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Killer Technology

Frank Ahrens

I have been reading "The Devil In the White City," a non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago world's fair and the bizarro serial killer who set up shop only a few blocks away from the massive exposition, nicknamed the White City.

One thing that struck me about the book by Erik Larson -- which, despite its fantastical story, has some throw-it-all-the-wall stylistic annoyances -- is how easy it was to be killed by technology in 1893.

Trains in Chicago ran at grade level, so it was quite routine to get squashed by one, or shot by a hood with a $4 revolver he bought at shoe store(?), or electrocuted while wiring the world's fair with the new-fangled AC current, or scalded to death by high-pressure steam. Machines were raw, exposed and dangerous. Death by technology was nearly as certain for humans as for the millions of hogs chopped up by the machines of the Chicago stockyards abattoir.

My buddy David Von Drehle wrote in his book, "Triangle," about the fatal 1911 fire at the New York shirtwaist factory: "Death was an almost routine workplace hazard in those days. By one estimate, one hundred or more Americans died on the job every day in the booming industrial years around 1911. Mines collapsed on them, ships sank under them, pots of molten steel spilled over their heads, locomotives smashed into them, exposed machinery grabbed them by the arm or leg or hair and pulled them in."

Today, such things are inconceivable. The machinery of industry is shielded from public view and workplace tragedy is rare and gripping. Consider the national attention paid to the one dozen coal miners killed in the West Virginia collapse earlier this year.

That is, in the United States.

In less-developed areas of the world, technology is still killing people with alarming indifference. In India and Bangladesh, for instance, thousands of poor people have jobs as "ship-breakers:" Massive out-of-commission oil tankers are run aground in shallows. There, they are set upon by the workers, who -- often barefoot and poorly clad -- rip the ships to bits and sell the steel to recyclers. Here'a BBC report with amazing pictures.

Conditions are just as bad if not worse for these people as they were for the Victorian Chicagoan about to be pancaked by a streetcar, if only because today's technology is so much more terrible and the lot of the world's poor is so much worse. In America, we are largely protected from the dangers of technology. But the world is still full of places where flesh and muscle are shorn from bone by steel and horsepower.

Today In The Post:

* Sara Goo reports on Google's top search terms of 2006. Unsurprisingly, Borat is among them. Surprisingly, so is Orlando Bloom.


* Other sites are tossing out their most-searched lists for 2006. Turns out, Google, Yahoo and AOL have radically different results. One blogger deciphers: Google users are dweebs, Yahoo users are horndogs and AOL users are geezers.

* Check this out: Here are some of the next-gen toys researchers are cooking up for military use. You've got to see the Gryphon Flying Wing.

* What does the Web hold for 2007? Here are some predictions.

* Sony will pay $1.5 million to settle lawsuits over Sony CDs that had hidden anti-piracy programs in them. Also, the stumbling entertainment and technology giant will pay between $25 and $175 in customer refunds, if claims are filed.

By Frank Ahrens  |  December 20, 2006; 11:38 AM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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As an Occupational Safety Professional, I can tell you that while we have reduced the number of fatalities and injuries in industry, far too many people still put their lives and health at risk to work. The continued prevalence of problems such as silicosis, lead poisoning and getting caught in machinery, which have been controllable for decades, is really frustrating. If America took the hazards of the workplace as seriously as the much smaller (measurably smaller in terms of chemicals) risk of environmental risks, people could work without sacrifice. However, we tend to cling to the ideas of "making a choice to work there" and "hazard pay" which allows us to not feel bad about crippling construction workers because, hey, they should have just gone to college.

Posted by: Ben | December 20, 2006 2:47 PM

60 Minutes did a story on the shipbreakers a couple of months ago. Very interesting.

Posted by: Cosmo | December 20, 2006 3:59 PM

It is not so surprising that Mr. Bloom is a top Google search topic. He's an interesting man. His activities in the past year included: Global Green benefit speaker, artwork donation to and presentation for Scorseses's non-profit Film Foundation, speaker and supporter of Fuji Rock Festival for Global Cool, personal appearance for Starlight Children's Foundation, appearance for Peace Games, contributer to Morgan Freeman's Caribbean Cooking for a Cause and poster for ALA Read program.

Unlike many celebrities in the news these days, his activities include hiking in Topanaga canyon with his dog and friends, eating at a local greasy spoon or flying home to be with his family at Christmas.

Mr. Bloom is an interesting actor making brave choices. He's passionate about his work and life.

What's not to like? Oh, yeah, he's beautiful.

Posted by: Ellen Armstrong | December 20, 2006 10:27 PM

I note that Orlando Bloom's mom is masquerading as someone named "Ellen Armstrong."

Posted by: Frank Ahrens | December 21, 2006 12:55 PM

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