National / International News
First up: The ride services Uber and Lyft failed to convince a pair of U.S. judges on Wednesday that their drivers are “independent contractors” rather than regular employees. Class-action lawsuits – brought by drivers of both companies – will now go to jury trial, the results for which could have important consequences for the sharing economy. Then, Google is getting into "cold storage," taking on the masses of old data businesses like to squirrel away and making it available to them at a moment's notice. Finally, New Yorkers have been enjoying excellent ski conditions for most of this winter, but in Lake Tahoe, the slopes are bare and warm. We look at how small ski areas are scraping by while the bigger resorts are looking for new ways to turn a profit.
The Discworld series author had for years struggled with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Pratchett amassed a devoted following over four decades of writing — and dozens of novels.
As people's health waxes or wanes because of stress or disease, their intestinal ecosystems change, too. It may be possible someday to diagnose disease by analyzing the gas the microbes make.
Some of the world's fastest growing economies are in Asia. With more cash flow, more jobs, more people, Asian cities are getting a lot bigger. Some are overflowing.
In Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, it seems as if little can stand in the way of urban sprawl — not even the dead. The city's biggest cemetery is slated for demolition, with plans to use the space for a shopping mall, apartments and parks.
Moving 70,000 tombs is one challenge. Here's an even trickier one: What to do about the hundreds of people who work and live inside the cemetery?
The cemetery, Binh Hung Hoa, is a relatively quiet place — to lay flowers, light incense at a loved one's grave, even say a solemn prayer.
And hey — before you leave, grab a massage.
"Oil, full body, hand, head… everything! Very cheap!" a masseuse named Man says with a laugh. She says she's offering oil, full-body, hand, and head treatments for less than $5 an hour.
It's kind of a steal — if you're okay with a rubdown among nearly two hundred football fields worth of above-ground cement tombs.
Man says her customers couldn't care less. Many local people who have colds, the flu, or fever often come here. There's been a big community living here for years and years, since before the early 1960's, when a much smaller cemetery first opened. After the U.S. war ended, the whole place just got bigger. More graves, and today, hundreds of people.
Thi Cuc Nguyen and her husband live here, where they work sweeping and looking after nearly 1,000 tombs.
"Are you scared of ghosts?!" Nguyen asks, laughing. "No ghosts here, only bodies. Their spirits are up in heaven already. So I feel totally peaceful living here."
The Catholic Church hired the couple almost 25 years ago. Nguyen says this gig sure beats her old job selling produce.
"Visitors often thank me, as they see that I am taking care of their families' tombs," she says. "I make $100 to $150 a month. And I have more freedom. I really enjoy taking care of the graves."
There are other ways to earn cash here. Some rent out rooms to day laborers, others run makeshift speakeasies. Want to order a whole roasted pig? One of the temple caretakers will hook you up.
Hoa Binh runs a small stand at a crossroads in the cemetery, where she sells sweet iced coffee, plus flowers and incense for the graves. Things have been tough for her since 2011, when the district People's Committee closed the cemetery to new burials. Families came and started emptying the tombs.
Since then, she says, business, well, it's been kind of like a graveyard around here.
"As soon as they started removing the tombs, the number of visitors dropped a lot," she says. "There used to be 500 tombs in this area. Sometimes there would be a line of cars here, just to visit one tomb, you know? But it's getting quiet. Very quiet!"
Quiet? Not exactly. The cemetery sits just two miles from Ho Chi Minh City's very busy international airport. This is where it's all supposed to happen: luxury apartments, a shopping mall, maybe a park, all by the year 2020.
Partly, yes, it's about sprawl, but there are public-health issues, too, says Yale anthropologist Erik Harms, who's written about urban redevelopment here.
"There's been stories about people drinking water from wells there," he says. "That's pretty nasty, right? To drink water from a well in a cemetery where corpse juices are dripping into the well, right?"
Some of those who live here are embracing the new plans. Harms says that with projects like this one, people often imagine a more comfortable way of life.
"They say, 'Yeah, it would be nice to live in a nice house or an apartment building with air conditioning, clean sewers … good schools for the kids.' That's in some ways preferable to living in a cemetery."
But the local government hasn't said what it's going to do for the residents. It's tricky in part because many people don't have any legal claims to the land.
One thing is clear: Soon, they'll have to pack up and move on, as this old graveyard gets set to start a new life.
The ride services Uber and Lyft failed to convince a pair of U.S. judges Wednesday that their drivers are “independent contractors” rather than regular employees.
The class-action lawsuits – brought by drivers of both companies – will now go to jury trial, the results for which could have important consequences for the sharing economy.
By serving as middlemen in a market for surplus labor, or car rides, or whatever, many sharing economy startups have been able to skirt labor regulations such as social security, worker’s comp, or sick leave.
In yesterday’s ruling, Judge Edward Chen noted that Uber, “would not be a viable business entity without its drivers,” and that the company can also fire drivers for a variety of reasons, including low passenger ratings, or for no reason at all. Both of these reasons are cases for the drivers being considered employees.
By cautious estimates Uber has upwards of 160,000 drivers across 61 cities in the United States. If it has to pay out benefits to all those drivers it will affect the profitability of their business model, as well as other gig-economy apps such as TaskRabbit, Wonolo, Instacart or Handy.
Still, given how much money Uber has already raked in from investors, even if a jury rules against them on the issue of independent contractors, they should still be able to adapt.
"I'm sure they have a contingency plan to deal with this,” says John Horton, from NYU’s Stern School of Business. “It may take some of the shine off them as an investment, but my guess is we're not going to see Uber close up shop if the jury rules against them."
Uber is valued somewhere north of $40 billion, Lyft is around $2.5 Billion. Horton points out that many of the labor regulations that apply to the workforce were written into law before companies like Uber were part of the marketplace. Still, he cautions against re-writing laws too quickly.
“One of the things you worry about when crafting policy before the contours of the industry are already apparent,” Horton says. “It can happen where the people who seem to be already out in front, can use regulation to squash new entrants.”
Horton notes this frontrunner position could be leveraged by other companies in the surplus economy, not just Uber. He also says it would likely result in increased costs being passed on to consumers.
If Uber or Lyft drivers are ultimately ruled to be employees, they'll be entitled to reimbursement for gas and vehicle maintenance, among other expenses, according to Reuters.
Two weeks after it voted to approve rules on net neutrality, the Federal Communications Commission releases what Chairman Tom Wheeler calls "a shining example of American democracy at work."