Amazon workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse strike in demand that the facility be shut down and cleaned after one staffer tested positive for the coronavirus on March 30, 2020 in New York.
Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images
The New York attorney general’s office has interviewed Amazon workers from a handful of facilities in the state, as claims of employee retaliation become a central focus of its investigation into the company’s labor practices, according to people familiar with the matter.
New York Attorney General Letitia James sent a letter to Amazon in April saying it was looking into whether the company violated federal employment law or broke the state’s whistleblower laws when it fired a worker who organized a strike at its Staten Island facility. The worker, Chris Smalls, led a protest calling for Amazon to close the warehouse and put in place greater safety protections, echoing warehouse workers’ concerns across the country.
The letter calls on Amazon to reinstate Smalls and asks it to turn over all internal communications dating back to Feb. 1 related to workers’ complaints, protests and efforts to organize.
In late March, James’ office began contacting Amazon workers from New York area warehouses. So far, it has spoken to workers from facilities in Staten Island, Queens and Bethpage, and is adding more facilities to its roster as it receives complaints, the people said.
The conversations have touched on Amazon’s safety practices during the coronavirus pandemic, including enforcement of social distancing rules, workers’ access to personal protective equipment and its documentation of positive coronavirus cases at facilities. By collecting this information, the office is looking to build a case of Amazon’s retaliatory practices against workers who spoke out about warehouse conditions, according to some of the people familiar with the matter.
The New York attorney general’s office declined to comment. Amazon did not respond to questions about the office’s investigation, but cited measures it has taken to protect workers’ health and safety, including temperature checks, testing, gloves, masks and extended pay and benefits. Amazon said it has always followed the guidance of public health agencies.
“We are saddened by the tragic impact COVID-19 has had on communities across the globe, including on some Amazon team members and their family and friends,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.
Amazon has fired at least six employees and written up four workers who were outspoken critics of the company’s labor practices or participated in protests. The company has previously disputed claims that it fired workers for speaking out, saying they were fired for violating internal policies.
James’ office has reached out to Amazon to substantiate some of the complaints it has received from workers. Up until recently, Amazon was not cooperating with the office’s requests for information, people familiar with the investigation said.
Other groups keep the pressure on
Other groups are also pressuring Amazon to release information about its New York facilities. Last week, three JFK8 workers filed a lawsuit against the company that said it made the Staten Island facility “a place of danger” by impeding efforts to stop the spread of the virus and prioritizing productivity over safety. Frank Kearl, a staff attorney with Make the Road New York, which joined several labor advocacy groups in filing the lawsuit on behalf of workers, said he wasn’t surprised Amazon hasn’t fully cooperated with the office’s investigation.
“Amazon’s entire system is built upon an iron fist of control over everything,” Kearl said. “They use that imbalance of information to their advantage when it comes to workers.”
Workers say they’ve been retaliated against for pushing for better safety protections at their facilities. Several employees allege they received written warnings after they participated in protests or confronted management with their concerns and filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Employees at Amazon’s Queens facility, one of the sites being investigated by James’ office, filed an NLRB complaint May 6 alleging the company retaliated against workers who attempted to organize. Amazon workers in Chicago, Pennsylvania, California, Indiana and Florida have also filed NLRB complaints accusing the company of similar tactics.
Smalls, the JFK8 worker, filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Health on March 21 that said employees were being put in danger as a result of insufficient cleaning and lax social distancing enforcement, among other things. He said he hopes James’ investigation results in the reinstatement of workers who were fired or disciplined for raising concerns.
“Amazon needs to be held accountable,” Smalls said. “We tried to do that and it didn’t happen. They didn’t protect us in the beginning of this pandemic.”
Pinterest is reportedly in talks to acquire VSCO
So what can Pinterest do to jump higher up the list of social networking sites? According to a report by the New York Times, one possibility is acquiring the owner of VSCO, the app for editing / sharing photos and videos that has brought in-depth tools to mobile users for years. Neither side directly confirmed the negotiations, and there’s no word on a possible price, but maybe combining forces can bring some Instagram-like glow.
As it is, Pinterest is still mostly known for planning and organizing, and as the NYT article points out, other than some recent acquisitions, VSCO is currently best known for the “VSCO girls” meme.
A sealed copy of ‘Super Mario Bros.’ just sold for $660,000
A nearly perfect copy of Super Mario Bros. for the NES has sold for $660,000 at auction. In what turned out to be a 13-bidder contest, $550,000 went to the game’s original owner. The copy was one of the earliest shrink-wrapped versions of the games you could buy in the US (Super Mario Bros. eventually had 11 different box variants, according to WATA Games).
Heritage Auctions, the firm that oversaw the sale, told Ars Technica it dates back to late 1986. It was reportedly bought as a Christmas gift and sat unopened in a desk drawer for the better part of four decades. “I never thought anything about it,” the seller, who asked to remain anonymous, told the auction house.
The $660,000 this copy of Super Mario Bros. sold for is crazy when you consider the Nintendo PlayStation, a one-of-a-kind prototype representing a unique piece of gaming history, sold for $360,000 at auction last year. More recently, someone paid $156,000 to buy a pristine copy of Super Mario Bros. 3. It makes you wonder how much the owner would have walked away with had they simultaneously tried to cash in on the NFT craze somehow.
‘Lost Tapes of the 27 Club’ used Google AI to ‘write’ a new Nirvana song
Were he still alive today, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain would be 52 years old. Every February 20th, on the day of his birthday, fans wonder what songs he would write if he hadn’t died of suicide nearly 30 years ago. While we’ll never know the answer to that question, an AI is attempting to fill the gap.
A mental health organization called Over the Bridge used Google’s Magenta AI and a generic neural network to examine more than two dozen songs by Nirvana to create a ‘new’ track from the band. “Drowned in the Sun” opens with reverb-soaked plucking before turning into an assault of distorted power chords. “I don’t care/I feel as one, drowned in the sun,” Nirvana tribute band frontman Eric Hogan sings in the chorus. In execution, it sounds not all that dissimilar from “You Know You’re Right,” one of the last songs Nirvana recorded before Cobain’s death in 1994.
Other than the voice of Hogan, everything you hear in the song was generated by the two AI programs Over the Bridge used. The organization first fed Magenta songs as MIDI files so that the software could learn the specific notes and harmonies that made the band’s tunes so iconic. Humorously, Cobain’s loose and aggressive guitar playing style gave Magenta some trouble, with the AI mostly outputting a wall of distortion instead of something akin to his signature melodies. “It was a lot of trial and error,” Over the Bridge board member Sean O’Connor told Rolling Stone. Once they had some musical and lyrical samples, the creative team picked the best bits to record. Most of the instrumentation you hear are MIDI tracks with different effects layered on top.
One thing neither AI gave direction on is how exactly Cobain would have sung the song. Outside of cadence and tone, Hogan had to interpret how the grunge star, who famously suffered from crippling stomach pain, would have channeled his anguish into the lyrics.
Over the Bridge isn’t the first group to use AI to emulate a dead artist. But the intent here is different from similar past projects. “Drowned in the Sun” is part of the organization’s Lost Tapes of the 27 Club initiative. They set out to record AI-generated songs by musicians who died at the age of 27 to raise awareness about mental health resources musicians, and people more generally, can turn to when they feel they need help. The Toronto-based non-profit has a Facebook page where it offers support. It also offers online sessions and workshops.
If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or over an online chat.
Microsoft’s online-only Build conference starts on May 25th
Spring is fully upon us, which means the calendar is starting to fill up with high-profile tech events. And the latest addition? Microsoft confirmed today that its online-only Build developer conference will run between May 25th and May 27th, though there’s still no word on when registration will open. (If last year is any indication, our money is on “the end of April.”)
“Microsoft Build is where developers, architects, start-ups, and students learn, connect, and code together, sharing knowledge and expanding their skillset, while exploring new ways of innovating for tomorrow,” the company’s events page explains.
Unfortunately, Microsoft has yet to update its Build-specific webpage with information about this year’s priorities or schedule, but we’re almost certainly looking at another packed event. Last year, Microsoft went on (among other things) about improved collaboration tools for its suite of Office productivity apps, an AI-focused supercomputer running on its Azure cloud platform, and new cloud tools designed specifically for healthcare practitioners.
Historically, spring and summer are been jam-packed with large, in-person events where app and software developers get their first glimpse at upcoming platform and strategy updates, attend workshops and code reviews, and generally mingle with their colleagues. Starting last year, though, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has forced companies that stage these events to rapidly rethink their approaches.
Some, like Microsoft and Apple, quickly pivoted to informative online-only affairs that include full days worth of sessions, demos and fireside chats. (For what it’s worth, Apple announced this week that its own Worldwide Developer Conference will also proceed as an online-only event from June 7-11.) Meanwhile, Google has not yet confirmed whether it plans to stage its Google I/O developer conference at all this year — the company cancelled the show entirely in 2020, but said last month that it does plan to host some version of its annual Google Cloud Next event this October.
Between a surge in COVID-19 vaccine production and news of relaxed restrictions for vaccinated travelers, Build 2021 may well be the last purely virtual developer conference Microsoft will ever need to put on. With any luck, devs will resume their pilgrimages to Seattle next year, and who knows — maybe those tiny emotional support horses from Build 2018 will show up again too.
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