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Charter has 230 infected employees after resisting work-at-home requests

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Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum vehicle.

More than 230 Charter employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least two have died, The New York Times reported today.

New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office has opened an inquiry into Charter’s labor practices and management of employees during the pandemic, a spokesperson for James confirmed to Ars today.

Charter has faced numerous complaints from employees about the company’s refusal to let them work from home during the pandemic. The cable company partially backed away from its strict rules on March 20, saying it would let up to 40 percent of call-center employees do remote work. But Charter’s slow reaction to the pandemic—while the similarly situated Comcast moved aggressively to get employees into work-at-home situations—may have contributed to the spread of coronavirus in the company.

“Of the [Charter] Spectrum employees who tested positive for COVID-19, roughly half worked in offices or call centers… at least two Spectrum field workers have died,” the Times reported, citing an anonymous source.

“Any worker who has tested positive for COVID-19 is given two weeks of paid sick leave,” a Charter spokesperson said, according to the Times. Charter has 95,000 employees in 41 states, including about 40,000 in call centers and offices, and 55,000 who “deal with customers face to face as field technicians or retail employees,” the Times wrote.

Charter has apparently expanded work-at-home rights since its March 20 announcement. A Charter spokesperson told Ars today that “the significant majority of our office and call-center employees are working from home.” Charter declined to provide details on the number of illnesses and deaths from COVID-19 at the company, and it declined to comment on the New York attorney general’s inquiry.

“Breeding ground for germs”

Charter CEO Tom Rutledge angered employees last month when he issued a memo telling them to keep coming to the office even if their jobs can be performed from home, because people “are more effective from the office.” In mid-March, we talked to several Charter employees who complained that they should be able to work at home instead of in call centers; one employee described a call center as “an absolute nightmare breeding ground for germs.” Several Charter office buildings were shut down temporarily to be disinfected after employees got sick. Charter also faced criticism last month for giving its cable technicians $25 restaurant gift cards instead of hazard pay for going into customer homes during the pandemic.

Charter yesterday announced that it won’t do any layoffs or furloughs “for at least the next 60 days.” Other previously announced concessions to workers included pay increases “for all hourly workers from $15 to $20 over the next two years with an immediate increase of $1.50 an hour for the frontline field and customer operations employees and an additional $1.50 starting March 2021.” Charter is also offering “three weeks of COVID-19-related flex time” and upgraded health plans “to waive costs for diagnostic testing services and telehealth visits for 90 days.”

“Employees may take those [three weeks of flex time] off, though salaried workers have been encouraged to use that time to work remotely,” the Times wrote.

A month-old petition on Change.org urging Rutledge to let more employees work remotely has received about 7,800 signatures. “There are a lot of us who are in the high-risk group due to old age and you are putting us and our families at risk of getting exposed to this virus,” the petition said.

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Nvidia AI plays Minecraft, wins AI conference award

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Enlarge / MineDojo’s AI can perform complex tasks in Minecraft.

Nvidia

A paper describing MineDojo, Nvidia’s generalist AI agent that can perform actions from written prompts in Minecraft, won an Outstanding Datasets and Benchmarks Paper Award at the 2022 NeurIPS (Neural Information Processing Systems) conference, Nvidia revealed on Monday.

To train the MineDojo framework to play Minecraft, researchers fed it 730,000 Minecraft YouTube videos (with more than 2.2 billion words transcribed), 7,000 scraped webpages from the Minecraft wiki, and 340,000 Reddit posts and 6.6 million Reddit comments describing Minecraft gameplay.

From this data, the researchers created a custom transformer model called MineCLIP that associates video clips with specific in-game Minecraft activities. As a result, someone can tell a MineDojo agent what to do in the game using high-level natural language, such as “find a desert pyramid” or “build a nether portal and enter it,” and MineDojo will execute the series of steps necessary to make it happen in the game.

Examples of tasks that MineDojo can perform.

Examples of tasks that MineDojo can perform.

Nvidia

MineDojo aims to create a flexible agent that can generalize learned actions and apply them to different behaviors in the game. As Nvidia writes, “While researchers have long trained autonomous AI agents in video-game environments such as StarCraft, Dota, and Go, these agents are usually specialists in only a few tasks. So Nvidia researchers turned to Minecraft, the world’s most popular game, to develop a scalable training framework for a generalist agent—one that can successfully execute a wide variety of open-ended tasks.”

Nvidia

The award-winning paper, “MINEDOJO: Building Open-Ended Embodied Agents with Internet-Scale Knowledge,” debuted in June. Its authors include Linxi Fan of Nvidia and Guanzhi Wang, Yunfan Jiang, Ajay Mandlekar, Yuncong Yang, Haoyi Zhu, Andrew Tang, De-An Huang, Yuke Zhu, and Anima Anandkumar of various academic institutions.

You can see examples of MineDojo in action on its official website, and the code for MineDojo and MineCLIP is available on GitHub.

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European Parliament DDoSed after declaring Russia a sponsor of terrorism

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Enlarge / An iteration of what happens when your site gets shut down by a DDoS attack.

The European Parliament website was knocked offline for several hours on Wednesday by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that started shortly after the governing body voted to declare the Russian government a state sponsor of terrorism.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola confirmed the attack on Wednesday afternoon European time, while the site was still down. “A pro-Kremlin group has claimed responsibility,” she wrote on Twitter. “Our IT experts are pushing back against it & protecting our systems. This, after we proclaimed Russia as a State-sponsor of terrorism.”

While this post was being reported and written, the website became available again and appeared to work normally.

The pro-Kremlin group Metsola referred to is likely the one known as Killnet, which emerged at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has posted claims of DDoS attacks in countries supporting the smaller nation. Targets have included police departments, airports, and governments in Lithuania, Germany, Italy, Romania, Norway, and the United States.

Shortly after Wednesday’s attack against the European Parliament started, Killnet members took to a private channel on Telegram to post screenshots showing the European Parliament website was unavailable in 23 countries. Text accompanying the images made a homophobic remark directed at the legislative body.

The outage occurred shortly after the parliament overwhelmingly voted to declare the Kremlin a sponsor of terrorism.

Members of the European Parliament “highlight that the deliberate attacks and atrocities committed by Russian forces and their proxies against civilians in Ukraine, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and other serious violations of international and humanitarian law amount to acts of terror and constitute war crimes,” the declaration stated. “In light of this, they recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and as a state that ‘uses means of terrorism.’”

The resolution was adopted with 494 votes in favor, and 58 against. There were 44 abstentions.

DDoS attacks typically harness the bandwidth of hundreds, thousands, and in some cases, millions of computers infected with malware. After coming into their control, the attackers cause them to bombard a target site with more traffic than they can accommodate, forcing them to deny service to legitimate users. Traditionally, DDoS has been among the crudest forms of attack because it relies on brute force to silence its targets.

Over the years, DDoSes have become more advanced. In some cases, the attackers can increase the bandwidth by as much as a thousand-fold using amplification methods, which send data to a misconfigured third-party site, which then returns a much larger amount of traffic to the target.
Another innovation has been designing attacks that exhaust the computing resources of a server. Rather than clogging the pipe between the website and the would-be visitors—the way more traditional volumetric DDoSes work—packet-per-second attacks send specifc types of compute-intensive requests to a target in an attempt to bring the hardware connected to the pipe to a standstill.

Metsola said the DDoS attacks on the European Parliament were “sophisticated,” a word that’s often misused to describe DDoSes and hacks. She provided no details to corroborate that assessment.

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Apple iPhone factory workers clash with police in China

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Enlarge / Workers walk outside Hon Hai Group’s Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, in 2010.

Violent worker protests have erupted at the world’s largest iPhone factory in central China as authorities at the Foxconn plant struggle to contain a COVID-19 outbreak while maintaining production ahead of the peak holiday season.

Workers at the factory in Zhengzhou shared more than a dozen videos that show staff in a standoff with lines of police armed with batons and clad in white protective gear. The videos show police beating workers, with some bleeding from their heads and others limping away from chaotic clashes.

Beijing’s strict zero-COVID regime has posed big challenges for the running of Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant, which typically staffs more than 200,000 workers on a large campus in the city’s suburbs.

Wednesday’s unrest will heighten investor concerns about supply chain risk at Apple, with more than 95 percent of iPhones produced in China.

Problems at the plant earlier this month led Apple to cut estimates for high-end iPhone 14 shipments and to issue a rare warning to investors over the delays.

Two workers at the Foxconn factory said the protests broke out on Wednesday morning after Apple’s manufacturing partner attempted to deny bonuses promised to new workers put into quarantine before being sent to assembly lines.

“Initially they just went into the plant seeking an explanation from executives, but they [the executives] didn’t show their faces and instead called the police,” said one of the workers.

Another worker said there was growing discontent over the factory’s continued inability to curb a COVID outbreak, tough living conditions, and fear among staff that they would test positive.

Foxconn said the company would work with employees and the government to prevent further violent acts.

The company said it had always fulfilled its contracts and would continue to “communicate and explain” that to new staff. It said reports that the company had mixed COVID positive workers with those not yet infected were untrue.

Videos show workers flipping over carts on the Foxconn campus, charging into the factory’s offices and bashing a COVID testing booth. Live streams from the scene on Wednesday afternoon showed groups of workers milling about in a courtyard between buildings. Some workers were livestreaming the protests on social media until censors stepped in to cut off the broadcasts.

“The Foxconn situation raises concern for China’s leaders because it challenges the narrative of being a reliable supplier,” said Shan Guo at Plenum China Research. “It’s clear workers are not happy being locked down,” she said.

Foxconn has been working with the local government in Henan province, where the plant is located, to repopulate its assembly lines with new workers after a mass staff exodus late last month spurred by conditions at the plant.

Local officials have been tasked with helping send workers to the plant, which is a big taxpayer and was responsible for 60 percent of the province’s exports in 2019.

Ivan Lam, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, said Foxconn had already been shifting iPhone 14 production away from the Zhengzhou factory amid the COVID problems. He estimated the Zhengzhou plant’s share of total iPhone 14 production was down to about 60 percent today from about 80 percent before the outbreak began.

Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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