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The Best Movies and TV Shows New to Netflix, Amazon and Stan in Australia in October


Every month, streaming services in Australia add a new batch of movies and TV shows to its library. Here are our picks for October.

OCTOBER 2

When documentarian Kristen Johnson realized her father, Dick, was in declining mental and physical health, she proposed an idea: What if they prepared for his demise together, by filming a series of simulated deaths? The one-of-a-kind documentary “Dick Johnson Is Dead” combines those strange and sometimes beautiful scenes — which also include a funeral and some guesses at what the afterlife might be like — with wonderful footage of a lovable old man and his doting daughter, spending their last years together. This is a special film, turning an imminent loss into an occasion for reflection and joy.

Based on the popular podcast of the same name, “Song Exploder” invites well-known musicians to analyze their own work, breaking songs down track-by-track and line-by-line. The four-episode first season covers Alicia Keys’ “3 Hour Drive,” Ty Dolla $ign’s “L.A.,” R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” and “Wait for It” from the Broadway hit “Hamilton.” In each half-hour installment, the host Hrishikesh Hirway talks to the artists about the choices they made, trying to clarify the mystery of creation by asking for a practical explanation of how music gets made.

OCTOBER 9

A hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the writer-director Radha Blank’s dramedy “The 40-Year-Old Version” also stars Blank as a struggling New York playwright, who reinvents herself as a rapper who rhymes about getting older. Shot in lovely black-and-white, this movie is witty and wise about the compromises some artists have to make to get their voices heard, and about the creative options available to those willing to risk failure and embarrassment.

“The Haunting of Bly Manor” is the writer-producer-director Mike Flanagan’s follow-up to his earlier Netflix horror series “The Haunting of Hill House.” Where the earlier show adapted and updated a Shirley Jackson novel, this new season is based loosely on the Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw,” about a governess who sees ghosts. Some of Flanagan’s cast returns (including Henry Thomas, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Kate Siegel), but the characters and the plot are entirely new. What won’t change: Flanagan’s command of quietly disturbing moods.

OCTOBER 16

The TV and movie writer-producer Aaron Sorkin — the man behind “The West Wing” and “A Few Good Men” — returns to the director’s chair for the film “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a look back at the legal aftermath of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention. Sacha Baron Cohen plays the counterculture hero Abbie Hoffman, leading a cast that includes powerhouse actors like Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance. Sorkin’s usual fast-paced dialogue and his willingness to plunge headlong into controversial material makes him a good match for this still-resonant story of dissidents forced to answer in court for acts of civil disobedience.

OCTOBER 21

Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel “Rebecca” has already been adapted into a movie classic: the atmospheric and creepy 1940 Alfred Hitchcock version, which marked the director’s transition to Hollywood. Now another distinctive British filmmaker is tackling du Maurier’s book. Ben Wheatley, known for the edgy cult films “Kill List” and “High-Rise,” directs a stylish new version of “Rebecca” that emphasizes the glamour of the setting: the seaside estate of Manderley, where an emotionally distant aristocrat (played by Armie Hammer) deposits his naïve young bride (Lily James), leaving her to cope with his disapproving housekeeper (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the unsettling mystery of what really happened to his late first wife.

OCTOBER 23

In the animated adventure “Over the Moon,” Cathy Ang is the voice of Fei Fei, a handy teenager who builds a rocket-ship and flies to the moon. Once there, she tries to impress the charismatic goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) by embarking on a quest that involves a handful of nutty lunar creatures. Written by the late Audrey Wells and directed by the veteran Disney animator Glen Keane — with codirection by another Disney alum, John Kahrs — this is a colorful, energetic and emotional movie about a kid and an adult both dealing with personal heartbreak in their own unusual ways.

For his latest Netflix mini-series, the writer-director Scott Frank — who previously created the western “Godless” — adapts “The Queen’s Gambit,” a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, the author of “The Hustler” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, a top-rank chess master who pulled herself up from a miserable childhood thanks to her singular skills, but who struggles with addiction and self-doubt as an adult. The book is beloved, and Frank and Taylor-Joy are talented enough to give it the sensitive and lively TV version it deserves.

Also arriving: “New Girl” Seasons 1-7 (October 1), “Oktoberfest: Beer & Blood” (October 1), “Emily in Paris” (October 2), “Vampires vs. the Bronx” (October 2), “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” (October 4), “Hubie Halloween” (October 7), “To the Lake” (October 7), “Deaf U” (October 9), “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts” Season 3 (October 12), “A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting” (October 14), “Social Distance” (October 15), “Grand Army” (October 16), “La Révolution” (October 16), “Someone Has to Die” (October 16), “Unsolved Mysteries” Volume 2 (October 19), “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman” Season 3 (October 21), “Cadaver” (October 22), “Barbarians” (October 23), “Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine” (October 27), “Holiday” (October 28), “Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight” (October 28).

OCTOBER 1

Riffing on both grim British police procedurals and dark-toned science-fiction, the sitcom “Code 404” has Daniel Mays playing a London detective who gets murdered during an undercover operation, and then brought back to life as an experimental cyborg. The charmingly irascible Stephen Graham plays the hero’s former partner, who isn’t so sure he wants to help his old buddy solve the mystery of his own death. Though craftily plotted and acted with real conviction, this offbeat crime series is brisker — and funnier — than the typical cops-and-killers fare.

OCTOBER 4

Based on James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award-winning historical novel, the mini-series “The Good Lord Bird” stars Ethan Hawke as the radical abolitionist John Brown, who in 1859 led a violent antislavery demonstration that helped spark the American Civil War. Hawke also cocreated this series, which blends deadpan comedy with white-knuckle action — aided by a stellar cast that includes Daveed Diggs, Wyatt Russell, Rafael Casal and Joshua Caleb Johnson — to make the distant past feel more immediate.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the West Hollywood nightclub The Comedy Store became a launching pad for stand-up comics who would go on to dominate American pop culture for decades, including David Letterman, Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Roseanne Barr, Sam Kinison, Jimmie Walker, Jerry Seinfeld and more. The docu-series “The Comedy Store” looks back at the club’s fascinating history, considering how some of the most memorable comedy routines of all time were nurtured at a place where rivalries, disputes and drugs often made what was going on backstage as exciting at what was happening in the front of the house.

OCTOBER 16

Based on Aldous Huxley’s seminal 1932 dystopian novel, the slick science-fiction series “Brave New World” offers an adults-only depiction of a decadent future, where the ruling class pass their idle hours with drugs and orgies. Alden Ehrenreich plays John, an unusually clever lower-class “savage,” who becomes a novelty to the elites, even as he questions how they live. And while the source material is now nearly 90 years old, this show’s illustration of how social revolutions can rapidly take hold is strikingly relevant in 2020.

Also arriving: “Harlots” Seasons 1-3 (October 1), “MisUnderstandings of Miscarriage (M.U.M.)” (October 1), “Where’s Wally?” Season 1 (October 2), “Bran New Dae” (October 7), “Miranda” Seasons 1-3 (October 7), “Cold Feet” Seasons 1-9 (October 8), “The Flash” Season 6 (October 9), “The Spanish Princess” Season 1 — Part 2 (October 11), “Mr. Robot” Seasons 1-3 (October 12), “Mr. Selfridge” Seasons 1-4 (October 14), “Unforgotten” Season 3 (October 19), “Valor” Season 1 (October 22), “Informer 3838” Season 1 (October 27), “The Bay” Season 1 (October 28), “Condor” Season 2 (October 31).

OCTOBER 6

Although the innovative production company Blumhouse is best known for hit horror films like “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious,” the new film series dubbed “Welcome to the Blumhouse” has a somewhat broader scope, encompassing the company’s long history of supporting different kinds of genre pictures and indie dramas. The series’ first two movies, debuting October 6, are “The Lie” (a suspenseful story about parents protecting their possibly murderous child) and “Black Box” (about an amnesiac turning to quack science to piece together his past). One week later brings “Evil Eye” (based on an audio play about an Indian woman who worries that her daughter’s fiancé is the reincarnation of someone horrible) and “Nocturne” (about a pianist who goes to extremes to outperform her more gifted sister).

OCTOBER 16

In Heidi Schreck’s Tony-nominated Broadway play “What the Constitution Means to Me,” she appears onstage as herself — embodying both the 15-year-old who used to win prize money by giving speeches touting the magnificence of the U.S. Constitution, and the adult whose life experiences have made her turn a more critical eye toward what the document does and doesn’t do. Before the show wrapped its run last year, the director Marielle Heller filmed the production, capturing Schreck’s funny and provocative examination of how school kids are too often encourage to limit themselves to a one-dimensional kind of patriotism.

OCTOBER 30

The frequent collaborators Nick Frost and Simon Pegg re-team for “Truth Seekers,” a horror-comedy about a paranormal investigator who uncovers a possible world-ending conspiracy. The pair cocreated the series with James Serafinowicz and Nat Saunders, and Frost also stars as the hero, Gus, an intense loner who works as a cable installer while hunting ghosts. Pegg has a smaller role as Gus’s mysterious boss. Although the duo don’t spend much on-screen time together, this show is still a must for fans of “Spaced” and “Shaun of the Dead.”

Also arriving: “Mirzapur” (October 23), “The Challenge: ETA” (October 30).



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Best Amazon Echo deals 2020 including on popular Echo Dot and Echo Show devices


Amazon Echo devices are still a very popular option for shoppers wanting to invest in smart home technology.

Right now Amazon has slashed the price of a number of Echo devices.

The popular Echo Dot is now £29.99, meaning that shoppers will save a massive 40% off the normal £49.99 price tag. While the latest Echo Show 8, which comes with an 8″ HD screen and stereo sound, is now £89.99 (reduced from £119.99).

If you’re thinking about taking the plunge, now is a great time to pick up the heavily discounted range. Consumers probably won’t see any discounts appear again until the autumn when the impending Black Friday period takes place in November.

Best Amazon Echo deals

Echo Dot

The new 3rd Gen Echo Dot is the upgraded compact voice-controlled speaker that used the Alexa assistant to play music, read the news, set alarms and operate compatible smart home devices.

Buy now from Amazon

Echo Dot with clock

 

The newest version of Amazon’s mini smart speaker now comes with a clock. The LED display shows the time, outdoor temperatures and even set timers and features all the same functionality as the original Echo Dot device.

Buy now from Amazon

Echo (3rd Gen)

The new and improved version of the original Echo now has premium Dolby 360 speakers for even better sound quality.

Like it’s smaller alternative Dot, the 3rd Gen Echo can operate compatible devices and sync with any other Echo devices you have to make calls and play music and more.

Buy now from Amazon

Echo Plus (2nd Gen)

Amazon echo hardware
Amazon Alexa gets a new voice

The Plus offers premium sound quality when compared to the other Echo devices. The Dolby Play 360 audio speakers offer crisp audio and a dynamic bass response, while the seven microphones can pick up your voice from all directions – including when music is also playing.

Buy now from Amazon

Echo Studio

Amazon's new subwoofer will work along with Echo speakers
Amazon’s new subwoofer will work along with Echo speakers

The smart speaker comes equipped with 3D audio from five speakers that provide amazing bass and crisp sound using Dolby Atmos technology – perfect for music lovers.

The built in smart home hub will give you the same functionality as Amazon’s other Echo devices and is ideal for anyone looking to elevate their home entertainment set up.

Buy now from Amazon

Echo Show (2nd Gen)


The second generation Echo Show combines a smart speaker and video display in one tidy device.

The display works with Alexa’s voice function to show snippets of information on screen. You can also watch video content and make video calls.

Buy now from Amazon

Echo Show 5

Echo Show

Buy now from Amazon

Echo Show 8

Save £60on the Echo Show 8 and let Alexa show you more: with an 8″ HD screen and stereo sound, Alexa can help you manage your day at a glance

Buy now from Amazon

Amazon Echo devices – what you need to know

The original Echo speaker first launched in 2017, and has gone through a number of modifications and updates over the years.

Newer speakers like the Echo 5 show device (£79.99), which comes with a video screen, are extremely popular and come with plenty of handy functions for users, ranging from playing music to setting reminders and making voice calls.

More recently Amazon also unveiled its stylish new Echo Buds (£119.99) earphones that come kitted out with Bose Active Noise Reduction technology to rival Apple’s popular AirPods.

The new Echo Studio speaker (£189.99), which boasts impressive sound quality and powerful bass for serious audiophiles, is also a great option for shoppers wanting to create that cinema vibe at home.

The biggest draw for most shoppers is the fact that Amazon’s speakers can be connected to other other smart home devices, allowing gadget fans to transform their home and operate key functions in the click of a button or voice command.





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Brazil’s Bolsonaro calls surging Amazon fires a ‘lie’


BRASILIA – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday angrily denied the existence of fires in the Amazon rainforest, calling it a “lie,” despite data produced by his own government showing that thousands of fires are surging across the region.

Bolsonaro last year similarly denied a spike in fires that provoked a global outcry, with the right-wing populist trading barbs with French President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders.

The president’s comments on Tuesday come even as Reuters witnesses in the remote Amazon town of Apui observed smoke blanketing the horizon in all directions during the day and large fires setting the sky aglow at night.

Fires in Brazil’s Amazon for the month of August hit a nine-year high in 2019 and this month so far looks even worse. More than 10,000 fires have been recorded in the first 10 days of August, up 17 percent from the same period a year ago, according to data from the country’s national space research agency Inpe.

But in a speech to other South American leaders on Tuesday, Bolsonaro challenged foreign representatives to fly over the Amazon saying that traveling by air from the far-flung cities of Boa Vista to Manaus, you would not see a single flame.

A Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) fire brigade member holds a dead anteater while attempting to control hot points in a tract of the Amazon jungle near Apui, Amazonas State, Brazil.
A Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) fire brigade member holds a dead anteater while attempting to control hot points in a tract of the Amazon jungle near Apui, Amazonas State, Brazil.Reuters

“They won’t find any spot of fire, nor a quarter of a hectare deforested,” the former army captain told a meeting of members of the Leticia Pact, an agreement between Amazon countries to protect the rainforest.

“This story that the Amazon is going up in flames is a lie and we must combat it with true numbers,” he said.

Bolsonaro interfered in Inpe after it released unfavorable data on Amazon deforestation last year, firing the agency’s head Ricardo Galvao who defended his agency’s numbers that showed rising destruction.

In his speech, Bolsonaro argued that Brazil has shown itself capable of protecting the Amazon alone because the majority of the forest is still standing.

He said the Amazon is a wet forest that preserves itself and does not catch fire. The media and foreign governments are presenting a false narrative about the Amazon, he said.

General view of a tract of the Amazon jungle which burns as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Apui, Amazonas State, Brazil.
General view of a tract of the Amazon jungle which burns as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Apui, Amazonas State, Brazil.Reuters

Experts say that fires are not a natural phenomenon in the rainforest, but are usually man-made in order to clear deforested land for pasture.

Deforestation rose 34.5 percent in the 12-months through July, compared to the same period a year ago. Forest clearances did fall in July, the first decline in 15 months, a point emphasized by Bolsonaro.

Foreign pressure is mounting on Brazil to protect the world’s largest rainforest, an ecosystem vital to preserving climate change because of the vast amount of carbon dioxide that it absorbs.

Global investors managing more than $2 trillion have threatened to pull their investments out of Brazil’s meatpackers, grains traders and government bonds if Bolsonaro’s administration doesn’t take action on Amazon destruction.

Bolsonaro has dispatched the military to fight fires and deforestation since May, with the armed forces working with environmental agency Ibama to combat fires near Apui, according to Reuters witnesses.



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Heads Of Amazon, Apple, Facebook And Google Testify On Big Tech’s Power : NPR


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (from left), Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos are scheduled to testify before a House Judiciary subcommittee.

Bertrand Guay, Tobias Schwarz, Angela Weiss, Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images


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Bertrand Guay, Tobias Schwarz, Angela Weiss, Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (from left), Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos are scheduled to testify before a House Judiciary subcommittee.

Bertrand Guay, Tobias Schwarz, Angela Weiss, Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

Do Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple stifle competition? Not surprisingly, the tech giants’ chief executives will tell Congress: absolutely not. The concern that too much power is concentrated in too few companies is unfounded, they plan to testify Wednesday.

Amid a time of rising tensions with China, some of the powerful CEOs will suggest that too much regulation could provide an opportunity for Chinese tech firms to gain a global toehold, according to opening remarks from the tech leaders released by the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee.

“We believe in values — democracy, competition, inclusion and free expression — that the American economy was built on,” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg will tell lawmakers, according to his prepared opening statement. “China is building its own version of the internet focused on very different ideas, and they are exporting their vision to other countries.”

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person who will be making his first-ever appearance in front of Congress, will bring in his personal story of being adopted by an immigrant father when he was 4 years old and spending his summers on his grandparents’ ranch in Texas, saying his upbringing instilled in him a work ethic that has helped Amazon prosper.

Amazon’s rise to becoming the largest online retailer, Bezos will say, is an achievement only made possible in America. But Walmart, he will point out, is still twice the size of Amazon.

“We did not start out as the largest marketplace — eBay was many times our size. It was only by focusing on supporting sellers and giving them the best tools we could invent that we were able to succeed and eventually surpass eBay,” Bezos says in his released testimony.

Watch the live stream here beginning at noon ET.

Google’s Sundar Pichai will steer attention to the other ways people navigate the online world, even though 90% of Internet searches happen on Google.

“People have more ways to search for information than ever before — and increasingly this is happening outside the context of only a search engine,” Pichai plans to tell the House panel. “You can ask Alexa a question from your kitchen; read your news on Twitter; ask friends for information via WhatsApp; and get recommendations on Snapchat or Pinterest.”

Apple’s Tim Cook will echo the appeals to patriotism raised among the other tech CEOs by touting how Apple’s strength, becoming the most valuable company in the world, represents success “only possible in this country.”

He will also join the other tech leaders by arguing that Apple has plenty of competition.

“The smartphone market is fiercely competitive, and companies like Samsung, LG, Huawei and Google have built very successful smartphone businesses offering different approaches,” Cook will say in his opening statement to lawmakers.

Whether members of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee buy these arguments over the course of what is set to be an hourslong spectacle is another matter.

And it remains to be seen if the public will gain new insight into the tech companies, and whether lawmakers can pin down answers from the typically cautious technology executives.

The CEOs will be testifying via video at the same time, rather than one by one, a format seen as taking the heat off any individual executive and something the companies requested.

While the hearing centers on questions around market dominance, lawmakers are free to pepper the executives with questions about any topic.

The anything-goes format will likely divert the hearing away from antitrust and delve into issues like perceived anti-conservative bias on social media platforms, a common Republican refrain. And Democrats, often raising concern about foreign election meddling, may inquire about possible efforts to influence the vote online ahead of the November election.

More on-topic probing could involve issues like acquisitions that have grown the reach of Big Tech.

For instance, Facebook has acquired nearly 90 companies, including Instagram, WhatsApp and more recently, Giphy, a tool for creating animated images.

How ever it goes, one thing is certain: It will be a day for the history books.

The hearing is the first time all four technology leaders have testified together, as scrutiny over the companies’ nearly $5 trillion market power draws intensifying scrutiny in Washington.

The CEOs will be on the defensive as House lawmakers grill them about whether the business empire each company has created has resulted in monopoly-like dominance that distorts the marketplace in their favor.

After enjoying more than a decade virtually free of federal regulation, House lawmakers are expected to make the case that it’s time for the technology behemoths to be held to account.

The hearing caps a more than year-long House investigation into the Big Tech companies, which has probed whether the industry leaders box out competition, discourage innovation and pose larger threats to society and American democracy.

If Washington can keep the bipartisan focus on Silicon Valley, the hearing could set the stage for historic regulations, but the tech CEOs will be making the case to lawmakers that laws aimed at reining in the scale and power of each company are not necessary, contending that competition among rivals has not been squashed and that consumers have benefited from the technology sector’s success.

“You earn trust slowly, over time, by doing hard things well — delivering on time; offering everyday low prices; making promises and keeping them; making principled decisions, even when they’re unpopular,” Bezos will tell the subcommittee.

Unpopular among the four tech giants: the argument that the power each company has amassed over the years is being abused and needs to be held accountable by Washington.



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Amazon UK website defaced with racist abuse


Amazon packagesImage copyright
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Amazon has blamed a “bad actor” for racist abuse that appeared on multiple listings on its UK website.

The abuse, now removed, appeared when users searched the online shop for Apple AirPods and similar products.

It was unclear how long the racist language remained on the site, but it sparked outrage on Twitter and the sharing of screenshots and video grabs.

Amazon told the BBC that it removed the images and took action against the “bad actor” as soon as the issue was raised.

The company did not elaborate on the “bad actor”, nor give details of how many products were defaced and how long the abuse was visible on the listings.

Nadine White, a journalist for the Huffington Post, tweeted that the abuse “needs to be acknowledged, removed, explained, apologised for asap. Being Black right now is hard enough; we don’t need to be called the N- word while shopping online, to boot”.

Another Twitter user said Amazon should have been able to remove the offending messages in minutes. “They’re still on Amazon UK. Extraordinarily poor site administration,” he said during early hours of Sunday.

Amazon also allows third-party retailers to sell goods through its website, with the company making about half its retail revenues from this.

But the Amazon Marketplace platform has come under scrutiny.

There has been concern about counterfeit goods appearing in the listings, and during the coronavirus pandemic Amazon was criticised for not doing enough to stop sellers inflating prices.

In April, five Amazon e-commerce websites, including the UK, were added to the US trade regulator’s “notorious markets” report on marketplaces known for counterfeiting and piracy concerns.

Amazon disagreed strongly with the move, saying in a statement that “this purely political act is another example of the administration using the US government to advance a personal vendetta against Amazon”.



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Amazon moves to stock more non-essential items — but it’s not business-as-usual


Amazon.com Inc. will slowly increase the assortment of products that can be shipped to its warehouses this week, easing restrictions instituted in March that prioritized essential goods such as medical supplies, groceries and pet food amid the pandemic.

It’s far from a return to normal operations for the online retailer, which was overwhelmed by demand from shoppers avoiding stores and had to abandon its quick delivery promises. Still, it’s a sign that Amazon is able to accommodate a larger assortment of goods after hiring 100,000 workers and announcing plans to hire 75,000 more. Further details about specific products being accepted and quantities will be shared with Amazon’s merchant partners in the coming days.

“Later this week, we will allow more products into our fulfillment centres,” Amazon said in an emailed statement. “Products will be limited by quantity to enable us to continue prioritizing products and protecting employees, while also ensuring most selling partners can ship goods into our facilities.”

The move was reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal.

In prioritizing toilet paper, bleach and sanitizing wipes over things like flat-screen televisions and toys, the company focused on delivering products people need right now, sacrificing sales from its deep inventory for the time being.

More than half of all products sold on Amazon come from independent merchants who pay Amazon commissions on each sale plus fees for storing, packing and delivering products. Merchants selling in-demand products saw a nice sales bump from swift changes in customer demand while those in the out-of-favour categories watched their sales tank.

While Amazon wasn’t accepting new shipments of goods it deemed non-essential, workers in warehouses around the country said they continued to shelve and ship non-essential items like kickballs, bedsheets and books as well as restock returned items. That generated tension because some workers said they felt Amazon could further restrict the products it sold to better protect warehouse workers. Dozens of employees have contracted the coronavirus, and protests have erupted in New York, Chicago and outside Detroit.

Groceries and household essentials as well as bread machines, home fitness equipment and computer monitors were among Amazon’s fastest-growing products in March, according to the online retail research firm Stackline. Luggage, cameras and party supplies were among the categories that saw the biggest sales drop last month.

Bloomberg.com



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This Amazon gig platform can pay pennies a task. Why are Canadians using it?


From the privacy of her own home, Kristy Milland has taught smart cars to dodge children, trained drones to fire at humans and tagged graphic videos made by terrorist groups — all through tech giant Amazon’s “crowdsourcing marketplace.”

At its best, Amazon Mechanical Turk is a low-barrier source of income that lets you earn from your living room. At its worst, it’s a penny-paying platform fuelled by a workforce with little protection against poor compensation, wage theft or trauma on the job.

Since the time Milland began working through MTurk 15 years ago, the platform’s pool of workers has grown to an estimated 100,000 individuals. It’s an increasingly important tool for everyone from tech giants to academic institutions — including Canadian universities.

“It’s good and it’s bad. It’s good because, okay, here’s an opportunity for (workers) to work in a way that is not illegal, that is not impossible, that is not physically demanding,” Milland says.

“Yet at the same time that allows requesters to say, well, then we can exploit them.”

Like its growing field of competitors, MTurk connects employers to a disparate pool of digital workers, nicknamed Turkers, who are paid to perform online “micro-tasks.” The gigs, called Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs), include everything from tagging photos to completing surveys. Requesters set the pay rate they see fit; the majority pay under a dime, a minority can earn you a few dollars. Some may take seconds to complete, others over an hour.

The common thread: humans are still better at performing these tasks than machines. The platform derives its name from an 18th century chess-playing “machine” that was later revealed to be a hoax; the device was in fact being operated by a human.

For academic researchers, MTurk provides easy access to “participant pools” that allow them to conduct surveys. Ethically, researchers can’t coerce participants into joining a research study; compensation of some form is common, but guidelines on what constitutes fair, ethical payment vary. (For example, a general study of health research practices conducted last year by the Toronto-based Wellesley Institute found that the median hourly amount provided to participants was $25.)

Milland, who is now a law student at the University of Toronto, co-authored a report in 2017 with the University of Oxford, Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University that analyzed millions of tasks and found that Turkers earned a median hourly wage of about $2.35 (Canadian).

Amazon did not respond to the Star’s request for comment.

Like most in the gig economy, Turkers are independent contractors and therefore excluded from employment protections — including minimum-wage standards.

Milland’s own experience with the platform is mixed. It became a significant source of income for her family around 2010 when her husband lost his job. At that time, it was fairly lucrative; using scripts — tools that help perform MTurk work faster — Milland says she was able to pull in around $66,000 a year.

Crowdwork can also be an opportunity for workers who face discrimination in the job market or have physical restrictions. But Milland says the platform has changed significantly in recent years. For one, programmers began creating software that scoop up the more lucrative requests, leaving only low-paid tasks for most workers.

Even as a highly experienced worker, Milland says she would now be lucky to make $20 to $30 a day.

Some of the work, she adds, can be traumatizing. She has tagged videos made by the fundamentalist Islamic State, and reviewed content that showed animals being tortured.

“It was still really bad and actually I had to stop very quickly because I couldn’t handle doing it,” she says. “For other people who don’t have that ability to get out of it they may just have to do that until they break down and can’t do it anymore. That’s horrifying.”

Much of the work on MTurk, Milland says, would in the past have been performed by contractors hired by tech companies. MTurk itself notes that it hosts gigs that have traditionally “been accomplished by hiring a large temporary workforce, which is time-consuming, expensive and difficult to scale.”

Some of the HITs posted by universities even replace tasks traditionally done by research assistants, according to Milland, such as updating citations.

“There are an abundance of people who are well-educated on the platform and able to do these tasks, and academics do leverage that,” she said.

Currently, Canadian workers represent about 2 per cent of MTurk’s overall workforce, said New York University data science professor Panos Ipeirotis.

The Star asked the University of Toronto, Ryerson, and York universities whether they tracked their academics’ usage of MTurk or have any guidelines around the use of the platform. All three institutions said researchers must abide by their employers’ research ethics standards, but none had developed MTurk-specific policies or tracked its use.

According to one site that compiles reviews and self-reported data from MTurk workers, the average hourly wage paid by one researcher who identified themselves as a University of Toronto affiliate was $9.14 — $5 below Ontario’s minimum wage. Another set of requests by an account called “University of Toronto Soc. Studies” paid almost $18 an hour. One account called “Active Vision Lab York University Canada” paid around $10 an hour.

In response to questions from the Star, a spokesperson for the University of Toronto said all research using human subjects sanctioned by the university is reviewed by the Research Ethics Board (REB).

“The REB ensures any compensation is appropriate for the time involvement,” the spokesperson said.

Janice Walls, York University’s acting director of media relations, told the Star a “fundamental principle related to participation in research is that it is voluntary.”

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“Many researchers choose to compensate participants for their time and effort, however, participation in a research study is not meant to be employment and as such compensation is not a rate of pay,” she said.

While ethics standards forbid research subjects from being coerced into participating, Milland says academic institutions are ignoring a basic reality about using MTurk.

“This is a workplace,” she says. “(Workers) are not doing it for fun.”

A 2016 study conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center found that a quarter of American workers who earn money through “online tasks” rely on the income because of a “lack of other jobs where they live.”

The Star signed up to work on MTurk using an existing Amazon account. The terms of service with the platform require workers to use their “human intelligence and independent judgment to perform tasks in a competent and workmanlike manner.” They also forbid workers from using “robots, scripts, or other automated methods” as a substitute for independent judgment.

Over the course of an hour’s work on MTurk, the Star filled out a survey about shopping habits; examined various car dealerships’ websites and extracted contact information; and analyzed academic charts to write summaries of them. This work added up to a value of $2.02, but to date only seven of 14 submissions have been approved by their requesters. One was rejected and did not receive payment. So far, the Star has earned 61 cents.

That’s not indicative of how much professional Turkers are earning: no scripts were used to speed up tasks, and as a newcomer to the site, it took time to find higher-paying HITs. The best-paying available post paid $28 to transcribe 58 minutes of audio, but it required qualifications — meaning not every Turker is eligible to complete the work.

Working through MTurk involves a significant amount of unpaid labour looking for HITs, Milland’s research shows. That, she says, “bottoms out” potential earnings. And, her study found, another source of lost income stems from MTurk requesters rejecting work that’s already been completed.

“Once a worker submits completed work, the employer can choose whether to pay for it. This discretion allows employers to reject work that does not meet their needs, but also enables wage theft,” says a 2015 study by University of California, San Diego professor Lilly Irani.

This, Irani’s study says, is possible because MTurk’s participation agreement gives employers “full intellectual property rights over submissions regardless of rejection,” meaning workers have “no legal recourse against employers who reject work and then use it anyway.” (Rejections also affect Turkers’ approval ratings and ability to access work.)

Six Silberman, an engineer and programmer who now works for the German union IG Metall, helped set up a website called Turkopticon that “helps the people in the ‘crowd’ of crowdsourcing watch out for each other.”

Silberman says, with the possible exception of California where laws around classifying workers as independent contractors are stricter, there is little argument that the contractor designation applies to Turkers. But, he adds, crowdsourcing platforms and companies who use them could do much more to ensure fairer pay rates and provide better mechanisms to resolve disputes.

“The requester is in a position to resolve some of these problems. And there are some problems that only the platform operators are in a position to solve.”

Some institutions, like the University of Waterloo and the University of California, Berkeley, have developed guidelines for researchers using MTurk. Although they don’t include a minimum pay rate, Waterloo’s guidelines note that “in the spirit of fairness,” researchers should provide compensation that is similar to tasks of “similar length and difficulty.”

Meanwhile, other responses are emerging. U.S.-based academic survey consulting company MTurk Data, for example, helps universities make requests on MTurk’s platform.

Part of the guarantee: the group will pay participants an average wage of $16 an hour.

Sara Mojtehedzadeh





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Cenovus joins Big Oil’s push into Big Data with Amazon and IBM deals


CALGARY — Big Oil is continuing its push into Big Data as Cenovus Energy Inc. has struck deals with tech giants Amazon Web Services and International Business Machines Corp. in an attempt to harness the power of cloud computing and lower its costs.

I don’t want this to be our grandfather’s industry

Ian Enright, Cenovus vice-president and chief information officer

“I don’t want to run our grandfather’s IT shop. I don’t want this to be our grandfather’s industry,” Ian Enright, Cenovus vice-president and chief information officer, said of the Calgary-based company’s plans to move its data out of two local data centres and into Amazon Web Services’ cloud following a deal struck over the summer.

The oil and gas producer is also planning to use Amazon’s cloud computing power to process and analyze its data and run other software programs in a move the company says will lower costs and allow it to better understand the “millions of data points” produced by its steam-based oilsands plants.

“Running machine learning and analytics against these things, as other industries have found, we really feel we’ll be able to enhance our operations and our efficiency,” Enright said.

“Right now, we’re just scratching the surface of the value of that,” he said.

Cenovus did not announce the deal with Amazon when it was struck, but described a broader push at the company to adopt new digital technologies and cut costs. In an interview Enright said the company ran a “bake-off” between cloud computing providers in late 2018 and picked Amazon this year for its big move to cloud computing.

In fact, a series of recent announcements indicate that more Calgary-based oil and gas companies are turning to cloud computing and big data in an attempt to modernize their businesses as the energy industry is trying to shed its reputation of being laggards when it comes to adopting digital technologies.

This month, oilsands rival Suncor Energy Inc. announced a similar partnership with Microsoft Corp. to migrate its data, computing power and processes to the Redmond, Wash.-based company’s cloud services and overhaul many aspects of its business.

While oil and gas companies have been pilloried for being digital laggards, large Calgary-based oil and gas companies have been quietly integrating new digital technologies in a bid to cut costs as they’ve been pressured by low oil prices, a lack of export pipelines.

In 2017, Calgary-based pipeline giant TC Energy Corp. began migrating its data and computer processing onto Amazon’s cloud services and that move to cloud computing is now 90 per cent complete, said Eric Gales, Amazon Web Services country manager for Canada.

TC Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

As we enter the next chapter of digital reinvention, the oil and gas industry is primed for transformation

Ross Manning, IBM’s vice-president, Canadian energy industry

Gales said he’s seen a major change in large companies’ attitudes towards digital technologies in the past four years and said the pace of adoption has increased dramatically.

“Four years ago, I was still having conversations with customers about ‘why?’ Now, it’s about ‘Where do I start?’” Gales said.

Now he said, many of the major companies in the Canadian oilpatch have a “cloud strategy” because “the case for the cloud has been made.”

At Cenovus, Enright said he believes the move to Amazon’s cloud computing service will allow it to run multiple data analyses concurrently — something it wasn’t able to do previously — and also cut down the amount of time it takes to analyze that data.

“When you go to the cloud to look at reservoir simulations or modelling our greenhouse gas improvements, things like that, we can model many things simultaneously,” Enright said.

For example, when Cenovus struck its $17.7-billion deal to buy ConocoPhillips Co.’s Canadian assets in 2017, it took the company nearly four months to acquire the computer servers it needed to process the data for the deal.

As the company integrates more of its processes into Amazon’s cloud, Enright said he’s confident the company could process the same volume and complexity of data in under three weeks.

On Monday, Cenovus also announced a deal with IBM in which the Armonk, New York-based tech giant will implement a suite of new software programs at the oilsands producer.

Enright said the technology will run in the cloud and is part of the broader push to cloud computing and faster decision making aided by digital technologies.

“As we enter the next chapter of digital reinvention, the oil and gas industry is primed for transformation, with companies turning to new platforms that will maximize the value of their assets, lower operating costs and continue to improve on their sustainable operations,” IBM’s vice-president, Canadian energy industry Ross Manning said in a release.

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