Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Regulation

Of kiddie car seats and Moonbeams

Carseat
Parents, plug your ears: The Wall Street Journal points out Thursday that the Golden State's roads are going to be Scream Central starting Sunday, when a new law goes into effect raising the age and/or size requirement for children's car seats. Currently, the law requires kids under 6, or who weigh less than 60 pounds, to be strapped into booster seats. Under the new law, they have to stay in car seats until they turn 8, or grow taller than 4 feet 9 inches. Parents of 6- and 7-year-olds (there are 1.1 million of them in the state), who thought they had graduated to regular seats, now have to find a way to break it to their kids that they're back in the penalty box ... er ... kid's chair.

The law isn't a bad idea, and California is only doing what 29 other states have already done by raising the requirement to 8 -- that's the standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for maximum safety. Somehow, though, I suspect that logic will escape the average 7-year-old who thought they could sit in the big-boy or big-girl chairs like a grownup, only to be busted down to the minor leagues.

More to the point, though, the logic of Gov. Jerry Brown's veto decisions is escaping me.

This fall, Brown vetoed a bill that would have required kids under 18 to wear helmets while snow skiing or face a $25 fine. As we've said on the editorial page, this would have helped prevent serious injury or brain damage on the slopes. Brown's justification: "I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state." This not only ignores that child-safety laws are commonplace (there's already a law on the books requiring minors to wear bicycle helmets, for example) and effective, it's logically inconsistent. As my colleague Karin Klein has pointed out, after Brown vetoed the helmet bill, he signed a bill outlawing the use of tanning beds by minors even if they have their parents' consent. What is that, if not a transfer of authority from parents to the state?

Which brings us back to the child-seat law, another effort by the state to mandate parental decisions in the name of safety, and which Brown, despite his high-minded principles, didn't seem to be bothered about.

Sometimes when a kid kicks and screams over minor frustrations, such as being put in an uncomfortable car seat, the best response is to lay him down for a nap. The next time the governor is tempted to veto a worthwhile bill, he should maybe do the same.

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Photo: Don't tell this kid, but she's not getting out until she's 8. Credit: Associated Press

The San Francisco solution: To improve the economy, pay workers more

Palio D'Asti restaurant

Did you catch the latest bit of insanity out of San Francisco? Effective Jan. 1, Baghdad by the Bay's minimum wage will climb to $10.24 an hour.

So long, San Francisco. That little earthquake in 1906 was nothing compared with what this will do to your city. Might as well shut down those cute cable cars. Maybe you can find someone to buy that nice bridge. Too bad, too: Just when the 49ers are starting to win again, and the Giants are better than the Dodgers.

What's that you say? It's not the end? From The Times' story Tuesday:

San Francisco's minimum wage has climbed steadily since voters in 2003 approved a local initiative mandating an annual increase in the minimum wage using a formula tied to inflation. In recent years, the city has also required many employers to provide their workers with health benefits and all employers to offer paid sick time.

Critics have derided the mandates as anti-business job killers. But San Francisco's economy has proved resilient. The city's unemployment rate was 7.8% in November, well below the 11.3% statewide rate. Over the last year, the San Francisco metropolitan area, which includes parts of neighboring San Mateo and Marin counties, created 3,900 new jobs, mostly in bars and restaurants within the city of San Francisco, according to the California Employment Development Department.

We've been told lately that the only way to get the economy back on track is to cut, cut, cut -- workers and their pay and their benefits. Oh, and cut, cut, cut -- taxes for the wealthy, the so-called job creators.

But maybe there's something in the water in San Francisco: Better wages, better benefits -- and new jobs?

Of course, not everyone is happy:

"It makes these jobs so high-paying that they disappear," said Daniel Scherotter, executive chef and owner of Palio D'Asti, an Italian restaurant in the downtown financial district. "It's hurting the people it's trying to help."

As a result, Scherotter said he cut his kitchen staff by eight people in the last five years and shifted pastry production outside the city limits.

I understand what Scherotter is saying. He's got a business to run.

But he's wrong, and here's why. 

Call it America's dilemma: Consumers complain that everything costs too much, and they've seen their wages stagnate or their jobs disappear. With unemployment high and consumers not spending as much, businesses look to reduce costs -- usually labor costs.

But that formula just doesn't cut it.

For this country to work, people have to work. And that work has to pay enough for people to live on. Even at $10.24 an hour, that's $21,299.20 a year annually for a full-time worker. (Provided they don't take any time off, of course.)

If, as Scherotter says, the economics of running a restaurant require that workers be paid less than $10.24 an hour, then perhaps it's the business model that's broken.

Well-paid workers become free-spending consumers. Free-spending consumers fuel the economy. A better economy breeds more jobs.

Who knows, maybe San Francisco is on to something. And it might just work better than cutting the taxes of all those job creators.

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Photo: San Francisco's Palio D'Asti restaurant. Credit: Eric Risberg / Associated Press

Technology: The right way to gain spectrum?

 

Verizon Wireless
Finally getting the hint from the feds, AT&T announcedMonday that it was dropping its $39 billion bid to buy T-Mobile. That leaves AT&T stuck with the status quo, which in some major cities means a frustrating amount of congestion and dropped calls. Meanwhile, rival Verizon Wireless has been gobbling up the wireless frequencies leased but not developed by the major U.S. cable TV operators. Those airwaves should provide the company plenty of roomto expand capacity as smartphone users multiply and traffic booms.

Thus, one of the country's leading wireless players appears poised to buy its way to greater dominance, but it's not AT&T.

At least one public-interest group is complaining that Verizon's deals are more damaging to consumers than AT&T's long-shot takeover of T-Mobile, but there's a critical difference: While AT&T sought to buy an actual competitor, Verizon is trying to take out a potential one. Regulators haven't been especially aggressive in blocking the former, but they've been even more reluctant to block the latter.

Continue reading »

Something about 'fracking' smells funny

Louis Meeks with Wyoming water"Fracking" just can't catch a break.

First came wild speculation that hydraulic fracturing was to blame for the magnitude-5.6 earthquake and a swarm of aftershocks that hit Oklahoma in November.

Now -- and much more credibly -- the EPA says the controversial procedure used to extract natural gas from deep underground probably contaminated well water in Wyoming.

As The Times' reported Thursday:

The EPA's new draft report found dangerous amounts of benzene in a monitoring well near the town of Pavillion, in central Wyoming.

Of course, this is far from the final word on the issue:

The EPA is conducting a comprehensive study about the possible effect of "fracking" on water resources, but initial results are not expected until late 2012. As a result, the Pavillion report may not give either side in the fracking debate the conclusive answers they seek.

Still, you can expect the usual political suspects to start weighing in immediately, if not sooner.

The anti-EPA forces of the Republican Party will probably portray this as another job- and energy-independence-killing move by an agency the party’s presidential candidates want to do away with.

Environmentalists, already concerned about the Keystone XL pipeline, will add this to the list of threats to America’s water supply.

And President Obama will be caught in the middle as he attempts to navigate between the need for jobs and energy and protecting the environment.

Regardless of where you stand politically, though, you have to be concerned reading this from The Times’ story:

About a decade ago, people in Pavillion began noticing an odd smell and taste to their well water and new illnesses in livestock, said Deb Thomas, an organizer for the Powder River Basin Resources Council, a landowners group. The EPA began the study in 2009 after about 20 well owners asked the agency to study their groundwater.

"It smells like a cross between something dead and diesel fuel," Thomas said by phone from Wyoming. "It's a very chemical bad smell."

Sure, the U.S. needs jobs, and it needs energy.

But human beings need water to survive, and that water shouldn't taste like -- and certainly shouldn't contain -- diesel fuel.

So let's not get too sold on this fracking thing.

After all, we don't all want to end up like the folks near Pavillion -- who now get their water trucked in.

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Photo: Louis Meeks holds a jar filled with water from a contaminated well on his property near Pavillion, Wyo. Credit: Kerry Huller / Casper Star-Tribune / Sept. 10, 2009

Technology: A bipartisan alternative to the Stop Online Piracy Act

Sen. Ron Wyden D-Ore
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) didn't make any friends in the entertainment industry when he put a hold on the PROTECT IP Act, a bill (S 968) that tries to make foreign websites disappear from the Internet if they are dedicated to piracy. But Wyden isn't simply saying "no" to Hollywood; he and nine other lawmakers, including four from California, have proposed an alternative to S 968 and its House counterpart, the Stop Online Piracy Act (HR 3261).

It's just a discussion draft at this point, so the details are subject to change. But the group's approach is far more in line with Silicon Valley's point of view than Hollywood's.

As with the Senate and House bills, Wyden's draft would enable copyright and trademark holders to obtain orders blocking the online flow of infringing or counterfeit digital goods into the U.S. Those orders would require payment processors such as Visa and Paypal and online advertising networks to stop doing business with sites that are primarily and willfully infringing. But the draft would have rights holders seek such orders from the International Trade Commission, not a U.S. District Court.

The shift in venue would exclude sites based in the United States from the measure's reach, in sharp contrast to the House bill. It would also answer some of the due-process concerns about the Senate bill, which doesn't require that the operator of an allegedly infringing site be made aware of the action being brought against him.

Another major difference is that the draft would not try to make an infringing site disappear from the Web by requiring Internet service providers to stop recognizing its domain name and search services to stop recognizing links to its pages. Those provisions of the House and Senate bills have come under fire from tech companies, who argue that they'd be ineffective and hinder efforts to create a more secure domain name system.

Finally, the draft would not obligate sites that allow users to upload content, such as online locker services, to monitor that content for infringements. Critics of the House bill say that it would effectively impose such a duty, overriding an important safe harbor provided by federal law. Supporters of the bill say it would do no such thing but instead would merely outlaw sites designed deliberately to prevent their operators from observing rampant infringements.

The authors are still working on key details, including provisions that would enable rights holders to obtain orders quickly from the International Trade Commission in emergency situations. The commission isn't known for moving with alacrity, but that's largely because its caseload is mainly composed of patent disputes -- matters that are far more complex than copyright and trademark claims. Nevertheless, the commission's pace is likely to be an issue for copyright holders.

Wyden's group, which includes Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), Anna Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) and John Campbell (R-Irvine), is also struggling to come up with a way to deal with piracy hotbeds buried within larger sites that have legitimate uses. That's a problematic issue for the House and Senate bills as well, and it's one of the main points of contention between the backers of those bills (e.g., rights holders) and tech-industry critics. The latter worry that the House bill in particular puts entire sites at risk when individual users share infringing content on the pages they control.

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-- Jon Healey

Photo: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Healthcare reform's deciding moment -- maybe

Nurse vaccinationGood news. The Supreme Court is going to rule next year on healthcare reform. Or not.

Good news. The congressional "super committee" is going to decide this month on deficit-reduction measures.

Or not.

Sheesh. Remember when George W. Bush called himself "the decider"? Apparently, in Washington, he was the last of his kind.

Take the super committee: six Democrats and six Republicans charged with recommending cuts to reduce the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade.

Hard? Yes. Necessary? Yes. "Profiles in Courage"? Apparently, no.

As The Times reported:

In an effort to avoid stark failure, a fallback plan is emerging that would push tough decisions on taxes to next year, perhaps into a lame-duck session after the election, according to officials familiar with the panel's discussions.

Under this scenario, the two sides would agree now to a level of revenue from new taxes. They would direct the congressional tax-writing committees to revamp the tax code with fixed dates and goals. The object would be to generate new revenue while lowering corporate rates and keeping the top individual bracket no higher than the current 35%.

The move would allow the two sides to reach the outlines of the deal now, while deferring the most difficult issues until both see who wins the 2012 election.

Hey, folks, here's some news: We have elections all the time. The winners try to enact their agenda (see healthcare reform, below).  The losers do everything in their power to block that agenda (see healthcare reform, below).

And not much gets done. 

So tell my again why waiting for still another election result would make deficit-reduction decisions any easier?

Look how healthcare reform has worked. The Democrats pushed it through with no Republican support.  Republicans hate it so much that they've vowed to repeal it. And Republican-led legal efforts to overturn it led to the Supreme Court on Monday agreeing to decide its fate.

As The Times reported:

The justices said they would rule on constitutional challenges to the entire law brought by top Republican officials from 26 states, who contend the Democratic-controlled Congress overstepped its authority in passing the measure.

The high court is likely to rule on the issue by late June as the presidential campaign moves into high gear.

OK, that's good. Then it really could be a campaign issue again, for better or worse.

But as always with legal issues, there's the fine print:

In agreeing to hear the cases, the court said it will decide four questions that have arisen: Is it constitutional for Congress to require all persons to have health insurance by 2014? If this provision is struck down, can it be "severed" from the law or must the entire statute fall? Is it unfair to the states to force them to pay the extra cost of expanding the Medicaid program? Finally, should a decision be put off until 2015 when the first taxpayers would pay a penalty for not having health insurance?

The latter question gives the court a way to put off a decision if the justices opt to do so. A long-standing tax law says judges should not decide on "tax" cases until someone has paid the tax, and the penalty for not having health insurance would be collected by the Internal Revenue Service.

Great.  We'll wait breathlessley for the high court to rule -– and the ruling could well be "We'll get back to you"?

Here's the deal: People die because they don't have access to healthcare. It's not a very good system.  Even with the Democrats' healthcare reform law, it isn't a very good system.

So, Supreme Court justices, don't put this off.  We need a decision:  Either this system is legal, in which case we can stop arguing and start implementing; or it's illegal, in which case we can start arguing again and devise a new, better system.

And the same goes for deficit reduction:  Putting off tough decisions is one reason we're in this fix.  (For example, borrowing money to pay for wars instead of making the politically unpopular but prudent decision to raise taxes.)

When decisions are made, someone (or many someones) are going to be unhappy (see healthcare reform, above). 

But in the cases of deficit reduction and healthcare reform, I'd far rather have a decision I'm unhappy with than no decision at all.

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Photo: Nurse Susan Peel gives a whooping cough vaccination to a student at Inderkum High School in Sacramento. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

 

Cigarette labels: Too much of a good thing

Do new cigarette warning labels go too far?
I get it.

Smoking is really, really bad for you. It can make you sick; it can kill you. It can make those around you sick. It can kill them.

I get the picture. I just don't need the pictures.

As The Times' Amina Khan reported, the Food and Drug Administration had ordered that, beginning in fall 2012, all cigarette packs would carry new labels that "would cover the top half of a cigarette box and include the number to a smoking-cessation hotline."

Among other graphic images, the labels show a man blowing smoke out of a tracheotomy hole in his neck, a pair of diseased lungs and a dead man with autopsy staples in his chest.

Nice. Too bad there's no room for video. Think of the possibilities: Death throes of an ex-smoker.

If there can be too much of a good thing, surely there can be too much of a bad thing. And these labels are both.

On Monday, a federal judge agreed. As Khan reported:

Five of the six largest tobacco companies sued the FDA on free-speech grounds and asked for a preliminary injunction to block implementation of the images, set for fall of 2012. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled in their favor Monday.

"It is abundantly clear from viewing these images that the emotional response they were crafted to induce is calculated to provoke the viewer to quit or never to start smoking -- an objective wholly apart from disseminating purely factual and uncontroversial information," Leon wrote in court documents, the Associated Press reported.

Well, duh. Of course the images are intended to cause you to quit or to not start smoking. I mean, we crossed that Rubicon a long time ago.

We've been passing laws for decades intended to force people to quit -- to make it so hard to smoke that they'll give up in frustration, if nothing else. You think all of those folks puffing away as they stand outside in Chicago in December just want fresh air? 

But why only smokers? Why not, say, pictures of car-crash victims on beer cans, to cut down on drunk driving? Or shots of clogged arteries on that package of steak at the market, to warn of the dangers of too much red meat?  

No, seemingly our do-gooder, nanny-state instincts have been reserved mostly for smokers.   

But enough is enough.

By now, everyone knows the dangers of smoking -- the old warning labels spell it out for you.

And if you choose to ignore those warnings?

As we used to say: It's a free country.

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Photo: Two of the nine graphic warning labels that cigarette makers would be required to use by the fall of 2012. Credit: Associated Press

GOP needs a history lesson about class warfare

Obama

GOP spin-meisters have identified "class warfare" as the go-to phrase when criticizing President Obama's proposals to raise taxes on wealthy Americans (er, "job creators"). After mostly ignoring such attacks, the president is now on the offensive. On Monday night, laying out his deficit-reduction plans, which include ending the Bush tax cuts for wealthy families and ensuring millionaires are taxed at the same rate as middle-income households, he argued, "This is not class warfare. It's math." He went even further at a Democratic Party fundraiser Tuesday night: "You know what, if asking a billionaire to pay the same rate as a plumber or a teacher makes me a warrior for the middle class, I wear that charge as a badge of honor."

Democrats are cheering the president's newly combative stance, but I'm not sure escalating the absurd "warfare" rhetoric is the best approach. Obama is backing an economically defensible way of reducing the deficit without cutting needed services for Americans at a time they're most needed. To call this class warfare is nonsensical, and proves only that the people who make this charge have no idea what it actually means. But then, that's not too surprising; the same crowd routinely tars the president as a "socialist" because he backs some government regulation of a market economy. That's not exactly the definition of socialism.

To be clear: America has seen class warfare, and the debate over deficit reduction doesn't qualify. Class warfare is what happened at the turn of the 19th century, when nationwide rail strikes prompted violent confrontations between management and labor. In those days, terrorists weren't Muslim extremists; they were often union men with bombs and guns who blew up industrial buildings (including, in 1910, the Los Angeles Times building in downtown L.A. as a protest against the paper's then anti-union stance) and tried to assassinate wealthy individuals. At the heart of the unrest was a yawning gap between rich and poor, which was encouraged by a laissez-faire government approach to industrial regulation.

The wealth gap today isn't as bad as it was then, but it's getting closer. The best way to bring about genuine class warfare, then, would be to do nothing to try to close this gap. And that pretty much sums up the current GOP strategy on taxation.

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Photo: President Obama lays out his deficit-reduction plan Monday in the White House Rose Garden. Credit: Evan Vucci / Associated Press

Full Tilt Poker: Commenters, put on your poker faces

Christopher Ferguson

What is it about Ponzi schemes these days?

First, and most famously, Texas Gov. Rick Perry called out Social Security.

Now, the empire has struck back:

Federal prosecutors on Tuesday said the Full Tilt Poker website "was not a legitimate poker company but a global Ponzi scheme."

Yes, hard as it to believe, the folks behind Full Tilt Poker apparently stacked the deck.

Amending a forfeiture and civil money laundering complaint unsealed in April, prosecutors said Full Tilt "cheated and abused its own players to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars."

The company's owners, including poker stars Howard Lederer and Christopher Ferguson, paid out nearly $444 million to themselves and board members, according to the U.S. attorney's office of the Southern District of New York.

OK, so they dealt themselves a pretty good hand. So what?  You ever been to Vegas?  It wasn't built on the house losing bets.

Read on:

Meanwhile, Full Tilt didn’t have enough money to pay back players, according to the accusation. This spring, when the company had just $60 million in its coffers, it owed $390 million to players worldwide, including $150 million to U.S. players, the complaint  said.

Instead, company executives dipped into accounts that they had assured players were segregated and safe in order to transfer money to board members’ overseas accounts, prosecutors allege.

Players were left gambling with "phantom funds," according to the complaint.

 Among gamblers, I think there is a word for this: cheating.

The funny thing is, when the government filed its original complaint in April, hundreds of folks torched the feds on The Times' comment board:

Poker sites shut down...This is another sad day for Americans, more freedoms put farther out of reach by our Federal plutocracy. -- Richard Ray Garnett

This should not stand. Shame on the government. If they just legalized and taxed they would make so much more money than just seizing accounts and collecting fines. Richard is right, another freedom down the drain. When will it end? -- Neal Martin, customer service rep at HSA Bank

This is an incredibly corrupt, overbearing, and overreaching government that has just alienated millions of people of their trust. -- Jim Duggan, Glens Falls Senior High School

But when this new story broke Tuesday -– well, let's just say that the freedom-loving Americans above  and their allies apparently were off somewhere working on their poker faces.

Instead, a few folks had their fun, while the losers cried "deal":

I'm shocked, shocked to find out that an internet gambling site is just a front for a criminal enterprise. -- Dan Bayer, Greensboro, North Carolina

Great. I guess I'm never getting my money back. -- Chris Martin

Don't feel too bad, Chris. It's only money.

It could have been worse. You could have gone on a newspaper's website and made dumb comments about the government taking away your "freedom" -- you know, like your freedom to be cheated.

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Photo: Poker superstar Chris Ferguson. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

The Hollywood sign's unwelcome mat

Hollywood sign

Hey, L.A., what's your sign?

Answer: Gemini. 

Why? Because Los Angeles is of two minds about signs.

Take that famous symbol of L.A., the Hollywood sign. It's our Eiffel Tower, our Empire State Building, our Sphinx. People come from all over the world to see it, to get near it, to photograph it.

And how do welcome them?

As The Times reported Sunday, with other signs that read "Warning -- Tourist-Free Zone -- All Tourists Leave the Area" and "Tourists Go Away."  

Nice.

Even City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents part of Hollywood and has worked to clean up one viewing site of the sign, says:

"I wish tourists wouldn't drive up there. But GPS has put people from around the world at the doorstep of people who live up there."

All this fuss, of course, comes only a year after LaBonge and many others rallied the community to purchase land near the sign from developers so that the view of L.A.'s icon wouldn't be marred by new homes. 

So we want to be able see the sign, but we don't want too many people to see the sign, or get too close to the sign, or, as LaBonge also complained about a prime viewing spot:

"A lot of tourists smoke -- we picked up 100 cigarette butts up there. Our office was working with recreation and parks, which is short-staffed. We want to maintain that spot for fire-safety reasons."

Aha! We also don't want to burn down the sign.

Of course, the Hollywood sign's neighbors aren't the only Angelenos troubled by signs.

There's also City Atty. Carmen Trutanich. As The Times reported Monday:  

The city of Los Angeles has filed a lawsuit demanding millions of dollars from a Beverly Hills-based outdoor advertising company, saying it illegally wrapped 17 buildings with towering "supergraphic" advertisements.

In court documents filed Friday, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich said SkyTag and its president, Michael McNeilly, deprived the city of permitting fees, created traffic hazards and endangered the lives of people who were inside buildings whose windows were covered by the multistory vinyl ads.

Trutanich said he wants $2,500 for each day that a violation was committed by SkyTag, which has been at odds with the city for roughly a decade. Given the number of signs that are at issue, potential penalties in the case are "in the tens of millions of dollars," said William Carter, Trutanich’s chief deputy.

Now, I can buy the "deprived the city of permitting fees" argument. But somehow, I get the feeling that the "created traffic hazards" and the "endangered the lives of people who were inside buildings whose windows were covered" complaints are, shall we say, window dressing?

Thousands of people driving in L.A., texting or talking on their cellphones, putting on makeup or rockin' to the beat, and these big signs are traffic hazards? 

And don't quote me, but the last big -– in fact, the only -– L.A. high-rise office building fire I can remember was in 1988.  And as I recall, the firefighters' ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the windows where the fire was burning.

Really, I think this fight is about "Blade Runner."

Remember how that movie offered a disturbing picture of a future Los Angeles overrun by garish advertising signs, including blimps that float over the city?

It's not a pretty picture. It's not a Los Angeles most of us would want to live in.

So perhaps Trutanich is simply drawing a line in the sand. Perhaps he's trying to halt our slide down that slippery slope.

Because, in "Blade Runner," I don’t think you could see the Hollywood sign any more.

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-- Paul Whitefield

Photo:  Tourists often ignore signs posted by area residents so they can capture photos of themselves and the Hollywood sign. Credit: Christina House / For The Times

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