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An employee prepares an order at Amazon's fulfillment center in San Bernardino, Calif. (Getty Images)

Book News: Did Amazon Unintentionally Create A Drug Dealer Starter Kit?

by Annalisa Quinn
Apr 17, 2014

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The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • At The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal writes that Amazon's recommendation algorithm has created an accidental starter kit for drug dealers: "One day, some drug dealer bought a particular digital scale — the AWS-100 — on the retail site, Amazon.com. And then another drug dealer bought the same scale. Then another. Then another. Amazon's data-tracking software watched what else these people purchased, and now, if you buy the AWS-100 scale, Amazon serves up a quickstart kit for selling drugs."
  • Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's health is stable but still "very fragile" after his recent hospitalization for a lung infection, his family said. A statement released by the 87-year-old novelist's wife and sons adds that "there are risks of complications corresponding to his age." Marquez was born in Colombia, but has lived in Mexico for decades. The author of such modern classics as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez was praised by the Nobel committee in 1982 for his "novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflicts."
  • E.L. Doctorow has won the 2014 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. "E. L. Doctorow is our very own Charles Dickens, summoning a distinctly American place and time, channeling our myriad voices. Each book is a vivid canvas, filled with color and drama. In each, he chronicles an entirely different world." Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in a statement. The 83-year-old author of Ragtime and The Book of Daniel will be awarded the prize at the National Book Festival at the end of August.
  • The poet and comedian Patricia Lockwood asks whether poetry is work: "Is a poet who writes short poems working less than a poet who writes long ones? In my opinion, no. ... And what about poets who write slowly? 'The action of the Muse is creeping, like that one molasses flood that killed so many people in a tragically slo-mo way. No man or waffle may rush her, least of all a poet,' wrote Lord Byron in 1997, in a chatroom, under the username badfoot_sisterkisser69, and I must not be alone in thinking him correct." (As an aside, Lockwood's 2013 poem "Rape Joke," is almost impossibly devastating.)
  • A new Dave Eggers book called Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is coming out June 17. (Lately, Eggers has been publishing books with very little warning.) His publisher says that YFWATATPDTLF is the "story of one man struggling to make sense of his country."
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A typical UPS truck is tracked by hundreds of sensors. (AP)

To Increase Productivity, UPS Monitors Drivers' Every Move

by Jacob Goldstein
Apr 17, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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The American workforce might want to pay attention to the brown trucks full of cardboard boxes. UPS is using technology in ways that may soon be common throughout the economy.

The brown truck in rural Pennsylvania looks pretty much the same as it did when Bill Earle started driving for UPS more than 20 years ago.

But Earle says underneath the surface his job has changed a lot. The thing you sign your name on when the UPS guy gives you a package, used to be a piece of paper. Now it's a computer that tells Earle everything he needs to know.

The computer doesn't just give advice. It gathers data all day long. Earle's truck is also full of sensors that record to the second when he opens or closes the door behind him, buckles his seatbelt and when he starts the truck.

Technology means that no matter what kind of job you have — even if you're alone in a truck on an empty road — your company can now measure everything you do.

In Earle's case, those measurements go into a little black box in the back of his truck. At the end of the day, the data gets sent to Paramus, N.J., where computers crunch through the data from UPS trucks across the country.

"The data are about as important as the package for us," says Jack Levis, who's in charge of the UPS data. It's his job to think about small amounts of time and large amounts of money.

"Just one minute per driver per day over the course of a year adds up to $14.5 million," Levis says.

His team figured out that opening a door with a key was slowing their drivers down. So drivers were given a push-button key fob that attaches to a belt loop.

The team figured out how to use sensors in the truck to predict when a part is about to break.

And UPS solved a problem that Bill Earle and other drivers used to have: At the end of the day, there would be a package in the back of the truck that should have delivered hours before.

"You wanna cry 'cause you have to go back," Earle says.

A computer now figures out the best way to load the truck in the morning, and the best way to deliver packages all day.

Earle says a typical day for him used to be around 90 deliveries — now it's about 120.

When you hear people talk about technology increasing workers' productivity. This is what they're talking about: Same guy, same truck — lots more deliveries.

In the long run, as workers have gotten more productive, their pay has gone up. UPS drivers today make about twice what they made in the mid '90s when you add up their wages, health care and pensions, according to the head of their union.

But Earle says, there is another side of driving around a truck full of sensors: "You know, it does feel like big brother."

Take for example backing up. For safety reasons, UPS doesn't like it when their drivers back up too much.

"They know exactly how many times you're backing up," Earle says. "Where you're backing up and they also know the distance and the speed that you're backing at."

Everyday the company lets drivers know that they are backing up too much.

"You can't let it feel like it's an attack on your own personal, the way you've been doing the job," Earle says. "You can't look at it that way 'cause you'll get so frustrated that you won't even want to do it anymore."

Jack Levis, the UPS data guy, says the data are just a new way to figure out how to do things better, and faster. And, he says, the drivers benefit from that along with the company.

"They're the highest paid in the business, which is why my job is to keep them productive so they remain the highest paid in the industry."

Still, issues over the data the company collects have become part of the bargaining process between the drivers' union and the company. Under the drivers' contract, the company cannot discipline drivers based solely on data, and can't collect data without telling them.

This kind of back and forth — about what kind of data companies can collect, and what can they do with it — isn't limited to UPS. It's going to starting popping up for more and more workers and more and more companies.

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Over Easy ( )

'Over Easy' Serves Up Savory Memories Of A Vintage Diner

by Etelka Lehoczky
Apr 17, 2014

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They live among you. One of them may be your neighbor. One probably served you coffee this morning. One may even be writing this article. They are the Bohemians — or the Would-Be Bohemians. And whether you smile fondly upon their hipster specs or shudder at their footwear, they're an unbudgeable presence at the edges of the American scene.

Mimi Pond revisits one long-vanished boho node in Over Easy, a hardbound, two-color graphic novel done in ink and watercolor. It's at once the tale of an art student who gets a job in a diner and much more: a look at a handful of people, brought together by a shared affection for the fringes, who make a temporary haven for a young woman thirsting for Real Life. For every step of young Margaret's progression from mere patron to waitress and friend, Pond deploys a sensibility that's both affectionate and anthropological.

Pond has an impressive resume: she's created comics for some major publications and even wrote the first full-length episode of the Simpsons. But it's easy to see why she was compelled to memorialize a 1970s diner in humble comic form — From the cloth napkins to the fresh-squeezed OJ, the Imperial is no ordinary Oakland, Calif. restaurant. The real difference, though, is the people.

There's Lazlo, the happy-go-lucky manager who's raising three kids in a picturesque yet junkie-ridden neighborhood and writing an opus on the side. If you ask Lazlo for a job, he makes you tell him a joke — if it's funny, he'll consider your application. The method works: The Imperial waitresses, Pond says, "can go from maternal, to deadpan, to dangerous in a split second." So irresistible is their aura that Pond takes a dishwashing job in hopes of becoming a waitress someday. "I dream of slinging plates like poker chips, cracking wise with the customers, and enduring brooding, blue-collar boyfriends," she says. She "practice[s her] hard-boiled stare in the mirror behind the counter" and plans just which 1940s dress she'll wear on her first day out front.

By the time she gets the long-coveted promotion, she's scrubbed a thoroughly unromantic number of filthy rubber mats, said no (and then yes) to offers of cocaine and finally found a boyfriend — only to ditch him two pages later because he liked the song "Baker Street." Meanwhile the other employees continually hook up, un-hook and re-hook with each other and with customers. Margaret's idol is Helen, a "punk Lauren Bacall" who has the guys lining up for counter seats. "If you make her laugh, the clouds part, the sun comes out, life looks good again. I am determined to learn her secrets."

Ultimately, Margaret carves out her own niche, even getting the chance to show off some of those 1940s dresses. She acquires the nickname "Madge," keeps sketchbooks behind the counter to show her favorite customers and helps plan the big Halloween poetry reading. For an uncertain twentysomething living during the disco era, this is Real Life at its finest.

Pond's casual, self-deprecating style is uniquely suited for this nostalgic tale. Her lines are unpretentious and airy, and her people aren't overwhelmed by their affectations; Pond can capture facial expressions with a line or two.

Washes of aqua watercolor lend a gentle depth to every page while slightly blurring the edges. The choice of color is particularly clever, keeping the story from being too "'70s." Who knew aqua could be a timeless shade?

Pond's a little too in love with her diner, alas. For all the charm of Lazlo and Helen, there are many characters that just aren't remarkable. And all too often Pond finds far more interest in some "wacky" development — a waitress having sex in the bathroom, say — than the reader does. But at a time when pockets of uniqueness like this are under siege — which is to say, any time — Over Easy is a sweet tribute.

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Holding out hope, fearing the worst: A man looks out from the shore in Jindo, South Korea, toward where a passenger ferry sank Wednesday and nearly 300 people are still missing. (Reuters/Landov)

No Sign Yet Of Hundreds Missing After South Korean Ferry Disaster

Apr 17, 2014

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This post will be updated as news comes in.

A second day of dangerous efforts to reach any survivors has ended with still no sign of the nearly 300 people — most of them high school students — believed to be trapped aboard a South Korean ferry that has capsized in the Yellow Sea.

South Korean Coast Guard authorities said Thursday that divers have not been able to get into any of the cabins aboard the overturned ship, the Sewol. Bad weather and rough seas are said to be hampering the search efforts. South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reports that "diving operations were suspended altogether around 1 p.m. [Thursday, local time] due to bad weather, officials said." South Korea is 13 hours ahead of the eastern U.S.

Meanwhile, it's not yet clear what caused the disaster, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from the South Korean port of Jindo. Survivors have said they heard and felt a loud bang early Wednesday (local time) just before the ship began to list. The ship may have deviated from its usual course, which raises the possibility that it hit something that wasn't on navigation charts. Yonhap News writes that Koh Myung-seok, a senior coast guard official, told reporters that the ferry "took a path slightly different from the route recommended by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries."

There are more reports, similar to those first heard on Wednesday, about a delay in the order to abandon ship that may have contributed to the large number of passengers who didn't make their way to safety. Survivors are telling of orders they were given to don life jackets — but to also remain in place:

"The first instructions from the captain were for the passengers to put on life jackets and stay put, and it was not until about 30 minutes later that [the captain] ordered an evacuation, Oh Yong-seok, a 58-year-old crew member, told The Associated Press. The loss of that precious half-hour may have deprived many passengers of the opportunity to escape as The Sewol sank on Wednesday, not too far from the southern city of Mokpo."

The captain is among those who survived. According to the AP, he has spoken to reporters:

" 'I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,' a man identified by broadcaster YTN and Yonhap news agency as the captain, 60-year-old Lee Joon-seok, said in brief comments shown on TV, his face hidden beneath a gray hoodie. 'I don't know what to say.' "

As we reported Wednesday, the Sewol departed from the city of Incheon, South Korea, Tuesday night (local time) for what was supposed to be a 12- to 13-hour voyage south to the resort island of Jeju.

According to authorities, there were 475 people aboard the ferry, which can carry more than 900 passengers. Of those on board, 325 are said to have been high school students from the city of Ansan, near Seoul. They were on a school trip.

As of late Thursday in Korea, officials were saying:

— Nine deaths had been confirmed.

— 179 people had been rescued.

— 287 people were still missing

Those figures will likely change. We will update as they do.

According to Yonhap News, officials say 169 boats and 29 aircraft are taking part in the rescue effort. And: "two salvage cranes are also on their way to the scene to raise the sunken vessel, with one of them expected to arrive on Friday morning and the other in the evening."

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Holding out hope, fearing the worst: A man looks out from the shore in Jindo, South Korea, toward where a passenger ferry sank Wednesday and nearly 300 people are still missing. (Reuters/Landov)

Salon Uses Image Of North Korea's Leader To Promote Discount

Apr 17, 2014 (Morning Edition) — The sign with a picture of Jim Jong-un offered 15 percent off all men's cuts through April. Two officials from the North Korean embassy arrived at the London salon and ordered the sign be taken down.

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