Elon Musk Is Leaving the Board of an AI Safety Group He Co-Founded

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been described as an artificial intelligence alarmist even as the tech billionaire invested in AI research. Now, Musk is leaving the board of a non-profit AI research company he co-founded in 2015 due to potential conflicts with his ongoing work at Tesla.

The research group, OpenAI, said in a blog post this week that Musk will leave its board in order to avoid any conflicts with his work at Tesla and its AI-supported autonomous driving technology. “As Tesla continues to become more focused on AI, this will eliminate a potential future conflict for Elon,” OpenAI said in the blog post. Musk will remain an advisor to the group and he will continue to donate to OpenAI’s research efforts.

Over the past couple of years, OpenAI has worked to develop applications of AI in fields such as robotics and gaming, among others. Its goal is to independently research artificial intelligence “in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return,” the group said in 2015.

At the same time, Musk’s Tesla continues to push deeper into the world of AI research itself as it develops machine learning technology for autonomous vehicles. He has also been vocal about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence—even describing AI as “the greatest risk we face as a civilization” while engaging in a war of words with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over their disagreement on the subject. Among Musk’s concerns regarding AI are the idea that artificial intelligence could become dangerous if it evolves past the point of human intelligence, and that unregulated AI could potentially be used to start global conflicts by “manipulating information.”

Musk created OpenAI with technology executives and investors including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Jessica Livingston, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. With additional support from corporate backers such as Amazon and Infosys, the group formed with over $1 billion in donations.

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OpenAI also announced a group of new donors this week, including former Olympic athletes Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton as well as Skype founder Jaan Tallinn.

Broke Out Of This Jailhouse REIT

It’s one thing when jails are successful in housing and rehabilitating prisoners, but when those jails themselves become dysfunctional, something has to give. We were originally very positive on the concept of private prison ownership, knowing that the government couldn’t handle or didn’t want to handle the workload. But with its own set of issues and challenges, we are throwing in the towel on this Jailhouse REIT.

CoreCivic Inc. (CXW) (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) is a real estate investment trust company specializing in correctional, detention, and residential reentry facilities and prison operations. It also makes certain healthcare, food, work and recreational programs available to offenders as well as providing a variety of rehabilitation and educational programs like basic education, faith-based services, life skills and employment training, and substance abuse treatment – programs that intend to help reduce recidivism and prepare offenders for their successful reentry into the society upon their release.

It earns revenue on an inmate per-day based on actual or minimum guaranteed occupancy levels. In 2016, the company recorded $1.9 billion revenue. It has 13,755 employees and is the largest player in the correctional facilities industry with 34% market share. It owns 57% of all privately owned correctional and detention capacity.

Source: CoreCivic Investor Presentation

If Planning To Visit

As of September 30, 2017, CoreCivic owned 79 real estate assets and manages 7 additional facilities owned by its government partners. It owns 44 correctional facilities with 64,064 bed capacity and manages 7 facilities with total bed capacity of 8,769 beds. It leases 2 correctional facilities with 4,960 beds capacity and leases 7 residential centers with a total of 1,047 beds capacity to other operators and leases another 3 properties with total area of 30,000 sq. ft. to the federal government. It also operates 23 residential reenter centers with total capacity of 4,792 beds.

Aside from its principal executive offices in Nashville, TN, it also owns two corporate office buildings.

Source: CoreCivic Investor Presentation

Customers/Key Buyers

CoreCivic’s customers consist of federal and state correctional and detention authorities. Its key federal customers include the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the United States Marshals Service (USMS), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Contracts from federal correctional and detention authorities account for about 51% of the company’s revenue whereas contracts from state customers account for about 42% of its revenue. Most of these contracts contain clauses allowing the government agency to end the contract at any time without cause. Moreover, these contracts are also subject to annual or biannual legislative appropriation of funds.

Aside from diversifying within federal, state, and local agencies, the risks of ending a contract prematurely is that CoreCivic has staggered contract expirations with most of its customers having multiple contracts. In the past, BOP has tended to let contracts end rather than end them prematurely as it is dependent on private prisons to house low-security inmates – typically undocumented male immigrants.

We knew about the concentration of government dependence when we invested in the stock but have become increasingly concerned with both the lack of inmate growth (see below) and the potential for government decisions that could adversely affect revenues – particularly in a highly polarized political environment that frankly, we find unpredictable.

Source: CoreCivic Investor Presentation

Recent Trends

Because the majority of the company’s revenue come from the federal government, its contracts are susceptible to annual or biannual appropriations, and having short terms of just three to five years, CoreCivic could be largely affected by an impending government shutdown. At present, immigration policy is one of the major issues wherein the Republicans and Democrats have opposing stances. For example, from January 19th to the 22nd, the U.S. entered a government shutdown after the two parties failed to come to an agreement about the funds allocated to immigration issues like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

With the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement being one of the major customers of CoreCivic, the company is directly affected by these shutdowns.

During a shutdown, the government will not be able to pass any short-term spending bills that allow budget allocations to be released to various agencies. Companies like CXW receive fixed monthly payments so the BOP may not be able to release funds or pay CoreCivic for a short period of time, depending on when and how long the shutdown occurs – resulting in cash flow and working capital challenges. Luckily, the government shutdown did not last very long, but the potential for a similar risk in the future is still relevant.

Another trend that is likely to affect CoreCivic’s business is the continuous decline in the number of prisoners. The number of prisoners under state and federal jurisdiction has declined by 7% from 2009 when the U.S. prison population peaked (See the table below). Federal prison makes up 13% of the total U.S. prison population and contributed 34% of the decline in the total prison population in 2016.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

Accordingly, prisoners being held in private prisons have declined. According to Pew Research, after a period of steady growth, the number of inmates being held in private prisons has declined since 2012 and continues to represent a small share of the nation’s total prison population. We’re not confident this trend will reverse.

Another reason for the declining population in private prisons is the growing government commitment to progressive criminal justice, particularly to nonviolent offenders – low-security prisoners who are catered by private prisons. For example, the recommended mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug traffickers has been reduced. These progressive trends are likely to lead to further decreases in inmate populations.

Source: Pew Research

In August 18, 2016, the DOJ also issued a memorandum to the BOP directing that as each contract with privately operated prisons expires, BOP should either decline to renew contacts or substantially reduce scope in line with the BOP’s inmate population.

However, despite the said memorandum, BOP did exercise a two-year renewal option for CoreCivic’s McRae Correctional Facility. Moreover, in February 2017, the Department of Justice also reversed the memorandum to phase out private prison. It argues that this policy will impair the government’s ability to meet the future demands of the federal prison system. This decision saves the private prison industry from the risk of being phased out in the near future but may only push that decision out a few years. The uncertainty worries us.

To make matters worse, a class action lawsuit (Grae v. Corrections Corporation of America et al.) was filed against CoreCivic’s current and former offices in the United District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. The lawsuit alleges that from February 27, 2012 to August 17, 2017, the company made misleading or false information and public statement regarding its operations, programs, and cost-efficiency factors to inflate its stock price. CoreCivic insists that these accusations are without merit but it still puts CXW and private prisons in a negative light.

Lastly, CoreCivic has also been receiving criticisms about its services. Complaints were received from Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville after allegedly failing to address the concerns of prisoners and their families, including the healthcare needs to diabetic inmates. The scabies outbreak in its Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility is also cited as an example of its negligence to protect the wellbeing of prisoners. These lawsuits do not help CoreCivic’s image especially after it has laid off 500 employees after losing three jail contracts in Rusk, Jack, and Willacy counties.

Outlook

According to IBISWorld, the correctional facilities industry revenue is expected to grow minimally at an annual rate of 0.1% to reach $5.3 billion from 2017 to 2022, but industry profit is not expected to rise significantly. The trend in the number of prisoners will slow down the growth of the industry despite the overcrowding problem in the state prisons, which may or may not compensate for decreased demand for its services at the federal level.

Overall, we do not view the company’s prospects favorably in light of industry trends, governmental risks, and reputational image that can affect fundamentals and create unwanted headline risk. For this reason, we are selling CXW out of the REIT Portfolio.

America is the land of the second chance – and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life. – George Bush

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Sessions forms U.S. cyber task force after election warnings

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday announced he would create a task force to examine how his Justice Department can better combat global cyber threats, including efforts to interfere with elections or damage critical infrastructure.

Last week, leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Russia will try to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections in November and said the United States was “under attack.”

The Justice Department will have until the end of June to report its findings, according to a memorandum Sessions signed on Friday but released on Tuesday.

“The internet has given us amazing new tools that help us work, communicate, and participate in our economy, but these tools can also be exploited by criminals, terrorists, and enemy governments,” Sessions said in a statement.

The task force, composed of representatives from different branches of the Justice Department, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will examine use of the internet to spread violent ideologies and recruit followers, how hackers breach private corporate and government data, and law enforcement challenges posed by strong encryption.

Some security experts expressed skepticism about the task force, saying it lacked focus or a clear mission purpose.

“This step basically takes a number of really complicated parallel issues in ‘hard’ cybersecurity and ‘soft’ information security and throws them into the same amorphous task force,” said Graham Brookie, a cyber security aide in the Obama administration who now works at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank.

U.S. intelligence officials have said Russia believes it successfully undermined U.S. democracy in the 2016 presidential election and would try again.

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller last week charged several Russians with conducting a criminal and espionage conspiracy through social media by boosting Republican Donald Trump and denigrating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Russia has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Trump has repeatedly dismissed the Russian cyber threat, and called Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between his campaign and Moscow a “witch hunt.”

Sessions, who recused himself from overseeing the Mueller probe after failing to disclose meetings with Russian officials, said last October “probably not” when asked by a U.S. senator if enough was being done to tackle Russian interference.

Reporting by Dustin Volz and Eric Walsh; editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker

'Black Panther' Discussion: This One's Gonna Be Fun

In case you haven’t been near a theater, TV, mall, or interstate overpass, and haven’t seen the news, Black Panther opened this weekend. And it opened big. Like, history-making box office numbers big. With good reason—T’Challa (aka Black Panther) is a hero fans have been anticipating for a long time. As WIRED’s Jason Parham noted last week before Marvel’s latest movie “black superheroes were never afforded the same deification” as their white counterparts, but now Panther director Ryan Coogler has made a movie that shows what a superhero movie can truly be. A lot of us here at WIRED saw the movie over the weekend, and now that the worries of spoilers have receded (yes, this post will have them, continue at your own risk), it’s time we finally talk about it at length. Here we go—Wakanda forever!

Angela Watercutter: OK, I’m not going to say too much right off the bat because I want to know what my colleagues thought, but I will just say that Black Panther lived up to the hype. Like, the anticipation for this movie had been building for months and I was starting to worry that nothing could live up to what fans were hoping for with this movie, no matter how talented everyone working on this film is, but judging from the reaction at the screening I saw, people are thrilled. Did you guys have the same experience? How did you feel walking out of the theater? Did you sense that your fellow theater-goers were satisfied?

Peter Rubin: Angela, we were both in Hall H for Marvel’s panel at Comic-Con last July, and after Ryan Coogler surprised the crowd with some BP footage, we both know what was possible. The mood in that room—among attendees, Comic-Con staffers, and the crew itself—was not your usual “ah, this looks cool!” anticipation. Something cathartic happened in there. And even though I had the opportunity to go to a press screening earlier last week, I skipped it, because I wanted to see it for the first time in a theater full of people who were invested in it.

I wasn’t disappointed. Not by the movie, and not by the feeling of joy and lightness (and yes, Oakland pride) that was occupying every chair at in that theater. Two seats over from me was a young kid, seven or eight years old, in a full-on T’Challa suit; in the 24 hours since I saw the movie, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the T’Challas (and Okoyes and Shuris) all over the country, stepping out into recess feeling like heroes. Justice, you’ve already seen it twice, right? What kind of differences did you notice in the two screenings—either in the crowd’s reception or in your own enjoyment?

Justice Namaste: The first screening I went to (second one is today!) was in Oakland on opening night. The only screening I’ve been in that nearly matched the energy in the theater during Black Panther was during the opening weekend of Get Out, when one of my friends actually fell out of their chair during the pivotal scene.

Visually, no other Marvel movie has ever come close to Black Panther—the lush Wakandan landscapes, the vibrantly colored costumes, even the wearable tech was beautiful. And that moment where the Royal Talon Fighter dips below the veil and we get an aerial look over the Golden City? Jawdropping.

But even with all this to mull over, when I left the theater, what was left ringing in my ears was Erik Killmonger’s last words: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.” In my opinion, the driving relationship in the film was that between T’Challa and Killmonger. (Or, thought of another way, the one between T’Chaka and N’Jobu, but realized through their sons.) T’Challa and Killmonger didn’t spend much time together on screen when they weren’t trying to murder each other—their lack of real dialogue was one of the movie’s more disappointing choices—so the tension between them was largely ideological, but it still drove the story. The “son reckoning with his father’s legacy” trope is a staple of the MCU, but it’s a limited one. Using a villain like Killmonger to complicate the idea of what heroism actually looks like, though? That’s a much more fascinating story.

Phuc Pham: As much as I enjoyed watching T’Challa grapple with both his opponents and his emotional demons, I couldn’t shake the sense that his heroic arc was a copy-paste of the superhero’s journey that Marvel has come to rely on. I mean, this is the fourth guy that has had a plot twist regarding his father upend his world.

Killmonger, on the other hand, was much more interesting to me. While T’Challa does his whole superhero thing, his archenemy points to actual systemic oppression, grounding Marvel’s universe in the real world in a way that feels new and bold. His motivation, essentially, is black liberation the world over—which to me qualified as the biggest heroic endeavor in the film. (At least until you realize that the means to achieve that end are vibranium weapons and a high body count.) Like you, Justice, I wish T’Challa and Killmonger had spent more screen time hashing out their ideological differences. The scenes when they engage in ritual combat are visceral—no Black Panther powers allowed!—but also seemed like wasted opportunities for some fight chatter about how best to rule Wakanda as well as improve the lives of the African diaspora.

Watercutter: Totally. I also wanted Killmonger and T’Challa to have more time to actually talk about their differences. Because, unlike almost every other Marvel villain before, Killmonger didn’t just want to rule to be a ruler. He wanted liberation, and in that he and T’Challa weren’t too far apart—they just had different ideas of how to achieve it. In that final scene that Justice mentioned, I truly didn’t want Killmonger to go. I wanted him to join T’Challa and stay in Wakanda. That, to Jason’s point, doesn’t happen often in these films. Maybe it happened a bit with Loki, but he’s always been a character with many allegiances. (And yes, Peter, I remember that Comic-Con Hall H panel—I’ve never felt anything like that a SDCC, and doubt I ever will again.)

Jason, in your great review last week you talked about how Black Panther showed what a superhero movie could do. What do you think it demonstrated in how it portrayed both its heroes and villains?

Parham: I didn’t think Michael B. Jordan’s acting was particularly strong, but I do agree that Killmonger as a character was perhaps the film’s most compelling—because he really wasn’t your typical antihero. I think Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker was correct in that the real villain was history itself. Killmonger’s rage was merely a product of the times, and all the despair he’d seen firsthand around the world. That’s a heavy burden to reckon with, but not an untrue one. In doing this, Coogler positioned the film in a really smart way, giving it historical currency but also contemporary heft, and all without feeling like he was trying to make some obvious political statement.

One of the more brilliant aspects of the movie—a credit to Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s fine script—was its insistence on complicating character arcs, especially with people like W’Kabi and M’Baku, who expertly straddled the line between good and bad. Then there’s someone like Okoye, who is fiercely loyal to Wakanda in every regard. Her inner confliction felt so palpable—being forced to serve an unfit king and wage war against her lover (Danai Gurira’s Okoye was maybe my favorite character, along with Shuri and M’Baku). Everyone felt like they were doing what was best for Wakanda, which you can’t really fault them for. It felt like a truer reflection of what it means to be alive in the world today. Black Panther succeeds on so many levels. I’m curious: what did everybody think were some of the stronger aspects of the film?

Namaste: This is the obvious answer, but I just have to say it—the women. The strongest part of the film was undoubtedly all of the women characters. And that extends to the women behind the scenes as well. Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, Angela Bassett’s Ramonda, Letitia Wright’s Shuri (and of course Okoye and the rest of the Dora Milaje) were complex characters whose identities and motivations did not revolve solely around men. The audience saw Okoye as both a warrior and a lover, Nakia as an undercover spy who’s more concerned with protecting human rights than gathering intelligence, and Shuri as a younger (and better?) Tony Stark.

Not to mention the fact that their actions and beliefs are key to driving the story forward. Nakia is the first character who really pushes T’Challa to consider what Wakanda’s responsibility is to oppressed people across the rest of the world. And T’Challa would likely be dead 10 times over without Shuri’s engineering brilliance. Speaking of which, I’ve seen Letitia Wright being called the breakout star of the film, a title she most certainly deserves. As Shuri, she delivers some of the funniest lines, while also masterfully navigating a series of tense and heart-wrenching moments. Sure, T’Challa might be the Black Panther, but these women are far from secondary characters.

Pham: I’m so glad the writers decided to adapt Nakia and the Dora Milaje away from the ways they’re set up in some of the older comic book runs, where Nakia has an unrequited crush on T’Challa and the Dora Milaje—in addition to their role as royal guards—are a pool of potential queens. So extra kudos to film-Nakia for asserting she doesn’t want to be a Dora.

There hasn’t been an MCU film that’s as focused on technology since the Iron Man trilogy, and I was struck by how hopeful Black Panther, both the movie and the character, are how a future shaped by it doesn’t have to be dark and bleak. Production designer Hannah Beachler has said how Blade Runner inspired her vision of Wakanda’s capital Birnin Zana, and it shows. The dense urban landscape, replete with pristine skyscrapers and dusty merchant stalls, certainly hearken to traditional cyberpunk environments. Here, though, Afrofuturism shines figuratively and literally. Wakanda forgoes the dim and damp settings of futuristic cities (why are the streets always slicked with rain?) for a warm glow that almost makes you root for Killmonger’s vision of an empire upon which the sun never sets.

Thematically, the film also bucks the trend of Marvel movies in which new technology always begets catastrophe. Tony Stark’s bleeding-edge armaments always seem to end up in the hands of terrorists while Chitauri tech enables a middle-aged megalomaniac to hunt high schoolers in his spare time. Meanwhile, T’Challa not only prevents vibranium from being weaponized but also closes the film with plans to open a Wakandan outpost in Oakland—a city adjacent to Silicon Valley wealth yet wracked by a 20 percent poverty rate—to share and exchange knowledge. In an age when technology is often abused for nefarious and disruptive ends, the Black Panther’s techno-optimism seems to be a call for fewer divisions, not more.

Rubin: The rest of you have already ticked off just about everything that made this movie so appealing, so in hopes of adding something new to the mix, I’ll close with the idea that Black Panther created an entirely new lane for the MCU. After all 4,000 characters band together to (presumably) defeat Thanos in the two Avengers: Infinity War movies, Marvel is going to need a way to move forward, and Wakanda’s entry onto the global geopolitical stage is one of those ways. The MCU has its cosmic arm, its street-level arm, its mystical arm—and now Wakanda links the political intrigue of the Captain America movies with the deeply personal stories of a fully-fleshed world.

Does that mean we’ll see a Dora Milaje prequel movie in 2021? An M’Baku standalone? Only time will tell, but with a roster of new characters, ready-made internal conflict, and a rising cadre of filmmakers who are ready and able to tell these stories, the MCU’s prospects as a long-range paracosm have never been better.

Israeli visual aid company OrCam valued at $1 billion

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s OrCam, which has developed a visual aid for the blind, has completed a funding round that values the company at $1 billion, putting it on track for a planned initial public offering (IPO), its chief executive said on Tuesday.

The company raised $30.4 million by selling an approximate 3 percent stake to investors including Israel’s Clal Insurance (CLIS.TA) and Meitav Dash (MTDS.TA). That brought the total amount OrCam has raised from investors so far to $130.4 million.

“We have sufficient reserves of money to finish our development, but part of our investment rounds is also preparing the company for the next phase, which is IPO,” Ziv Aviram said.

In about a year, he said, the company would look to raise an additional $100 million from larger, global funds before going public on a U.S. exchange. He is hoping the company will be valued at $1.5-$2 billion when it lists.

Ziv Aviram, CEO and co-founder of OrCam, poses for a portrait wearing the OrCam MyEye 2.0 device attached to a pair of glasses in his office in Jerusalem, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Nir Elias

The latest fundraising coincided with the launch of a new version of OrCam’s product – a wireless smartcamera that attaches to the side of spectacle frames. The device reads texts, supermarket barcodes and recognizes faces while speaking the information into the user’s ear.

Aviram said he saw OrCam’s growth surpassing that of the previous company he co-founded – autonomous vehicle technology provider Mobileye, which was bought last year by Intel (INTC.O) for $15 billion.

“I think the potential for OrCam is even bigger than Mobileye,” he said from his office in a high-tech neighborhood of Jerusalem, down the street from where Mobileye’s expanded complex is being built. “This technology is endless. We just started to understand the tip of the iceberg of what can be done.”

That means expanding the customer base beyond the blind or partially-sighted to those suffering from dyslexia or who get fatigued while reading. Aviram even sees the device evolving into a sort of artificial intelligence personal assistant.

Next year’s forecast is a bit more modest.

After revenue of $10 million in 2017, Aviram expect sales to jump to $20-$30 million in the coming year and for the company to become profitable in 2019.

Editing by Mark Potter

This Shark Tank 'Shark' Always Flies Economy. Here's the Surprising Reason Why

Flying: It’s the worst. It makes people sick, and if the airlines aren’t squeezing every last ounce of comfort from your flight, your fellow passengers probably are.

It’s worst of all in economy of course–and yet that’s where entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran, the Shark Tank shark and entrepreneur rumored to have a net worth of about $80 million, says she always flies coach if she’s paying for the ticket.

“I always fly economy if I’m paying the tab because I’m too cheap to spring for an expensive ticket,” Corcoran told Kara Cutruzzula in an interview recently for The Points Guy travel site. “I’m even too cheap to use free miles to upgrade because I realized those free miles can buy one of my relatives who don’t have the money a free ticket to somewhere.”

Of course, Corocran isn’t always paying the tab, and she clocks in her share of miles in higher class accommodations and private jets. But she said she’s compiled a list of travel hacks to make flying coach more palatable.

Among them:

Bring your own food.

“I’m not even a picky eater, but I know what I like, and I know that if I have fresh bread, delicious cheese and a bottle of wine, I’m going to be the happiest traveler in town,” Corcoran said.

Drop a cloth napkin on the tray table in front of you.

“It sets the tone and makes a difference, especially when you’re squeezed in the middle seat.”

Get in the zone and get to work.

“I use it to accomplish things that I don’t want to do or that I’m stalling on, and it forces the issue since I have a deadline.”

Carry on everything.

“Even with the smallest carry-on bag, despite how tightly I pack, I will only use what’s on the top half.”

(She has a few other cool tips, too. It’s worth checking them out.)

I find Corcoran’s attitude inspiring–both for aspiring entrepreneurs who should become very comfortable with inexpensive economy class tickets and for people in general.

If you’re an entrepreneur, every penny you put into things like your travel budget is money that’s not going into building your business. And

for the rest of us, I think her perspective on money is interesting–since she has a good chunk and can pretty much do whatever she wants with it.

As she put it in a Reddit AMA she did a few years ago:

“Wealth complicates things. I’m not really sure who my real friends are now … and so I keep my original circle small. When I cashed out on my business, everybody I knew suddenly had a $10,000 problem. But I’m not giving the money back.”

Alaska Airlines Is Offering a Little-Known, Stunningly Caring Perk (Not Just In Business Class)

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

We’re living in peculiar times when airlines seem to be taking away more than they’re offering.

Sometimes, though, thoughtful people lurk within airline managements. 

Their cogitations can bring fruit.

In Alaska Airlines’ case, that fruit is the grape. 

Or, rather, the result of the grape’s manipulation.

The airline has a program called Wines Fly Free

Created in 2007, the idea was to allow Mileage Plan members to check their wine purchases for free, as they drifted back from Sonoma to their homes in places far less attractive than Sonoma.

Regulations, you see, made it arduous and expensive for smaller wineries to dispatch wine to grateful customers.

It seems that many Alaska customers were grateful for its viticultural appreciation and foresight. 

Now, Alaska is expanding the program from 11 to 29 airports, all toward the west of the U.S. These include smaller airports like Bellingham in Washington state.

The program allows you to check one whole case of wine — suitably packed for shipping, of course — for free to any U.S. destination.

Which is marvelously timed for February 18.

This happens to be National Wine Day.

I thought National Wine Day was every day. (Disclosure: I’m a Wine Ambassador for Honig Winery in Napa.)

Alaska, though, decided to celebrate this even further.

On this very February 18, the airline is even giving passengers — those who are old enough, of course — a free glass wine on certain flights.

This is rare civilization.

It might even serve as inspiration.

You can now choose to save money on fares by flying Economy Class.

If you’re you’re a Mileage Plan member, you can fly to some fine wine region, spend some of the money you’ve saved on the gracious grape infusion and not worry about how much it will cost to get onto the plane.

You could choose Dry Creek, Russian River, Napa, Anderson Valley or Paso Robles.

To name just a few of my favorite Californian wine regions.

Surely more airlines should consider such perks to life the spirits of their customers.

Of course, one way would be to abolish baggage fees altogether.

No, I haven’t had a drink today at all.

Uber Is Reportedly Planning to Sell Its Southeast Asia Branch to Competitor Grab

Uber is preparing to hand over its Southeast Asia business to the Singaporean ridesharing company Grab, according to a report by CNBC. Uber would get Grab equity in the deal, if and when it goes through.

CNBC’s sources further said the deal was part of a strategy to help Uber reduce costs ahead of a planned IPO. The company lost a mind-boggling $4.5 billion in 2017 on $7.5 billion in sales – which means there’s plenty of demand for its services, but it needs to do some serious streamlining and focus on its strongest regions.

But a closer look shows there may be more going on than one company’s decision to exit a challenging market.

Asia as a whole has certainly been tough on Uber, with regional services consistently beating the American giant. Uber already threw in the towel in China, where it swapped its operations for an ownership stake in competitor Didi Chuxing in 2016. In India, the taxi platform Ola stole 3% of the market from Uber just in the second half of 2017, despite Uber’s major push to win there. Ola now leads in market share by more than 15%.

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But here’s the thing: Didi, Ola, and Grab have all taken large investments from Japan’s SoftBank. Last month, SoftBank also made a $1.25 billion investment in Uber and became the company’s largest shareholder. Based on those relationships, Quartz recently dubbed SoftBank “the real king of ride-hailing.”

An Uber deal with Grab could serve SoftBank’s push to streamline the competitive environment for ride-hailing services – or, put another way, to divide up its global kingdom into small, relatively sheltered fiefdoms. Rajeev Misra, who joined Uber’s board as part of the SoftBank deal, has argued that Uber should focus primarily on the U.S. and Europe. It has also remained strong in Latin America and the Middle East.

So while the Southeast Asia deal might help nudge Uber’s balance sheet in the right direction, it also represents a non-trivial retrenchment of its ambitions. As Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky chronicled in his 2017 book on the company, Uber once sought global domination. Now, facing regulatory and competitive roadblocks in dozens of markets, and with investors guiding it along a more modest path, it may have to settle for a lot less.

The Big Engineering Behind Olympic Snowboarding's Big Air Event

A jump with the exact proportions of the launch ramp for snowboarding’s big air event, which will make its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, does not exist in nature. It must be built. And so, fewer than a dozen times a year, at venues ranging from ballparks to parking lots, impeccably orchestrated teams of engineers, ice suppliers, snowmakers, crane operators, up riggers, down riggers, scaffold designers—you get the picture—do exactly that. And at this year’s Winter Games, from February 19—24, snowboarders from around the world will hurl themselves from one of the biggest big air ramps ever conceived.

“They’re crazy projects—I love them,” says Michael Zorena. The owner of the Massachusetts-based Consultantzee, Zorena has led the construction of awe-inspiring structures around the world, from Ai Weiwei’s 20,000-pound, metal-wire “Good Neighbors” installation in New York City to a geodesic, 360° projection sphere in Dubai. But big air ramps are particularly fun. His company recently built two in as many years—the first inside Fenway Park in 2016, the second in a Los Angeles parking lot, last year, at one of Shaun White’s Air + Style music-cum-snowsport festivals.

Most big air ramps are temporary, purpose-built to fit their particular venues. As a result, each is constructed a little differently, but they share a standard anatomy. At the top of the structure, about 150 feet feet up, is the deck, a flat staging area where snowboarders wait to perform their jumps. There’s the inrun—the long, vertiginous drop, typically at an angle between 38 and 39 degrees, that the athletes descend to gain velocity, accelerating to speeds between 35 and 40 miles per hour. Then there’s the kick, an abrupt upsweep at the bottom of the inrun, which flings riders into the air.

Next comes the landing ramp (another long, steep section with an angle similar to that of the inrun), the placement of which is crucial. Its descending slope helps convert the riders’ downward momentum into forward momentum, sparing them the ruinous impact of a multi-story fall. Placing its center about 70 feet from the lip of the kick gives riders ample room to over- or undershoot, maximizing their odds of touching down on a steep decline. Add in the finishing area—a large, increasingly flat corral of snow beginning some 85 feet from the base of the landing ramp—and you’ve got a run that extends between 400 and 500 feet, from nose to tail.

It’s as challenging to build, and build safely, as it sounds. Underpinning all these features is a combination of snow, metal, wood, and—when their dimensions are close enough to those of the desired feature—existing infrastructure and topography. (At Pyeongchang, for instance, the landing ramp was built by layering snow atop a section of stadium seating.)

Drawings by scaffold engineer Jeremy Thom show the angles and curves of a big air ramp he designed for Fenway Park. A:Deck. B: Inrun. C: Kick. D: Landing.

Jeremy Thom/Atomic Design

But the temporary nature of most big air ramps—and their inruns, especially—results in a strikingly industrial aesthetic. Think soaring skeletons of steel scaffolding; the ramp’s bones and joints comprise tens of thousands of rods, fasteners, and clamps. “It’s essentially a big Erector Set,” says Jeremy Thom, an expert in the design of stage sets, amphitheatres, and similarly tremendous structures. The scaffolds of the big air ramps at Fenway and in LA, both of which he designed, consisted of 25,823 and 22,693 individual parts, respectively. (In his CAD files, he accounted for every single component.) “We assemble the structure one piece at a time,” Thom says. “It’s hand crafted. Bespoke. Like a Savile Row suit.”

On many job sites, workers will often erect a scaffold by forming a passline, handing each component from one person to the next. But then, most job sites don’t accommodate scaffolds as colossal as a big air inrun. Workers on the ground build the repetitive elements of the structure, which crane operators hoist up to riggers, who put them in place. Finally, a wood team adds a reinforcing layer of 4×4 lumber before topping everything off with plywood.

The naked big air inrun in Pyeongchang. Note the stadium seating below, which was covered in snow to create the landing ramp.

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

That leaves you with what Zorena calls a “faceted gradient”—a curved incline, sure, but one that’s far from even. To dial in a long, smooth slope, you need a lot of snow, which engineers account for when they design the structure: Dry, fresh powder can weigh as little as three pounds per square foot, while an equivalent volume of wet, heavy stuff can tip the scales at upwards of 20 pounds.

Orders of ice can vary by the hundreds of tons, depending on the local weather. A big air event held in Los Angeles in March needs more than one hosted during a New England cold snap. When Zorena and his team began building the big air ramp at Fenway in 2016, they ordered 800 tons of ice from a local supplier in anticipation of unseasonably warm weather. But when the forecast called for a return to sub-freezing temperatures, they slashed their request by half.

In the end, the snow on the ramp is usually no more than 18 inches deep—any more than that and the weight can overwhelm the underlying structure. (“Plus, removal is a nightmare if it’s too deep,” Zorena says.) Snowmakers add a foundation of crushed ice, then blow powder on top; they point upward-facing snow guns in the landing zone, and another set on the deck, pointing down.

Snowcats can smooth out parts of the jump, but much of the work is done by hand. “It’s super labor intensive, not very glamorous—basically shovels and rakes,” says Eric Webster, who, as the US Ski and Snowboard Association’s senior director of events, has overseen the construction of multiple big air ramps. A week before big air’s Olympic debut, snow-shapers overseen by Schneestern—the German company behind the big air features in Pyeongchang—were still tending to the jump.

But the experts I spoke with say it’s worth the effort. The deck of the big air jump in South Korea towers just over 160 feet above the base of the landing ramp (about 10 feet higher than the jump Zorena built in Fenway Park), and its inramp is a degree or two steeper. Expect those variations to translate to even bigger air than the world has seen in competitions past.

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Why Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ Looks Like This Year’s ‘Wonder Woman’

Marvel’s Black Panther got off to a strong start on Thursday night, setting up the latest Walt Disney superhero film for what could be a record-setting opening weekend.

Deadline reports that Black Panther cleared $25.2 million in box-office sales for its run of Thursday night showings a day ahead of the film’s official Friday opening. That’s more than 2016’s Captain America: Civil War ($25 million in its Thursday opening) and behind 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron ($27.6M), giving Black Panther the second-biggest Thursday debut of any Disney-Marvel movie ever. It’s worth noting that both of those previous Marvel films pulled in well over $1 billion in total global box office. (Marvel’s Black Panther character also made his first big-screen appearance in Civil War.)

Meanwhile, Black Panther is forecasted to gross as much as $165 million domestically over the upcoming four-day President’s Day holiday weekend, and well over $250 million globally. (The film has already performed well in various overseas markets.) The movie certainly seems to be following a similar script to many of its Disney-Marvel superhero predecessors that rode major marketing campaigns and favorable critical buzz (Black Panther has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) on their way to becoming global box-office blockbusters.

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But Black Panther also has an obvious parallel from outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Wonder Woman, last year’s standalone film from Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment starring Gal Gadot as the Amazonian superheroine. Wonder Woman not only performed extremely well with critics and at the box office ($821 million globally), the movie was also credited with laying waste to misguided Hollywood studio concerns that a female-led superhero movie could find broad appeal with audiences. In fact, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins was the first woman to direct a superhero movie and the film ended up as the highest-grossing movie ever helmed by a woman (along with being last year’s third-highest grossing film domestically).

Similarly, Black Panther‘s early success is already dispelling industry concerns that a superhero movie revolving almost entirely around black characters could resonate with a general audience and earn the same box-office popularity as other (whiter) blockbusters. Set mostly in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the film boasts a director and primary star who are both African-American men (director Ryan Coogler and actor Chadwick Boseman), while the cast also features numerous other notable black stars, such as Oscar winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker as well as Angela Bassett and Michael B. Jordan.

Much like Wonder Woman did last year, Black Panther is generating quite a bit of buzz on various social media platforms. Social media data and analytics company Shareablee tracked social media engagement in the eight months leading up to the release of both movies and found that, while Wonder Woman saw more engagement from YouTube video views in the months before its release, Black Panther saw roughly four-times more activity on Twitter and six-times more on Instagram. Last week, Variety reported that Black Panther had already become the world’s most tweeted-about movie of 2018, so far, generating more than five million tweets related to the film.