rankings, wrestlers often conspire to throw matches) had
better not also be arrogant.
Or maybe it is not self-deprecation at all. Maybe it is
self-flagellation. Maybe what Steven Levitt really wants is
to graduate from his ''silly'' and ''trivial'' and
He thinks he's onto something with a new paper about black
names. He wanted to know if someone with a distinctly black
name suffers an economic penalty. His answer -- contrary to
other recent research -- is no. But now he has a bigger
question: Is black culture a cause of racial inequality or
is it a consequence? For an economist, even for Levitt,
this is new turf -- ''quantifying culture,'' he calls it.
As a task, he finds it thorny, messy, perhaps impossible
and deeply tantalizing.
Driving home to Oak Park that evening, his Cavalier glumly
thrumming along the Eisenhower Expressway, he dutifully
addresses his future. Leaving academia for a hedge fund or
a government job does not interest him (though he might, on
the side, start a company to catch cheating teachers). He
is said to be at the top of every economics department's
poaching list. But the tree he and Jeannette planted when
Andrew died is getting too big to move. You get the feeling
he may stay at Chicago awhile.
There are important problems, he says, that he feels ready
For instance? ''Tax evasion. Money-laundering. I'd like to
put together a set of tools that lets us catch terrorists.
I mean, that's the goal. I don't necessarily know yet how
I'd go about it. But given the right data, I have little
doubt that I could figure out the answer.''
It might seem absurd for an economist to dream of catching
terrorists. Just as it must have seemed absurd if you were
a Chicago schoolteacher, called into an office and told
that, ahem, the algorithms designed by that skinny man with
thick glasses had determined that you are a cheater. And
that you are being fired. Steven Levitt may not fully
believe in himself, but he does believe in this: teachers
and criminals and real-estate agents may lie, and
politicians, and even C.I.A. analysts. But numbers don't.
Stephen J. Dubner is the author, most recently, of
''Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper.'' He is writing a book
about the psychology of money.
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