Good Reads: From Google Ocean, to Detroit’s foodie takeover, to Amazon’s workers

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes a look at Google Ocean's underwater cameras, Whole Foods in Detroit, Paris's floating city neighborhood, tourism in Chernobyl, and Amazon's underpaid delivery drivers.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Laborers work on a construction project in Rawabi, West Bank.

Beneath the waves of the Caribbean Sea lies a marine metropolis built upon the living rocks that are coral reefs, a world that the majority of humans will never see, writes Bryan Walsh for Time magazine. The Catlin Seaview Survey aims to change that with a $20,000 custom-built underwater camera, a multinational team of researchers, and good old Google.

Guided by a diver and attached to a propeller sled, the SVII camera snaps a picture every three seconds. During one 45-minute dive, the SVII captured more than 900 images, which a computer later pieced together into a panoramic view of the reef. Some of those images will be added to Google Ocean, an underwater version of Google’s Street View program. The project is a race against time to document the world’s coral reefs before what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called “the most vulnerable marine ecosystem on Earth” disappears.

The Whole Foods effect

Whole Foods Markets have become a fixture of privileged liberal enclaves and hipster college towns, but in recent years, the elite supermarket has found that appetites for fresh, organic, and natural food can find a home almost anywhere. In July 2013, the Austin, Texas-based natural food giant opened a 21,000-square-foot store in one of the country’s most unlikely locations – Detroit. “This may come as a surprise to those who still think of the retailer as ‘Whole Paycheck,’ an overpriced natural-food haven for yoga-practicing, juice-cleansing Prius drivers or hipsters obsessed with artisanal baking soda,” writes Fortune Magazine’s Beth Kowitt.

Whole Foods’s national brand is largely defined by strict rules for its shelves. Since its inception in 1980, the market has not stocked products with artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, and currently bans 78 different ingredients. Whether in Austin, Detroit, or San Francisco, shoppers automatically know that they will not find any products with aspartame or high-fructose corn syrup even as they experience a bit of localized flare, from an oyster-shucking station in San Francisco to Motown-themed décor in Detroit. It’s a formula that draws more than 7 million customers to the company’s 375 different stores each week.

The floating ‘arrondissement’ of Paris

If Paris is the city of love, the Seine River is its heart. The beloved rivière serves as the city’s compass, its muse, and its keeper of secrets, writes National Geographic’s Cathy Newman. With Parisian indifference, the Seine holds and protects both the keys to lovers’ locks tossed into the waves in a superstitious bid for eternal love and the castoff wedding rings of divorcées reopening their hearts.

Ms. Newman opens a porthole into a segment of Parisian culture that cannot be found in guidebooks or walking tours. She introduces readers to the diverse résidents that call the Seine home, from the erudite composer who installed a Steinway grand piano in the living room of his houseboat, to the downtrodden vagrants who seek refuge on a floating homeless shelter.

Chernobyl: 28 years later

It has been 28 years since the V.I. Lenin Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station shot “a biblical pillar of radioactive flame surging into the sky,” writes Russian-born, American-raised Alexander Nazaryan for Newsweek. The thousand-mile area Exclusion Zone surrounding the nuclear facility some 90 miles north of Kiev, Ukraine, will likely be uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years. Yet, somehow, the radioactive wasteland has given rise to a booming tourist industry.

The Ukrainian government first started allowing tourists to visit the region in 2002. In 2004, about 870 visitors toured the ruins of Pripyat, the abandoned home of Chernobyl’s former employees. Ten years later, more than 12,000 tourists, mostly Americans trek to the “Ukrainian Pompeii.” Like Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano that buried Pompeii in ash in AD 79, the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl remains dormant but active. “The place remains a half-opened tinderbox of potential nuclear horrors, and just because much of the world has forgotten about Chernobyl doesn’t mean catastrophe won’t visit here again,” Mr. Nazaryan writes. “But don’t let that detract from your sightseeing.”

Amazon’s other drones

While Amazon scrambles to secure unmanned delivery copters, privately contracted delivery drivers race around America’s cities and towns delivering packages for the company’s “Prime” members for $1.50 a pop. “If [a driver] delivers 150 Amazon boxes – a fairly routine number – he can pull in $225. Not bad for a day’s work,” writes Dave Jamieson for The Huffington Post. “That is, until he starts tallying up all his out-of-pocket costs.”

As private contractors, these drivers purchase their own cargo vans and cover all gasoline, insurance, and maintenance costs. By contracting private delivery drivers, Amazon avoids having to cover costly workplace benefits and mandatory unemployment compensation insurance. “It’s like they want us to be employees, but they don’t want to pay for it,” one driver told Mr. Jamieson.

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