Under the microscope, strong-swimming swamp bacteria spontaneously organize into crystals

Insects form swarms, fish school, birds flock together. Likewise, one species of bacteria forms dynamic, living crystals, says new research from Rockefeller University. Biophysicists have revealed that fast-swimming, sulfur-eating microbes known as Thiovulum majus can organize themselves into a two-dimensional lattice composed of rotating cells, the first known example of bacteria spontaneously forming such a pattern.

"The regular, repeated arrangement of the microbial cells shares the geometry of atoms within a mineral crystal, but the dynamics are fundamentally different; the bacterial crystals constantly move and reorganize as a result of the power generated by individual cells within them," says study author Albert Libchaber, Detlev W. Bronk Professor and head of the Laboratory of Experimental Condensed Matter Physics.

The single cells' rotating motion -- which forms the crystals by drawing in other cells and then powers the crystals' own motion -- led the researchers to dub them "microscopic tornadoes" in a paper awaiting publication in Physical Review Letters.

It's no coincidence that Thiovulum majus is among the fastest swimming bacteria known. Capable of moving up to 60 body lengths per second while rotating rapidly, these microbes propel themselves using whip-like flagella that cover their surfaces. But in its natural habitat, deep in marsh water, these microbes don't travel much. They tether themselves to a surface and use their flagella to generate a current strong enough to pull in the nutrients they need: sulfides from rotting organic matter and oxygen used to burn the sulfides.

What one cell can do, many can do much better, and in previous work, Libchaber and postdoc Alexander Petroff examined how groups of tethered Thiovulum organize and reorganize themselves so as to pull in more nutrients.

"Because this microbe can generate so much force with its flagella, we became curious about what dynamics might emerge when many swim freely together," Petroff says of the investigation, which began when study co-author Xiao-Lun Wu, of the University of Pittsburg, was visiting. "After we put an enriched culture of Thiovulum under a microscope, this beautiful structure appeared."

Researchers set about determining the balance of physical forces that explain how the microbes organize themselves into crystals. When placed in an observation chamber within a microscope slide, the microbes swam either up or down until they collided with the glass. But even then, they kept on swimming, like flies trying to escape through a closed window, Petroff says.

Swimming in place, the cells draw water toward, then up and around themselves, creating a tornado-like flow. This flow pulls in nearby cells, which cluster together in a shifting two-dimensional lattice that is similar to the three-dimensional pattern that defines crystals. Within the lattice, each cell has six immediate neighbors, creating a hexagonal pattern that appears frequently in nature, including among penguins packing together for warmth and in the chambers of honeycomb. It is the densest way to pack things of a uniform size. But the bacterial crystal continues to reorganize and melt, animated by the cells' rotating motion, which causes the microbes to shift against one another, in much the same way that gravity pulls sand grains down the sides of a pile.

It's not clear why the microbes form these crystals, or even if they do so in habitats outside of microscope slides. But the coherent group behavior responsible for generating the crystals is a common phenomenon, known as collective dynamics.

"Usually, when birds, insects, fish, or even bacteria move together in a coordinated fashion, you see coherent motion on the scale of the group, but disorder at the level of the individual," Libchaber says. "This is not so for Thiovulum. Instead of turbulent movement, the individual cells form extremely regular crystalline structures. It appears that Thiovulum crystals represent a new form of collective dynamics."

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Rockefeller University . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Mercedes Thinks Americans May Want a Luxury Pickup

Sketch of the new Mercedes-Benz Midsize Pickup. Sketch of the new Mercedes-Benz Midsize Pickup. Daimler

Mercedes-Benz is making a pickup truck, and it thinks Americans might want in.

The first vehicles this plan brings to mind are Cadillac’s Escalade EXT and Lincoln’s Blackwood and LT. Despite Americans’ ravenous appetite for pickups, these luxury trucks were hardly big successes. The Lincolns lasted just a few years on the market. The Escalade EXT was discontinued in 2013, after a decent run. Do Americans actually want a Mercedes-badged truck?

Maybe, but let’s step back for a minute. For this vehicle, Americans are an afterthought. The yet-to-be-named, midsize truck is expected in 2020, and it’s aimed primarily at Latin America, South Africa, Australia, and Europe. “There’s a global need for pickups, and we’ve decided that we’re gonna get into that space,” says Steve Cannon, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA. “The business case was made without the United States.”

It could be a smart move, says Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. Mercedes wants to increase sales, and it’s got the necessary global distribution network and name recognition. Its partnership with Nissan, which has extensive pickup experience, could cut development costs. And its commercial business, based around vans and trucks, is “an important part of their overall profit picture, so it makes sense that they would pursue those kinds of opportunities.”

So that part checks out. But Mercedes is evaluating whether it wants to sell the pickup in the US, and says if it does, it will be a luxury vehicle, not a ute. Considering the lackluster history of Lincoln and Cadillac’s luxury pickups, Germany’s foray into the segment seems questionable. Who wants a luxury pickup?

Cannon says it’s not crazy: He sees neighbors in swanky Greenwich, Connecticut driving what he calls full-size “lifestyle pickups”—and thinks they might want something a bit smaller, with a five-pointed star on the hood.

Mercedes may be best known for luxury sedans and sports cars, but it’s spent the last two decades expanding into the crossover market, filling every market niche it can sniff out. That’s how it ended up with vehicles like the GLE Coupe, a small four-door reminiscent of a Chihuahua-Great Dane mix. “A pickup truck is almost mainstream compared to some of the things they’ve put in the marketplace,” says Nerad.

It’s hard to predict how Americans would respond, but it’s not the craziest idea: If Mercedes wants to keep growing—and it does—it’s got to find new segments to conquer. And our love affair with the pickup is tempting territory.

We Tested 4 GPS Apps That Work Even When You’re Offline

GPS technology has freed us from the tyranny of the printed, folding map. But at the same time, it has made us slaves to our cellular provider’s data plan. Many of the leading GPS and mapping app providers, including Waze, Apple Maps, and Google Maps, will only work if you’re connected to a network. These services aren’t preloaded with map information. Rather they send relevant maps to your phone on the fly, over the air. (Google Maps has limited offline map support, allowing for downloads of maps that are a maximum of 50km x 50km square, which is fine for city walks but insufficient for even a modest day trip.)

So what do you do when travel takes you off the grid, or into a foreign land where your data plan doesn’t work? Suggestions like “switch to another carrier” or “carry a standalone GPS device” aren’t altogether helpful to the vast majority of users who simply want to use their trusty smart phone to navigate hostile territory like they’ve become accustomed.

Fortunately, there’s a solution: GPS with offline map support. A number of GPS app providers let you (or even require you to) download maps for offline use as a key feature of the system. With offline maps, your phone uses its built-in GPS radio (which works independently of your data plan) to figure out where you are, then simply plots your route on a map that’s stored in your phone’s memory. With a capable offline GPS app, you won’t notice much of a difference versus the traditional maps-on-the-fly method.

To get a look at the market for offline GPS systems, I downloaded four of the most notable names in GPS that support offline maps, turned my cellular data services off, and hit the road. These apps don’t represent every last offline GPS tool on the market, but they do cut through a good cross-section of some of the most capable solutions out there.

sygic-(3) Screenshot: Sygic

Sygic GPS Navigation (RATING: 7; iOS, Android, Windows Phone; free app, world map is $50, but promotions are common) is a full-featured navigation system, though it’s considerably less user-friendly than I’d like. Before you get started, you select the states or countries you’re traveling in, then download the maps to your device. For 50 bucks, you can get offline maps for most of the paved world.

Search is slow but otherwise capable, even when you’re disconnected from data. There’s no POI search feature (though a few key POIs like gas stations do appear on the map), so all waypoints or destinations require a physical address, and you’ll need to enter that information piece by piece—first city, then street, then house number—rather than all at once like you might be accustomed to.

On the road, Sygic offers both a top-down 2D view and a smart-looking 3D display, complete with local topography. Both are presented in vibrant color, which helps map features stand out when you’re driving. I preferred driving with the 3D display, both from an aesthetic and usability standpoint; all told it’s probably the prettiest looking GPS app in this roundup.

Sygic ships with metric units by default and tends to be quite chatty when using voice navigation. One of the first things you’ll want to do is turn off the audio notifications when you’re speeding; the spoken nagging about it makes for the absolutely worst driving companion ever. Otherwise, instructions are helpful, accurate, and delivered in a timely fashion, and Sygic recovers quickly with new instructions if you miss a turn or take a detour.

While some of the onscreen elements are a little too small to make out at a glance and more than a few elements of the interface are needlessly complicated, on the whole, Sygic is worth consideration. Additional features (all cost extra) include walking instructions, live traffic alerts, speed camera location information, photo-navigation, a heads-up display system, a dashcam feature, and celebrity voices—including both Homer Simpson and Mr. Burns(!).

navmii-(3) Screenshot: Navmii

Navmii (RATING: 8; iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone; free app, national map packs are under $5 each), formerly known as Navfree, is an exemplary app that is well worth considering, mainly because most of the functionality of the app, including map packs and offline use, is totally free. Android users can download a single app that covers the whole world, but iOS users have to pick from more than 20 regional options. Within iOS (reviewed here), you can download additional country packs for a nominal fee (the fee varies based on the region).

Navmii is ad-supported, but those ads can be removed with a whopping $2 investment. Even with them, the app is easy to navigate. Designed with streamlined efficiency and a minimalist aesthetic, Navmii gets you from point A to point B as seamlessly as possible. Search is natural and lets you search for full addresses or points of interest. On the road, the interface is presented in a pared-down, Apple-like motif, with minimal clutter and color. While driving, POIs are mostly hidden by default; you can activate them on a category basis. The app really seems to be tuned for efficiency; roads don’t really curve so much as kink angularly at intervals, and spoken directions don’t announce street names.

Much like Waze, Navmii is designed to crowdsource traffic, road hazard, and other driving information (like the location of speed traps), but in offline mode these features of course don’t work. (Speed/red light camera information is one of the few add-ons you can download for a small fee.) But whether you’re online or off, in the car or on foot, Navmii is really a breeze to use—natural and intuitive and, most of all, fast. At the very least, there’s no risk to give it a try—and downloadable celebrity voices include Stephen Fry and Snoop Dogg(!).

copilot-(3) Screenshot: CoPilot

CoPilot Premium HD (RATING: 6; iOS, Android, Windows Phone; regional map packs are $9.99 to $29.99) was historically seen as a clunkier navigation system, but it has evolved with the times into a capable GPS.

CoPilot’s app is free, but you’re nickel-and-dimed on every little extra. Maps are sold on a regional basis (Europe is $30, for example), and voice navigation costs an extra $10. Live traffic runs $10 per year after a free first year. Map downloads are easy and pushed to you when first using the app. Unlike many competing apps, CoPilot splits U.S. maps up regionally instead of by state, so you get the whole west coast in one chunk, for example.

CoPilot includes a slightly odd POI search system, requiring you to pick a category (hotel, gas station, auto dealership) before searching CoPilot’s database by keyword from there. If you want something more free-form, you’ll need to search Google, Yelp, or Wikipedia(?) through CoPilot’s integrated links—but obviously these three don’t work if you’re offline. It’s a needlessly convoluted search system that unfortunately slows you down a lot. Searching by address requires a city or ZIP code first, then drilling down to street, then number—again, a slow process.

Once you’re on the road, CoPilot performs well. The service now offers 2D and 3D maps, shows POIs on your route when you’re not in motion, and recovers gracefully after detours. Voice nav is overly chatty (and is fond of telling you when something is “just ahead”) but unfortunately doesn’t announce street names. There’s also an option to quickly switch CoPilot into walking mode if you’re on foot.

Better search and more all-inclusive would improve CoPilot immeasurably, but even as it stands it’s a worthwhile GPS tool.

navigon-(2) Screenshot: Navigon

Like Navmii, Navigon (RATING: 5; iOS, Android, Windows Phone; North America app $50, plus substantial in-app purchases) has different app options corresponding to various regions, but unlike Navmii these don’t come cheap. 50 bucks gets you North American coverage. $80 covers just the British Isles. From there, Navigon keeps piling on the fees. The numerous optional extras include 3D display ($11), live traffic ($20), and urban guidance ($5), which adds information on bus and train routes. Even getting map updates costs extra ($20 for eight updates over two years). Whew!

The price alone makes Navigon an also-ran, but otherwise the app is capable. Search is thorough, but it can be plodding. While POIs are included, they aren’t comprehensive, and Navigon forces you to search through a cumbersome menu of nested choices to find what you need. Once you do find where you’re going, though, Navigon tends to shine more brightly.

On the road, the dark color scheme can be a matter of personal taste, and naturally it looks better at night. The voice navigation is helpful and concise, and Navigon lets you simply tap on part of the screen if you need a repeat of your next turn. Street names are announced as well. Navigon offers multiple route options when you first create a route, and it recovers with reasonable grace during detours. Freebie extras include integrated Foursquare search, and a “reality scanner” augmented reality engine that lets you find nearby POIs via your camera.

All told, Navigon will get you where you need to go. Getting your wallet there with you is another matter.

One Company’s Quest to Save Crowdfunding From Scammers and Flakes

Kreyos is a crowdfunding cautionary tale.

In 2013, the company raised over $1.5 million on the crowdfunding site Indie GoGo to fund the creation of a more sophisticated smartwatch. A year later, a few customers received their watches. But many other didn’t, and, well, they weren’t too happy. The company closed down at the end of last year.

Kreyos CEO Steve Tan tried to place the blame on the manufacturing company he partnered with, but he admitted that Kreyos had practically no technical or manufacturing experience in house. “We are a marketing team with very limited hardware experience,” he wrote in a blog post about the affair.

Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident. There are so many other examples of crowdfunded vaporware. And even successful projects, such as the Pebble smartwatch, often end up shipping very late, thanks to production issues. The problem is that many creators just don’t know what they’re getting themselves into.

“Every time someone says ‘hardware is the new software,’ I cringe,” says Bunnie Huang, the co-creator of the open source Novena laptop and co-founder of the defunct hardware startup Chumby. “People don’t appreciate how hard it is to move atoms from point A to point B.”

The promise of crowdfunding is that it empowers small time entrepreneurs, artists and makers to create new products that would never gain backing from traditional investors. But failures, along with the relentless number of new campaigns launched each day, threatens to scare would-be customers away from crowdfunding altogether. A Portland, Oregon-based company called Crowd Supply wants to change that by helping crowdfunders like Huang overcome the hurdles they typically face.

Crowd Supply is a crowdfunding site for physical products. The company now offers over 50 items, including another open source laptop, jackets, a fancy coffee press, a brand of hot sauce, and a tiny open source computer-on-a-stick reminiscent of Google’s Chromecast device. But Crowd Supply doesn’t just help creators raise money, it helps them develop and ship their products. You can think of it as a product consultancy, e-commerce store and crowdfunding platform rolled into one.

The Oculus Example

As the Kreyos tale shows, many creators simply don’t know much about product development. In some cases, creators faced engineering challenges they handn’t counted on. Others underestimated manufacturing costs. Some found that shipping was vastly more expensive than they expected.

Then there’s the ones that were perhaps too successful. Oculus, which raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter for its Rift virtual reality headset before selling to Facebook for $2 billion, is the most obvious example. Many backers of the crowdfunding campaign felt like investors in the company. Selling to a large corporation felt like a betrayal of the crowdfunding spirit. It wasn’t just the fact that Oculus backers felt left out of the acquisition. It was the dawning realization that the Rift would have been made with or without their involvement. Today it’s not uncommon to see crowdfunding campaigns for products—from films to video games to smartwatches—from well established companies or creators that could probably find conventional financing on their own.

The projects on Crowd Supply, on the other hand, probably won’t exist without the funds raised through the site. But the company is also dedicated to making sure that the products sold through its site actually ship. To that end, Crowd Supply helps creators find manufacturers, estimate prices, market their campaigns, manage orders, and, ultimately, mail products to customers.

Kickstarter Supercharged

Since it provides so many services, the company is more selective about who it works with. Unlike other crowdfunding sites, you can’t just sign-up and post your campaign, you need to apply first. Once a project is approved, the Crowd Supply team works with creators to make sure they have a good sense for their funding goals, costs, and price point. The company then helps build the crowdfunding campaign, including designing the project’s funding page and doing professional product photography of prototypes.

Though Crowd Supply doesn’t have the brand recognition that Kickstarter or Indie GoGo have, Lifton claims that, thanks to selectivity and marketing help, projects listed through the service are about twice as likely to reach their minimum funding goals and raise about twice as much as the average Kickstarter project.

The company doesn’t do any manufacturing itself, but it can help creators find manufacturers. And once a product is manufactured, it’s sent to Crowd Supply’s headquarters where its fulfillment team actually handles shipping out all the products. And unlike other crowdfunding platforms, Crowd Supply offers ongoing sales even after the campaign has ended, so that you don’t need to find another e-commerce system to sell your product.

Crowd Supply takes a cut of the initial crowdfunding campaign, but doesn’t get any equity of the companies whose products it sells, nor does it retain any intellectual property. For ongoing sales after the fundraising period, the company operates more like a traditional retailer, buying products at a wholesale price.

E-Commerce Roots

E-commerce is a core part of the company’s DNA. Co-founder Lou Doctor started an online bicycle shop called Velotech in 1999, which became the first piece of an e-commerce mini-empire. Another part of that empire was a company called Cart Logic, which Doctor co-founded with Scott Torborg to build a common platform for his online stores.

In 2012, Doctor and Torborg started thinking about the way the site worked from an e-commerce perspective, and how’d they’d do things differently. Soon they met Lifton, who had worked as a product engineering consultant and had become frustrated with how many Kickstarter products were funded but never shipped.

The team was spurred on by a 2012 blog post by the Kickstarter staff titled “Kickstarter is not a store,” in which the company distanced itself from failed hardware projects and outlined new rules aimed at better educating customers about the risks of hardware projects. Crowd Supply launched six months later, heralded with a blog post titled “Crowd Supply is a Store.”

The Breakout

Crowd Supply’s breakout success was Huang’s Novena open source laptop. The device features a custom built motherboard that Huang and collaborator Sean “xobs” Cross created themselves. The two released the designs so that anyone can see how it works and make sure that it hasn’t been designed with government back doors in it. The pair also built the rest of the machine out of other open source hardware wherever possible.

The project garnered significant press coverage, and helped attract more privacy-centric products to the company’s stable, including the USB Armory computer and another open source laptop called the Librem 15.

The Novena campaign was a big success, fetching more than $782,525. But Huang was reluctant to crowdfund the project at first. After he and Cross published photos of the Novena, many people started asking them to start a Kickstarter to make the machines available to a wider audience. But Huang resisted. As the founder of defunct hardware company Chumby, new how much work manufacturing and selling a physical product actually is.

But he changed his mind after Lifton called him out of the blue to ask him to offer the laptop through Crowd Supply. Huang was persuaded by the offer to handle fulfillment, which is a massive amount of work for a solo-entrepreneur to handle, and by the incredibly cheap UPS rate the company thanks to it being able to share an account with Doctor’s other e-commerce companies. “It sounded too good to be true,” he says. “But everything they said they would do they followed through on, which is rare.”

In the Niche

The Novena is a niche device. The fully assembled laptop cost about $2,000. That’s what you’d expect to pay for a Macbook Pro even though the Novena’s computing power is more inline with a high-end smart phone.

But there was enough demand for a hackable, open laptop that Huang and Cross were able to raise more than three times its goal of $250,000. And, as promised, the laptops are now shipping, though Huang and Portland based designer Kurt Mottweiler are still finishing up the hand carved version.

The Novena may not be the next Dell, but that’s not the point. The point is that Huang and company were able to fill a niche and, in so doing, prove that you can too. “A small group of dedicated people can do it,” Lifton says. “You don’t need a big company.” And that’s what crowdfunding is all about.

The Internet of Anything: How To Build Mobile Apps For All Your Gadgets

Michael Karliner is a maker. He’s always working on something—like the remote control for his car, or his wireless doorbell.

Thanks to a new wave of DIY technologies, including the dirt cheap Raspberry Pi computer and the open source Arduino circuit board, building gadgets is easier than ever—and more affordable. But Karliner says there’s one task that’s still too difficult: building the digital interfaces that let you control those gadgets.

“User interfaces are hard,” he says. “You can do an awful lot in a few hundred lines of code on a Raspberry Pi. But then you’re stuck with: ‘How do I actually use this’?”

Yes, there are a few online tools that help you build mobile apps that can talk to your gadgets. But Karliner didn’t like the idea of sharing his data some company. So, in classic hacker fashion, he built his own tool that can ease the process. And you can use it too.

It’s called ThingStudio. It helps you create mobile apps that control devices across the so-called Internet of Things. With it, you add new interface doohickies to your app—such as buttons, sliders, and progress bars—with only a few lines of code. And as you add new objects, they appear on the screen in real-time so that you can see how your changes effect the overall design.

Karliner hopes this toolkit will help DIYers created gadgets that are easier to use—and that respect people’s privacy. And for large companies and other organizations that hold sensitive information—such as hospitals—it may help connect equipment to networks without exposing data to a third party.

Keep It Local

ThingStudio is an online services, so that users can access it from anywhere without needing to run web servers in their homes. But it doesn’t actually collect any of your data.

All the communications between your phone running a ThingStudio app and a connected device—a doorbell, for example—are handled directly. You just plug your credentials into the app, and it handles all the communications locally.

Karliner says the next version won’t even store your credentials in the cloud so that there’s no way that ThingStudio could access your data. Later versions may even include the ability to run completely locally with no need to connect to the ThingStudio cloud, but for now, the hosted model provides an easy way for Karliner to charge for the commercial version of the product.

Internet Air Conditioners

This isn’t the first time Karliner has built something like this. Although he’s best known for his time as the former CTO of music recognition service Shazam, he used to run a software company called Alex Technologies that created interfaces for industrial control systems.

“In 1990, just when Windows 3.0 came out, there were a legacy of green screens,” he says, referring to the old text-based interfaces of the mainframe era. so, at Alex, he created software that could help these old mainframe applications communicate with graphical applications. And he thinks that these old industrial systems might be the best market for ThingStudio.

“An awful loot of Internet of Things stuff are solutions looking for a problem,” he says. “But an industrial air conditioner should be on the Internet of Things, so that it can sense when it’s using too much energy before it blows out a sensor or something.”

The Bridge

Sure, there are many companies already selling connected devices and services to industrial companies today, and building automation solutions have been around for quite some time, but Karliner says that selling to these types of companies requires a completely different mentality than most Silicon Valley startups are accustomed to. Karliner, with one foot in the modern web and one foot in old school industrial technology, might be just the person to bridge those worlds.

On the other hand, he thinks ThingStudio could also be useful to small time makers trying to bring their inventions to market through crowdfunding sites. “This is a self-funded startup,” he says. “We don’t have a VC breathing down our necks demanding an aggressive business plan. We can clearly see a number of target markets, and we can also envision clear business models for each of them. What we don’t know is exactly which ones will take off.”

However ThingStudio ends up making money, he says that it will always be free for hobbyists and artists. After all, the project was born of his own needs as a maker.

Nintendo Needs to Deflate the Amiibo Bubble—Now

Nintendo has utterly lost control of Amiibos. Somehow, it’s got to get it back.

On Wednesday, Nintendo had a livestreamed web presentation to announce a variety of games and products it will release in 2015. The presentation was festooned with Amiibos of all shapes and sizes. And why shouldn’t it be? The plastic figurines of Nintendo’s popular characters like Mario and Princess Zelda, which interact with Wii U and 3DS games in a variety of ways, have been a huge hit since their launch in November. Of the millions of figures that Nintendo has sold, 63 percent of them were sold in North America.

But even those millions have not been enough. Nintendo vastly underestimated the demand for Amiibo figures, and the extreme scarcity of some of them has created a vicious cycle: Knowing that the figures will disappear from shelves instantly, and that they may never be replaced after the first shipment, fans have begun purchasing the figures the instant they go on sale. They disappear within minutes. Missed the window? Get ready to shell out 300 to 400 percent of retail on eBay, if you’re lucky.

Some observers, recalling crazes like Beanie Babies and baseball cards, see a collectibles bubble that’s about to burst, leaving many disappointed speculators in its wake. If that happens, no one will feel bad for them. But what Nintendo has not been able to do at this point is to figure out a pathway by which fans, who just want Amiibos so they can use them in their gameplay, can acquire them. And that’s an unnerving thought.

The decision that got Nintendo into this mess is creating many, many different varieties of Amiibo in an abbreviated time window. To wit, it is producing one Amiibo for each of the fighting game’s 50 playable characters. Asking retailers to keep 50 individual figures on shelves appears to have been a non-starter, let alone actually manufacturing that wide variety of figures on a rolling basis, so Nintendo’s plan was to bring them out in waves, permanently replacing sold-out figures with totally different figures.

This would have worked perfectly had demand for Amiibo matched up, more or less, with the number of each figurine that Nintendo produced. What actually happened was that demand vastly outstripped supply—and Nintendo then said it had no plans to replenish the sold-out Amiibos. This had two immediate results: Secondary market prices for sold-out Amiibos skyrocketed, and fans (and resellers) resolved to pre-order the next wave of Amiibos as soon as humanly possible.

This has resulted in the sort of scenes we’ve seen play out this week, as the fourth wave of Amiibos becomes available for pre-order. Toys ‘R’ Us told Polygon that it would post up preorders for the new Amiibos, including one that is exclusive to Toys ‘R’ Us, at some point between 7 and 9 a.m. Eastern time on April 3. Instead, preorders went up at 3 a.m. Eastern and were sold out in a matter of minutes.

While the same scene plays out day after day, Nintendo’s public statements—when the famously reticent company actually makes them—fall on the scale between “oblivious” and “tone-deaf.” Here are the first few responses when it put up a blithe tweet about Amiibos Friday morning:

easter amiibo Screenshot: WIRED

Nintendo spent much of that Wednesday livestream discussing new Amiibo characters, without so much as a nod to the extreme difficulty that fans face in acquiring them.

The closest it came was when it discussed the 3DS game Code Name: STEAM, which uses certain Amiibo figures. “If you weren’t able to get a hold of a Marth Amiibo, don’t worry,” said Nintendo’s Bill Trinen. “We’ll be releasing more Marth Amiibo in May. So stay in the loop, and don’t miss your second chance.”

Asking would-be Amiibo buyers to “stay in the loop” and not miss out is putting the burden on the wrong side of the transaction. Or at least, it’s only half of the solution.

If Nintendo is serious about getting this rare figure (which sells for upwards of $100 today) into more hands, here is what it can do: Sell the entire new batch exclusively through its own direct retail site; give buyers plenty of notice about when it will be available; make sure said availability time is in a convenient window and not in the middle of a work or school day; sell them at precisely said time; and rigorously enforce a one-per-customer rule, scanning through transactions and canceling any attempts at fraud.

If instead Nintendo simply sends retailers a few more Marth figures and the retailers sell them to whichever eBay flippers are online at 2 in the morning on a Thursday, it won’t have mattered how “in the loop” fans were.

Deflating the Bubble

Nintendo could take steps to alleviate fans’ anger in the short term. In the long term, it needs to avoid Amiibo burnout.

The NPR podcast Planet Money recently did an episode on the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering . The show explained how publisher Wizards of the Coast saw a bubble forming, but instead of exploiting it in the short term like the Ty company did with Beanie Babies, it actively worked to gradually deflate the bubble, thereby turning Magic into a sustainable business.

It didn’t exploit fans’ obsessions with getting extremely rare cards. In fact, it worked to make those cards less valuable from a gameplay perspective, and to print many, many more of the new cards it was creating. It was also very up front about these tactics, in an effort to get speculators to stay out of the market and not buy up all of the packages before players could get there.

If there’s a ray of hope in the Amiibo situation now, it’s that Nintendo may in fact be taking this tack in the future. There are Amiibos for the upcoming game Splatoon, but only three of them. Ditto Yoshi’s Woolly World, which has three differently-colored plush Yoshi Amiibos that have the same effect on the game, and are just cosmetically different.

Additionally, as some of the commenters on that Planet Money episode point out, there’s a difference between Magic: The Gathering cards and Beanie Babies. As you collect Beanie Babies, the extra value or joy you get from each additional purchase diminishes significantly. But Magic players can derive more value from each additional card, since it enhances their ability to play the game.

Amiibos need to be more like Magic cards, less like Beanie Babies. In addition to whittling down the varieties of Amiibo into a list that’s more easily supplied to anyone who wants one, Nintendo also needs to be sure that tapping an Amiibo to your game controller unlocks a significant gameplay improvement.

If that is the case, then even those players that burn out on Amiibo—and they are increasing in number, after this week’s shenanigans—might find themselves buying more of the figures, further on down the road, if the benefits to owning them are exceptional.

The question now is, is Nintendo going to be nimble enough to pull that off?

On John Oliver, Edward Snowden Says Keep Taking Dick Pics

John Oliver is worried that you don’t care about government surveillance because you have no idea what it is. After doing an informal poll of passersby in Times Square, who for the most part had no idea who whistle-blower Edward Snowden was or what it was he leaked, Oliver said Sunday, “It seems like we’ve kind of forgotten to have a debate over what Snowden leaked.”

The best person to explain why surveillance should upset the American people, John Oliver reasoned, is “the most famous hero and/or traitor in recent American history” Edward Snowden himself. So Oliver and crew traveled to Russia to sit down with him.

Before the interview, Oliver used his introduction to prime viewers using his patented random analogies (he likened Julian Assange—the creator of Wikileaks—to a “sandwich bag full of biscuit dough wearing a Stevie Nicks wig) and plain-spoken approach to explain government surveillance and why it matters. And matters now. The Patriot Act is up for reauthorization on June 1, and John Oliver doesn’t want you to forget it.

Specifically, one part of the Patriot Act that is expiring is called Section 215. It is what gives the government the authority ask companies to hand over “any tangible things” that pertain to terrorism.

“Which is basically a blank check,” Oliver said last night. “It’s like letting a teenager borrow the car on the strict condition that they only use it for car-related activities. ‘OK, Mom and Dad, I’m gonna use this for a handjob in the Wendy’s parking lot, but that is car-related, so I think I’m covered.'”

Oliver acknowledged in his introduction that not all Americans view Snowden as a hero; many consider him a traitor who should return to face charges. “Look, you can think that Snowden did the wrong thing or did it in the wrong way but the fact is, we have this information now and we no longer have the luxury of pleading ignorance. It’s like you can’t go to Sea World and pretend that Shamu’s happy anymore when we now know that at least half the water in her tank is whale tears.”

In the above video, Oliver asks Snowden hard-hitting questions like, “do you miss hot pockets?”

“Yes, I miss hot pockets very much,” Snowden says.

The most painful part of the above interview comes when Oliver forces Snowden to watch the footage from Times Square of Americans not knowing who he is or what he did. Snowden’s face as he watches registers amusement, surprise, and then frank horror. “I’m in charge of Wikileaks,” he says, incredulously. Oliver turns the color of a beefsteak tomato and then proclaims, “Not ideal. I guess, on the plus side, you might be able to go home because it seems like no one knows who the fuck you are or what the fuck you did.”

“I did this to give the American people the chance to decide for themselves the kind of government they want to have,” Snowden says.

When Oliver shows Snowden evidence that all typical Americans care about is whether the government can see our “dick pics,” he encourages Snowden to go through a list of every government surveillance program and explain its capabilities in terms of access to “dick pics.”

“The good news is, there is no [government] program named The Dick Pic Program,” says Snowden. “The bad news is they are still collecting everybody’s information, including your dick pics.”

Then Oliver hands Snowden a picture of his penis.

“So, 702 Surveillance [Act]—can they see my dick?” Oliver asks.

“Yes, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which section 702 falls under, allows the bulk collection of internet data that are one-end foreign…”

“Bulk collection—now we’re talking about my dick,” Oliver says.

Do you care now, America?

“I guess I never thought about putting it into context of your junk before,” Snowden concludes.

Paul Rand, the Visionary Who Showed Us That Design Matters

Coronet Brandy magazine advertisement, 1946 Coronet Brandy magazine advertisement, 1946 Courtesy of Museum of City of NY, Private Collection

In 1986, Steve Jobs was a guy trying to launch a start-up. Having been ousted from Apple the year before, he and a small band of employees were in the early stages of building a new computer company called Next. Jobs had invested millions in the venture, and his reputation as a visionary business leader was staked on its success. The group was still working out key details about its products. But Jobs was certain about one thing: He needed a logo from Paul Rand.

Perhaps more than any other single designer, Paul Rand was responsible for defining visual culture in America in the decades following World War II. He radically transformed advertising, blowing away the dust of the Depression era and pioneering a new, modern approach to selling products. He helped convince some of nation’s biggest corporations that good design was good business, crafting indelible logos for the likes of IBM, UPS, and ABC.

Everything Is Design, an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York on display through July, collects over a hundred examples of Rand’s work, including magazine spreads, book covers, and product packages in addition to advertisements and logos. In every form, the work reflects Rand’s conception of good design, one which seems utterly obvious today but was largely foreign—at least in America—before Rand demonstrated it so convincingly. It was a simple idea: Graphic design can, and should, be both beautiful and functional.

A New Type of Ad Man

Born in Brooklyn in 1914, Rand was creative from a young age. He studied art at Pratt Institute in Manhattan and practiced drawing constantly. One of his first jobs was laying out product spreads for Apparel Arts, a popular men’s fashion magazine owned by Esquire. Soon after that he started doing magazine covers. His work was instantly noticed. By his early 20s, Rand was considered one of the most important designers of his generation.

Rand's cover for Jazzways magazine. Note the shadows that give the simple composition an engaging depth. Rand’s cover for Jazzways magazine. Note the shadows that give the simple composition an engaging depth. Courtesy of Museum of City of NY/Private CollectionAs art director and critic Steven Heller points out in his definitive monograph on the designer, Rand was one of the first American graphic designers to look to Europe for inspiration. As a student, he became obsessed with commercial arts journals from Britain and Germany, which featured cutting-edge work by graphic designers like A.M. Cassandre. Rand became a devotee of Swiss Expressionist Paul Klee. He absorbed new typographic theory from Switzerland and drank in the Modernist thinking on form and function coming out of the Bauhaus in Germany. These influences reflected in his work, which variously used—and often combined—collage, montage, hand-lettering, drawing and photography to bracing effect.

In 1941, at the age of 27, Rand was named chief art director of the newly-formed ad agency William H. Weintraub & Co. American advertising at the time had changed little since the late 19th Century, especially in terms of how the ads were conceived.

“Before Paul Rand, the copywriter was the lead,” says Donald Albrecht, the curator of the new exhibition. The copywriter would supply the words—often times a great many of them—and the words would dictate the layout of the ad, often drawn from one of several templates or formats. The visuals would be filled in later by commercial artists, who typically just illustrated whatever the copy was describing. Creativity was in short supply.

Inspired by the bold graphic work being done in Europe, Rand brought a radically different approach to the job. As he saw it, an ad’s effectiveness lay in the way words and images were combined on the page. “Rand’s ads have words and pictures, but they’re all fused into one symbol,” Albrecht says. Rand introduced a crucial new ingredient into commercial art: form. By paring down copy and breathing white space into his compositions, Rand made his advertisements stand out from the dense copy surrounding them. He embraced wit and humor, developing friendly hand-drawn characters for spirit-maker Dubbonet and the cigar company El Producto. He used bold, arresting colors. He signed every one of his creations. “He thought he was bringing art to advertising,” Albrecht says.

This Jacqueline Cochran ad from the early '40s shows Rand's approach to combining image and text. This Jacqueline Cochran ad from the early ’40s shows Rand’s approach to combining image and text. Courtesy of Museum of City of NY/Steven Heller

Across the industry, Rand helped initiate a crucial shift in creative power from copywriters to art directors. He laid the groundwork for the so-called Creative Revolution the industry enjoyed in the 1960s. As one of his contemporaries later put it, Rand “brought ideas and intelligence to advertising where before him there was no semblance of thought.”

In 1947, Rand published his first book, Thoughts on Design. It would remain influential for decades, making the case for the essential relationship between how something looked and what it accomplished. A good piece of commercial art had to be both beautiful and persuasive, Rand argued. As Heller notes, Rand “valued both aesthetic perfection and clear communication.” For Rand, advertising wasn’t a dirty job. It was a chance to instill a bit of beauty into peoples’ lives—just so long as that beauty was in service of selling the product.

Rand’s reputation continued to grow. An ad that ran in the The New York Times in 1953 gives some sense of his stature. “Wanted: Art Director with a modern, creative touch. Need not be a Rand but must be able to inspire an art department.”

A New Look for Business

Rand’s experience as an ad man—his uncanny skill for marrying art and commerce—was the foundation for the next big phase in his career. By the mid-1950s, American corporations were taking notice of their counterparts in Europe, who in the previous few decades had embraced a cleaner, more unified approach to branding. Thomas Watson Jr., who had inherited the reins of IBM from his father, was especially envious of Olivetti, the stylish Italian typewriter company. Watson hired Elliot Noyes, a designer and curator for the Museum of Modern Art, to overhaul IBM’s design company-wide. One of Noyes’ first moves was to hire Paul Rand.

Rand’s influence at IBM was slow and gradual. He not only had to create a design system for the sprawling company but also convince the designers at its many outposts to adhere to that system. He worked on packaging, on showrooms, on interiors for the company’s offices. “The other thing he does is introduces all of these bright colors,” Albrecht says. “In the exhibition we have carbon paper boxes that are pink and brown. And that gives the company a very colorful, hip appearance…All of this is meant to make the company more personable.”

Rand thought the striped IBM logotype gave the name visual rhythm and a less monolithic appearance. Rand thought the striped IBM logotype gave the name visual rhythm and a less monolithic appearance. Courtesy of Museum of City of NY/Display

Rand’s most enduring contribution to IBM came in 1962, when he introduced the slated IBM logo still in use today. Rand had been chewing on the problem for years, and the horizontal stripes of the final design solved two problems. Aesthetically, they unified the letters, whose disparate shapes Rand thought made for an awkward visual rhythm. The stripes also had the effect of making the company name feel lighter and less monolithic—something useful to a multinational giant whose products loomed over the business world.

Rand's logo for Next. Rand’s logo for Next.Identities and logos for Westinghouse, UPS, ABC and others followed. Rand’s work for these companies helped show the business the value of identity systems and consistent branding—again, something that’s completely obvious today.

Where can we see Rand’s influence today? “You see it in what Apple does,” Albrecht says. “You see it in the idea that design is an important part of your business plan. That design is not something you add on but is part and parcel of your business. That it’s good for business. And that it’s not just window dressing.”

Rand was 72 when he designed the logo for Next. He billed Jobs $100,000. In return, he produced a single, finished logo, along with an elaborate book explaining the rationale behind it. Jobs was delighted with the work.

Behind the Scenes with #maketechhuman Luminaries

Behind the Scenes with #maketechhuman Luminaries

How China Is Screwing Over Its Poisoned Factory Workers

The gate to “Foxconn City” in northern Shenzhen. The gate to “Foxconn City” in northern Shenzhen. Sim Chi Yin/VII

Long Li didn't ask what was in it. All she knew was that she was supposed to use it to clean cell phone screens, hundreds of them every hour. Fumes filled the air in the windowless room where she worked, in a three-story factory outside the southeastern China city of Dongguan.

Long, the 18-year-old daughter of peasant farmers from Guizhou, was supposed to dip her rubber-gloved right index finger into the oil and then rub each screen for 10 to 20 seconds. The company—Fangtai Huawei Electronic Technology—gave Long and her coworkers paper masks, but they rarely used them. They were too hot, and anyway the women who worked there often exhaled onto the screens because the condensed moisture from their breath made cleaning easier. Long worked from 8 am until 11 pm, and as late as 4 am in the busy season.

She didn't complain. Long had fallen onto a kerosene lamp when she was 1 year old and burned her face; her father told her she had to be extra cheerful to make up for the scarring. Long had hoped to be a teacher for blind and deaf children, to help them through their own disabilities, but, tired of watching her parents labor in the field day after day, Long left for the city in the winter of 2011. At Fangtai Huawei, with overtime she could earn as much as 3,000 yuan (about $485) a month to help her family.

Long moved to Dongguan when the working conditions of Chinese tech laborers had become an international issue. Suicides in 2010 at a factory owned by Foxconn Technology Group—a supplier for Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, and other transnational companies—sparked investigations that found laborers were working long hours for insufficient pay and living in substandard housing. In response, in March 2012 Foxconn pledged to make things right. Apple and Samsung publicly investigated their Chinese supply chains and promised to hold contractors to Western health and safety standards.

But if working conditions were improving at Chinese factories, Long did not see it. Soon after she began working at Fangtai Huawei, her fingertips started tingling. After a few months, her feet and hands were numb. Long couldn't hold the screens properly. Her coworkers started getting sick too—Zi Renchun, a 25-year-old from Yunnan province, lost her appetite. Shang Jiaojiao, who had begun working at age 14, had joint pain and eventually could barely lift herself out of bed. By summer, some of the workers were collapsing.

I saw my son, but it was not my son. He was in a coma, his face was swollen, his eyes shut. It was like my soul escaped from my body.

In mid-July, Long found herself unable to move her legs. “I was just lying on my bed all day and needed help to eat,” she says. Long ended up in a hospital in Guangzhou with more than 30 other Fangtai Huawei workers. Doctors found they'd been exposed to n-hexane, presumably in the “banana oil.” It's an industrial solvent that causes neurological damage at just 50 parts per million. Workers using it are supposed to wear respirators and operate in a ventilated area. As treatment, Long endured daily injections—she says they “hurt more than anything else in the world.” We interviewed her in a hotel a few blocks from the hospital; officials there wouldn't answer our questions or allow us to see her on the premises. Long still tries to stay cheerful. “When I cry,” she says, “I cry secretly.”

Even after the reforms triggered by the Foxconn scandal, thousands of people like Long arrive young and healthy in China's cities every year only to face the health consequences of working for factories with inadequate labor safeguards. Nobody really knows how many are injured or get sick; official Chinese government statistics put the workplace injury rate at 115 per 10,000 workers—slightly higher than the US and significantly higher than the European Union. But few observers trust China's numbers. The government underreports occupational injuries, and one survey found that as many as seven out of 10 migrant workers, who make up a third of the workforce, don't participate in China's workers' compensation system.

Over the past two years we have interviewed multiple experts and 70 workers at 15 Chinese factories. Our investigation suggests that while some Chinese companies raised wages and reduced working hours, other problems with workplace health and safety remain unresolved. In many cases, companies have merely pushed the problems outward from their own factories to contractors and subcontractors, where compliance is more difficult to enforce. The underlying dynamic has not changed: Squeezed by global brands to produce ever-cheaper high tech products, Chinese factories continue to cut corners on safety.

But the problems don't end in the factories. Changes to China's workers' compensation system require companies to pay into a fund and then pay a portion of an injured worker's salary, living expenses, and medical care. So companies now have a motive to deny that workers were injured on the job. Government corruption and interference cause further delays and setbacks for patients, who are often left struggling to pay for treatment out of pocket for years or are trapped in lengthy legal fights. Many Chinese factories are still unsafe, and a tangled health care system prevents workers from getting help. Put simply, China's tech-factory workers are getting red-taped to death.

According to the China Labor Support Network, more than a quarter of the labor force in China is at risk of occupational poisoning. According to the China Labor Support Network, more than a quarter of the labor force in China is at risk of occupational poisoning. Sim Chi Yin/VII

During the Foxconn scandal, analysts connected unsafe conditions to the demand for cheap devices in the West. “A huge issue is how companies walk the line between trying to get the best financial performance and also achieving high safety standards,” says Kate Cacciatore, former corporate responsibility director at STMicroelectronics. “There is a constant pressure on companies to cut costs, and that pressure works itself down the supply chain.”

Cacciatore is a former board member of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, a group of 105 electronics companies formed in 2004 in response to criticism of conditions at contract manufacturers. Their code of conduct requires that member companies monitor and control chemical exposure and other risks. But the EICC doesn't set specific numeric standards, instead deferring to local laws. That's quite a loophole. Member companies complete a self-assessment to identify the greatest areas of hazard and, to complete admission, the EICC assigns an auditor. The group has never expelled a member for failing to live up to its code. Also, EICC standards apply only to suppliers that represent 80 percent of a company's total spending. That's most likely the first tier of contractors in the supply chain—companies that make or assemble components for member companies—or the second- or third-tier suppliers, contractors to the contractors. Companies further down the line aren't monitored.

Even figuring out who those companies are turns out to be problematic. Four workers at Fangtai Huawei said they worked on products for Nokia, Samsung, and Chinese electronics giant TCL during their time at the factory. Long claims she worked on Apple products. Other workers said they physically delivered products to companies that supply Apple, Samsung, TCL, and Microsoft.

But did the company actually make products for those big-name clients? Fangtai Huawei representatives denied requests for an interview. The Chinese technology industry is rife with counterfeits and copyright violations; it's possible the workers at Fangtai Huawei saw logos on fakes. Interrelationships along the supply chain in China are byzantine.

In theory, workers compensation law protects Chinese employees, but in practice, abuses prevail.

Considering Apple's reputation for precise control of its supply chain, it's nearly impossible to imagine the company doesn't know who makes the screens for its flagship product. Chris Gaither, Apple's director of corporate public relations, says the company scoured its contractor database and found no mention of Fangtai Huawei. Apple also queried Foxconn, and the manufacturing giant denied having any business with Fangtai Huawei. Samsung representatives said the company has “no relationship” with the manufacturer. Microsoft acquired Nokia's cell phone division in 2014, but a spokesperson at Microsoft referred our questions to Nokia, and Nokia's spokesperson said the company had not been a supplier since 2004. TCL didn't respond to our request for comment. But Fangtai was making screens for someone.

Apple is particularly sensitive to claims of neglect. The company surpasses EICC standards and has an updated code of conduct and a 100-page list of work requirements for suppliers deep into the supply chain. The Apple Supplier Environment, Health, and Safety Academy, an 18-month program with over 150 hours of training, teaches managers proper risk management and safety standards. And the company performed 633 audits at facilities worldwide in 2014, nearly three times as many as in 2011.

Still, Apple's own reports show that 30 percent of its suppliers don't comply with the company's own safety standards and 18 percent fail to comply with standards on hazardous chemical exposure. In fact, the company finds some level of noncompliance in every annual report. But Apple says that's just evidence that the process works—that the company helps its suppliers resolve every violation. “People sometimes point to the discovery of problems as evidence that our process isn't working,” wrote Apple's senior vice president of operations, Jeff Williams, on the company's supplier responsibility website in February. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Other investigations have found serious issues with suppliers in China. China Labor Watch, a nonprofit with bases in New York, Sichuan, and Shenzhen, interviewed workers and sent undercover operatives into 14 Apple suppliers in China in 2012 and 2013. Despite Apple's commitment to provide at least 24 hours of safety training, CLW found workers had eight hours at most, and often less. In late 2013, CLW discovered that at least five workers had died at the Shanghai factory of Pegatron, a Taiwan-based supplier producing the iPhone 5c, though CLW couldn't link the deaths to working conditions. Pegatron eventually said it would investigate, though when we asked for the results the company declined to comment. Apple policy is to respond to all specific allegations, and in this case, after sending its own team to the factory, Apple said it found “no evidence of any link to working conditions.” Last summer, reports said that Pegatron would be a supplier of the iPhone 6, producing 30 percent of the phones, with Foxconn producing the rest, and that Pegatron would expand its workforce at one factory by a third to fill the orders.

In 2012, CLW investigated 11 Samsung factories, six of which were majority-owned by the company. While the group found labor violations at all of them, the problems were particularly egregious at some independent suppliers—no safety training, no masks for workers in contact with fumes. Samsung told us that “corrective measures have already been taken” but didn't offer specifics.


Maintaining humane working conditions requires codes that regulate everything from injury prevention measures to dorms and dining facilities. But when HP, Apple, and Samsung— the top three makers of information and communications hardware—conducted audits of their factories, they found plenty of room for improvement.—VICTORIA TANG Maintaining humane working conditions requires codes that regulate everything from injury prevention measures to dorms and dining facilities. But when HP, Apple, and Samsung— the top three makers of information and communications hardware—conducted audits of their factories, they found plenty of room for improvement.—VICTORIA TANG

Ming Gaosheng leads the way down a trash-strewn alley in Shenzhen. Together we climb four flights of stairs to a tiny apartment, where Ming's son Kunpeng pokes his head out of his room. He's stick-thin, wearing red athletic shorts. Green tubes run from his nose to an oxygen tank. Removing them, he sits down on a wooden bed frame in the kitchen, every once in a while interrupting himself with a phlegmy cough. His story is about more than just working conditions. It's about health care for people who get sick or hurt on the job.

In 2007, when he was 20 years old, Ming Kunpeng began working at a factory then owned by Dutch company ASM International—a leading manufacturer of assembly equipment for computer chips, phones, and tablets. For two years, Ming cleaned motherboards with chemicals including benzene, a sweet-smelling and particularly effective industrial solvent and degreaser. It is also a carcinogen. Where people still use it, the International Labour Organization recommends wearing helmets with a face piece blowing clean air and gloves made of Viton, an expensive heat- and chemical-resistant fluoroelastomer. Ming Kunpeng says he was given only masks and standard gloves.

In 2009 he was diagnosed with leukemia from benzene exposure, according to medical records. But as recently as 2013, changes to China's health care system continued to make health care untenable for him—and many others with work-related problems. When the family asked ASM for compensation, the company refused to pay, disputing the cause. They fought for a year, while Ming waited for a bone marrow transplant. In desperation, his family says, they agreed to a onetime settlement in return for dropping their case. Ming got the transplant, but his lung collapsed a few months later, leading to an almost permanent need for an oxygen tank. In 2011 he was hospitalized full-time. The family moved from their village in Hubei province to be nearby. “We don't dare expect anything else from the factory,” his father says. “The company gave us a sum of money, and now our relation is no more.” (For its part, a spokesperson for ASM denied that the chemicals Ming was exposed to included benzene.)

Though the family had his medical bills reimbursed by the government, they had to pay some costs out of pocket. Ming Kunpeng had his own room, but his brother's family slept together in a large bed in another room, and his parents slept in the kitchen. “Back home, we have our own land. We eat what we plant. Here it is so expensive,” Ming's father says.

A few months after we interviewed the family, Ming Kunpeng climbed to the roof of the hospital where he was receiving treatment and jumped, killing himself. His family told us he felt he had become a burden.

Before 1994, the Chinese government owned most of the country's factories and covered almost every citizen's medical costs. But as China has moved from a socialist economy to a partially privatized one, the “iron rice bowl” that covered health care from cradle to grave has given way to private insurance. To protect workers, the state requires all industrial companies to pay about 1 percent of each worker's salary into the Industrial Injury Insurance Fund, with about $16.2 billion in assets. The local government administers payments. When workers get injured, the fund is supposed to pay medical expenses, living expenses, and survivor benefits. Employers, furthermore, are supposed to continue paying the employee's full salary and, depending on the type and severity of the injury, might also have to pay a portion of medical bills.

In theory the law protects workers, but in practice, abuses gut it. That's the conclusion of Zhai Yujuan, a professor of labor law and social security at Shenzhen University. Zhai has studied occupational injury and workers' compensation in China for a decade and has written several books on the topic. In her estimation the system needs reform. “In some cases the companies just pay the 1 percent, but they don't want to pay for additional compensation,” Zhai says. Worse than that, by some estimates fully 75 percent of companies fail to pay into the insurance system at all. Technically, a nonpaying company is supposed to pay the salary and expenses for an injured worker—a responsibility it often tries to avoid. “It's a loophole in the system,” she says.

The catch for workers trying to claim compensation is that, by law, they need two documents: confirmation they worked at the specific factory and a diagnosis from a federally certified medical clinic that shows the injury was work-related. Getting both documents is an onerous process, even after the government reformed the system in 2012 to allow workers to get them at the same time instead of sequentially. Companies often block one or both, Zhai says, either denying workers the proof of employment or putting pressure on the hospitals to issue a less severe diagnosis (or to deny the injury or illness was work-related at all). “If you get leukemia, they will say it's tuberculosis,” Zhai says.

Workers from the countryside, whose villages might be hundreds of miles away, are required to stay in the city where they worked to continue to receive treatment from designated regional health clinics. Many opt to receive a onetime settlement from the company—frequently less than the cost of their medical bills—instead of fighting for the proper documentation and diagnoses, which can drag on interminably. “It can be like one or two years or up to 10 years. And because the process is so long, in the meantime you have to pay out of your own pocket,” Zhai says. Many leave. “They want to just get their big package of money and go home.”

Entire wards of Shenzhen hospitals are filled with patients injured on the job. Traumatic injuries are common—hands lost to factory machinery, for example—and victims face the same obstacles as people with chemical exposure. In one of the largest hospitals, People's Hospital Number 2, we meet a former equipment maintenance engineer named Zhang Tingzhen, an honors student and a champion athlete in his province, who in October 2011 fell while working at Foxconn's Shenzhen factory and suffered a brain injury.

When his father, Zhang Guangde, found out, he took the next train to Shenzhen. By the time he arrived, his son had already undergone two operations, one of which involved removing the left side of his brain. “I saw my son, but it was not my son,” Zhang says, talking to us in an apartment next door to the hospital that he and his wife share with six other families. “He was in a coma, and his face was swollen, and his eyes were shut. It was like my soul escaped from my body.”

After lunch, Zhang takes us across the yard to the hospital to visit Tingzhen. Dressed in a pair of striped pajamas, the young man sits on the side of the bed, smiling pleasantly and speaking in simple words and phrases; he has the mental capacity of a 3-year-old, and he only somewhat remembers his parents and sister.

When Zhang tried to get compensation for his son in 2012, Foxconn would not provide documentation that he worked at the factory. Instead, the company claimed he was hired in Shenzhen for a position in another factory, in the city of Huizhou, 60 miles away, where wages were lower and where Foxconn would be required to pay less compensation. The company refused to pay unless Zhang left Shenzhen and submitted to a government medical assessment in Huizhou. His father says his son is not able to travel.

Factory uniforms and young people's clothing hang on laundry racks in an apartment block rented out to migrant workers. Factory uniforms and young people’s clothing hang on laundry racks in an apartment block rented out to migrant workers. Sim Chi Yin/VII

That left the family in legal limbo—without occupational injury documentation, the government wouldn't pay. So Zhang Guangde started protesting—an extreme step in China, where labor activists are routinely harassed and jailed. Eventually Foxconn agreed to provide 11,000 yuan (about $1,800) a month. “The company has been very responsible in meeting and continuing to meet its obligations to Mr. Zhang,” Foxconn said in a statement, “including the provision of financial, medical, and rehabilitation care.” But Zhang says it wasn't enough, that the family has gone 30,000 yuan in debt paying for medicine and expenses, and that Foxconn's payments stopped after just five months.

After leaving the hospital, we drive a half hour north to Foxconn's enormous campus, employing over a half-million workers. The main gate is like a border crossing, with trucks lined up at tollbooths seeking entry and another line full of product waiting to depart. Thousands of people in polo shirts color-coded to the division where they work—black, red, white—stream through the pedestrian gates. In 2010 this factory produced a reported 137,000 iPhones a day. Today that number is likely much higher. We arrive at dinnertime; the smell of roasting meat rises from dozens of stalls outside the gate amid a bazaar of cheap electronics and clothing, catering to workers as they get off their shift.

Zhang finds a spot on an overpass to unfurl a large banner decrying Foxconn as “the empire of inhumane thugs.” Curious workers gather to watch. “My son used to be an engineer, now he cannot recognize a single Chinese character,” Zhang shouts. “This is the company you are working for. My son is now a vegetable in the hospital and cannot recognize anybody.” He seems small, dwarfed by the giant factory rising behind him. Still, a crowd of 50 or 60 people gathers, most of them workers from the factory itself. Some take pictures with their iPhones.

After Zhang's protests, Foxconn resumed payments, but he believes that the company wouldn't be paying him anything at all if he didn't keep it up—and he still hasn't been paid the full amount of his son's salary and monthly care costs. As we watch, one passing worker shouts back at him, “Foxconn creates jobs!”

“Yeah,” Zhang answers. “But they also kill people.”

Zhang eventually sued Foxconn, but in 2014 a court ruled that his son did indeed have to get assessed in Huizhou to receive compensation—and Foxconn offered Zhang a onetime settlement of 2 million yuan if he would agree to say that his son worked in Huizhou and to recant his criticisms of the company. Zhang declined.

IN MAY 2014, Samsung issued a rare public apology. In its plants in South Korea, the company acknowledged, 26 workers got leukemia and lymphoma after working with undisclosed chemicals, and 10 died.

Many major electronics companies use benzene, and even the ones that forbid it don't seem to be enforcing that rule with their suppliers. The same goes for n-hexane. In 2010, Nokia issued a public statement saying that “n-hexane is not used in the manufacturing process of our products or their components.”

Two weeks after we sent Apple a list of questions that included inquiries about benzene and n-hexane, the company issued a statement specifically banning these two chemicals. (Gaither, the spokesperson, said that the company had been working on the issue for months.) “Apple treats any allegations of unsafe working conditions extremely seriously,” the press release said, pointing to its own investigations of 22 suppliers from March through June 2014. Four had been using benzene or n-hexane “in low concentrations,” with no adverse effects on workers, Apple said. Since then, the company said, it has updated its “tight restrictions on benzene and n-hexane to explicitly prohibit their use”—but only “in final assembly processes,” meaning once again that smaller subcontractors would not be bound by the policy. Moreover, many of Apple's final assembly facilities didn't use those chemicals anyway.

The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition's code of conduct doesn't ban any particular chemicals, though the organization is considering it. Fundamentally, companies use these toxic chemicals because of cost. Safer alternatives exist, but they're more expensive, as are proper ventilation systems and training. “If someone is on a 12-hour shift, you'd need three sets of gloves. In factories with 40,000 or 50,000 workers, that would be very expensive,” says Garrett Brown, a former compliance officer with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health who has been investigating factories in China for more than a decade. “It makes much more sense to substitute a less-toxic chemical or use it in a way where there is near-zero exposure.”

Watch a trailer for coauthor Heather White’s documentary, Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics.

Whoever Fangtai Huawei builds components for, the factory has obviously fallen through a gap. The general manager of Fangtai Huawei refused to talk to us, but he told the Dongguan Times newspaper that the leukemia cases were “unexpected” since the company trained new employees on safety precautions. “We will try all means to save the workers and pay each of them a monthly salary of 2,300 yuan,” he said, adding that the factory would fully comply with government requirements. But the workers who got sick say no one told them the chemicals they were using were hazardous nor encouraged them to use even the meager safety equipment provided.

When they did get sick, they say, the company told several of them that the illnesses they were suffering from were an unrelated syndrome that had nothing to do with the working conditions at the factory. It was only when a critical mass of workers became ill that Fangtai Huawei took responsibility. The workers say the company provided them only with 2,300 yuan (about $370) a month, though most made more than that with overtime.

In the summer of 2013, after a year in the hospital, the workers got word that the company wanted them to sign a document stating that their rehabilitation was complete. “We almost died in that factory, and now they are telling us to leave,” Long Li says. Payments stopped arriving on time, and several of the workers staged a protest at the local labor bureau. Police arrested three of them, including Long. She spent the night in jail and while there texted: “I'm so scared. I want to kill myself.”

In February, Long finally went home to her family. The company continues to operate. Outside the factory in Dongguan is a deserted security booth with a paper in the window advertising jobs. “Only girls 18–35,” it reads. “Obedient to management. Able to take hardship.”

The Afflicted

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XIE FENGPING, 36. After working for five years at Huasheng Electric Motor, Xie was diagnosed with leukemia in late 2013. Her responsibilities at the workshop put her in direct contact with hazardous printing materials. A doctor linked the cancer to benzene exposure, which Huasheng disputed. But the Guangdong Prevention and Treatment Center for Occupational Diseases analyzed an ink sample from the company and found xylene, methylbenzene, and ethylbenzene. The company paid for her first stage of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant (donated by her sister). Unable to afford the rest of the treatment on her own, Xie borrowed money from friends. She says Huasheng paid 1,300 yuan (about $210) a month for medical costs until last December, but now she's fighting for a 40,000 yuan (about $6,500) reimbursement.

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LIN SUBI, 30 In a factory manufacturing imitation iPhones, Lin used n-hexane as a cleaner. A few months in, she had a pins-and-needles sensation in her limbs. A hospital diagnosed her with nerve damage and estimated that the treatment she needed would take about two years, with an average monthly medical cost of 8,000 yuan (about $1,300). The factory paid only part of her medical expenses and has not contributed to her cost of living or loss of working time. When she started her job, Lin didn't realize she was pregnant with her second child. After her doctor warned her of the possibility of deformities, Lin decided to get an abortion. “At that moment, all I thought was I wanted to end my life. I couldn't even, however, lift a finger to kill myself,” she says.

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HE, 20 He is recovering from organic-solvent poisoning. As a circuit board inspector in a small Shenzhen factory, she checked cell phone parts cleaned with an unknown chemical. “It smelled bad,” He recalls. “We just called it ‘circuit wash.’” The factory didn't require gloves. After about a month, she went to the hospital in September 2014 with a fever and rash. The Guangdong Prevention and Treatment Center for Occupational Diseases attributed her symptoms to working conditions. “I didn't know there were occupation-related diseases until I got sick,” He says. The factory paid only for her medical expenses at the center, not for prior costs. Fearing retaliation, He asked to be identified only by her last name.

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YAO, 38 Leaving her son in the care of her parents in Hubei, Yao moved to Shenzhen to work in a camera factory. Her duties mostly consisted of cleaning glass optics, painting a coating onto parts, and polishing lenses. They exposed her to chemicals for up to 10 hours a day. A series of air-quality tests of her work environment revealed the presence of trichloroethylene, n-hexane, benzene, methylbenzene, and xylene. In 2007 she began experiencing constant headaches. Following her doctor's advice, she stopped working in July 2013. Yao requested to be identified only by her last name.

Bill to Ban Undetectable 3-D Printed Guns Is Coming Back

Rep. Steve Israel speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 25, 2015. Rep. Steve Israel speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 25, 2015. Andrew Harnik/AP

Since Congressman Steve Israel first called for legislation that would ban 3-D printed guns, those plastic-printed firearms have evolved from a few simple components to a full one-shot pistol to rifles and multi-shot revolvers, with more advances on the horizon. Israel’s bill, meanwhile, has gone nowhere, leaving a widening gap between DIY weapons and the law.

But the representative from New York says he hasn’t given up: In the next few months, Israel’s office tells WIRED he plans to reintroduce legislation that would ban 3-D printed guns or any other fully-plastic firearm. The Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act, which Israel first tried and failed to pass last year, forbids the possession or manufacture of any gun that could slip through a standard metal detector unnoticed, including those that include a removable chunk of non-functional metal—what he sees as a loophole in the current law against plastic weapons.

“My legislation is about making sure that we have laws in place to ensure that criminals and terrorists can’t produce guns that can easily be made undetectable. Security checkpoints will do little good if criminals can produce plastic firearms and bring those firearms through metal detectors into secure areas like airports or courthouses,” Israel wrote in a statement to WIRED. “When I started talking about the issue of completely plastic firearms, I was told the idea of a plastic gun is science-fiction. That science-fiction is now a dangerous reality.”

Since Israel first began focusing on 3-D printed weapons as an issue, he has shifted from seeking to specifically forbid their printing to instead banning all undetectable weapons—an umbrella he intends to include 3-D printed ones. “What we’re trying to do is make it clear that if you choose to construct a weapon or weapon component using a 3-D printer, and it’s homemade, you’ll be subject to penalties,” Israel told me in early 2013. More recently he’s made clear that he doesn’t intend to target 3-D printing specifically: The bill he introduced at the end of 2013 never mentioned 3-D printing by name.

But Israel’s bill does seem designed to address weapons like the Liberator, a one-shot 3-D printed pistol whose digital blueprints were released by the gun access group Defense Distributed in 2013. The Liberator, as manufactured and demonstrated by Defense Distributed’s founder Cody Wilson, was technically detectable by a standard metal detector, because it included a chunk of steel in its body to comply with the current Undetectable Firearms Act. But that piece was entirely non-functional and could be removed at any time.

Like the bill he already introduced, the new one will require that crucial functional components be made of detectable metal. In rifles and shotguns, the combination of the slide, barrel and receiver would have to be as detectable as a 3.7-ounce piece of steel. In handguns, the same would be required of the gun’s cylinder and barrel. All of that would make a working, fully 3-D printed gun essentially impossible to legally produce.

The currently active Undetectable Firearms Act, by contrast, merely demands that the entire gun be as detectable as that 3.7 ounce chunk of steel. And while that law was renewed last year, Israel failed to push through his changes to it. That’s perhaps no surprise given congress’s general unwillingness to pass any gun control law. The renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act was the only gun control law passed last year. “Current law is completely inadequate, and though for my Republican colleagues it was easier to live with current law than to expand it, it is critical that we continue the national dialogue about undetectable fire arms,” Israel writes to WIRED.

The new bill would make a working, fully 3-D printed gun essentially impossible to legally produce.

What the congressman hasn’t addressed is how the bill might have better luck this time around. Congress, after all, has only become more Republican since the 2014 mid-term elections. When his Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act was introduced last time around, the legislation was co-sponsored by Republican Representative Peter King. Israel’s office wouldn’t comment on whether any Republican might co-sponsor the bill this time, and King’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But Israel may be thinking that the technological advancement of 3-D printed guns will push them back into the national conversation. Since he first began raising the issue, after all, home-printed firearms have taken leaps forward in accessibility, durability, and power. And Defense Distributed’s latest project seeks to develop a gun that can be 3-D printed in carbon fiber, a material that has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than aluminum. The result could be homemade, undetectable weapons that are far more practical than the original Liberator. A single real-world incident involving those potentially deadly weapons would bring them back into the spotlight.

But even Israel’s bill, it’s important to note, doesn’t deal with all the recent advancements in DIY gunsmithing. It wouldn’t prevent anyone from 3-D printing a lower receiver for their AR-15, for instance—the most regulated component of the semi-automatic weapon. Anyone could still print just that one piece and buy the rest of the weapon online legally. Defense Distributed’s latest project has been selling computer-controlled mills that carve those lower receivers out of aluminum, another way to obtain a semi-automatic weapon with no serial number that still wouldn’t violate Israel’s bill’s undetectability requirements.

Supporters of 3-D printing were initially wary of Israel’s bill, which in his initial statements appeared to be the first attempt to regulate the emerging technology. But the Congressman’s general focus on gun detectability rather than any particular manufacturing process is a better approach, says Michael Weinberg, a 3-D printing-focused analyst with the non-profit Public Knowledge who recently took a job as general counsel of the 3-D printing firm Shapeways. “What we didn’t want to happen was a situation where 3-D printing of guns explicitly was made illegal,” says Weinberg. “There are a lot of ways to make undetectable firearms, and if you focus on each one you’ll end up with pretty ineffective legislation.”

The NRA, not surprisingly, isn’t so supportive. “The NRA strongly opposes ANY expansion of the Undetectable Firearms Act, including applying the UFA to magazines, gun parts, or the development of new technologies,” reads a statement from the group’s website. “We will continue to aggressively fight any expansion of the UFA or any other proposal that would infringe on our Second Amendment rights.”

On the other side of the gun debate, however, gun control advocates’ support for the bill isn’t quite so unequivocal. The gun control group the Brady Campaign, for its part, says it agrees that homemade and 3-D printed guns represent a real issue. “As technology continues to advance and it becomes possible to make guns in homes and garages across the country, it creates a dangerous loophole for domestic abusers, felons and other criminals to make guns without any background checks and use them to harm others,” a spokesperson writes to WIRED. “Any gun made should not be able to slip through security checkpoints and certainly should not slip into the hands of dangerous people.”

But not every gun control group sees homemade or undetectable weapons as such a high priority. “The notion that a mass shooter or a street criminal is going to buy a 3-D printer, download blueprints, and try a few test runs before producing their own gun is very unlikely,” says Ladd Everitt, the communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “It’s a hassle, when you can just buy a gun with zero accountability in this country.”

Everitt says he sees the issue of undetectable 3-D printed guns as having less to do with run-of-the-mill gun violence than with the possibility of a terrorism threat, given the weapons’ potential to bypass both background checks and security checkpoints. “I would salute any legislator on Capitol Hill being forward-looking at thinking about how we can deal with this problem,” he says. “But in the overall universe of gun laws, this is not at the top of our list.”

Those sorts of comments from even gun control advocates suggest an uncertain outcome for Israel’s bill. The technological future of 3-D printed guns, meanwhile, looks brighter every day.