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Meet the vaccine appointment bots, and their foes

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Meet the vaccine appointment bots, and their foes

Having trouble scoring a COVID-19 vaccine appointment? You’re not alone. To cope, some people are turning to bots that scan overwhelmed websites and send alerts on social media when slots open up.

They’ve provided relief to families helping older relatives find scarce appointments. But not all public health officials think they’re a good idea.

In rural Buckland, Massachusetts, two hours west of Boston, a vaccine clinic canceled a day of appointments after learning that out-of-towners scooped up almost all of them in minutes thanks to a Twitter alert. In parts of New Jersey, health officials added steps to block bots, which they say favor the tech-savvy.

WHAT IS A VACCINE BOT?

Bots — basically autonomous programs on the web — have emerged amid widespread frustration with the online world of vaccine appointments.

Though the situations vary by state, people often have to check multiple provider sites for available appointments. Weeks after the rollout began, demand for vaccines continues to outweigh supply, complicating the search even for eligible people as they refresh appointment sites to score a slot. When a coveted opening does appear, many find it can vanish midway through the booking.

The most notable bots scan vaccine provider websites to detect changes, which could mean a clinic is adding new appointments. The bots are often overseen by humans, who then post alerts of the openings using Twitter or text notifications.

A second type that’s more worrisome to health officials are “scalper” bots that could automatically book appointments, potentially to offer them up for sale. So far, there’s little evidence scalper bots are taking appointments.

ARE VACCINE BOT ALERTS HELPING?

Yes, for the people who use them.

“THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I GOT MY DAD AN APPOINTMENT! THANK YOU SO MUCH!” tweeted Benjamin Shover, of Stratford, New Jersey, after securing a March 3 appointment for his 70-year-old father with the help of an alert from Twitter account @nj_vaccine.

The success came a month after signing up for New Jersey’s state online vaccine registry.

“He’s not really tech-savvy,” Shover said of his father in an interview. “He’s also physically disabled, and has arthritis, so it’s tough for him to find an appointment online.”

The creator of the bot, software engineer Kenneth Hsu, said his original motivation was to help get an appointment for his own parents-in-law. Now he and other volunteers have set a broader mission of assisting others locked out of New Jersey’s confusing online appointment system.

“These are people who just want to know they’re on a list somewhere and they are going to be helped,” Hsu said. “We want everyone vaccinated. We want to see our grandparents.”

WHAT DO HEALTH OFFICIALS THINK?

The bots have met resistance in some communities. A bot that alerted Massachusetts residents to a clinic this week in sparsely populated Franklin County led many people from the Boston area to sign up for the slots. Local officials canceled all of the appointments, switched to a private system and spread the word through senior centers and town officials.

“Our goal was to help our residents get their vaccination,” said Tracy Rogers, emergency preparedness manager for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “But 95% of the appointments we had were from outside Franklin County.”

New Jersey’s Union County put a CAPTCHA prompt in its scheduling system to confirm visitors are human, blocking efforts “to game” it with a bot, said Sebastian D’Elia, a county spokesperson.

“When you post on Twitter, only a certain segment of society is going to see that,” he said. Even if they’re trying to help someone else, D’Elia said others do not have the luxury of people who are advocating for them.

But the person who created a bot that’s now blocked in Union County, 24-year-old computer programmer Noah Marcus, said the current system isn’t fair, either.

“The system was already favoring the tech-savvy and the person who can just sit in front of their computer all day, hitting refresh,” Marcus said.

D’Elia said the county is also scheduling appointments by phone to help those who might have trouble online.

HOW DO THEY WORK?

Marcus used the Python coding language to create a program that sifts through a vaccine clinic website, looking for certain keywords and tables that would indicate new appointments. Other bots use different techniques, depending on how the target website is built.

This kind of information gathering, known as web scraping, remains a source of rancor. Essentially, scraping is collecting information from a website that its owner doesn’t want collected, said Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Some web services have taken web scrapers to court, saying scraping techniques violate the terms and conditions for accessing their sites. One case involving bots that scraped LinkedIn profiles is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There’s disagreement in the courts about the legality of web-scraping,” Kerr said. “It’s a murky area. It’s probably legal but it’s not something we have certainty about.”

WHAT ABOUT SCALPER BOTS?

The website for a mass vaccination site in Atlantic City, New Jersey says its online queue system — which keeps people waiting on the site as slots are allotted — is designed to prevent it from crashing and to stop bots from snapping up appointments “from real people.” But is that actually happening?

Making a bot that can actually book appointments — not just detect them — would be a lot harder. And sites usually ask for information such as a person’s date of birth to make sure they are eligible.

Pharmacy giants Walgreens and CVS, which are increasingly giving people shots across the U.S., have already said they’ve been working to prevent such activity.

Walgreens said it is using cybersecurity techniques to detect and prevent bots so that “only authorized and eligible patients will have access to schedule a vaccine appointment.” CVS Health said it’s encountered various types of automated activities and has designed its appointment-making system to validate legitimate users.

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Can someone have a word with my co-worker about her plunging necklines?

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Can someone have a word with my co-worker about her plunging necklines?

My co-worker has a Jayne Mansfield figure and continually wears plunging necklines, resulting in stares from staff. Can human resources legally advise her to dress more appropriately?

The answer is generally yes. HR can legally have a conversation with an employee about their manner of dress, provided someone isn’t being singled out because of gender, race or religious observance. However, one needs to tread very carefully because unless there is a specific dress code, this conversation is fraught with negative outcomes. Since this is an observation of a coworker and you aren’t this person’s boss, do you really want to engage in this matter or refer it to HR? Do you have the kind of relationship where you can speak to them privately about how their manner of dress is impacting other colleagues? You’d better be damn close colleagues in order to have that conversation, though, otherwise, this is best left to the boss and HR.

I work on a contract basis and there are times when I’m working overtime, but the company will not approve my time sheet past 40 hours. My agency said I should put in for the OT, but I don’t want to rock the boat. Is this legal? Full disclosure: The department I work in is HR so it would be ironic if they are bending the rules.

Well, the fact that you work in the HR department gives me some confidence that they are following the rules, although it’s not like HR hasn’t failed to protect employee rights now and then. A person’s eligibility for OT depends on the work they are doing, whether they are paid a flat fee, or if they are OT eligible, meaning the company approves the extra hours before they are worked. If you are eligible then by law they have to pay you for those hours. You can and should ask for clarification of your situation. If you are eligible and they won’t authorize the extra pay then you shouldn’t work the extra hours. Keep a detailed log of your hours and who was aware that you worked them. If this is a temporary job, you can also consider raising the issue at the end of the assignment. If they don’t comply with back pay, you will have the facts and law on your side.

Gregory Giangrande has over 25 years of experience as a chief human resources executive and is dedicated to helping New Yorkers get back to work. E-mail your questions to [email protected] Follow Greg on Twitter: @greggiangrande and at GoToGreg.com

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Woolly mammoth tusk found during roadwork in Oregon

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Woolly mammoth tusk found during roadwork in Oregon

It was a mammoth discovery!

Crews rerouting a gas line in the city of Corvallis, Ore., uncovered the 12,000-year-old tusk of a woolly mammoth beneath the roadway.

“Whenever doing this type of work, our crews are very careful to keep any eye out for any type of materials they may find while working that could be fragile or historic,” a spokeswoman for NW Natural, the gas company doing the work, told the Corvallis Gazette-Times. “As is our protocol, we stopped work immediately.”

The excavation work was being done for the city government, part of a project on water lines and storm drains in the area. The company contacted Corvallis officials, who brought in Oregon State University’s Loren Davis, an anthropology professor who researches archaeological sites from western North America that date from the Pleistocene era, more than 12,000 years ago.

Davis said that the mammoth, which co-existed with early humans, probably was buried in the great Missoula floods of the Pleistocene era. The tusk is about 6 feet below ground level, and extends into the construction trench wall, meaning more of the animal’s body might be hidden underground.

The exact reason it ended up there is “a bit of a mystery,” Davis said. “The world was changing structure to a post-glacial one. People also were present. There might have been environmental factors as well as hunting pressure. It could be lots of things.”

Early humans not only hunted mammoths for food, but used their bones and tusks to make tools, dwellings and art.

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McDonald’s worker rage-quits with sign at drive-thru

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McDonald's worker rage-quits with sign at drive-thru

McDonald’s may want to reconsider its “I’m lovin’ it” slogan.

A Louisville, Kentucky, employee apparently despised working at the fast-food chain so much that they hung up a sign on the drive-thru speaker that read: “We are closed because I am quitting and I hate this job.”

After Twitter user Great Ape Dad snapped and posted a picture of the straight-to-the-point sign on Monday morning, it quickly went viral. He later elaborated that the sign supposedly was put up by a night shift manager who had “suddenly quit” the previous night.

Great Ape Dad told Today that he was on his way to pick up the new BTS meal for his wife when he saw the note. “I took a picture, uploaded it to Twitter, not thinking much of anything about it,” he said. “And much to my surprise, it’s had quite a success.” Apparently, none of the employees had seen the sign until he pointed it out.

“I used to work in the service industry myself,” he said. “I think that people are just frustrated, especially the working-class people who are there in the front line … things that are in a boiling point where I can definitely see where someone on a Saturday night that doesn’t want to be working the drive-thru — wants to just call it quits.”

This isn’t an isolated incident. Minimum wage workers have been rage-quitting their low-level jobs in mass quantities as businesses begin to open up again in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Combined with a need for new hires and a push for working wages, companies have begun to take action. 

McDonald’s reported in May that it plans to raise employee wages by 10% in the next few months. Based on location, all entry-level employees can look forward to making anywhere $11 to $17 per hour, and all shift managers will make $15 to $20 an hour.
According to a National Federation of Independent Business survey, 40% of small businesses have job openings that have yet to be filled, while a poll found that 39% of workers would consider quitting if they weren’t offered more flexibility about continuing to work remotely.

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