Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Science & Technology

Excuse me, my tattoo is ringing

Vibrating tattoo illustration
Meet Nokia, the king of synergy.

Many young people today seem to covet two things -- smartphones and tattoos. So Nokia has filed a patent for, as my colleague Deborah Netburn writes, "a tattoo that would send 'a perceivable impulse' to your skin whenever someone tried to contact you on the phone."

And you thought those Bluetooth things stuck in people's ears were silly!

Still, coming on the heels of a report that Apple sold more than 3 million new iPads in the first three days of its release, I'm not about to rain on a company's technology parade.

So how would this "tattoo ringer" work?

According to the patent filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the phone would communicate with the tattoo through magnetic waves. The phone would emit magnetic waves and the tattoo would act as a receiver. When the waves hit the tattoo, it would set off a tactile response in the user's skin.

The patent also suggests that it would be possible to customize the physical response depending on who is calling -- similar to having a different ring tone for different family members. So if your husband calls, you might only feel a dull tingling, but if it's your teenage daughter calling you'd feel a mighty itch.

Isn't technology great?  I can envision the future:  The whole family stops at the smartphone store, then troops next door to the tattoo parlor for customized "tattoo ringtones." 

Or more likely, the tattoo artist will be right there in the smartphone store. Heck, maybe it'll even be a robot tattoo artist.  How cool would that be? You pick a tattoo from a screen, press a button and presto, off with your shirt and on with your tattoo.

I'm sure apps will be written to take advantage of this; there's an app for most everything now. Perhaps you'll be able to download the app to your phone and it would instruct little brother in how to tattoo a ringtone.

Maybe there will be ringtone tattoo parties.

Yes, in this brave new world, a tattoo that says "Mom" will mean just that: Mom calling.

Of course, there are obstacles.  Girlfriends and boyfriends come and go, as do husbands and wives. So, I'd advise caution: Stay away from "I love Kate" or "My sweet Phil" tattoos. 

Something generic, perhaps. Like "I love her/him."

Yes. That has a certain ring to it, I'd say.


 Peyton Manning, Zeus of QBs in a football-mad nation

Save the incredible sinking, leaning Washington Monument

The test-tube babies testing the limits of survivor benefits 

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: Nokia's patent for a vibrating tattoo. Credit: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Murohama enshrined [The reply]

What keeps alive a story that could keep you alive? On Sunday, José Holguín-Veras' article, "The 1,000-year-old warning," explained how a venerable tale led the people of Murohama, on the east coast of Japan, to safety after last year's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The ancient story told of a massive earthquake and tsunami that killed villagers who headed to high ground nearby but were nonetheless swept away. The particulars matched geologic and historical evidence, but what the people of Murohama remembered wasn't corroborating science but the story itself -- and a roadside shrine, tended for generations, near the site where the tragedy happened.  When the Tohoku earthquake hit, most of the people in Murohama heeded the story and headed to safer ground on the other side of town.

One commenter on our website, "clxLAT," said, "A picture of the shrine would have been nice." Holguín-Veras was happy to accommodate that request with a shot  he took of the roadside shrine on his research trip to Japan.  He also included a GPS map based on  Google Earth.  The "directions" on it start at "S" in the village and lead to "E" -- close to the roadside shrine. The safer high ground is south and west  of "S."  


Raising cyber-children -- safely

How will it end in Afghanistan?

Texas' solution in search of a problem

--Susan Brenneman

Photo: Murohama's roadside shrine. Credit: José Holguín-Veras’ / For The Times

Singing the blues about red meat

Red Meat counter
It might be smart to take the new data against red meat -- a study links the consumption of even a small portion daily to a higher risk of dying -- with a grain of (possibly blood-pressure-raising) salt. Not that red meat should get a pass: Overconsumption has been tied, over and over again, to poor health outcomes. And the fact that your grandfather ate 12 ounces every day until his 102nd birthday is no argument against the study; lots of people who smoke cigarettes live to a ripe old age. But there is no getting around the number of people who would live to much riper ages if they abstained from tobacco.

Still, this study was correlational, meaning that we know red meat is tied statistically to higher death rates within the time range of the Harvard study. If that's even so: The study didn't examine what people ate; it asked them what they ate. The question is, did the red meat cause the deaths? Was it all of the reason for the deaths, most of it, a small part of it, or perhaps an indicator of other factors? And is it the meat itself, or perhaps substances used in the raising of cattle or in cooking? Processed meat was linked to still-higher death rates.

Maybe people who avoid red meat are more likely to live healthier altogether. Considering the warnings over the years about beef, that's entirely possible. People who heed health warnings might be more likely  to eat vegetables, exercise regularly, meditate occasionally, fasten their seatbelts and, of course, not smoke, since cigarettes are still the No. 1 cause of premature death.

That would help explain the seemingly nonsensical finding that people who partake of red meat only occasionally and sparingly are less likely to die of any cause -- not just heart attack, diabetes or other ailments associated with poor diet but, say, in accidents. The only way a hamburger is more likely to cause a fatal accident is if it's being held in one hand by a driver.


California, a bad bet for business

Goldberg: Obama's pump debacle

Red meat will kill you? Stick a fork in me, I'm done!

--Karin Klein

Photo: Red meat. Credit: Dave Thomson / AP Photo

What Sherwood Rowland taught us about science, and the Earth

Sherwood RowlandGood thing Sherry Rowland was working 40 years ago instead of now.

Otherwise, he might not have won the Nobel Prize, and we might all be a lot closer to dead -– as individuals, as a species and as a planet.

If UC Irvine chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who passed away Saturday, had been starting his work now on how chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, damage the Earth's protective ozone layer, it might be getting the same kind of manipulated skepticism and politically cynical slamming that global climate change now receives.

As it was, Rowland had to battle and scrap for his carefully researched warnings to be believed, but within 15 years of publishing his findings, the nations of the world -- the United States among them -- agreed to phase out CFCs. Believe it or not, manufacturers had stopped using them even before the Montreal Protocol was signed.

The Nobel committee, in honoring Rowland and co-discoverer Mario Molina, said their work may have "saved the world from catastrophe." These guys should have been wearing Spandex superhero suits, for what their work accomplished.

In 1990, with the inspiration of C. Boyden Gray, who worked in both the Reagan and the George H.W. Bush administrations, a cap-and-trade law was up and running to control acid rain. But when it comes to global climate change, the current GOP generation mocks this market-driven solution as "cap and tax." 

I interviewed Rowland a couple of times, most recently half a dozen years ago, when the neo-paleo-anti-science crowd was in full-court press as naysayers on human-generated global climate change. Legitimate scientists with nuanced questions about data and formulas being used were lumped in with random cranks as "proof" that the body of scientific evidence is wrong and that science is no more than just another untrustworthy special-interest group.

Rowland told me he did get his share of attacks in the 1970s. You might say that. Radio Free Europe reported that a trade publication called Aerosol Age suggested he was a Soviet KGB agent, and DuPont took out full-page newspaper ads to question his chops.

Almost 20 years after his Nobel Prize, Rowland told me that "the planet is in for a rough century as we try to put together substitutes for the energy that we need in order to prevent very substantial climate change coming from rapidly rising temperatures."

Yet like global climate change, many of the obstacles to fixing our problems also look to be man-made. As I wrote a few years ago, the public doesn't like it when scientists engage in discussions that politicians recast as political, not scientific, and it doesn't like it when scientists detach themselves from "real world" concerns. Rowland remembered a sci-fi story from the 1950s, about a comet imperiling the Earth. Inside a lab, scientists were clamoring for a peek into a spectroscope; outside the lab window, people were getting fried by radiation right in their wingtips.

Rowland's work on CFCs and ozone was a model, just like the world's political response to it.

And in spite of the dire warnings that banning CFCs would tank the economy, guess what: American know-how and technology came up with an alternative, business embraced it and, whatever the dire warnings, our armpits don't stink, we still have spray paint and we've maybe bought the ozone layer up there a few more centuries.

If we down here don't mess our second second chance.


Obama's pump debacle

Refighting California's water war

To catch a Kony, cash won't cut it

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

--Patt Morrison

Photo: Sherwood Rowland is seen in 1989. He died at his Corona Del Mar home on March 10. He was 84. Credit: University of California Irvine / AP Photo

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

F. Sherwood Rowland
It's not often you can say that someone saved the world -- and mean it literally.

But that's the case with F. Sherwood Rowland. The UC Irvine chemist, who died Saturday at 85, was one of three scientists who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry, The Times reported, for their work "explaining how chlorofluorocarbons, ubiquitous substances once used in an array of products from spray deodorant to industrial solvents, could destroy the ozone layer, the protective atmospheric blanket that screens out many of the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays."

In hindsight, it seems straightforward: Bad stuff was eating away a vital part of Earth's environment. So get rid of it.

But it wasn't so simple in 1974, when Rowland and fellow scientist Mario Molina published their concerns in the journal Nature.

As The Times says, the findings "were met with scorn by the chemical industry and even by many scholars. For a decade, Rowland and Molina persevered to prove their hypothesis, publishing numerous scientific papers and speaking to sometimes hostile audiences at scientific conferences. It took almost 15 years for the international scientific community and chemical industry to accept the pair's findings."

Hmmm, starting to remind you of a little something called "climate change," is it?

But here's something of a vital difference between the ozone debate and the current climate change one:

Manufacturers began to phase out chlorofluorocarbons in the late 1980s, prompted by the discovery of an ozone "hole" over Antarctica that formed each winter in response to weather conditions and the falling worldwide levels of ozone. The Montreal Protocol, a landmark international agreement to phase out CFC products, was signed by the United States and other nations in 1987.

The protocol was proof that nations could unite to address common environmental threats, Rowland contended. "People have worked together to solve the problem," he said.

Rowland was right then.  Nations did unite to address a common environmental threat.

But have we taken that lesson to heart?  Will we accept the scientific consensus on climate change and work together to save the planet?   

Or will it continue to be a political football, at least in the United States, where too many politicians are opting for short-term partisan gains at the risk of the planet's future?

Donald Blake, a colleague of Rowland’s at UC Irvine, told The Times that Rowland considered the phase-out of CFCs his greatest achievement.

It would be a shame if Rowland won the ozone battle -- but the rest of us lost the war for Earth’s survival.


Is that a fracking earthquake?

Japan's 1,000-year-old warning

'Obamacare' plaintiff Brown's bankruptcy: Instant karma? 

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: F. Sherwood Rowland, shown in his UC Irvine lab.  Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Is that a fracking earthquake?

Environmentalists: Prepare to be shaken up. It turns out that hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, a.k.a. the latest fossil fuel industry outrage to be perpetrated on planet Earth, isn't just a menace because it may be contaminating groundwater. It also can cause earthquakes.

Ohio oil and gas regulators said Friday that a preliminary report on the relationship between a fracking waste disposal well near Youngstown and a series of minor earthquakes in northeastern Ohio last year found evidence "strongly indicating the Youngstown-area earthquakes were induced." What the frack does this mean? In addition to giving anti-frackers something else to complain about, it means companies drilling for natural gas will probably face a host of new regulatory restrictions aimed at ensuring they don't do anything earth shattering in the future. In Ohio, regulators announced a series of new rules for disposing of and transporting brine, a waste product from fracking, and they're likely to spread.

That's not a bad thing. But before greens who aim to restrict or ban fracking get too worked up about this new entry to the list of its dangers, they should consider that very similar risks also apply to another energy source considered by many -- including Al Gore and President Obama -- to be among the world's great hopes of fending off climate change and weaning us off fossil fuels: geothermal.

The principles involved in fracking and geothermal power production are similar: In both cases, one drills deep into the earth and injects water (combined with other chemicals, in the case of fracking) into fissures. Geothermal energy is produced when hot rock turns the water to steam, which returns to the surface and is used to turn generators. In fracking, the chemicals are used to force natural gas to the surface. Very little seismic activity has been attributed to the process of fracking itself, but things get more dangerous around disposal wells such as the one in Ohio, in which the waste water or brine from fracking is dispensed with by being reinjected, and far more liquid is involved.

In his book "Our Choice," Al Gore says of geothermal energy, "Like solar energy and wind power, geothermal energy could -- if properly developed -- match all of the energy from coal, gas and oil combined." Obama's stimulus package, meanwhile, contained $350 million for development of geothermal projects. It's easy to see what they're so heated up about. Unlike wind and solar power, whose generation stops when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, the Earth's magma is always hot, and geothermal power production emits only steam. But it turns out that when you inject water into hot fissures, it cracks them, and deep underground shifts can cause considerable surface rumbling. After a major geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, had to be shut down because it caused quakes that rattled that city in 2009, one of the nation's biggest projects to pursue the technology (located near my hometown of Santa Rosa) was tabled. The company behind it, AltaRock Energy, is now carrying out experiments in a sparsely populated area in central Oregon instead.

Regulators are right to insist on maximum standards to protect the public from such risky practices, and it's a very good idea to hold off on major projects until more is known about the science. But those who seek to ban fracking because of its earthquake risks should consider the more beneficial technologies they may be quashing. Geothermal power has vast potential, but until we get to a cleaner future, we're going to need more natural gas as a transitional fuel. Pursuing both is richly worthwhile, if it can be done safely.


When big business and human rights collide

Michael Mann's counterstrike in the climate wars

The energy industry's disturbing influence on politics

-- Dan Turner

Photo: Environmentalists rally against fracking in Albany, N.Y., in January. Credit: Mike Groll / Associated Press

Rearview cameras on cars by 2014? It's so 21st century

Honda Crosstour rearview camera

Forget healthcare reform's "individual mandate." Now the government is looking to take away your right to back into stuff with your own car.

That's right: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing that by 2014 all new cars sold in the United States have rearview cameras.

Now, full disclosure: In four decades of driving, I personally have backed into one car, one pole and the side porch of my house -- twice. (In my defense, none of this happened until the kids came along and I had to buy that stupid minivan!) And showing that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, my teenage son's first, and only -- so far -- accident came when he backed into an iron railing. (I'm so proud!)

And, as The Times story Tuesday said:

Each year, 228 people die after being struck by passenger vehicles going in reverse -- including about two children a week, according to the New York Times.

Accidents caused by drivers backing up also injure 17,000 people annually.

Plus the cost to automakers of the rearview cameras, now found on fewer than half of 2012's cars, isn't prohibitive: about $160 to $200 for each car.

So, on balance, I count this rule as a good thing -- for the nation and individually.

(Although I must confess that when I rented a car a few years back with a rearview camera, the kids couldn't resist taking turns checking themselves out on the dashboard screen. Which both seemed to defeat the purpose of the camera and led to a severe scolding by their mother.)

What's most interesting about this, though, has been the sea change in attitude among Americans about cars and safety. 

When seat belts were introduced in the late 1950s, for example, the U.S. auto industry resisted efforts to make them mandatory, arguing that people didn’t want them -- as evidenced by the fact that, when they were offered as extra-cost options, few people ordered them.

Thankfully, automakers lost that fight. But for quite some time, many people also resisted state laws requiring the wearing of seat belts.

Airbags were also controversial when mandated, with automakers arguing, again, about cost, and with others doubting the claim that they would improve passenger safety.

But somewhere along the way, Americans went from penny-pinching, throw-caution-to-the-wind, I'll-die-a-gruesome-death-behind-the-wheel-if-I-want-to rugged individualists to consumers of safety at all costs. (See the silly "Baby on Board" phenomenon.)

Now, the more airbags the merrier. Cars have collapsible steering columns, anti-lock brakes, safety glass, crush zones, reinforced doors and roofs, and loads of other safety features.

Sure, we still sometimes show vestiges of our wicked past: People -- very unsafely -- call and/or text while driving, for example.

But for the most part, we embrace all the new gadgetry.  And safety now sells. So automakers bring us more of it.

For example, as The Times story says:

Automakers unveiled an assortment of other preventative safety features at the L.A. Auto Show in November.

Infiniti showed off its backup collision intervention technology, which not only beeps when its sensors detect potential obstacles but also automatically brakes to avoid a crash.

A similar function from Ford offers blind-spot warnings. Cadillac has a virtual bumper feature that stops the car before it hits anything.

That's right: Soon your car may do more of the driving -- and the accident avoidance -- than you do.

The bright side of that equation? You may be able to call or text in complete safety.

"Passive Driver on Board," anyone?


Volkswagen's wooly Bulli

High-tech cars -- and equally high-tech security issues 

New cars vs. old cars -- the 'old paint' economic indicator

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: The dashboard of the Honda Crosstour features a rearview camera and monitor that are used when the car is backing up. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Gotta get some Google Goggles

Google Goggles illustration

You know what's so great about the world we live in?  It's that there are people out there right now inventing stuff you don't even realize you need.

Take Google. Its Google X lab is reportedly hard at work developing Google Goggles.

Despite the tongue-twister name, Google Goggles will apparently be the next must-have gadget. The so-called smart glasses (gee, who knew that regular glasses were "dumb"?) would somehow connect with the Internet to relay information in a heads-up display. (Shhhh. No one tell Rick Santorum. He'll want to pass a law banning Google Goggles. He thinks God gave us "eyes" for this sort of thing.)

Actually, Google Goggles remind me of Segways. You know, those really cool, high-tech scooters that relieve users of the chore of "walking"?

Anyway, here's what The Times said Wednesday about Google's latest ploy, er, toy:

Google Goggles uses photos, rather than text or voice, to conduct Web searches that can identify artwork, books, albums, contact information from a business card, logos, landmarks, wine bottles and even text to translate.

The experience offered by the glasses would be "Terminator-style" and would display information "based on preferences, location and Google's information," 9to5Google reported.

"The glasses will have a low-resolution built-in camera that will be able to monitor the world in real time and overlay information about locations, surrounding buildings and friends who might be nearby," the New York Times reported. Google intends that users not wear the glasses all the time, but only as needed, the report said.

Uh huh: "Only as needed." Not like that's a slippery slope or anything. Today's young people can't go five minutes without texting, surfing the Web or being on Facebook. (Heck, who am I kidding: A lot of adults can't go five minutes!) Giving these folks Google Goggles would be like those lab experiments in which rats push a button every time they want cocaine. What happens? Bing! Bing! Bing! Bye-bye happy rats!

I mean, didn't anyone at Google see "Brainstorm"? (R.I.P., Natalie Wood.)

However, it's not as if Google isn't taking precautions:

"Internally, the Google X team has been actively discussing the privacy implications of the glasses and the company wants to ensure that people know if they are being recorded by someone wearing a pair of glasses with a built-in camera," the New York Times said.

Which -- I don't know about you -- really puts my mind at ease. That should be an easy problem to solve. After all, Google is famous for worrying about privacy. (However, if Facebook is working on Friend Finder Frames, that's another story.)

OK, enough with the hyperbole. Here's what you really want to know:

According to the New York Times, Google wants the glasses on sale by the end of the year at a price ranging from $250 to $600 -- about the same as a smartphone.

Which is great -- because I thought they would be expensive or something.

Still, I'll bet Apple is toiling away right now on Apple Eyes (or would they be Apple i's?)

And why stop there? How about Nokia Noses, or Samsung Snouts, to help us smell better? And Ericsson Ears?

After all, my nose, and my ears, are pretty "dumb" too.

Bing! Bing! Bing!


Google's embarrassing Safari exploit

'Creatocracy' and the Internet free-for-all

The Dow is climbing! The Dow is climbing!

 -- Paul Whitefield

Image: Illustration from a YouTube video of how Google's Google Goggles technology uses photos to conduct Web searches. Credit: Google Inc.

Facebook IPO: Turn that 'like' thumb upside down [The conversation]

Facebook IPO
Facebook filed papers for an IPO on Wednesday. Not everyone is celebrating, though. In anticipation of the news, critics began questioning Facebook's direction as a company, raising the following questions.

Are IPOs really good for businesses?

The IPO has become such a standard feature in our culture of casino capitalism that we tend to take it for granted, as if it were what all companies aspire to, and always have. But as [Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto] points out, the first 30 years or more of American business in the 20th century were dominated by semi-public or privately held companies run by entrepreneurs or owner-managers. "We're in an odd period right now," says Martin. "We thought that being publicly traded was the way to go. But it turns out not to be right: You can't build a company and its value over the long term given how the expectations market jerks companies around. I see us coming back to the days of privately held companies because of all the problems associated with being publicly traded."

It might turn out that this period of IPOs and publicly traded companies isn't the norm -- it's actually a passing fad, a financial anomaly.

--Alan M. Webber, USA Today

Will Facebook shares hold their value?

Can we get real? The best way Facebook could protect its ordinary users is by not letting them anywhere near this IPO.

For one thing, given the turbocharged excitement surrounding the coming deal, the likelihood is much greater that the shares will be fully valued than that they'll harbor hidden treasure. It won't be long before the holders of insider shares, including current and departed employees, will be able to cash out, diluting the market price further.

--Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times

Isn't it better to invest in a company before it goes public?

You get the idea. The idea that Facebook is worth $100 billion, or even $75 billion, is, well, a bit optimistic. Or would be, if there were anything rational about this deal. But there isn't. […]

The fault lies with private investors who have driven this company up so much in private markets that it's been picked clean, leaving little upside for public investors. Something similar happened to Zynga, which had been so overpriced in private funding rounds that its IPO price was actually lower than what it fetched from T. Rowe Price, Fidelity, and others.

That sort of thing isn't supposed to happen. But this is the brave new world of tech investing. With Facebook, and some of the other new tech companies, the smart money has already got in and got out long before the IPO ever happens.

--Dan Lyons, the Daily Beast

Isn't this much ado about nothing?

It won't unleash corporate capital spending. In 1995, Netscape's IPO spurred a wave of corporate capital spending. That's because the web browser made the Internet easier for people to use than it had been before. A wave of supporting industries ranging from web consultants to makers of Web infrastructure -- that got their fingers into the corporate Internet investment pie, as I described in my 1998 book, Net Profit. Facebook is not doing that -- its revenues represent a mere 1% of the world's $507 billion in total ad spending and its IPO would not lead to a major change in the trajectory of corporate spend. […]

It won't boost the overall venture financing market. If a Facebook IPO created a fever to invest in tech start-ups, it might be good for the venture capital industry. But since the IPO does not change much for Facebook investors, does not spur the growth of a range of related industries, does not unleash corporate investment, and might not even help out the IPO market, the after-effect of Facebook's IPO could be modest.

--Peter Cohan, Forbes


America's waning influence

Newton:Who's in charge of the LAPD?

Legal hurdles to retrieving files from Megaupload

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: A sign with the "like" symbol stands in front of the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Should consumers boycott Apple?

Apple's profits may have soared last quarter, with revenue up 74% (to $46.3 billion), but I wonder how celebratory they feel in Cupertino as reports emerge about the company's business practices, specifically how it keeps production costs low so that it can "make a 60%, 70% margin per phone" sold?

In the last few days, the New York Times has published bombshell reports ("How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work," "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad") that expose the appalling working conditions at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, where Apple's products are made. Here's an excerpt describing the troubling environment:

[T]he workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious -- sometimes deadly -- safety problems.

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers' disregard for workers' health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning.

It should be noted:

--Apple is not alone among electronic companies employing Foxconn and other such plants.

--Apple has responded to scrutiny over workplace conditions by disclosing names of suppliers and manufacturing partners.

--If the New York Times' anonymous sources are to be trusted, Apple execs don't seem to care how the work gets done so long as it's fast and cheap. Here are two unabashed (and nameless) quotes from the New York Times stories:

"The speed and flexibility is breathtaking," the executive said. "There's no American plant that can match that." […]

 "We shouldn't be criticized for using Chinese workers," a current Apple executive said. "The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need."

They should have just come out and said they'd rather not abide by U.S. regulations that protect worker rights -- regulations that would slow down productivity and increase costs. ("By some estimates, each iPhone includes $190 in hardware costs, $10 in Chinese labor," Scott Tong said on Wednesday's "Marketplace.")

Earlier this month "This American Life" dedicated an entire episode to the issue of human rights abuses taking place at Foxconn. On the program, Mike Daisey performed from his one-man show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," in which he shares his experience from Shenzhen, where he went with the intention of learning about the people who made his beloved Apple products. Here's an excerpt of his heartbreaking findings:

While I'm in-country, a worker at Foxconn dies after working a 34-hour shift. I wish I could say that's exceptional, but it's happened before. I only mention it because it actually happened while I was there.

And I go to the dormitories. I'm a valuable potential future customer. They will show me anything I ask to see. The dormitories are cement cubes, 12-foot by 12-foot. And in that space there are 13 beds, 14 beds. I count 15 beds. They're stacked up like Jenga puzzle pieces all the way up to the ceiling. The space between them is so narrow, none of us would actually fit in them. They have to slide into them like coffins.

There are cameras in the rooms. There are cameras in the hallways. There are cameras everywhere. And why wouldn't there be? You know, when we dream of a future where the regulations are washed away and the corporations are finally free to sail above us, you don't have to dream about some sci-fi dystopian Blade Runner/1984bull [BLEEP]. You can go to Shenzhen tomorrow. They're making your crap that way today.

When I leave the factory, as I can feel myself being rewritten from the inside out, the way I see everything is starting to change. I keep thinking, how often do we wish more things were handmade? Oh, we talk about that all the time, don't we? "I wish it was like the old days. I wish things had that human touch." But that's not true. There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world.

Everything is handmade. I know. I have been there. I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair. One after another after another. Everything is handmade.

Beyond the working conditions, Daisey also sheds light on an environment in which people live in fear and are eventually disposable. "And so when you start working at 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27, your hands are ruined," he says. "And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machine. We throw it away." And there's no one to protect workers, he goes on, in this "fascist country run by thugs."

"It's barbaric," the Daily Beast's Dan Lyons says bluntly. And it's up to us, the consumers, to do something about it rather than turn a blind eye. He writes:

As the Times article points out, this isn't just Apple. It's every company. It's every product we use. It's our entire way of life, built on the backs of people who are being treated in ways that we would not allow ourselves or our countrymen to be treated.

Ultimately the blame lies not with Apple and other electronics companies -- but with us, the consumers.

And ultimately we are the ones who must demand change.


Apple reports record sales of iPhones, iPads and Macs

iPad down to 58% of tablet sales as Android catches up

Apple discloses names of suppliers, manufacturing partners

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: A representative from Foxconn Technology Group speaks to applicants outside the computer component maker's plant in Shenzhen last year. Credit: Associated Press



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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