Oh, the agony

Like many twentysomethings living in the Northwest, I am a proud Apple devotee. Ever since the Dell laptop I’d had since high school crashed for the millionth and final time in 2008, my aluminum MacBook and I have been inseparable. I’ve laughed at my PC-owning peers whose machines regularly contract viruses; I’ve marveled at the seamless way each laptop, iPhone and tablet in this apartment syncs with my roommate’s Apple TV; and, I admit it, I’ve watched a handful of Steve Jobs presentations in awe.

Yet until recently, I never stopped to wonder why the back of each Apple product I own proudly bears the statement “designed by Apple in California” but fails to disclose where the electronics are manufactured. Now, thanks to monologist and author Mike Daisey, I know why–and part of me wishes I didn’t.

Daisey’s one-man show at Seattle Repertory Theatre, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” describes the daily lives of 450,000 workers at Foxconn, the manufacturing plant where most Apple products are made. The plant is in Shenzhen, China, a city whose name most Americans have never heard even though more than 14 million people live there. Defying others’ advice, Daisey visited the plant even after several journalists and an Associated Press photographer attempted the same and were escorted off the premises; he successfully managed to talk to hundreds of workers in their teens and 20s who were made to pull 12- to 16-hour shifts performing just one task over and over again for years on end. He heard from 20-year-olds who were crippled for life from the repetitive labor. He described how these young workers–the kind of intelligent people who here in the U.S. would go on to be doctors, lawyers and respected academics–lived in quarters nearly as cramped as those I saw at a concentration camp in Terezín. One young worker told Daisey she spent her workdays wiping thousands of iPhone screens clean; when Daisey asked her age, she said she was 13.

Most harrowing of all is the knowledge that dozens of the plant’s employees–perhaps more–have committed suicide from the top of the Foxconn building. While both Apple and Foxconn have acknowledged at least one of these deaths, neither seems to have investigated this deeply tragic trend.

Daisey’s stories left me in a temporary state of shock. That afternoon, I sat in my apartment building for a while, staring around, unable to open my laptop or turn on my cellphone. To think that my consumer tendencies were to blame for the unfair treatment of workers, many of them 10 years my junior, was heartbreaking and nauseating. How did I trick myself into believing I needed all these whirring, blinking machines? How did I live so long in blissful ignorance, not knowing the origins of my most prized electronics?

And here’s the big question everyone came out of the theater asking: If Steve Jobs knows about the working conditions at Foxconn–and he must–why hasn’t he done anything about it?

I’m now aware of and informed about workers’ horrendous treatment in Shenzhen, which Daisey says is half the battle. I’ve also spread the word, something he hoped we would all do. But still I feel I haven’t done enough. Though I’ve often felt compelled to do so in the last few days, I know throwing out every electronic device I own isn’t the answer; as a 21st-century aspiring journalist, I can’t quit blogging, Tweeting and keeping abreast of news online. Someday, I may be one of the reporters who helps expose injustices like these and forces corporations to take a harder look at their outsourcing practices.

But for now, the knowledge that I’ve informed just a few more people of Foxconn’s heinous crimes against humanity will have to sate me.

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The new and improved AP test

A New York Times article today reminded me of a time when the AP was more than a national news wire service to me.

The advanced placement test was one of the greatest banes of my high school existence, second only to the college application process. From what I remember, the entire experience, which I withstood three (almost four!) times, consisted of three steps: receive a giant 1,000-page tome, memorize everything in it, and sit an exam whose questions in no way relate to the hundreds of pages of facts you memorized.

The first test I sat was for U.S. history. Just before the test, I remember going over the succession of presidents with a friend’s flashcards, trying desperately to remember which state ratified the Constitution first and telling my friend to stop playing his ukulele so I could concentrate. The test was far more difficult than any of us imagined and covered material we hadn’t had time to touch on in class. We didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

The second test I sat was for English literature. Since most questions had more to do with reading comprehension than with memorization, I felt prepared after years of reading classic books and writing critical essays. I walked in confident and walked out tired but still sure I’d done well. I’d used knowledge from a wide range of books I had read, in school and at home, to answer the essay questions, and I had even drawn on past choir repertoire to answer questions about Latin roots of English words–further proving my belief that academic well-roundedness is still valuable.

The third and final test I sat was for calculus. Advanced calculus, no less. I don’t talk about that test, except to say that poetry was involved when it shouldn’t have been.

While I studied and prepared for these tests, I couldn’t help but think–why can’t they all be more like the literature test? That exam, rather than asking me to rattle off authors and book titles robotically, tested my ability to think critically and organize my thoughts coherently.

Why do tests in history, math and science focus so intently on students’ memory of names and places? Shouldn’t we demonstrate our comprehension of a subject by discussing broader concepts? What’s more important: that we know which days the Civil War began and ended or that we know what caused the war and how the war affected Americans?

Finally, the College Board agrees. The Times says:

A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.

Not only is it impossible for students to memorize every fact, figure and formula without a photographic memory, it’s also beside the point–and I’m glad the test writers finally get that.

Entrepreneurship

I’ve been thinking a lot about entrepreneurship recently–its inherent financial risks, the unique “type A” drive required for it, the amount of time and commitment involved. I’ve also been trying to figure out why the heck anyone would be idiotic enough to try his hand at entrepreneurship in these trying economic times.

I just read an article in The New York Times about the increasing number of twentysomethings who decided to create their own jobs rather than endure the grueling process of searching for a job as the country climbs out of the recession. I can’t believe what these young people, some my age or scarcely older, have accomplished. Twenty-six-year-old Lauren Berger founded Intern Queen, an internship database for motivated young people looking for experience–people not unlike herself. Josh Weinstein, 24, got a PayPal founder to back his social-networking site CollegeOnly. Two 22-year-olds started an online magazine for college women called HerCampus. They’re my age–and they’re turning a profit!

These are a few success stories among, as you might guess, many stories of failure. It’s always difficult and risky to start a business, especially when you’re young and broke. But right now, it’s even more difficult. So are these kids crazy…or are they onto something?

I’m a highly logical person and haven’t been known to take huge risks, but I’m starting to believe in recession-era entrepreneurship. It’s not just happening among young people; the number of startups founded in the last couple of years is much larger than the number of startups founded before the recession began–and there’s an explanation for the madness.

Say you’ve been working at a big company in Silicon Valley for a number of years. You’re happy for now, but you have vague thoughts of taking that idea you’ve been mulling in the back of your mind and making it into something on your own in the far-off future. Then, suddenly, your company’s earnings are way down and you’re laid off out of necessity. What now? All the other tech companies are doing the same thing, so finding another job with equal pay and benefits might not be a possibility. Suddenly, that vague idea you’d been mulling is at the forefront of your mind. You’ve got intelligent colleagues, also recently laid off, all around you. You’ve got some money. You don’t need a whole lot of office space, so rent won’t be too high–and neither will the cost of marketing, thanks to social networking and the access you have to big tech companies’ clouds.

Suddenly, you’ve got yourself a startup.

It’s called accidental entrepreneurship, or necessity entrepreneurship–when people take the gigantic step to become their own boss after they’ve exhausted all other options. With lots of spare time to think–you can only spend so many hours scouring CraigslistMonster and CareerBuilder, something I know all too well–the unemployed start to get creative, and big ideas often start to blossom into little companies.

As it turns out, founding startups in recessions isn’t unheard of–in fact it’s common. The Kauffman Foundation found last year that more than half the companies on 2009’s Fortune 500 list were founded during a recession or a downward market trend. Among the recession-born companies: Starbucks, Intuit, PetSmart.

How do we re-energize the economy? Maybe the startups that come from the big ideas people get during unemployment are the answer to that question. Maybe it’s startups that propel us up and out of economic woe.

If that’s the case, could the creative news ventures people are building now be the saving grace we need to get us out of this “newspapers are dying” funk? Interesting, promising things are happening in journalism despite continued financial hardship at traditional news organizations. One of my favorite ideas is Spot.us, where people can bid on investigative story pitches from journalists all over the country and can later read the stories that get enough financial backing. Voice of San Diego, a small news organization of former editors and investigative reporters founded in 2005, resulted from a frustration its founders felt in the San Diego Union-Tribune’s lack of hard-hitting local news coverage. In the last few years, it has been lauded for its excellent investigative reporting and original financial model.

Journalism, like this state’s government, needs to make some drastic changes, financially and logistically, if it wants to stay afloat. Let’s hope these creative new ventures, many started post-layoff, point journalism (and the economy!) in the right direction.

A look back

Tonight I stumbled across a New York Times story about the increasing competitiveness of college admissions. Universities such as Tulane, UCLA and Georgetown saw record applicants, tens of thousands of them, for so few spots that they began to wonder whether having so many applicants to choose from was a blessing or a curse.

Accompanying the article was a blog post on how high school seniors should prepare for interviews with admissions departments and alumni at the schools to which they’ve applied.

These two pieces got me thinking about my own college application experience. I struggle to remember specific details of the process–it was only five years ago, yet the whole thing is just a blur of stress, confusion and raging emotion–but I soon realized two things. One was that if college admissions continue to increase in competitiveness, Stanford and Harvard will soon be home to young cyborgs, underrepresented minorities and not much else. (OK, I kid.)

The other was that in 2005, at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I was apparently grossly underprepared to apply for and interview at some of the more competitive schools I’d set my sights on.

The one specific admissions-era memory I have is an interview I took at Whitman College. I remember staring out the window of the admissions dean’s office, in awe of the fall colors in the trees. I remember stumbling over my words overeagerly as I tried to explain to her what a passionate and well-rounded person I was, struggling to stay on topic and wondering how long my diatribe should last. Most of all, I remember how young, naive, unprofessional and unintelligent I felt sitting in that antique chair, facing the woman in the cashmere sweater and the window with a view of the fall leaves and the main quad, where far superior people (or so I imagined) walked along the pathways.

In the New York Times post, the author advises prospective students to dress in business casual attire; I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.  In the comments section, a schoolteacher advises students to bring a resume with them to interviews; at 17, I had no such thing.

David Kogler, a college admissions officer, said, “I’m surprised at the number of students who can’t easily articulate why they drove six hours to visit our campus”  and how they’d take advantage of their time there should they be accepted.

I’m not. Most of these teenagers haven’t taken speech and communications classes, haven’t experienced professional job interviews (minimum-wage retail and food service jobs don’t count) and haven’t yet figured out their identities or future goals. How can they be expected to talk about their ambitions with certainty when they haven’t yet entered the stage in their lives where they actually start discovering those ambitions?

On that fall afternoon at Whitman College five years ago, I had no idea where I was headed. Vague ideas of art history classes, stacks of classical Greek literature and busy choir schedules floated through my head. If the admissions officer was looking for someone who was certain, focused and as articulate as a college graduate, she certainly didn’t get it–and why should she? It should be high school seniors’ enthusiasm, passion and curiosity that gets them into their colleges of choice. They shouldn’t worry about getting a polished business-casual wardrobe and credentials that are perfectly in order until they’ve lived a little.

Though applications have only continued to increase since 2005–and even then, college admissions were more competitive than ever–high school seniors shouldn’t have to put on a show in which they become someone else entirely when they interview at colleges. If they do, my cyborg theory may actually become reality.

(Oh, and in case you wondered…I was waitlisted and then invited to join Whitman College’s class of 2010 on the condition that I start in the spring. I declined and went to the University of Oregon in September. I’ve never regretted it.)

Jill Kimball, uncensored

An article that will appear in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine takes a look at exactly how much information about us is available online. According to this lengthy story, if we don’t bother to tinker with privacy settings or protect our information in some way, especially on social networking sites, any Google-savvy searcher has a large, clear window into our work, social and personal lives.

The article includes several anecdotes of people whose digital trails have gotten them into trouble. A 25-year-old woman working as a teacher’s aide was denied her teaching certificate after she uploaded a picture of herself dressed as a pirate and drinking out of a plastic cup, labeled it “Drunken Pirate,” and set it as her profile picture on Facebook. She sued, citing first amendment rights, but lost. A 16-year-0ld Brit was fired from her job after announcing she was “so totally bored” on Facebook at work. A Canadian who tried to visit the U.S. was barred from entry after a border guard Googled him and found an academic paper he had written in which he admitted to using LSD 30 years ago.

Whether people consider this ethical or not, it’s a conundrum we’ll all have to face soon,  if we haven’t already: should we just be honest on the Internet and attempt to live our lives uncensored by our own privacy settings, or should we clean ourselves up for a more impressive presentation that will potentially save us from getting in trouble or facing rejection?

It’s especially important for recent college graduates like me to decide what to do with all the photos, video clips and written words associated with our names that aren’t employer-friendly. Should we think twice before posting that hilarious picture from last night? Should we avoid relaying last night’s events to our friends on the Internet, even metaphorically? Should we take down the blogs we kept in high school where there exist badly-written ten-paragraph diatribes on horrible teachers, cute boys and backstabbing friends?

For me, the answer is “no”–mostly because I’m not a rebellious, wild, scandalous person. None of the pictures of me on Facebook involve illegal drinking, drugs or anything that could be construed as  lewd behavior. Half my family and most of my family friends are granted full access to all those pictures and my entire Facebook profile. I don’t talk about my personal life online, but I also don’t talk about it outside the Internet to anyone I don’t trust or know well.

I believe in presenting myself honestly to any possible future employers. I think they deserve to know from a Google search exactly what they’d be getting themselves into by hiring me (which, considering my personality, is really nothing bad anyway). After all, if they do take me on, they’ll get to know the real me soon enough anyway.