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Instacart: Shop ‘Til You Drop

(Photo by Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Instacart’s demand has soared since coronavirus arrived. But the company is continuously changing how it offers work to shoppers, pitting them against one another as batches appear and are instantly claimed and rejecting their sick claims even after positive Covid-19 tests verified by a doctor. At The Verge, Russell Brandom reports on a dog-eat-dog gig system where Instacart is “just an interface, sitting between a pool of orders on one side and a pool of itinerant labor on the other.”

The problem is bigger than just masks and sick pay. The pandemic has turned grocery delivery into a vital service, and Instacart’s business has never been better. Orders are up 500 percent since the crisis started, and shoppers are seeing 60 percent more money for every job they run. Instacart hit profitability for the first time last month, and it plans to bring in 300,000 new full-service shoppers. It’s on track to process more than $35 billion in groceries this year, which would put it on par with the fifth-largest grocery chain in the country.

That success has come on the backs of workers like Rachel. As most of the country has been sheltering in place, workers have been spending hours in lines, hunting through chaotic and newly dangerous supermarkets so that clients don’t have to. Instacart still views those workers as independent contractors, and tensions between executives and gig shoppers have reached a breaking point. The company has already seen two public walkouts, each accompanied by the threat of a public boycott in solidarity. Most painfully, the longest-running shoppers say they’re being pushed out by the influx of new employees in a system designed to churn through bodies rather than protect frontline workers.

For shoppers, batches are the lifeblood of the job. Instacart sets prices for each batch, but they’re often so low that the runs don’t make economic sense. Small batches are often set at the $7 minimum or just above, which is practically nothing when you factor in waiting times and the price of gas. There are good batches, too, but they get snatched up quickly, while the bad ones linger on until they’re the only thing shoppers see. The result is a daily battle over who will get the most profitable batches and be able to make a living on the platform — a battle Instacart seems to be actively encouraging.

In other cases, the app seems purposefully designed to make workers vulnerable. Buyers promise a tip when they list a batch, but they can change it for days after the run is completed. It’s led to a practice shoppers call “tip-baiting,” where buyers list a big tip to make sure their batch gets taken, then pull it back after the fact. Instacart defends the system, saying it gives buyers discretion over how much they’re tipping. According to the company’s statistics, tips are only lowered after the run in 0.5 percent of cases — but the result is still less money in the pockets of gig workers, and it’s a structural vulnerability for people who are already extremely vulnerable.

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Among the Last in An Iron Lung

An iron lung sponsored by the March of Dimes helps a young boy with polio breath during the 1950s. (Photo by Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images)

Lawyer Paul Alexander contracted polio at age 6 in the summer of 1952. The disease left him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe without assistance, but it didn’t stop him from living his life. As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie reports at The Guardian, Paul, with help from a therapist who promised him a puppy, learned to breathe on his own for periods of time, giving him respite from his iron lung. Today, at age 74, after surviving a polio infection in an epidemic from a different time, coronavirus is a looming threat.

What Paul remembers most vividly about the ward is hearing the doctors talk about him when they walked through on their rounds. “He’s going to die today,” they said. “He shouldn’t be alive.” It made him furious. It made him want to live.

Paul told the therapist about the times he had been forced by doctors to try to breathe without the lung, how he had turned blue and passed out. He also told her about the time he had gulped and “swallowed” some air, almost like breathing. The technique had a technical name, “glossopharyngeal breathing”. You trap air in your mouth and throat cavity by flattening the tongue and opening the throat, as if you’re saying “ahh” for the doctor. With your mouth closed, the throat muscle pushes the air down past the vocal cords and into the lungs. Paul called it “frog-breathing”.

Sullivan made a deal with her patient. If he could frog-breathe without the iron lung for three minutes, she’d give him a puppy. It took Paul a year to learn to do it, but he got his puppy; he called her Ginger. And though he had to think about every breath, he got better at it. Once he could breathe reliably for long enough, he could get out of the lung for short periods of time, first out on the porch, and then into the yard.

Although he still needed to sleep in the iron lung every night – he couldn’t breathe when he was unconscious – Paul didn’t stop at the yard. At 21, he became the first person to graduate from a Dallas high school without physically attending a class. He got into Southern Methodist University in Dallas, after repeated rejections by the university administration, then into law school at the University of Texas at Austin. For decades, Paul was a lawyer in Dallas and Fort Worth, representing clients in court in a three-piece suit and a modified wheelchair that held his paralysed body upright.

Before the arrival of a vaccine in 1955, what made polio so terrifying was that there was no way of predicting who would walk away from an infection with a headache, and who would never walk again. In most cases, the disease had no discernible effect. Of the 30% or so who showed symptoms, most experienced only minor illness. But a small proportion, 4-5%, exhibited serious symptoms, including extreme muscular pain, high fever and delirium. As the virus hacked its way through the neural tissue of the spinal cord, a few of those infected were paralysed; this progression of the virus was known as paralytic polio. Roughly 5-10% of patients who caught paralytic polio died, although this number was far higher in the days before widespread use of the iron lung.

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Brené Brown: ‘I think we’re looking for each other.’

Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Netflix

At Texas Monthly, Sarah Hepola profiles researcher and author Brené Brown, whose popularity has grown as people struggle to find connection cooped up inside for weeks on end, and writes about how the virus has demonstrated the myriad ways in which we as humans are vulnerable.

I wanted to know why her message was resounding with so many. There was, of course, the obvious answer: the quarantine heightened the demand for her wisdom on human connection. But I sensed she was speaking to something deeper, to unseen and powerful forces coursing beneath the surface.

The pandemic, for most of us, has been catastrophic and mundane at once. We’ve tracked the escalating death counts, but our days are an accumulation of microsadnesses: the eighth grade graduation canceled, the morning coffee run halted, the long-awaited vacation delayed. Brown had noticed how many were hesitant to grieve the small things because others had it so much worse.Kessler cautioned against comparing our losses. He could win many a grief contest, but what would be the point? “The worst loss is always yours,” he said.

Brown has called the coronavirus a lesson in collective vulnerability. Mother Nature has laid us bare. We’ve been quarantined in our homes with our broken habits for weeks on end, and it has revealed our lives and our country and our planet to be more troubled than we’d imagined. The illusion of safety and happiness had been easier once. But that was just a story we were telling ourselves. The virus has narrative control now.

Maybe that’s why so many people are turning to Brown. Her career has been an attempt to crack the code on vulnerability, but the code has proven uncrackable. Instead, all her data points in the same direction—that we must embrace the struggle. Yes, the struggle is scary and ugly and painful. But the good news is that the struggle might be where we find one another again, see ourselves in the eyes of others, start building the kinds of lives that don’t require hiding. The definition of spirituality that emerged from Brown’s research is that we are inextricably linked by something greater than us. As she says, “Some of us call it God. Some of us call it the human spirit. And some of us call it fishing.”

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Yes, The US Government Spies on US Journalists

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Does the public have a right to know when it comes to interests of national security? Unequivocally yes, says journalist Barton Gellman, insisting on the moral requirement to hold governments accountable.

But how can the US government be held accountable when under the flimsy justification of national security, they spy on, harass, and potentially list for arrest or assassination those journalists who are attempting to learn and report the truth?

Gellman went to great lengths to protect notes and transcripts he made interviewing Edward Snowden in Moscow in 2013. He discovered his digital privacy breached several times in the aftermath, thinking the attacks came from Russia, China, Israel, Turkey, and Iran. He eventually found out his own government had been among those that had compromised his accounts.

I moved the audio files from the memory card of my voice recorder to an encrypted archive on my laptop, along with the notes I had typed. I locked the archive in such a way that I could not reopen it without a private electronic key that I’d left hidden back in New York. I uploaded the encrypted archive to an anonymous server, then another, then a third. Downloading it from the servers would require another private key, also stored in New York. I wiped the encrypted files from my laptop and cut the voice recorder’s unencrypted memory card into pieces. Russian authorities would find nothing on my machines. When I reached the U.S. border, where anyone can be searched for any reason and the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment does not apply, I would possess no evidence of this interview. Even under legal compulsion, I would be unable to retrieve the recordings and notes in transit. I hoped to God I could retrieve them when I got home.

Were my security measures excessive? I knew the spy agencies of multiple governments—most notably the United States’—were eager to glean anything they could from Edward Snowden. After all, he had stolen massive amounts of classified material from NSA servers and shared it with Poitras, Greenwald, and me, and we had collectively published only a fraction of it. The U.S. government wanted Snowden extradited for prosecution. But I’m not a thief or a spy myself. I’m a journalist. Was I just being paranoid?

I was not meant to see the iPad do what it had just done; I had just lucked into seeing it. If I hadn’t, I would have thought it was working normally. It would not have been working for me.

This was the first significant intrusion into my digital life—that I knew of. It was far from the last.

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The ‘Accidental Hero’ Who Saved the Internet from WannaCry

Marcus Hutchins (R) the British cyber security expert accused of creating and selling malware that steals banking passwords arrives with his lawyers Marcia Homann (L) and Brian Klein (R) at US Federal Courthouse on August 14, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. / AFP PHOTO / Joshua Lott via Getty Images)

Marcus Hutchins was only 22 years old when he discovered the Achilles heel of WannaCry, a piece of ransomware that caused $8 billion in damage in 2017 by taking down Windows computers around the world — including in banks and hospitals — and encrypting their contents for a $300 ransom. As Andy Greenberg reports in this epic piece for Wired, Hutchins learned to reverse engineer botnets in part by creating and selling his own malware as a youth in England. Hutchins’ darkhat hacking was not without its innocent victims, and the FBI eventually caught up to him. But did he deserve leniency in sentencing, considering the good work he’d done stopping WannaCry in its tracks, saving lives in the process? You be the judge.

Cybersecurity researchers named the worm WannaCry, after the .wncry extension it added to file names after encrypting them. As it paralyzed machines and demanded its bitcoin ransom, WannaCry was jumping from one machine to the next using a powerful piece of code called EternalBlue, which had been stolen from the National Security Agency by a group of hackers known as the Shadow Brokers and leaked onto the open internet a month earlier. It instantly allowed a hacker to penetrate and run hostile code on any unpatched Windows computer—a set of potential targets that likely numbered in the millions. And now that the NSA’s highly sophisticated spy tool had been weaponized, it seemed bound to create a global ransomware pandemic within hours.

Hutchins hadn’t found the malware’s command-and-control address. He’d found its kill switch.

Hutchins says he still hasn’t been able to shake the lingering feelings of guilt and impending punishment that have hung over his life for years. It still pains him to think of his debt to all the unwitting people who helped him, who donated to his legal fund and defended him, when all he wanted to do was confess.

I point out that perhaps this, now, is that confession. That he’s cataloged his deeds and misdeeds over more than 12 hours of interviews; when the results are published—and people reach the end of this article—that account will finally be out in the open. Hutchins’ fans and critics alike will see his life laid bare and, like Stadtmueller in his courtroom, they will come to a verdict. Maybe they too will judge him worthy of redemption. And maybe it will give him some closure.

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From Russia, With Malice

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Russia, through its Active Measures campaign, is hard at work sowing chaos in America, including misinformation campaigns on social media designed to stoke racial discord, email hacking campaigns aimed at discrediting campaign officials, and “jangling the doorknobs” at state election websites to find vulnerabilities they can use to disrupt elections. Why? So that Americans question the validity of election results and get disillusioned with the whole process. There’s even a hastag: #RIPDemocracy.

As Franklin Foer reports at The Atlantic, Russia wants to eradicate democracy, and they’re doing a fine job of it. The problem, which plays right into the hands of the Russians, is that the United States is already too divided to do much about it.

The Russians have learned much about American weaknesses, and how to exploit them. Having probed state voting systems far more extensively than is generally understood by the public, they are now surely more capable of mayhem on Election Day—and possibly without leaving a detectable trace of their handiwork. Having hacked into the inboxes of political operatives in the U.S. and abroad, they’ve pioneered new techniques for infiltrating campaigns and disseminating their stolen goods. Even as to disinformation, the best-known and perhaps most overrated of their tactics, they have innovated, finding new ways to manipulate Americans and to poison the nation’s politics. Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020.

Problems of inattention, problems of coordination, and deep concerns about November—these themes came up over and over in my interviews for this story. Indeed, at times everyone seemed to be sounding the same alarm. H. R. McMaster, who briefly served as Donald Trump’s national security adviser, sounded it when he proposed a new task force to focus the government’s often shambolic efforts to safeguard the election. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, sounded it when he realized how poorly the bureaucracy was sharing the information it was gathering about the Russian threat.

Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system, and he will never have a more reliable ally than Donald Trump. A democracy can’t defend itself if it can’t honestly describe the attacks against it. But the president hasn’t just undermined his own country’s defenses—he has actively abetted the adversary’s efforts. If Russia wants to tarnish the political process as hopelessly rigged, it has a bombastic amplifier standing behind the seal of the presidency, a man who reflexively depicts his opponents as frauds and any system that produces an outcome he doesn’t like as fixed. If Russia wants to spread disinformation, the president continually softens an audience for it, by instructing the public to disregard authoritative journalism as the prevarications of a traitorous elite and by spouting falsehoods on Twitter.

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RIP Little Richard, the ‘Self-Proclaimed King and Queen of Rock & Roll’

CIRCA 1956: Musician Little Richard performs onstage in circa 1956. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Richard Penniman, best known to the world as Little Richard, passed away on May 9 at the age of 87. In 2015, David Ramsey wrote this lyrical profile of Richard for Oxford American in which he notes that Little Richard’s big break came after he recorded “Tutti Frutti,” a song reworked from a bawdy “ode to sodomy” played in the “dodgier clubs” of the chitlin’ circuit. The song’s lyrics were rewritten and recorded with 15 minutes left in the session. It was a “wild, sexy nonsense song that changed music forever.” “I created rock & roll, didn’t even know what I was doing,” Richard said.

Little Richard has always been attuned to signs. At the height of his fame, on tour in Australia in October 1957, he saw a big ball of fire in the sky above the stadium. This was his second vision of fire. On the flight over, the glow of the engines appeared to him as flames and he pictured yellow-haired angels holding the plane aloft.

The message, to Little Richard, was clear. He had to leave show business, quit singing the devil’s music, and get right with God.

“It looked as though the big ball of fire came directly over the stadium about two or three hundred feet above our heads,” he later told his biographer, Charles White. “It shook my mind. . . . I got up from the piano and said, ‘This is it. I am through. I am leaving show business to go back to God.’” And he did. He ditched the tour—leaving half a million dollars’ worth of canceled bookings, with multiple lawsuits to come. The change in plans kept him off a scheduled flight that crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The Lord wasn’t messing around.

A star who mistook a satellite for a ball of fire. And we might pause here to note that whether or not it was a message from God, something like a miracle was afoot. A freaky-deaky bisexual black man who grew up poor in the Jim Crow South in Macon, Georgia, singing a wild, sexy nonsense song that changed music forever, everywhere—even in a packed stadium halfway around the world, as shrieking Australian teenagers nearly started a riot, scuffling to touch the man’s discarded clothes. Fire in the heavens and fire on earth.

For all of us, actuarially speaking, sooner or later the end is nigh. So let us dance: black and white, man and woman, believer and heathen. And everything in between. Let us dance, all of us, while we are still able, while we still can.

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How China Censored Citizens and the Press on COVID-19

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As Shawn Yuan reports at Wired, the Chinese government knew that a new SARS-like pneumonia had appeared in late 2019, yet they worked hard to keep this deadly virus a secret from their population and the world. As citizens shared accounts of the devastation with one another on social media, as reporters wrote and published stories about the outbreak, the Chinese government’s censors vigilantly deleted their posts and their accounts. Why? To conceal the extent of the outbreak and the inadequacy of its response, so that China could portray itself as a benevolent savior to its people and a generous friend supplying medical equipment to the world.

That night, just when Yue was about to log off and try to sleep, she saw the following sentence pop up on her WeChat Moments feed, the rough equivalent of Facebook’s News Feed: “I never thought in my lifetime I’d see dead bodies lying around without being collected and patients seeking medical help but having no place to get treatment.”

Yue thought that she had become desensitized, but this post made her fists clench: It was written by Xiao Hui, a journalist friend of hers who was reporting on the ground for Caixin, a prominent Chinese news outlet. Yue trusted her.

She read on. “On January 22, on my second day reporting in Wuhan, I knew this was China’s Chernobyl,” Xiao Hui wrote. “These days I rarely pick up phone calls from outside of Wuhan or chat with friends and family, because nothing can express what I have seen here.”

Unable to contain her anger, Yue took a screenshot of Xiao’s post and immediately posted it on her WeChat Moments. “Look what is happening in Wuhan!” she wrote. Then she finally drifted off.

The next morning, when she opened WeChat, a single message appeared: Her account had been suspended for having “spread malicious rumors” and she would not be able to unblock it. She knew at once that her late-night post had stepped on a censorship landmine.

It’s not hard to see how these censored posts contradicted the state’s preferred narrative. Judging from these vanished accounts, the regime’s coverup of the initial outbreak certainly did not help buy the world time, but instead apparently incubated what some have described as a humanitarian disaster in Wuhan and Hubei Province, which in turn may have set the stage for the global spread of the virus. And the state’s apparent reluctance to show scenes of mass suffering and disorder cruelly starved Chinese citizens of vital information when it mattered most.

While articles and posts that displease Chinese censors continue to be expunged across the Chinese internet, the messages that thrive on television and state-sanctioned sites are rosy: News anchors narrate videos of nurses saying how honored they have been to fight for their country despite all the hardships and video clips of China “generously” shipping planeloads of medical equipment to other countries hit hard by the virus are playing on a loop.

As the outbreak began to slow down in mainland China, the government remained cautious in filtering out any information that might contradict the seemingly unstoppable trend of recovery. On March 4, a Shanghai news site called The Paper reported that a Covid-19 patient who had been discharged from the hospital in late February later died in a post-discharge isolation center; another news site questioned whether hospitals were discharging patients prematurely for the sake of “clearing all cases.” Both stories vanished.

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‘Hand to hand to hand’: How Coronavirus Spread Aboard the Diamond Princess

This picture taken on February 24, 2020 shows crew members aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port. - Hundreds of crew members aboard a coronavirus-riddled cruise ship in Japan began disembarking on February 27, the government said. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

At one point Carnival Cruise Line’s Diamond Princess would have a greater number of Coronavirus cases than anywhere in the world outside China. For GQ, Doug Bock Clark reports on how the delayed, woefully inadequate response from Carnival’s management, the Japanese government, as well as the ship’s captain and crew helped the virus to spread.

And Japanese officials eventually acknowledged the quarantine was flawed.

They had no idea about the danger. Not as they crowded around the famous champagne waterfall. Hundreds of delighted cruise passengers watched as golden bubbly, poured atop a pyramid of 300 glasses, filled the stemware below. Then the drinks were passed out. Hand to hand to hand. Guests clinked coupes and posed for photos, making the evening feel momentous. It was their fourth night aboard the Diamond Princess—a floating city of a ship that had been churning south from Yokohama, Japan—and they were all still unaware of how much their journey would transform them, and even the world.

For a week more, the Diamond Princess cruised on. The Amigos took a memorable kayak excursion in Vietnam, among the karst monoliths of Ha Long Bay. They enjoyed street food in Taiwan. But while there, panicky headlines and more temperature guns made the virus impossible to ignore. Still, they considered themselves safe, unaware that an 80-year-old passenger—a man who had coughed through the first half of the cruise before disembarking in Hong Kong—had been admitted to a hospital, where it was discovered that he was infected with the coronavirus.

For government officials and corporate leaders, the question of whether it was fair—or even safe—to quarantine the passengers but not the crew was obscured by the priority to keep the ship operational. And so the poor took care of the rich, and the citizens of less powerful nations served those from more powerful nations, and the Diamond Princess remained a miniaturized version of the global order—because what other way could things go?

Before bidding goodbye to the ship, Arma had stood alone on the glass-walled bridge. The normally stoic captain was emotional. He had been with the boat since it was built and had guided it safely through every storm, until this one. He felt like he understood what he called her “beautiful soul.”

One last time, he switched on the P.A., in order to speak to the ship itself. It wasn’t her fault, he told her. He promised that they would see each other again, and he wished her a good night, his words echoing in the vacant galleries and cabins. They had done their best, he and his ship—and like all good captains, he was the last person to leave. As he strode off the gangway in his crisp uniform, he was the very image of debonair fortitude. Except his true expression was hidden behind a protective mask.

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Where ‘Strangers Whisper Secrets in Your Ear’

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At the New York Review of Books, Leslie Jamison reviews “Private Lives Public Spaces,” an exhibition of home movies and photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. (While the museum is closed, you can check out the exhibit online.) What makes this review fascinating is the thread of desire that runs through it — that keen human need to document our present as it all-too-quickly turns into our past.

By showing amateur home movies in one of the most famous museums in the world, “Private Lives Public Spaces” asks us to see not just the aesthetic richness of daily life, but also to see it as a parade of minor performances: vacation as a performance of leisure, a garden party as a performance of sociability, parenting as a performance of love. Is there anyone who doesn’t sometimes imagine an audience for even the most unremarkable moments of her life?

The exhibit spans two floors, and while the upper level contains work by professional artists working with 8 mm film—Andy Warhol, Peggy Ahwesh, Cindy Sherman—the lower floor has a stronger gravitational pull, bringing me back to the home movies. Placards that usually bear the names of famous artists display suburban-sounding surnames instead: Levitt family. Thompson family. Hubley family. Descending to this level feels like dropping into the subconscious—a place not of art, exactly, but the deep place art comes from. Each film channels the gaze of an amateur—which is to say, a gaze tuned like a radio channel to the affective nuances of daily living: amusement, awkwardness, delight, and the extravagant devotion of love. Love gets accused of blinding us, or dulling our gaze, but it can summon our vision most urgently.

These are the moments that affect me most in these movies, these flashes of secret interior life suddenly surfacing: a boy’s hopeless giggling; a woman’s undisguised pleasure at her bag of potato chips on the train; the awkward silence of a boy at the end of the bar mitzvah banquet table, his forced smile; a woman doing a stately waltz, in a baroque ballroom, turning suddenly to flash a sly, flirtatious look at the camera. This secret life dwells in each of us, mysterious, wild, intimate, and these moments of rupture expose what so much art is chasing after: glimpses of the subterranean desires and pleasures and sorrows that are constantly lurking behind our composed surfaces, veiled by the costumes of our facial expressions and our social media accounts, our etiquette and our armor. The crippling fear of exposure lives uneasily alongside its opposite—a primal longing to be seen.

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