What’s the Weather Like on Mars? Now You Can Check

Think it’s cold where you are today? Trust us: It’s a lot worse on Mars.

While much of the nation is in the grips of a major winter storm that’s snarling air traffic, closing offices, and canceling school, Mars will likely only hit the single digits today, and plunge to -130 or below tonight.

Elon Musk might want to bring a heavy coat when he moves there.

NASA has begun making daily weather reports from Mars available to the general public, with data supplied from the Insight lander. It’s not exactly up to the minute (reports appear to be delayed by two or three days), but it’s a good way for weather enthusiasts to keep up with the meteorological comings and goings of the red planet.

The most recent readings, from Feb. 17, show a high of 2 degrees and a low of -138 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a bit of a cold front, compared to six days prior when it got up a balmy 15 degrees. (By the way, with the average wind speed of 12 mph, that brings the wind chill range of Mars on Sunday to between -27 and -212 degrees Fahrenheit.)

More disturbing: That’s about as warm as it gets on Mars right now. The data is being gathered at Elysium Planitia, a flat, smooth plain near Mars’ equator.

InSight is gathering the data with a number of sensors that constantly monitor Martian weather data. (Days on Mars last 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds.) The reports will continue to be sent to earth for the next two years, giving scientists (and Martian meteorologists) a better understanding of weather patterns on the planet.

Researchers also hope to get a better understanding of storms on the planet, learning how much wind it takes to lift dust in the planet’s atmosphere.

“It gives you the sense of visiting an alien place,” said Don Banfield of Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., who leads InSight’s weather science. “Mars has familiar atmospheric phenomena that are still quite different than those on Earth.”

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American Airlines Just Suffered a Huge Embarrassment. But Is It Really the Airline's Fault?

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

Frequent business flyers can be an insipid, self-regarding bunch.

They watch the masses troop to the back of the plane, sip on their champagne and smugly pat themselves on the back for their evident superiority.

Airlines pander to them, of course. They want their money on a repeat basis. 

Sometimes, though, you have to wonder what goes through fine minds of so-called Elites.

Last weekend saw the release of a video — posted to Twitter by travel blogger Jamie Larounis — that starrred four female American Airlines Flight Attendants.

They were in slightly more alluring Flight Attendant attire than that normally seen on board.

And they were performing a skit in which they fawned all over a First Class passenger. 

You know, um, sexily.

The organizers of this, oh, entertainment, reportedly were some Executive Platinum and Concierge Key customers. Yes, American’s most important passengers.

It was held at a private venue and was supposed to raise money for charity.

Some might be less than charitable on seeing that the performance featured a large American Airlines logo in the background.

It’s not clear who took this liberty, but American did offer a few items for auction at this event.

I feel fairly sure its brand image wasn’t one of them.

Perhaps this was all good clean, humorous insider fun for these privileged types.

The part, however, that may have caused a little more consternation was when the four female Flight Attendants began to dance — with alleged sexy intent — around a First Class passenger.

To heighten the steamy effect, they sang Big Spender.

Yes, of course a Flight Attendant ends up sitting on the customer’s lap. You needed to ask?

The song was first performed in 1966.

And goodness me, this skit wouldn’t have looked out of place then.

These days, however, it might reek to many of bilge-brained sexism.

The fawning Flight Attendants are, reports say, real Dallas-based American Airlines Flight Attendants.

Which led the The Association of Professional Flight Attendants — representing American’s Flight Attendants — to demand an investigation.

There was the suspicion, you see, that the airline had some involvement in all this.

The Transport Workers Union — which also represents many American Airlines employees — saw the invisible hand of American’s management in the show. It claims this is all part of the airline’s strategy: 

Destroy blue collar America and expose air travelers to potential disaster by fixing AA planes on foreign soil, while simultaneously sexualizing and degrading their own flight attendants.

Naturally, I contacted American to ask for its view. It offered me the contents of a memo it sent on Sunday to all its staff. It read, in part: 

This was not an American Airlines event. We did not have any say about the content of the event, nor did we preview any of the agenda. Additionally, we were particularly upset to see our logo on the screen as the skit was performed.

Well, indeed. American also said: “We are as upset as many of you are with the video.”

It didn’t, at least in this memo, specifically rail against its manifest sexism. (Its utter lack of actual humor might have deserved a mention, too.)

Larounis, at American’s request, removed the video. Sadly, thanks to the internet’s cloying immediacy, it soon proliferated far and wide.

Many will hiss and tut at those who performed in this abject display.

Somehow, though, I can’t help but consider those who laughed and applauded. 

Flying regularly in First Class may have its privileges. 

I wasn’t aware that permission to be a sad, myopic, dunderheaded Neaderthal was one of them. 

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With 4 Short Words, Amazon Just Revealed the Brutal Truth About Its Decision to Cancel HQ2 in New York. (So Many People Don't Want to Admit This)

It’s not a plan really, not a hidden secret message. It’s more of an expression of emotion. Maybe a realization of necessity.

In fact, while the text Amazon posted on its blog on February 14 runs 363 words, the most important part of this crucial passage is just four words long. But those four words speak volumes.

It starts with a dig at “state and local politicians” in New York, and a statement about how many New Yorkers supposedly supported the deal. Then, we get to the crucial part:

We are disappointed to have reached this conclusion–we love New York, its incomparable dynamism, people, and culture–and particularly the community of Long Island City, where we have gotten to know so many optimistic, forward-leaning community leaders, small business owners, and residents. 

There are currently over 5,000 Amazon employees in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island, and we plan to continue growing these teams.

Those four crucial words? “We love New York.”

They’re not included by accident. In fact, I’ll bet this statement probably went through more writing, editing and rewriting than anything in Amazon’s history.

But the passage is crucial. It’s a recognition that even in a post-HQ2 world Amazon, still depends big time on New York. That’s why I think the company is at pains to reassure everyone that it isn’t going to try to just reopen the HQ2 search and do this elsewhere.

The brutal truth is: New York City is special.

I know people don’t like to admit this. I know that there are many trying to make political points, attacking union leaders and politicians who they say are to blame for Amazon running away.

But there is no other place truly like New York City, and Amazon isn’t really going to run — not completely. It’s not just chest-thumping; it comes down at least partly to sheer numbers. Here are three of them:

  • By far, New York is the largest city in America, with 8.6 million people–almost as big as the second, third, and fourth largest cities combined.
  • By far, it’s the largest metropolitan area: more than 20 million people. If it were its own state, it would be about as big as Florida — but much more densely packed.
  • By far, it has the largest GDP of any metro area, at at $1.7 trillion. That’s nearly 9 percent of the entire country.

Was it ever possible that Amazon would direct a personal insult at the largest and most important market in the country, by jilting it for say, Nashville? 

No offense to Nashville, the so-called runner-up. It’s a really great city too, but numbers don’t lie: it’s tiny compared to New York.

Remember, they just proved it at Amazon, too.

After staging a 14-month beauty contest, playing off more than 200 cities against each other, and keeping the terms secret so that none of them could know what they needed to do in order to win, the result was almost comically predictable:

Amazing n couldn’t do better than New York and an area right outside Washington, D.C. 

You know what I think’s going to happen now? Amazon is going to redistribute those 25,000 jobs around a lot of different places. (Remember, it was only planning to create 700 jobs this year, and wouldn’t hit the full number until 2028 at least.)

Now, New York will still get the largest share, only without having to give an average of $120,000 per job in tax breaks to get them.

And, it will make up the rest and still more–because Amazon just did the legwork for every other company in America.

Especially if the state and city can come up with anything even approaching a small percentage of the deal they were willing to give Amazon, and offer it to a wide array of smaller employers,  think things look pretty rosy.

No matter your size, and as long as you don’t try to squeeze completely one-sided terms out of the deal, if you want to attract amazing workers and expand in one of the greatest cities in the world, Amazon just proved where you should go. 

Amazon loves New York. And a lot of other people do too. 

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Before You Set Out to Transform Your Organization, You First Need to Build Trust

One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was how crucial trust is for driving transformation and change. We tend to think of trust as static, but Accenture’s research, as well as that of the participants, made it clear that trust is especially important when you need to drive an organization to do something different.

All too often, transformation is seen as a simple matter of strategy and tactics, but nothing could be further from the truth. Nobody can drive really change alone, you need buy-in from a variety of stakeholders, such as customers, employees, suppliers, analysts and investors to make it work. So before you set out to transform your organization, you first need to build trust.

Purpose, Values and Constraints

Every change effort starts out with a grievance. Sales are down, customers are unhappy, regulation restricts a once profitable activity or something else. That’s what drives the need to change, but it does little to provide a will to change. In researching my book Cascades, I found that every successful change effort starts by transforming an initial grievance into an affirmative “vision of tomorrow.”  To drive a true transformation, people need to believe in it.

For example, when Paul O’Neill took over as CEO at Alcoa in 1987, the company was in dire straits. So analysts were more than surprised when he declared that his first priority at the company would be safety. It was an odd vision for a struggling company, but O’Neill understood that improving safety would also improve operational excellence. The company hit record profits a year later.

Or consider Lou Gerstner’s tenure at IBM. When he arrived, the once high-flying firm was near bankruptcy and many thought it should be broken up. Yet Gerstner saw that by shifting its focus from its own “stack of proprietary products” to its customers’ “stack of business processes,” the company could have a bright future. The result was one of the greatest turnarounds in history.

Notice how each of these visions also included important constraints. When safety is the first priority, managers can’t cut corners. When customers’ “stack of business processes” is the company’s focus, salespeople can’t wring every last dollar out of each deal. Yet those constraints are crucial in building credibility with key stakeholders, such as unions and customers.

Small Groups, Loosely Connected

Anybody who has ever been married or had kids knows how hard it can be to convince even one person about a significant decision. So it is somewhat puzzling that business leaders so often think they can convince thousands through mass communication campaigns. The truth is that change happens when people convince each other.

Consider the case of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, which in 2007 saw sales for one of its top drugs fall by 70% due to the launch of a generic version. In order to compete more effectively, the company’s leadership embarked on an ambitious effort to instill lean manufacturing practices across 25 sites employing 17,000 people. 

Yet rather than try to transform the whole company all at once, it chose one keystone change, involving factory changeovers, at one facility. It had limited impact, but with the success of that one initiative at one facility, it then moved on to others, implementing the transformation in phases, speeding up as the process gained momentum.

The result was a 25% reduction in costs, an improvement in quality and a more motivated workforce. It’s tough to imagine how that could have been achieved if the management had simply decided to cut salaries instead.

Training to Empower Transformation

When Barry Libenson first arrived at Experian as Global CIO in 2015, he spent the first few months talking to customers and everywhere he went they were asking for the same thing: access to real-time data. That was much easier said than done, because it meant that he would have to shift from a traditional data infrastructure to the cloud, which would entail far more than just implementing new technologies.

“The organizational changes were pretty enormous,” Libenson told me. “For example, agile development requires far more collaboration than traditional waterfall development, so we need to physically reconfigure how people were organized. We also needed different skill sets in different places so that required more changes and so on.”

To spur these changes, the company identified high potential employees that it thought could help drive change. It also brought in outside partners to train them in agile development, so that they could train and coach others. Those employees then became centers of excellence and helped drive change even further throughout the organization.

“Building trust was crucial to making it all work,” Vijay Mehta, Chief Innovation Officer at the credit bureau stressed to me. “When you are trying to build an innovative, fail-fast culture, people need to trust that they won’t be penalized for being ambitious and failing. So that had to come from the top and be constantly pushed all the way down to make it all work.”

Transformation Is Always A Journey, Never A Destination

All too often, we see change through the lens of a specific objective. Paul O’Neill needed to return his company to operational excellence. Wyeth needed to cut costs to compete with generics. To provide its customers with the access to real-time data, Experian needed to shift its decades-old infrastructure to the cloud.

Yet change is never as easy as it first would seem, because the status quo has inertia on its side, which can be a powerful force in any enterprise. In fact, research by McKinsey has found that only 26% of transformational efforts succeed. The reason is that change is often narrowly construed as a series of procedures, a cost cutting target or a technology implementation project.

Yet Alcoa, Wyeth and Experian succeeded where most fail because they saw driving change as more than just a series of objectives, but as a shift in values, skills and capabilities. That’s why they started not with a detailed plan, but with building trust, because leaders can’t implement change, they can only inspire and empower it.

The truth is that transformation is always a journey, never a destination. O’Neil’s focus on safety unlocked a passion for operational excellence. Gerstner’s focus on IBM’s customers led it to a highly profitable service business based on deep partnerships. Wyeth’s lean manufacturing program empowered its employees to create value for the company and its customers. Experian’s shift to the cloud was just a prelude to an ambitious foray into artificial intelligence.

None of this would be possible without trust, because trust is open ended. It is, in its essence, a social contract that demands that employees, customers and other stakeholders are not treated as merely means to an end, but ends in themselves.

(Disclosure: In the past, Experian has paid for me to appear at its annual conference and travel to speak to its executives)

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It's Time For Social Media to Change the World (Again)

In the summer of 2007, soon after a college intern convinced me to join Facebook, I remember thinking, “This is going to change everything. This is going to change the world.”

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and other social networks, blogs, and interactive online media have undoubtedly impacted billions of people over the past 12 years. Social media has helped topple dictatorships and given a voice to many millions of people previously unheard. It has reunited families, reconnected old friends, and rekindled romances. It has created opportunities for a massive number of small business owners, authors, and entrepreneurs. My wife and I are two of those people.  

But there has also been a dark side to the last 12 years of social media: Cyber-bullying, negative headlines, data and security breaches, Russian interference in elections, impact on mental health,–the list of harmful elements of social media, sadly, goes on and on.

Whether you log on and see someone complaining about something small, like how boring a tv show was last night, or something big, like how toxic our current political environment is, it’s impossible to use social media these days without constant exposure to negativity.

Forty-one percent of Generation Z social media users recently said that social media makes them feel sad, anxious, or depressed. A 2017 study found that the more time 18-22-year-olds spent on social media per day, “the greater the association with anxiety symptoms.” Disinformation Twitter accounts continue to publish more than a million tweets per day. The majority of teens have come across racist or sexist hate speech on social media. Nearly 43% of teens have been bullied online, and 41% of all Americans have experienced online harassment. The data is all startling, but we don’t need the data to know how we feel when we log in and check our feeds.

What then can we do to combat the negativity? Could we all quit social media? No, in 2019, social media is an unavoidable part of our lives, for better or for worse. We could put the responsibility in the hands of the social media companies themselves, but they haven’t exactly proven trustworthy lately. So really, the only thing we can do is to change our individual behavior. And it starts with small acts of kindness that will have a ripple effect.

Here’s one idea: #BeLikeableDay, a global movement which asks people and organizations to pledge to take one minute out of the day on February 26th to commit to an act of kindness on social media. Compliment a friend on their outfit on Instagram, share gratitude for a neighbor on Facebook, or leave an unsolicited recommendation for a colleague on LinkedIn. Re-tweet a charitable cause on Twitter, or simply say something nice on the social network of your choice.

Together, one person and one act of kindness at a time, we can start to make social media a more positive place to spend our time, first, on February 26th, and then, maybe eventually, every day. And here’s the good news: Online acts of kindness don’t just change the world of social media for the better, they change you for the better.

recent study by Yale and UCLA researchers suggest that performing small, kind gestures diffuses stress and improves mental health. In a Berkeley study, participants reported greater feelings of calmness and increased self-esteem after helping others. Committing acts of kindness even lowers your blood pressure: According to Dr. David R. Hamilton, author of The 5 Side Effects of Kindness, acts of kindness release the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin causes the release of nitric oxide, which in turn reduces your blood pressure. Yes, there is science to being nice online! 

So, instead of complaining about all of the negativity and toxicity of social media, and making it even more negative, how about choosing positivity on social media, on #BeLikeableDay and every day? You might improve your mood. You might even change the world.

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What Happens When Techno-Utopians Actually Run a Country

On the night of Italy’s 2013 parliamentary elections, Paola Nugnes decided to stay late at her office and catch up on work. She skipped the rolling election coverage on TV. And by the time she finally left her architecture studio to go out, it was well past dark.

When she arrived at Mumble Rumble, a nightclub in western Naples, at around 9 pm, Nugnes still hadn’t checked the news. The club was hosting a party for activists in a political movement Nugnes had been part of for the past six years. And as she walked in, the crowd erupted. Nugnes asked if her friend Roberto Fico, the most famous local figure in the group, had won his race for a seat in Parliament. But before anyone could answer, a pack of journalists pounced, thrusting microphones in her face: “How do you feel about being elected?”

Nugnes stared at them, dumbfounded. That’s how she found out she was now a senator.

Along with hundreds of other political rookies, Nugnes had run for office under the banner of something called Five Star, an online phenomenon whose explosive, organic rise was shocking even to those it had just swept into power.

Just a few years before, in the mid-2000s, the movement had been little more than the fan base of a blog fronted by a foulmouthed comedian, Beppe Grillo; from there it became an earnest protest movement organized around Meetup.com groups called Friends of Grillo; then it had unified under the name Five Star in 2009. The movement tapped deeply into one of the most powerful forces in Italian politics: disgust with Italian politics. Rather than offer an ideology or platform, Five Star offered a wholesale rebuke of the country’s entrenched, highly paid, careerist political class—left, right, and center. And it married that disdain to a grand techno-utopian project: Through an online voting and debate portal, Five Star was building a direct democracy on the internet. The long-term goal was to replace Parliament altogether—to automate it out of existence. But in the meantime, Five Star had also decided to displace the establishment seat by seat.

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The 2013 election was Five Star’s first foray into national politics. While a handful of its candidates were expected to win their races, Nugnes highly doubted she would be one of them; she barely gave it a thought, in fact. So Nugnes had worked through the evening, while the rest of the country reeled from the news that Five Star was now Italy’s second-biggest party, having swept 25 percent of the vote, upending the political establishment in a single stroke.

Amid the whirl of embraces and congratulations at the election night party, Nugnes struggled to think through the ramifications. “We were all very excited—and frightened,” she says. She would have to quit her architecture studio. “It was very traumatic,” she says.

A couple hours’ drive up the coast, near Rome, Elena Fattori, a molecular biologist who was also active in Five Star, faced a similar bout of disbelief that night. “I had taken it all very lightly,” she says of her run for the senate—so much so that she volun­teered to help supervise the vote count that day. As she watched the running tally, Fattori could see firsthand that Five Star was far exceeding expectations and, eventually, that she herself had been elected. “It was a shock,” Fattori tells me. “I took a couple of days to accept it.”

All told, some 160 Five Star candidates with virtually no experience in politics became members of Parliament that day. This put the movement in an awkward position. Governments in Italy are normally formed via alliances between two or more parties that can command a majority of seats in Parliament; Five Star had won so many seats that it had the option of going straight into a governing coalition with the first-placed bloc, led by the center-left Democratic Party. But that was out of the question: One of Five Star’s founding principles was “no alliances.” And besides, the movement saw the Democratic Party as central to the corrupt establishment it had sworn to fight. So Five Star went into opposition.

While Five Star sees itself as neither right- nor left-wing, much of the party’s base is left-leaning. Many of its voters and activists, including Fattori and Nugnes, were drawn to the movement after becoming disenchanted with the Democrats and other parties on the left. Nugnes, a woman with Marxist sympathies, had grown alienated from Italy’s communist parties, which she viewed as ailing, top-down institutions. “I felt like an orphan,” she recalls. Five Star, by contrast, was a “cultural revolution,” a horizontal movement that put governing directly in the hands of anyone who cared to log on.

To the extent that Five Star did have a political platform, it vaguely resembled that of a Green Party. The movement’s name ostensibly refers to its first five policy priorities: sustainable transportation, sustainable development, public water, universal internet access, and environ­mentalism. Nugnes was particularly attracted to the movement’s more recent flagship policy, a universal basic income that proposed a monthly stipend of 780 euros (a bit less than $900) for Italy’s poorest citizens. In short: While the movement had always included people across the political spectrum, it was easily taken for a progressive popular front.

But if Nugnes and Fattori were shocked to become elected members of government, the next few years would be even more vertiginous. As the movement’s fledgling nonpoliticians found their feet in Parliament, they realized that dealing with other parties was unavoidable. At times, in opposing the Democratic Party–led government, Five Star found itself siding with another faction defined by antiestablishment roots—a right-wing populist party called Lega, or the League. Lega’s nativist leader, Matteo Salvini, had long campaigned on an “Italians first” platform. He has said that his country needs a “mass cleansing” of illegal immigrants, “street by street, district by district, piazza by piazza.”

When Italy’s 2018 national elections came around, Five Star—whose emphasis on popular sovereignty had, at times, come to sound sympatico with anti-EU, anti-immigrant sentiment—won so many seats that it became the largest party in Italy. This time, the movement didn’t shy from stepping up to run the country. And it chose to do so in partnership with Salvini’s Lega.

Last September, Stephen K. Bannon, former chief strategist to Donald Trump and would-be pied piper to Europe’s ethno-nationalists, visited Rome to celebrate the alliance. Of all the countries he had visited in his recent travels, he singled out Italy as “the center of the political universe.” The new government there was a Bannonite dream come true: a left-right, antiestablishment coalition. “A populist party with nationalist tendencies like the Five Stars, and a nationalist party with populist tendencies like the League,” he enthused to Politico’s European edition. “It’s imperative that this works, because this shows a model for industrial democracies from the US to Asia.”

While Bannon gushed, members of Five Star like Nugnes and Fattori reeled at where their movement had ended up: tied to a party led by a man many of them regarded as a fascist.

They were also beginning to realize that Five Star’s evolution had never been as organic as it seemed. At every step along the way—from the creation of Grillo’s blog and the organization of the movement’s first mass protests to the construction of its direct-democracy platform, all the way to its recent turn toward nativist politics—Five Star’s course had been meticulously directed by a camera-shy cyber-­utopian named Gianroberto Casaleggio, the movement’s cofounder.

Casaleggio, who died of brain cancer in 2016, was, in some ways, a familiar type. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he and a slew of other Internet Age prophets—many of them writing in this magazine—foretold a digital revolution that would flatten the priesthoods of politics, government, and journalism, and replace them with decentralized webs of direct participation. But Casaleggio, unlike his fellow pundits, actually went on to mount a revolutionary force that took over a country. Not only that, he directed this supposedly leaderless movement while drawing barely any attention to himself. So here’s the mystery at the heart of Five Star: Who the hell was Gianroberto Casaleggio—and how did he do it?


The Faces of Five Star

The small city of Ivrea sits cradled in the foothills of the Italian Alps, 30 miles south of the Swiss border. An 18th-century bridge over the Dora Baltea river leads to a quaint historic downtown of cobbled streets and pastel-colored buildings. But in the 1970s, Ivrea was Italy’s answer to Silicon Valley. It was the hometown of Olivetti, an icon of postwar European design, electronics, and manufacturing. The company’s most famous devices—its portable typewriters—were the Apple products of their day, technological fetish objects that were coveted around the world. In the early days of the computer industry, Olivetti was one of the few European contenders for market dominance; in 1965, it released the world’s first device marketed commercially as a “desktop computer.”

The young Gianroberto Casaleggio was one of Olivetti’s software designers. A local with a long mane of frizzy hair, he had studied physics in college before dropping out and turning to computers. He ended up in a small office on a quiet lane developing Olivetti’s operating systems. Enrica Zublena, an engineer who worked next to Casaleggio for many years, remembers their early days at the company as an exciting time. “We thought we could become a reference point for the evolution of basic IT around the world,” Zublena says.

Olivetti was a heady place to work in other ways as well, especially for anyone prone to utopian thinking. Adriano Olivetti, the late owner and general manager of the firm, had run his company as a kind of philosopher-­CEO. He built futuristic factories and living complexes for his workers in Ivrea and advocated a “third way” between right and left sociopolitical thinking; he started his own political movement—a fusion of liberalism, socialism, and local self-determinism—which took him all the way to Parliament. He also wrote books expounding on his views. In one, Democracy Without Political Parties, he argued that technology should be used to hand the mechanics of politics back to citizens.

Casaleggio shared Olivetti’s interest in the transformative potential of computing. “We saw the birth of the client-server model in IT,” Zublena says—the emergence of systems that distribute tasks among many computers in a network, allowing distant nodes to cooperate. “It brought a level of decisionmaking freedom to the periphery.” It seemed inevitable to Casaleggio that such architectures would change everything in society.

By the 1990s, Casaleggio was running his own company, and it was his turn to play philosopher-­CEO. The firm, which was eventually called Webegg, quickly became one of the leading internet consulting outfits in Italy, doing a brisk business helping older firms to find “web-based solutions” and other­wise navigate the bewildering world of bits, messaging software, and online marketing. “It was the time of the first call centers, the first internet banking,” says Zublena, who followed her colleague to Webegg. But Casaleggio was impatient to explore the grander implications of the internet.

In a monthly column for a magazine called Web Marketing Tools, he inveighed against the drabness of most thinking about the web. “The net has been reduced to an instrument of financial speculation and marketing,” he wrote, but its true significance was as a force for “radical social and revolutionary change.” Perhaps most of all, Casaleggio was interested in how the internet would transform organizations from the inside. Accordingly, he turned Webegg into a laboratory for sometimes bizarre social experimentation.

Throughout his career, Casaleggio liked to give extraordinary responsibilities to his youngest, most talented, and most impressionable recruits. One such hire at Webegg was a Bolognese engineer named Carlo Baffè. When he arrived fresh out of school in 1997, Baffè was promptly handed the reins to one of the company’s biggest projects. “Don’t worry,” Casaleggio reassured him. “Napoleon invaded Italy when he was 26.” About a year later, Baffè got another call. “I have this new special project in mind,” Casaleggio told him. “Would you like to join?” Baffè accepted eagerly. He went to the company’s Milan headquarters and, in a meeting room near Casaleggio’s office, sat at a circular table with the CEO and four other young, excited employees, all from different parts of the firm.

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Casaleggio explained that the aim of this new project was to experiment with communication dynamics on the company’s intranet. Casaleggio would select topics from the firm’s internal forum and assign members of the group specific roles to play in each discussion. Say he wanted a forum debate to reach conclusion X: One member of the restricted group would suggest X, a second would argue for contradictory conclusion Y, and over time a third would post a variation on X—and so on, subtly driving the rest of the unwitting employees toward the preordained conclusion. Baffè and the other experimenters worked a few hours a week on the project and met with Casaleggio once a month to evaluate progress.

The original stated aim of the project was to observe how internal electronic communications worked, and then to sell the findings as a consulting service. But the experiment also had more far-reaching implications, Baffè realized. Casaleggio was interested in learning how consensus—on, say, whether people should be happy to work long hours—could be manufactured in a way that looked organic. Twenty years before trolls working for Russia’s Internet Research Agency would use similar techniques to steer debate on Facebook and other online forums, Casaleggio seemed to be using his own company as a laboratory to figure out how online discourse could be guided from above. “I’d just started working and was excited to be part of a project like that,” Baffè says. It wasn’t until years later, he says, that he “realized it was the beginning of a long-term experiment.”

The intranet study group was only one such special project. Baffè was also invited to join another select group of about 20 employees who were given advanced communications training, grounded in something called neuro-linguistic programming.

A new-age therapeutic phenomenon, NLP purportedly offers a means to influence people by surreptitiously tapping into the unconscious patterns that guide their behavior. Practitioners are taught that people can be “reprogrammed” —to shed a phobia, say, or desire a product—with relative ease. “It taught us how to classify people,” Baffè says: By identifying which kinds of metaphors a client favored, employees at Webegg could aim to “mirror” that client, making them more susceptible to the company’s message. The sessions also focused on the teachings of an American hypnotherapist named Milton H. Erickson, who likewise made extraordinary claims about the suggestibility of the unconscious mind. By subtly confusing and unsettling his patients, Erickson claimed that he could induce them into trance states that made them more pliable. (NLP is popular among sales gurus and with the modern pickup artist community, but psychologists tend to regard it as a pseudoscience.)

The monthly sessions were led by two psychologists, a man and a woman, and they were a bit like “group therapy,” Baffè says. Employees were encouraged to air their feelings. At first, Baffè was thrilled to take part. But gradually his enthusiasm waned as he began to wonder who, exactly, was being influenced. The psychologists were seemingly omnipresent in the Webegg offices, where they appeared to be keeping tabs on staff for Casaleggio. “I’m sure he controlled every single detail of their activity,” Baffè says. (WIRED spoke to one of the psychologists, who confirmed that she had worked with Webegg and called Casaleggio a “true visionary” but declined to be interviewed.)

In practice, Casaleggio’s intranet discussions, group sessions, and psychological interventions often seemed to be a means of bypassing directors and team leaders—the firm’s middlemen—to exert maximal influence over his staff. “The channel is direct between the boss and every employee,” Baffè says. Increasingly, the young engineer started to see Casaleggio as an “evil scientist.”

This impression was reinforced by his boss’s increasingly eccentric behavior. During the Y2K panic, Casaleggio printed out a “decalogue”—a set of 10 commandments—telling employees what to do if civilization collapsed. He wrote a magazine column praising Genghis Khan’s (apocryphal) practice of murdering his generals at random as an effective means of keeping subordinates and intermediaries on their toes. Khan, he wrote, “became the greatest conqueror in history with the application of techniques and principles that are necessary today to compete on the web.”

But even as he praised Khan’s absolute rule, Casaleggio also extolled the absolute power that masses of people would have over their leaders in the internet era. In a 2001 book entitled The Web Is Dead, Long Live the Web, Casaleggio described how technology would force governments to become completely transparent and accountable to the will of the people. “Referenda on topics of national importance will become as routine as reading the papers or the evening news,” he wrote. “The interactive leader will then be the new politician, someone who continually transforms the wishes of public opinion into reality. This new politician will not need interpretation by today’s media, which will thus lose their importance.”

Like any number of cyber-­utopians writing in places like WIRED—several of whose writers he cited in his work—Casaleggio repeatedly predicted the imminent demise of journalism. He held that in a few years, information would become a utility, like electricity or water, pervading people’s daily lives; it would replace the current “virtual reality” that the press had constructed for them, “the Matrix that surrounds us.”

To his point, the media Matrix in Italy was exceptionally claustrophobic: In 2001, the scandal-prone media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi had just begun his second term as prime minister; not only did he own the biggest commercial television network, he also dominated the state broadcaster, RAI.

While Casaleggio was busy peering into the future, he was neglecting more run-of-the-mill sources of revenue that Webegg needed to turn a profit. “He put all the best people on the new stuff that was very sexy for him,” Baffè says. But the company’s core business foundered. “At some point,” Baffè says, “his ego took over.”

Amid mounting financial losses, Casaleggio was forced out in 2003 by the company’s main shareholder, Telecom Italia. Webegg closed shortly thereafter. Casaleggio had the contacts and experience to remain a player in the Italian tech industry, but by then his interest in the early internet was pivoting from business to another arena: politics.

Even those who knew Casaleggio well (but who perhaps didn’t read his books closely) were surprised by the sudden turn. Zublena remembers telling him, “But Gianroberto, you’ve never been remotely interested in politics!” In response, the usually taciturn Casaleggio burst out laughing, exposing the boyish gap between his front two teeth. “Come on,” she persisted, “with all the things in the world, you’re going into politics?” But Casaleggio only laughed and kept his reasons to himself.

Edoardo Narduzzi, who had known Casaleggio since 1998 and served as a Webegg board member, thinks Casaleggio saw “an interesting space” in Italian politics, ripe for testing out his ideas for a web-based, bottom-up movement—“a political startup.” It all began with a simple punt. In 2004, Casaleggio ran as an independent candidate in his home village, near Ivrea. Out of 294 votes cast for a seat on a local council, Casaleggio won just six. That didn’t mean he would give up. All he needed was a front man.

As Italy’s top barnstorming comedian, Beppe Grillo was accustomed to overzealous fans. But none made an impression like the visitor who came to see him one night in April 2004. After a show in the coastal city of Livorno, Gianroberto Casaleggio appeared at Grillo’s dressing room door and introduced himself as a web entrepreneur. But with his shock of wild gray hair, John Lennon glasses, and quiet intensity, Grillo recalls, he seemed more like an “evil genius.”

Grillo recounts this first meeting in a preface he wrote for Casaleggio’s next book, Web Ergo Sum. “He explained webcasting to me, direct democracy, chatterbots, wiki, downshifting, usability, objects of digital interaction, social networks, Reed’s law, intranets, and copyleft,” Grillo recalled. He likened Casaleggio to the medieval radical Saint Francis of Assisi, but “instead of talking to wolves and to the birds, he spoke to the internet.”

The comedian was initially wary: “Everything was clear,” Grillo wrote, “he was a madman.” But Casaleggio’s madness was one that envisioned a better future thanks to the web: companies made democratic, the end of political intermediation, and the devolution of power down to the individual. Before long, Grillo fell under Casaleggio’s spell—which was remarkable, given that Grillo had famously long been a technophobe. For a time, he had been known for smashing computers with a sledgehammer during his act.

Casaleggio offered to build Grillo a blog. The comedian was a household name in Italy, but he’d been sacked from state television in the 1980s after making an off-color joke about corruption in the then-­Socialist government. Now Casaleggio was offering him a new route to a mass audience and a way out of endless theater tours: the internet. “We’re going to become one of the three top blogs in the world,” Casaleggio promised. And so began a partnership that would transform Italian politics.

On January 26, 2005, nine months after Casaleggio’s visit to Grillo’s dressing room in Livorno, the blog, beppegrillo.it, went live. It was, at the start, a simple black and white affair, firing out a post or two a day. The few tabs listed tour dates, information on Grillo’s latest show—fairly typical elements of a fan page. But another tab, labeled “How to Use the Blog,” gestured at something more grand and open-ended. “Beppe Grillo’s blog is an open space at your disposal,” the page explained. “Its usefulness depends on your collaboration; for this reason, you are the real and only person responsible for the content and its fate.”

Grillo’s first posts were short and snappy. “Is there any sense in still speaking of right, or left, or center?” ranted one. “We don’t need a leader, we are adults!” Within months, the number of commenters on any given post had mushroomed into the hundreds, and soon thousands. Posts became ever more detailed and elaborate, with embedded video, images, and cartoons. Video and phone interviews with intellectuals brought in the likes of economist Joseph Stiglitz, Italian playwright Dario Fo, and Noam Chomsky. The blog hosted articles and letters by other writers; it started to seem more like a cultural institution than a comedian’s promo page.

Today, when the most prominent members of Five Star think back to what got them hooked on beppe­grillo.it, most of them describe how it provided a compelling source of alternative information: a rival to the traditional, Berlusconi-­dominated media. Alessandro Di Battista was a young university graduate in music and performing arts when he started frequenting the site. “I read in Beppe’s blog what I’d always wanted to read in the newspapers, but that you could never find,” Di Battista says. Grillo’s blog dealt in “counter­information,” as Di Battista calls it, “taking political positions that seemed to me fundamental but that no one else had the courage to take.”

Beginning that first year, Grillo and Casaleggio also used the blog to push their readers toward political action. They launched initiatives like Parlamento Pulito, or “Clean Parliament,” an email-­writing campaign to protest the number of elected officials in Italy with criminal convictions. And in July 2005, six months after the website’s launch, a blog post announced a new group on Meetup called Friends of Beppe Grillo, through which readers could arrange to meet, discuss, and “transform a virtual debate into a moment of change.”

Several such groups instantly popped up around the country, including one in Naples started by a recent communications graduate named Roberto Fico. “Within two months, there were almost 300 members,” Fico says. The young Fico poured all of his spare time into the burgeoning Friends of Grillo movement as he cycled through jobs in PR, tourism, and at a call center. “As soon as I finished work, I’d go to the meetings, the demonstrations,” he says. Thanks in part to his group’s activism, in 2006 a local Democratic Party water privatization scheme was successfully blocked. “The point,” Fico says, “was that it was political, but outside the institutions.”

In addition to commenting on posts and joining Meetup groups, beppegrillo.it also urged its readers to start their own blogs. One such fan turned blogger was a young college dropout named Marco Canestrari. In September 2006, the unemployed Canestrari happened to meet Casaleggio at an event; he had no idea who the older man was. But Casaleggio told him, “I know you who you are; I follow your blog.” Shortly thereafter, Casaleggio offered Canestrari a job at his new internet consulting firm, Casaleggio Associates. Canestrari, 23, could hardly believe his luck: “That was my first job, actually.”

Based in an exclusive neighborhood in Milan, Casaleggio Associates employed about 10 people at the time—most of them former employees of Webegg. The young Canestrari found his new boss “very clever, interesting, and exciting,” an avid reader of history, comics, and science fiction, particularly the novels of Isaac Asimov. Despite their age gap, Canestrari and Casaleggio, then in his fifties, formed a close rapport, with Casaleggio often expounding on his views about the web and the future. “He basically talked about that all day, all the time,” says Canestrari, one of the few people Casaleggio took into confidence.

Within a short time, Casaleggio—in keeping with his habit of delegating large tasks to unformed young men—made Canestrari a manager of beppegrillo.it. After just three years, Grillo’s page was already the most popular site on the Italian internet and one of the 10 most-read blogs in the world. But the fact that most astounded Canestrari as he took up his new position was this: “Grillo never wrote a single word on the blog,” he says.

Grillo and Casaleggio would speak several times a day to discuss the contents of the daily posts, and Casaleggio might read out the final draft to Grillo over the phone, says Filippo Pittarello, another employee who helped to produce the site. But according to multiple sources, it was Casaleggio, not Grillo, who actually wrote the hottest blog in Italy.

Just like the page’s millions of readers, Canestrari had no inkling of this before coming to work for Casaleggio. Far from feeling hoodwinked, he was thrilled to see behind the curtain. At Casaleggio’s side, he would get to play a vital role in a political revolution.

In 2007, the staff at Casaleggio Associates celebrated the millionth comment on beppegrillo.it. Casaleggio spent whole days reading the comments, according to Canestrari and Pittarello, and he recognized a lot of the commenters, especially the more active ones. He thought that, through the blog, he was seeing into the belly of Italy—what its people really thought and felt. And what he noticed was anger.

Casaleggio had recently watched V for Vendetta, a 2005 dystopian futuristic thriller. (Tagline: “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”) In the film, Britain is ruled by a fascist dictatorship; one night, a lone insurgent wearing a Guy Fawkes mask hacks into a state-controlled news broadcast and tells the people of Britain to meet him outside Parliament in exactly one year, setting in motion the end of the regime. Inspired by the movie, Casaleggio wrote a late-night post, published under Grillo’s name, on June 14, 2007. Beneath a picture of a Guy Fawkes mask, Casaleggio summoned all of Grillo’s readers to gather in person for something called Vaffanculo Day, or “Fuck Off Day,” in three months’ time—a mass collective middle finger to the political establishment.

The morning after writing the post, on his way to the office, Casaleggio reportedly called and told his son, Davide—who was also a young employee at Casaleggio Associates—to gather the rest of the staff for a breakfast meeting downstairs. “We have to do something big,” Casaleggio told the group, according to a book that Canestrari later cowrote about the origins of Five Star, called Supernova. “The anger is rising, and if we don’t let it vent in some way, it’ll die out.”

The ostensible purpose of V Day would be to ratchet up the Parlamento Pulito campaign. The goal: to collect signatures to force a law that would limit elected representatives to two terms and ban candidates with criminal convictions. But the deeper purpose was to muster a show of force—to demonstrate that the movement wasn’t just a virtual phenomenon.

Canestrari worked day and night over the next three months, coordinating with Friends of Grillo Meetup groups to mobilize them. Casaleggio called every contact he had. The Italian web fizzed with anticipation; the national press was silent. The day before V Day, Canestrari and Pittarello drove down from Milan to Bologna, where a giant stage was being set up in the city’s main plaza.

By the afternoon of V Day, September 8, 2007, the square had swollen with a crowd of about 50,000 people. All around Italy, in some 200 squares, other crowds were massing too. In Naples, people started lining up at 9 am to sign petitions, says Fico, who ran the signature-collecting campaign in his home city. “We couldn’t believe our eyes.”

When Grillo got to the microphone in Bologna at around 4:30 pm, he took in the crowd, visibly shaken. It was enormous. “Boh … what have we done?” he finally said, teetering around the stage and shaking his head in disbelief. Gathering himself, he launched into a typically throat-tearing tirade against Italy’s ruling elite.

The success of V Day was thrilling. Two million people had turned out across the country; 350,000 signatures were gathered for the Parlamento Pulito. And it had all been meticulously planned by Casaleggio Associates. “The entire company was there that day,” Canestrari says. Yes, the grassroots Meetup groups had been in charge of collecting signatures, “but everything else—everything else—was organized by us.” And if anyone asked who Canestrari and his colleagues were? “We called ourselves the ‘Beppe Grillo staff,’ so nobody knew.” The vast majority of people in the movement had no idea that Casaleggio or his consulting firm even existed. “Grillo has always been the front man, and he knew that,” Canestrari says. “And it was fun for him. But he never made a real decision about anything.”

Hoping to channel the energy of V Day, Friends of Grillo groups around the country started to talk about putting some of their members forward as independent candidates in local elections. Paola Nugnes ran for a seat in the regional senate of Campania. Roberto Fico ran for the presidency of the same region. Alessandro Di Battista ran in municipal elections in his native Rome. The idea was that, even with just a few elected officials at the lowest levels, the movement’s “counterinformation” would inexorably seep into town and regional governments.

With this turn toward electoral politics, Casaleggio told Canestrari to start developing an online platform to unify the disparate Meetup groups: a single web portal with a forum. Casaleggio also wanted to give some shape to the movement’s politics. “Let’s set some rules,” he said. Friends of Grillo members elected to office would have to observe a two-term limit. No candidates with criminal convictions were allowed, nor were those who had ever sought election under another party. Just a few fixed principles, Casaleggio said, like Asimov’s three laws of robotics.

The rules offered insurance that the movement’s politicians would be amateurs, not careerists. They also ensured that Grillo could never run for office in his own movement: He had been convicted of manslaughter in 1981 after a tragic car accident.

The Friends of Grillo barely made a showing in those early local elections; many candidates, including Fico and Di Battista, failed to get more than 1 or 2 percent of the vote. But their careers in politics were far from over. On October 4, 2009—as the global economic crisis began to pummel Italy, setting off a decade of malaise and widespread youth unemployment—the Five Star Movement was officially launched in a packed theater in Milan. From the stage, Grillo said they were starting the party because no one was listening to them, but he admitted that he wasn’t sure what they were doing or where they were going. Casaleggio, however, knew exactly where they were headed: Rome.

A Five Star demonstration in Rome in 2013, shortly after the movement sent 163 of its members to serve in Italy’s Parliament.

Getty Images

Five Star’s attempts at competing in local and regional politics in the next few years were fairly undistinguished. The party did well in Sicily’s regional vote in October 2012, after Grillo, 64, swam to the island from mainland Italy in a media stunt. (A life-jacketed Casaleggio followed by boat.) But ahead of 2013’s general election, the movement’s huge slate of candidates was barely polling in the double digits.

No one was prepared, in other words, when Five Star stormed into Italy’s Parliament with 25 percent of the vote in February 2013. Casaleggio suddenly found himself an object of morbid public fascination. The Italian press was relentless in its scrutiny—and its derision—of the bizarre-­looking web entrepreneur turning Italian politics on its head.

The papers often described Casaleggio as Grillo’s “guru.” The business daily Il Sole 24 Ore wrote that Casaleggio ran Five Star “like the cult of Genghis Khan.” Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, mocked a 2008 video that Casaleggio had made as the ravings of a crank. (The short animated film, which refers darkly to the Masons and the Bilderberg Group, envisions an apocalyptic world war that will usher in a single, global direct democracy, administered by Google.) “I will never forget how they treated him,” says Alessandro Di Battista, who’d just been elected to the lower house.

At the same time, 163 brand-new, almost wholly inexperienced Five Star MPs also came under the media’s klieg lights. Unsurprisingly for a movement with no ideological consistency or message discipline, the MPs offered plenty of fodder. The new leader of the lower house, Five Star’s Roberta Lombardi, made front-page news when it came out that she had once written a blog post that seemed to defend fascism and its original “socialist-­inspired sense of national community.” And a live feed in which the new MPs earnestly introduced themselves to the public was met with widespread mockery. “Hi, I’m Simona,” went one parody. “I  have a degree and I’m unemployed. I bend over backwards to manage my monthly budget and I want to be economy minister.”

Casaleggio came to Rome to try to reassure the new MPs, many of whom had never met their party’s cofounder. “If we stay united,” he told them, “there’s no obstacle we can’t overcome.” Suffice it to say, they didn’t stay united.

Several paradoxes were quickly emerging at the heart of the Five Star project. On the one hand, Casaleggio was busy developing the technology that would evenly distribute power across the breadth of the movement. By mid 2013, users of beppegrillo.it, still Five Star’s central website, could click through to a web portal where they could sign up as Five Star members, log in, and access a basic direct democracy platform—for the moment, a glorified web forum that let members review laws proposed by Five Star MPs, debate their content, and suggest wiki-style edits. Even still, users felt the thrill of direct participation in policymaking.

But at the same time, Casaleggio was anxious to mold and prop up a few key leaders. Shortly after the elections, he invited a select group of the most telegenic young MPs to Milan for media and communications training. Di Battista, who had won a seat in the lower house, was one of them. So was Fico. They were joined by a young college dropout named Luigi Di Maio and a few others. The meetings were led by a TV coach who was skilled in, among other things, neuro-­linguistic programming.

Casaleggio began using the blog and, increasingly, social media to elevate this handpicked group to become the biggest political stars in Italy. They had little in common with each other, save that they had almost all been near-penniless young men before Casaleggio picked them up and mentored them. “Gianroberto was a second father to me,” Di Battista says. “He was the man who gave me the biggest opportunity of my life … I have never known a person who knew how to listen like him.”

Casaleggio maintained an arm’s-length relationship with the rest of Five Star’s parliamentary caucus. He hired a former journalist named Nicola Biondo to help run the movement’s press office in Rome and to run herd on the other new members of Parliament. Biondo regretted taking on the role after just a few weeks on the job. The Five Star MPs were difficult to manage. They often ignored his advice; they tried to make TV appearances that hadn’t been sanctioned by Casaleggio or Grillo. Time and again, Biondo would get a call from Casaleggio saying: “Why are they saying that?”

Things got worse when Casaleggio fell ill and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “Some MPs tried to profit by his absence,” Biondo says. The web entrepreneur was desperate to stay in control of his wildly successful project, but he felt his grip weakening.

Biondo recalls sitting in Casaleggio’s office one day; the older man placed a hand on Biondo’s leg and confided in him. “I’ve realized that in my political activity there are many people who wish me ill, who attack me with negative energy,” Casaleggio said. “I sense that so many people hate me.”

Casaleggio seemed increasingly obsessed with the idea that people were out to get him. “He was constantly searching for people who would adore him, who would never question his intelligence,” says Biondo, who would go on to coauthor the book Supernova with Canestrari. Meanwhile, dissenters began to be expelled from the movement—one for going on TV without permission, another for criticizing the running of the party as a “feudal system of loyalty.” One MP was kicked out for calling Five Star a “cult of fanatics” in which criticism was not permitted.

The movement was streamlining. MPs were reportedly told to hand over the usernames and passwords to their email accounts; some gave Casaleggio Associates access to their social media accounts as well. Rising stars like Di Battista and Di Maio were constantly posting on Facebook to their hundreds of thousands of followers, and Casaleggio appointed employees at his firm to study Google Analytics and Facebook Insights to monitor which social media posts went viral, so their success could be replicated. According to Biondo, Casaleggio was also building his online movement into an army of “digital soldiers” that could be steered against political adversaries, establishment figures, and internal dissenters alike. “He did the same on the blog as he did at Webegg,” Biondo says. “This is called social engineering.”

Although Grillo’s blog had supposedly been founded to combat the virtual reality—the “Matrix”—of traditional media, Casaleggio’s employees at times peddled dubious information themselves. Some posts on the blog attacked obligatory vaccination in Italy, regurgitating unfounded claims that vaccines were linked to autism.

The site also began to lead its readers toward political conclusions that strayed somewhat from Five Star’s origins. Despite the movement’s vaguely progressive cast of mind, Casaleggio himself had long harbored certain right-wing sympathies. He thought the rights of citizens should not become subservient to international bodies like the European Union, and he respected that populist parties like Lega often called for referenda in the name of self-determination. (As it happens, Casaleggio and the founders of Lega both share a common inspiration: the political philosophy of Adriano Olivetti.) And as Five Star attained real political power, Casaleggio set about steering it to the right.

In 2014, Italian voters sent 17 members of Five Star to serve in the European Parliament, the body that oversees the European Union. According to one of the movement’s young delegates to Brussels, Marco Zanni, Casaleggio quickly made it clear that he wanted Five Star to ally with the UK Independence Party—the party led by far-right British provocateur Nigel Farage, whose lifelong mission was to get Britain to leave the European Union—in the EU Parliament.

Five Star’s web portal now included a tool for subjecting important decisions to an online vote, and so the decision on whether to ally with UKIP was put to the movement: direct democracy in action. But in the days and weeks before the vote, Casaleggio published articles on the blog hailing Farage as a democratic crusader against a monolithic EU. “Farage Defends the Sovereignty of the Italian People,” read one headline. Another article, entitled “Nigel Farage, The Truth,” listed UKIP’s supposedly progressive credentials, such as being an “antiwar … democratic organization” where “no form of racism, sexism, or xenophobia is tolerated,” and which believes in “direct democracy.”

The post that finally teed up the online vote made it very clear that the proposed alliance with UKIP was the best and only solution. According to Zanni, this was Casaleggio Associates’ modus operandi when it came to online votes: Provide a “cosmetic” appearance of choice while pushing for a particular option. In the end, 78 percent of the members who voted opted to join Farage. After years of studying how to shape online consensus, Casaleggio had mastered the art.

The alliance with UKIP was just the beginning. On a crisp morning in January 2015, Casaleggio Associates received some unusual visitors: Farage, Raheem Kassam—then a UKIP strategist, later a Breitbart London editor and aide to Steve Bannon on his European missions—and Liz Bilney, the future CEO of pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU.

The group wanted to learn how Five Star had pulled off its stunning political rise, and to grasp how it used technology—“to understand the mechanics of it all,” Bilney says. Casaleggio and his son, Davide, gave them a briefing that offered a timeline of important events in web-based politics and the development of Five Star. Then father and son explained the new and improved direct democracy platform they were developing for the movement. Soon, they said, registered members would be able to propose laws and debate and edit them, as well as use the portal to put themselves forward and select candidates in online ballots. As an engine for user engagement—a crucial metric in social media as in politics—the platform seemed formidable. Farage “thought it was fascinating,” Bilney says, “because UKIP were keen to build their membership.”

Kassam agrees that Farage was “very excited” by the meeting. “He wanted me to go and look into the systems that they used,” Kassam says, “and how UKIP might implement them.” The Casaleggios didn’t share much technical know-how with the group, but Kassam was impressed by how many resources they were dedicating to Five Star’s digital operations and data analysis. Bilney, for her part, left the meeting buzzing with ideas about the way Five Star used social media. It was this meeting, she says, that “planted the seed of ideas” that would lead to the success of Brexit. Leave.EU was founded six months after the Milan meeting, and a year after that the UK voted to leave the EU. (Bilney is now under criminal investigation for allegedly breaking spending rules.)

A few months after the meeting, a post on Grillo’s blog announced that the new version of Five Star’s online direct democracy platform was almost ready. It would be called Rousseau, and it would serve as the Five Star Movement’s mobile-friendly “operating system.” After users logged in, they would land on a homepage with different primary-­colored windows for voting on candidates and party decisions, as well as for proposing and debating laws, participating in fund-raising, and more.

Beppe Grillo had known that Rousseau—the long-awaited, all-­singing, all-dancing version of the direct democracy web portal—was on its way. What he hadn’t been told was that Casaleggio Associates was also building a new website that would supplant beppegrillo.it as the online home of Five Star. Fearing he was being squeezed out, Grillo confronted Casaleggio. As recounted in the book Supernova, the phone call quickly turned sour: “Vaffanculo!” Casaleggio yelled down the line. “I never want to hear from you again.”

Those were the last words Grillo would ever hear from Casaleggio.

Grillo initially agreed to a written interview for this article, only to later demand 1,000 euros per question, with a minimum of eight questions. I wondered if it was a weird joke—Grillo is famous for his offbeat humor—but a few days later a post appeared on his blog detailing his new tariff for conversations with the press. WIRED does not pay for interviews.

Despite Grillo’s vital role in the rise of Five Star, Casaleggio arranged, from his deathbed, for the ascension of his son, Davide, to a position of great power within the movement. Legal documents signed just before Casaleggio’s death state that Rousseau was to be managed by a new organization, the Rousseau Association. The documents also set up Davide Casaleggio, the new CEO of Casaleggio Associates, to be the Rousseau Association’s president and treasurer. He is, in short, the absolute ruler of Five Star’s data. (Casaleggio declined to speak with WIRED.) Five Star’s MPs are forced by new rules to pay 300 euros a month toward the running of the platform. Grillo, for his part, retained the rights to Five Star’s name and logo.

On April 12, 2016, Gianroberto Casaleggio died in Milan at the age of 61. As his coffin was carried out of the church that houses Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, a throng of Five Star supporters chanted “Onesta!” (“Honesty!”)—a party slogan. Di Maio and a tearful Di Battista led the chorus. Also in attendance was Umberto Bossi, the founder of Lega. Outside the funeral, a banner read: “We will realize your dream.” The day after Casaleggio died, Rousseau went live.

As the 2018 national elections approached, Five Star took one more step away from its original conception as a horizontal, leaderless movement: Via an online ballot on Rousseau, it set about choosing an official party chief. Once again, the contest offered a somewhat cosmetic appearance of choice. Of the best-known, highly groomed members of Five Star, only Luigi Di Maio ran for the job. Fico and Di Battista kept their heads down. So Di Maio was pitted against a slate of relative unknowns, including Elena Fattori.

To no one’s surprise, Di Maio won, becoming Five Star’s leader at 31 years old in the fall of 2017. Only about 30 percent of Rousseau’s members voted. Afterward, Grillo began to distance himself from the movement. In January 2018, when Grillo relaunched his blog, there wasn’t a Five Star logo in sight.


Steve Bannon’s Recruitment Tour

Steve Bannon—the former White House chief strategist and far-right impresario—has been trying to unify Europe’s most strident populists into a supergroup called the Movement. Some nationalists have been receptive; others see him as an unwelcome foreign influence. (Go figure.) Five Star has held off on joining. Here’s how Bannon has fared elsewhere. —Graham Hacia


On March 4, 2018, Five Star participated in its second national election. This time, Nugnes, the architect turned parliamentarian, watched the coverage on TV alongside activists and representatives in a hotel in central Naples. Unlike in 2013, everyone knew Five Star would do well. But the final results were nevertheless stunning—with 33 percent of the vote, and after just five years in parliament, Five Star had become the largest party in Italy. While her colleagues celebrated, Nugnes worried. “I just saw right away that the overall picture was very disquieting,” she says. Right-wing parties—particularly Lega—had performed well too, off the back of a fiercely anti-­immigrant campaign.

Nugnes watched uneasily as Five Star tried to form a government, seeming to go against the movement’s original “no alliances” principle. From the start, it was clear that Di Maio—who had criticized the previous, centrist government for presiding over a corrupt, NGO-run “sea taxi” service for migrants to Italy—favored a deal with Lega. Nugnes, who had made a name during the previous five years as an outspoken senator, wrote a scathing post on Facebook about the prospect of an alliance with “he who wants to end immigration,” referring to Lega’s leader, Salvini. “I wouldn’t get into the same elevator,” she went on, “or breathe the same air.”

After nearly 90 days of talks, Five Star and Lega came to an agreement; Di Maio and Salvini would share power as deputy prime ministers. When the agreement went up for a vote before Five Star’s members via Rousseau, an astounding 94 percent approved the deal. Movement heavyweights insist that the agreement isn’t an alliance. “If it were an alliance, it would be completely different,” Fico says, explaining that the two parties had instead arrived at a “contract” on a specific program of legislation—a contract that included, crucially, Five Star’s cherished plan for a universal basic income.

The new Italian government was hailed by populists around the world. “What is happening here is extraordinary. There has never been a truly populist government in modern times,” Bannon told La Repubblica. “I want to be a part of it.” Bannon gloated that he had advised Salvini to make the deal with Five Star, and he claimed that he had advised Five Star as well. A source close to Bannon confirmed to WIRED that when he was in Rome in June, Bannon met with Davide Casaleggio.

Days after the new government took power, Salvini—assuming a dual role as both interior minister and deputy PM—closed Italy’s ports to migrant rescue boats and proposed a census of the country’s Roma community ahead of possible expulsions. Some four months later, Five Star’s universal basic income was approved by Parliament in the government’s annual budget. Di Maio promptly took to the balcony of the parliamentary palace to punch the air in celebration. “We’re going to end up with machines replacing many of today’s jobs,” he tells me later, echoing a common argument in Silicon Valley. “The basic income can be a tool not just to help struggling families but one that allows us to face the fourth industrial revolution.”

The EU has denounced Italy’s universal basic income as profligate. The country’s public debt stands at 2.3 trillion euros, or 130 percent of the country’s GDP, which far exceeds EU limits; authorities in Brussels fear that Italy’s spendthrift budget will cause the country to default on its loans. Salvini quickly seized on Europe’s rejection of the policy to drum up anti-EU support. As his rants against immigration and the EU continue, Lega is soaring past Five Star in opinion polls. Di Maio has done little to push back against the government’s rightward turn, even as the rebels in his party are growing more defiant.

Nugnes and Fattori have both courted expulsion from Five Star over the past year, after refusing to vote with the party at times. They have been subjects of internal investigation, severe criticism by Di Maio, and storms of online abuse. “If they expel me, it will mean that this is no longer the right place for me,” Nugnes says. But she adds: “There are so many like me in the movement. No one can know the future of the movement.”

Many believe that the future of the movement is Alessandro Di Battista. The popular former MP decided not to run for election in 2018, despite being omnipresent during the campaign; he says he wanted to get back to the “real world” outside Parliament for a while. Insiders speculate that the real aim of his political hiatus is to avoid hitting his mandatory two-term limit. Once his ally Di Maio’s time is up, many figure, Di Battista will take over the party’s leadership.

Of all the movement’s leaders, Di Battista is Five Star’s unabashed Casaleggian radical. On a scratchy WhatsApp line from Guatemala, where he has passed much of his time out of power, Di Battista comes out swinging when I ask about Five Star’s apparent rightward slide: “Today, whoever wants to take back sovereignty is considered a fascist, a nationalist, a populist, a demagogue,” he says. Such allegations, he says, are just another case of media elites missing the point. “The world can’t be judged from an attic in Manhattan. They don’t understand anything—just as they understood nothing of Trump and Brexit, just as they’ve understood nothing about the Five Star Movement.”

For Di Battista, Five Star’s grand techno-utopian project is never far from sight. “Representative democracy is obsolete,” he tells me. It will soon be as old hat as absolute monarchy seems to us today. “The future is inevitably direct democracy,” he says. But who knows if that future will be quite as inevitable without a hidden hand to steer it.

Redux Pictures (Casaleggio portrait source); Getty Images (all other portrait sources)

Darren Loucaides (@DarrenLoucaides) is a British writer who covers politics, populism, and identity.

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Cities Spurned By Amazon for HQ2 Renew Courtship After Winning New York Has Second Thoughts

As Amazon faces political obstacles in building a huge office in New York City, cities that were once candidates for the campus are courting the tech giant once again.

Cities including Miami, Chicago, and Newark, NJ have all recently talked to Amazon, brushing off their earlier rejections in hopes of landing thousands of jobs. Then Denver and Dallas said they never stopped speaking with Amazon.

Since announcing plans to build a new “second headquarters” in New York City three months ago, Amazon has encountered intense blowback. New York politicians are balking at a plan to hand over huge financial incentives to one of the biggest companies in the world while local residents complain about the impact of thousands of new workers on an already expensive and crowded neighborhood.

The opposition has Amazon second-guessing its move into the city, according to media reports, opening the door to former candidates to dust off their old proposals.

Last year, Amazon last year received 238 bids for the new headquarters, which originally was planned for one city. Candidate cities made big offers—like Maryland’s $8.5 billion incentive package—in hopes of landing the giant.

After going through the proposals, Amazon released a list of 20 finalists, which included Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, and Columbus, OH—though very few of these cities publicly disclosed the incentives attached to their bids.

Ultimately, Amazon decided to change course and name two winning cities, but with only 25,000 job each. In addition to New York City, the company chose Crystal City, VA.

And while many losing cities were disappointed about being passed over, a few now are taking advantage of the tension in New York for a second chance with Amazon.

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, who previously helped pitch Chicago, immediately jumped on the phone with Amazon.

“Governor Pritzker reached out to Amazon to make a full-throated pitch to attract these good-paying jobs to Illinois and assure them that they would have a strong partner in the governor’s office,” Jordan Abudayyeh, spokeswoman for the governor’s office, told Fortune in a statement.

Meanwhile, Newark, NJ contacted Amazon to let the company know the city and state still have incentive packages, approved before the city was rejected, waiting for Amazon. Officials hope the news will show Amazon that it can move in without any risk of second guessing.

Miami-Dade’s mayor Carlos Giménez told the Miami Herald that he’s ready to restart talks about bringing the Amazon to Miami or other South Florida sites that were included in an earlier joint bid. The mayor of Magic City, Fla., said he planned to reach out to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to pitch him directly, according to the Herald.

A representative of the Dallas Regional Chamber said during a panel that that organization “never hung up the phone with Amazon,” according to media reports. The chamber declined to comment on whether Dallas planned to approach the company directly.

But Dallas mayoral candidate Jason Villalba was vocal about the matter on Twitter, saying, “Dallas can win this bid!” Undoubtedly, he also was using the issue as a way to highlight his experience in economic development to voters.

Similarly, The Dallas Morning News took the opportunity to write an op-ed titled, “Dear Amazon, New York doesn’t want you; Dallas does.” Mind you, the Morning News’ former headquarters is one of the potential sites for Amazon’s headquarters that Dallas listed in its proposal—a financial consideration that the News failed to mention.

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Japanese self-drive cars map developer to buy rival U.S. startup for $200 million

(Reuters) – Japanese map platform developer Dynamic Map Platform announced on Wednesday it plans to acquire Detroit-based map startup Ushr for up to $200 million in a bid to widen its geographical footprint in the burgeoning self driving cars market.

Dynamic Map Platform counts Japan’s Toyota Motor, Nissan and Honda among its investors, while Ushr provides 3D mapping data to General Motors.

The move comes as the Japanese car makers seek to challenge Alphabet Inc’s Google and Chinese rivals in the mapping business.

For the acquisition, Dynamic Map Platform said it would raise a combined 22 billion yen ($198.9 million) from investors including two existing shareholders – the Japanese state-backed INCJ fund and Mitsubishi Electric.

“Through the combination, we will be able to offer automotive OEMs a comprehensive high-definition mapping solution for the North American and Japanese markets, with the ability to expand globally in the future,” Tsutomu Nakajima, the head of Dynamic Map Platform, said in a statement.

Reporting by Rashmi Ashok in Bengaluru and Makiko Yamazaki in Tokyo; Editing by Stephen Coates and Muralikumar Anantharaman

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Italy denies it will ban Huawei, ZTE from its 5G plans

MILAN (Reuters) – Italy has denied a report it will ban China’s Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp from playing a role in building its fifth-generation mobile phone network.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks by a Huawei logo at a shopping mall in Shanghai, China, Dec. 6, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

“We have no intention of adopting any such initiatives,” the industry ministry said in a statement.

Huawei, the world’s biggest producer of telecoms equipment, faces international scrutiny over its ties with the Chinese government and suspicion Beijing could use its technology for spying, something the company has denied.

Earlier on Thursday Italian daily La Stampa cited senior government sources as saying Rome was ready to use special powers to terminate contracts involving the Chinese operators.

But in a statement the industry ministry said there was no proof of any threat to security in this regard.

“National security is a priority and if any critical issues emerged – which to date have not – the ministry would assess whether or not to take measures,” it said.

Brussels has not taken steps to ban Huawei but operators like the UK’s BT Group and France’s Orange have said they will not use its 5G equipment in their core national networks.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Germany needs guarantees that Huawei would not hand data to the Chinese state before it can take part in building fifth-generation networks.

Italian phone incumbent Telecom Italia has previously said it will keep working with Huawei until told otherwise by the government.

TIM, which is said to use Huawei technology in just over 10 percent of its fixed line fiber network, and Fastweb are part of a consortium with Huawei to test 5G infrastructure in the southern towns of Bari and Matera.

Vodafone, which has “paused” deployment of Huawei equipment in its core networks until Western governments give the Chinese firm full security clearance, has Huawei as one of its technology partners in 5G testing in Milan.

Broadband infrastructure company Open Fiber and service provider Wind Tre work in a consortium with ZTE in 5G testing in the towns of Prato and l’Aquila.

Reporting by Stephen Jewkes and Giselda Vagnoni; Editing by Giselda Vagnoni

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Tom Brady Kept Saying 1 Simple Word Over and Over After the Super Bowl. (And Taught an Amazing Lesson in Leadership)

Tom Brady has now won more Super Bowls than any other player in NFL history.

And in the minutes after the game, we got a small insight into why he’s so successful — after he kept using the same single word over and over and over.

You probably saw this unfold if you watched the game to the end: the giant scrum that erupted at midfield afterward, as CBS journalist Tracy Wolfson tried to get an interview with Brady, but he kept eluding her to embrace and congratulate other players.

It was fascinating in that we could hear snippets of the private conversations he was having on the field. The first player he rushed to embrace was Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

“Cookie!” Brady yelled, as he pushed through the crowd on national television, to hug Cooks. “Love you man. Love you. You had an unbelievable year.”

Then, Rams running back C.J. Anderson (it was tough to hear what they said), but then Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman. It’s an emotional, but we can hear what Brady says at the end of their embrace: “I love you dude. I love you dude.”

Brady also has a long embrace with Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Again, it’s a scrum, and you can’t make out much of what’s being said. But at the very end: “I love you.”

Let’s talk a bit about that word: love.

Some of us are afraid of it. Others probably use it too quickly, maybe too often. But we all know that it’s probably the most powerful emotion and feeling. 

As I saw Brady telling player after player (and an owner) that he loved them, I thought of an Army officer I interviewed in Iraq back in 2007. He had a family back home, and the separation of multiple combat tours was taking its toll.

He was starting to wonder whether he should get out of the military — but every time he thought of it, he stopped. Why did he stay? 

“I love Joe,” he told me. (“Joe” being slang for soldiers). 

To hear Brady saying that word over and over: “Love you.” “Love you dude.” “I love you.” 

It was striking. It’s part of the key to true leadership. I know of course that after winning a sixth Super Bowl, it was an emotional time for everyone on that field. 

But even so, it was notable. How often do you profess love for your work colleagues? For the people who work for you? 

I wrote recently about how Brady says the same simple four-word phrase to every new player on the Patriots when he meets them: “Hi, I’m Tom Brady.”

It’s obvious, right? Except that it’s not necessary.

Everybody who joins the Patriots knows who Tom Brady does. But besides being nice, and friendly, it sort of bridges the gap with new players who haven’t proven themselves yet.

This four letter word, “love,” does something very similar.

If you truly want to be a leader, and you want the people you’re leading to trust you implicitly, I think you have to be willing to let yourself love them.

Sometimes, you have to make sure that they know it. And sometimes, it means being willing to say it.

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Tech Companies Have a Brand Image Problem: Here's How to Solve It

Tech companies everywhere, but especially those in Silicon Valley, have a serious brand image problem. Over the past few years, major tech companies have drawn ire from the public for their lack of diversity, apathy toward privacy issues, as well as their accumulation of wealth.

This isn’t exactly stopping people from using the tech products we’ve come to rely on so heavily, but it is having an effect on share prices–and it’s attracting stricter regulations from governments all over the world. If these corporate juggernauts are going to earn back the trust of consumers, shareholders, and policymakers, they need to take serious strides to change how they’re publicly perceived. There are several ways to accomplish this, but it’s going to take a concentrated effort.

Diversity and Representation

First, Silicon Valley has a major diversity problem–and has had one for many years. The overwhelming majority of tech CEOs (and even tech employees) are white men. This is problematic both for the vision and products of the companies and for the reputation of those companies in the general public. Having a leadership team without representation from women and minority groups means your company is less likely to consider the wants, needs, and perspectives of those groups; it’s why we end up with algorithms that discriminate against women and minorities.

There is a fix, though it’s not necessarily a simple one. The most obvious solution is to hire more people from underrepresented groups, but tech companies don’t always have the luxury of having equal or proportional quantities of applicants from each of those groups; in other words, you can’t hire more women if there aren’t many qualified women applying.

So instead of simply adjusting HR practices to hire more applicants who belong to underrepresented demographics, companies need to take part in programs designed to incentivize people from minority groups to pursue careers in tech. As an example, Women in Technology (WiT) programs are becoming more popular, offering mentorship and guidance for young women looking for careers in fields like software engineering, mechanical engineering, or signal processing. Given a few years of development, enough early-stage outreach programs like these could fill the pipelines with more appliances from diverse groups, and slowly change the overall composition of these companies.

Consumer Privacy and Corporate Transparency

Tech companies have also taken a hit on the consumer privacy front, with Facebook showing up in the headlines many times in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when it was a London-based political consulting firm was capable of harvesting the personal data of millions of Facebook users for political manipulation purposes. Apple, Amazon, Google, and other companies have also been called to testify in front of a Senate Committee on consumer privacy protections.

We use devices, software, and digital products capable of collecting and storing ridiculous quantities of data on our lives, from where we are at any given time to what we’re talking about in our homes. With opaque and hard-to-understand terms of service agreements and an increasing diversity of connected devices, consumers and policymakers are more concerned than ever that data could be used for nefarious purposes–and tech brands are getting labeled as malicious, data-hungry consumer manipulators, working in darkness to take advantage of us.

There’s no quick fix to this dilemma, but offering more transparency is a good start. Giving users more options when it comes to their privacy, giving them simpler tools so they can truly understand what’s at stake when they use a product or service, and taking accountability when breaches do occur are the only path to restore trust.

Leadership and a Company “Face”

Tech brands also suffer from being faceless, corporate conglomerates. They’re either so massive they don’t have a public face, or their public face seems too detached from reality to seem relatable. Take, for example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg; this man serves as the “face” of Facebook, but has become generally disliked and distrusted due to his reclusiveness and seemingly robotic disposition when testifying before Congress. Or take Jeff Bezos, who is periodically caricatured as a cartoonish supervillain due to his similarly reclusive nature, his ambition for growth, and his access to practically unlimited resources.

Having a stronger, more trustworthy public face isn’t going to fix everything, but it would give the public someone more relatable to associate with the brand. And it doesn’t have to be a charismatic, charming CEO either–it can be a handful of PR reps or even customer representatives who make consumers feel like there are “real” people behind these companies, instead of just automated tech and reclusive billionaires. It would be a massive investment, to be sure, but it’s one of the only reliable ways to rebuild public trust.

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Who Should Govern Your Data? Inside the Privacy Debate in Davos

Grüezi from the snow-coated Swiss Alps, in whose fir-studded, canvas blanc landscape the World Economic Forum recently transpired.

An inescapable theme at this year’s summit was data privacy. The topic happens, ironically, to play counterpoint to another central theme—that datavore dubbed “artificial intelligence,” as Adam Lashinsky, this newsletter’s regular, weekday author, noted in an earlier column (and elsewhere).

The two concepts are inversely related, a Yin and Yang. Businesses are looking to fill their bellies with as much information as possible, extracting insights that might give them an edge over the competition. Indeed, data-guzzling machine learning processes promise to amplify businesses’ ability to predict, personalize, and produce. But in the wake of a seemingly endless string of data abuses and breaches, another set of stakeholders has grown increasingly vocal about implementing some, let’s call them “dietary restrictions.” Our appetites need limits, they say; left unchecked, the fast-and-loose practices feeding today’s algorithmic models threaten to undermine the autonomy of consumers and citizens everywhere.

The subject of data stewardship clearly occupied the minds of the most powerful politicians in attendance. In the main hall of the forum, two heads of state shared their concerns on Wednesday. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the topic will be one of two primary agenda items for the G20 Summit he is hosting in Osaka in June. (The other is climate change.) Later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Europe to find an approach to data governance distinct from the U.S.’s style, where corporations dominate, as well as the Chinese one, where the state seeks total control.

While policy-makers leaned, unsurprisingly, toward lawmaking, some members of the business set countered their notions with alternative views. Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder, cautioned against regulation, arguing that it restricts innovation. During a panel on digital trust I moderated on Thursday, Rod Beckstrom, the former CEO of ICANN, an Internet governance group, argued that Europe went astray when it adopted the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, last year, and he advised against the U.S. pursuing a similar path. Instead, Beckstrom proposed adding a privacy-specific amendment to the U.S. Constitution, one separate from the Fourth Amendment’s guard against warrantless searches and seizures. A provocative, if quixotic, idea.

By all measures, the disruptive, data-centric forces of the so-called fourth industrial revolution appear to be outpacing the world’s ability to control them. As I departed Davos, a conference-sponsored shuttle in which I was seated careened into a taxi cab, smashing up both vehicles. (No major injuries were sustained, so far as I could tell; though two passengers visited the hospital out of an abundance of caution.) While waiting in the cold for police to arrive and draw up a report, I was struck by how perfectly the incident encapsulated the conversations I had been observing all week.

We are all strapped, inextricably, to a mass of machinery, hurtling toward collision. Now what must be done is to minimize the damage.

A version of this article first appeared in Cyber Saturday, the weekend edition of Fortune’s tech newsletter Data Sheet. Sign up here.

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How to Write Emails That Super Busy People Will Actually Read

Apart from traffic, stubbed toes and spoiled milk, there are few things in life more frustrating or discouraging than cold email outreach. More often than not, you’ll either rejected outright or receive no response at all.

These outcomes become even more likely when reaching out to key decision makers, public figures or any other busy person , with no reply almost being a guarantee. Yet, while getting a hold of high-profile people is difficult – whether they’re the top influencers in your industry or the publisher you’ve been trying to connect with for years –it certainly isn’t impossible. 

In fact, by applying a handful of simple, battle-tested tips and strategies to your outreach emails and messages, your chances of reaching your prospect will sky rocket.

Here are six of them.

1. Get to the point.

A friend of mine who worked in the sales department at Oracle showed me the sales template they typically use for cold outreach. To my surprise, it was only four sentences long. The same was true for a buddy of mine who works in sales at a well-known Fortune 500 company.

In short, these emails have a quick intro, a sentence explaining why they’re reaching out to the target, a blurb on the value their product or service can bring to their business and wraps up with a question asking to hop on a quick phone call, with a few suggested days and times included.

This was a game-changer for me. Before seeing these templates, I felt compelled to close the deal all within the email itself. Instead, by waiting to do the “selling” on your initial phone call, once you’ve built trust and rapport, my average response rates increased threefold.

2. Prove your the “real deal” right off the bat.

One of my most successful email campaigns (in terms of open rates) included my title as an Inc.com Columnist in the email subject line itself, and read: “Quick Question From an Inc.com Columnist”.

No matter if you’re a CEO of a fast-growing startup, an author or someone who’s just getting started, we all have something of value to offer, some form of social proofing, so be sure to make it known right away.

Additionally, include a link to what I call your “home run proof point”. If you’re a blogger trying to get on a top notch publication, this could be an article that drove a ton of comments and shares. By proving you’re not just another spammer, you’ll instantly start to build trust between you and the prospect. 

3. Personalize it.

Remember: busy people are always on the prowl for reasons not to respond to an unsolicited pitch. 

Did this cold email get my name wrong? Is this cold email relevant to my business at all? Was this cold email clearly copy and pasted?

If there’s any semblance of you not doing your due diligence when it comes to research, editing and more, your chances of getting a response are close to nothing. 

The solution? Show you did your homework by personalizing and tailoring your message to fit specifically to the person you’re reaching out to.

4. Timeliness and relevance is key.

Wherever possible, be sure to include some sort of relevant reason as to why you’re reaching out to the person. 

Has your target recently published a book, secured venture capital or received a noteworthy award? Then congratulate them on it. Show them you care. This will warm them up and increase the chance they’re more receptive to what you’re proposing.

5. Self-serving people finish last.

This might be the most important point of all – stay out of it. Meaning, make the email and the reason you’re reaching out all about the contact person. Make sure it’s crystal clear how taking the action with what you’re proposing will add nothing but value to their lives. 

No matter how busy a person is, if there’s enough value at stake, they’ll make the time to respond.

6. Make the options simple.

Within consumer psychology, a common practice to drive customers to take action is to eliminate the number of options they can make in the first place. The same applies to email outreach. By decreasing the number of decisions your target has to make, they’ll be more likely to make the leap.

Is your call-to-action hopping on Skype? Then use a tool like Calendly to eliminate any back-and-forth and streamline the scheduling process.

Is your call-to-action subscribing to your newsletter? Then link it, in bold, at the bottom of your email. 

Getting no response from a noteworthy person can get discouraging – believe me, I’ve been there. Yet, by applying the tips laid out in this article to your outreach, you’ll dramatically increase the chances of reeling them in. Best of luck.

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How to Spot a Fake Glassdoor Review

As a result, you have some companies encouraging or downright pressuring employees to leave positive reviews. And, of course, you have people who are bitter leaving fake negative reviews as well. So, how can you spot which reviews are real and which are fake?

It’s not a perfect science

There’s always going to be some error in figuring out what is going on. The same happens with companies that conduct reference checks for job candidates. Because you don’t actually know who wrote the review, and you don’t know anything about them, you can’t make always make an accurate judgment about the quality of the rating. You have to do your due diligence and make your best guess. But, there are a few things you can do.

A spike in reviews needs a good cause.

Because many people write a review after they leave a company, you’d expect a surge in reviews after a large layoff, but you would also expect them to lean to the negative side. (Although, it’s perfectly possible to be laid off from a great place to work.) But, a flood of positive reviews is a pretty good signal that there’s a problem.

Polarized reviews.

If it’s either the worst place in the world or the best place in the world, someone is not telling the truth. This is not to say, of course, that I can’t love working for the same company that you hate, but if there are only extreme views, someone is probably either got an ax to grind or someone is pressuring people for good reviews. 

The reality is most companies are fine. Most are not the best to work for, nor are they the worst. So, be wary of companies that elicit extremes. And, as a side note, if all these reviews are correct, this indicates a company that doesn’t treat people fairly. If you’re one of the blessed few, you have a great time. If not? Your life will be difficult.

It sounds fake.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If many people repeat the same talking points, there might be a problem. 

Does this mean you shouldn’t trust Glassdoor?

That’s the same as asking “does this mean you shouldn’t trust references?” The answer is you should trust, but verify. Don’t eliminate a company from your list purely based on a bad Glassdoor review, but don’t blindly accept a job based on good Glassdoor reviews.

Ask in the interview: “I read on Glassdoor that bonuses are fantastic. Can you tell me about your bonus program?” and also, “I read on Glassdoor that people didn’t receive promised bonuses. Can you clarify what happened?”

And after you receive a job offer, ask to meet with your future teammates. Peers are more likely to be honest about the good and bad than a boss and recruiter who are trying to fill a position.

Forget the dream job.

And, most importantly, let go of the idea of a dream job. There is not such thing. So, make good and wise choices, but don’t assume you can find the best thing ever by  looking on Glassdoor.

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So Uber Wants Self-Driving Bikes and Scooters. Why? And How?

Really, it was only a matter of time before somebody thought to combine today’s hottest transportation trends: shared electric scooters and autonomous driving. Over the weekend, Uber reportedly unveiled a micromobility robotics division at a robotics meetup in the Bay Area. Though the company declined to confirm or comment on the new addition, the division will reportedly explore how to make the scooters and shared bikes it’s now deploying alongside its cars capable of riding themselves.

The key questions, then, are the classic ones—why and how.

The “why” makes, well, a touch of sense. Self-driving e-scooters and bikes would be able to mosey themselves over to battery-charging stations, or wheel themselves into maintenance depots, or redistribute themselves to exactly where users need them to be. That would be helpful, because operations and logistics can be an pricey pain for tech-enabled scooter- and bike-share companies. Figuring out where and when scooters need to be deployed, and when and how they need to be charged and repaired, is hard enough. But getting human beings out into the field, and doing the actual work of collecting, charging, and maintaining the vehicles has proven costly for the companies. According to investor documents provided to The Information showing internal company numbers from last spring, the e-scoot company Bird spent almost half its gross revenue per ride paying individual contract workers to charge their scooters, and another 14 percent of gross revenue per ride to repair them.

So yes, it would save companies a tidy sum if they could cut human labor out of the picture. “Operating expenses are the biggest thorn in the side of the companies,” says Richard Branning, the CEO and founder of the startup Sweep, which provides operations and logistical services to scooter firms. (Sweep runs operations for Spin, the scooter startup acquired by Ford last year.) But he argues that even the most advanced robots might not be able to extricate themselves from the pinches that shared bikes and scooters can get themselves into. “Let me know when a scooter is behind a fence and there’s a dog biting at it, when it can hop that 10-foot fence and get back on the road and zoom itself back to a charging pod,” he adds.

Indeed, making anything drive itself in the real world is really hard. Beyond a few demo rides, no company has been willing to take the human safety operator out of its cars, which is another way of saying that nobody has cracked the self-driving problem yet. And while scooters and bikes don’t match the speed or weight—and thus the potential danger—of cars, they bring their own challenges.

First, these are two-wheeled vehicles, and they tend to fall over when they don’t have a human using their weight and movement to keep them upright. Beyond adding extra wheels or heavy, complex tech like a gyroscope, there’s no obvious way to ensure they don’t tip, or to get them back up off the ground when they do. It’s not clear how to make a bike propel itself at all, since the e-bikes that Uber’s mobility subsidiary Jump and its peers use are pedal-assist: They augment foot power with motors, but those alone aren’t powerful enough to move the whole bike.

Second, scooters will have to operate on the sidewalk or on the street. That means they’ll have to deal with vehicles, intersections, and walking humans. Maybe even the occasional rogue squirrel.

That stuff is hard, but achievable, according to Kevin Peterson, the CTO of sidewalk delivery-robot company Marble. The bigger hurdle he sees is cost. Any self-driving vehicle needs sensors to perceive the world and computers to turn that data into decisions about how to move. Even if you manage to do this without lidar—which is the most expensive sort of sensor and costs in the thousands-of-dollars range—and use a combo of sensors and computer vision techniques instead, you’re making the vehicle more expensive.“I don’t know of a safe autonomy system that would be cheap enough to put on a scooter,” Peterson says, suggesting an ambitious $50 as a ceiling.

Trouble is, a key advantage of bikes and scooters is that they are cheap, around $500 per scooter. And these shared vehicles live outside and take a beating—even when people aren’t hurling them into local bodies of water or stuffing them up into trees. On top of the cost of the system, Uber would have to put more money into hardening an expensive sensor and computing suite, or replace the scooters’ and bikes’ cameras and other bits more often than they’d like.

OK, so coaxing scooters and bikes to drive themselves would be very difficult and very expensive. The undertaking is still somewhat on brand for Uber. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has positioned the company as the “Amazon of transportation.” He wants Uber to be able to get you anywhere, and bring you any meal, no matter your travel mode. He also has decided against nixing the company’s expensive self-driving research and development efforts—Uber wants autonomy to be part of its very long term future.

As the company gears up for its initial public offering this year, of course self-driving scooters and bikes will be part of its narrative.


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Google Gives Wikimedia Millions—Plus Machine Learning Tools

Google is pouring an additional $3.1 million into Wikipedia, bringing its total contribution to the free encyclopedia over the past decade to more than $7.5 million, the company announced at the World Economic Forum Tuesday. A little over a third of those funds will go toward sustaining current efforts at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, and the remaining $2 million will focus on long-term viability through the organization’s endowment.

Google will also begin allowing Wikipedia editors to use several of its machine learning tools for free, the tech giant said. What’s more, Wikimedia and Google will soon broaden Project Tiger, a joint initiative they launched in 2017 to increase the number of Wikipedia articles written in underrepresented languages in India, and to include 10 new languages in a handful of countries and regions. It will now be called GLOW, Growing Local Language Content on Wikipedia.

It’s certainly positive that Google is investing more in Wikipedia, one of the most popular and generally trustworthy online resources in the world. But the decision isn’t altruistic: Supporting Wikipedia is also a shrewd business decision that will likely benefit Google for years to come. Like other tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, Google already uses Wikipedia content in a number of its own products. When you search Google for “Paris,” a “knowledge panel” of information about the city will appear, some of which is sourced from Wikipedia. The company also has used Wikipedia articles to train machine learning algorithms, as well as fight misinformation on YouTube.

Even efforts like GLOW—which will now expand to Indonesia, Mexico, and Nigeria, as well as the Middle East and North Africa—can help Google’s own bottom line. When the initiative first launched in India, Google provided Chromebooks and internet access to editors, while the Centre for Internet and Society and the Wikimedia India Chapter organized a three-month article writing competition that resulted in nearly 4,500 new Wikipedia articles in 12 different Indic languages. Smartphone penetration in India is only around 27 percent; as more people in the country start using Android smartphones and Google Search, those articles will make the tech giant’s products more useful. Wikipedia’s blog post announcing Google’s new investment makes this strategy fairly clear, noting that the company also provided Project Tiger with “insights into popular search topics on Google for which no or limited local language content exists on Wikipedia.”

Google is also providing Wikipedia free access to its Custom Search API and its Cloud Vision API, which will help the encyclopedia’s volunteer editors more easily cite the facts they use. Each time a Wikipedia editor adds a new piece of information to an article, they need to cite the source where they learned it. The Search API will allow them quickly look up sources on the web without having to leave Wikipedia, while the vision tool will let editors automatically digitize books so they can be used to support Wikipedia articles too. Earlier this month, Wikimedia also announced Google Translate was coming to Wikipedia, allowing editors to convert content into 15 additional languages, bringing the total available to 121.

These machine learning tools will absolutely make it easier for Wikipedia to reach people who speak languages currently underrepresented on the web. But the encyclopedia is also the reason many AI programs exist in the first place. For example, Google-owned Jigsaw has used Wikipedia, in part, to train its open source troll-fighting AI. The encyclopedia is also used by hundreds of other AI platforms, particularly because every Wikipedia article is under Creative Commons—meaning it can be reproduced for free without copyright restrictions. Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa smart assistants use information from Wikipedia to answer questions, for instance. (Both companies also have donated to the Wikimedia Foundation as well.)

Google’s new investments in Wikipedia, specifically in GLOW, will address a genuine problem. The majority of Wikipedia’s tens of millions of articles are in English or European languages like French, German, and Russian. (There are also lots of articles in Swedish and two versions of Filipino, but most of these pages were created by a prolific bot). As the estimated half of Earth’s population that still lacks an internet connection comes online, it will be important that reliable information is available in the native languages people speak. That doesn’t mean, though, that in helping solve these issues companies like Google—or Facebook—don’t also have something to gain.


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Feds Also Say That Oracle Underpaid Women and Minorities

Oracle allegedly underpaid thousands of women and minority employees by $401 million over four years, according to a document filed Tuesday by the US Department of Labor, as part of an ongoing discrimination lawsuit against the software giant.

In the document, the Labor Department also claims that Oracle strongly prefers hiring Asians with student visas for certain roles because they are “dependent upon Oracle for sponsorship in order to remain in the United States,” so the company can systematically underpay them. Between 2013 and 2016, the department says, 90 percent of the 500 engineers hired through its college-recruiting program for product development jobs at its headquarters in California were Asian. Over the same four years, only six were black.

Once they are employed, Oracle also systematically underpays women, blacks, and Asians relative to their peers, the complaint claims, alleging that these disparities are driven by Oracle’s reliance on prior salaries in setting starting salaries and the company’s practice of steering black, Asian, and female employees into lower paid jobs. The department says some women were underpaid by as much as 20 percent compared with their male peers, or $37,000 in 2016.

“Oracle’s suppression of pay for its non-White, non-male employees is so extreme that it persists and gets worse over long careers; female, Black, and Asian employees with years of experience are paid as much as 25 percent less than their peers,” according to an updated complaint filed Tuesday. “Oracle’s compensation practices cause an increasing pay gap as those employees devote more of their lives to Oracle.” The Labor Department began investigating because Oracle has government contracts worth more than $100 million a year.

Oracle did not respond to a request for comment.

The document says Oracle underpaid more than 1,200 female employees by $165 million, more than 2,700 Asian employee by $234 million, and a smaller number of black employees by $1.3 million. The government’s case looks primarily at employees in product development, IT, and support roles at Oracle’s Redwood City, California, headquarters. In 2014, the department says, Oracle employed 7,500 of its 45,000 US employees at the Redwood City office. The agency claims that the total cost of Oracle’s discriminatory practices are likely “much higher” than $400 million because the company’s discrimination has continued since 2016.

The government’s allegations against Oracle echo those in a private lawsuit by former Oracle employees who say the company discriminated against them on the basis of sex. On Friday, lawyers for that group alleged in a new court filing that Oracle paid women $13,000 less than men in comparable jobs with comparable experience, based on expert analysis of Oracle’s pay data.

Pay equity is an increasingly high-profile issue in Silicon Valley, part of a broader examination of race and gender discrimination in hiring, promotion, and funding, as well as sexual harassment. When 20,000 Google employees walked out to protest the company’s practices in November, pay equity was ranked second in their list of demands.

The government lawsuit, which began in January 2017, was filed by the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and will be decided by an administrative law judge. The OFCCP is demanding that Oracle pay injured employees and applicants for lost wages and to correct discriminatory practices, including additional hiring.

But a bigger threat to Oracle may be the OFCCP’s demand to cancel all of Oracle’s government contracts and to bar the company from future contracts until it complies. The same office sued Google, which is also a federal contractor, for discrimination against women, alleging systemic bias against female employees. That case has been delayed while the two sides argue over how much pay data the government can get from Google.

Annual diversity reports published by major Silicon Valley companies show low numbers of under-represented minorities. In the four years since they began sharing the information, there has been little progress in improving those ratios to reflect the diversity of the industry’s billions of consumers around the world. Employers often allege that the numbers stem from a shortage of qualified candidates.

The OFCCP’s claims about systemic race discrimination at Oracle are based on comparing the number of recent college graduates of a particular race hired by Oracle versus the number of graduates at the schools where Oracle recruited and who had the degrees Oracle targeted.

However, the agency says its figures are incomplete because, it says, Oracle did not track race or ethnicity for the majority of applicants and deleted data requested by the Labor Department, including an email inbox where college recruits submitted their resumes. “There is a presumption that the information Oracle has refused to produce or destroyed was unfavorable to Oracle,” the complaint says.

Oracle tried to dismiss the Labor Department’s case based on the method for choosing administrative law judges. But last week, an administrative law judge ruled against Oracle.


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Exclusive: Facebook brings stricter ads rules to countries with big 2019 votes

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Facebook Inc told Reuters on Tuesday that it would extend some of its political advertising rules and tools for curbing election interference to India, Nigeria, Ukraine and the European Union before significant votes in the next few months.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

As the largest social media service in nearly every big country, Facebook since 2016 has become a means for politicians and their adversaries to distribute fake news and other propaganda.

Buying Facebook ads can widen the audience for such material, but some of those influence efforts may violate election rules and the company’s policies.

Under pressure from authorities around the world, Facebook last year introduced several initiatives to increase oversight of political ads.

Beginning on Wednesday in Nigeria, only advertisers located in the country will be able to run electoral ads, mirroring a policy unveiled during an Irish referendum last May, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s director of global politics and outreach, said in an interview.

The same policy will take effect in Ukraine in February. Nigeria holds a presidential election on Feb. 16, while Ukraine will follow on March 31.

In India, which votes for parliament this spring, Facebook will place electoral ads in a searchable online library starting from next month, said Rob Leathern, a director of product management at the company.

“We’re learning from every country,” Leathern said. “We know we’re not going to be perfect, but our goal is continuing, ongoing improvement.”

Facebook believes that holding the ads in a library for seven years is a key part of fighting intereference, he added.

The library will resemble archives brought to the United States, Brazil and Britain last year.

The newfound transparency drew some applause from elected officials and campaign accountability groups, but they also criticized Facebook for allowing advertisers in the United States to obfuscate their identities.

The Indian archive will contain contact information for some ad buyers or their official regulatory certificates. For individuals buying political ads, Facebook said it would ensure their listed name matches government-issued documents.

The European Union would get a version of that authorization and transparency system ahead of the bloc’s parliamentary elections in May, Leathern said.

The ad hoc approach, with varying policies and transparency depending on the region, reflects local laws and conversations with governments and civil society groups, Harbath said.

That means extra steps to verify identities and locations of political ad buyers in the United States and India will not be introduced in every big election this year, Leathern said.

In addition, ad libraries in some countries will not include what the company calls “issue” ads, Leathern said.

Facebook’s U.S. archive includes ads about much-debated issues such as climate change and immigration policy even though they may not directly relate to a ballot measure.

Australia, Indonesia, Israel and the Philippines are among nations holding key votes this year for which Facebook said it is still weighing policies.

Leathern and Harbath said they hoped to have a set of tools that applies to advertisers globally by the end of June. They declined to elaborate, saying lessons from the next couple of months would help shape the worldwide product.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Facebook is pictured during the Viva Tech start-up and technology summit in Paris, France, May 25, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

“Our goal was to get to a global solution,” Harbath said. “And so, until we can get to that in June, we had to look at the different elections and what we think we can do.”

Other Facebook teams remain focused on identifying problematic political behavior unrelated to ads.

Last month, researchers working for a U.S. Senate committee concluded that the Russian government’s Internet Research Agency used social media ads and regular posts on inauthentic accounts to promote then presidential candidate Donald Trump to millions of Americans. Russia has denied the accusation.

Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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On the autofarm: China turns to driverless tractors, combines to overhaul agriculture

Xinghua, China (Reuters) – A brand new combine harvester buzzes up and down a field in eastern China without a driver on board, chopping golden rice stalks and offering a glimpse of what authorities say is the automated future of the nation’s mammoth agricultural sector.

Staff members taking part in the experiment on automated farming machinery load fertilizer onto an automated tractor near a field in Xinghua, Jiangsu province, China October 30, 2018. Picture taken October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Hallie Gu

The bright green prototype was operating last autumn during a trial of driverless farm equipment as the government pushes firms to develop within 7 years fully-automated machinery capable of planting, fertilizing and harvesting each of China’s staple crops – rice, wheat and corn.

That shift to automation is key to the farming sector in the world’s No.2 economy as it grapples with an ageing rural workforce and a dearth of young people willing to endure the hardships many associate with toiling on the land.

Other countries like Australia and the United States are taking similar steps in the face of such demographic pressures, but the sheer scale of China’s farming industry means the stakes are particularly high in its drive to automate agriculture.

“Automated farming is the way ahead and demand for it here is huge,” said Cheng Yue, general manager of tractor maker Changzhou Dongfeng CVT Co Ltd, which provided an autonomous vehicle that was also used at the trial in the rice field in Xinghua, a county in the eastern province of Jiangsu.

However, the road to automation is long and littered with obstacles such as high costs, the nation’s varied terrain and the small size of many of its farms.

“I have heard of driverless tractors. But I don’t think they are practical, especially the really large ones,” said Li Guoyong, a wheat farmer in China’s northern Hebei province.

Most farms in his area are only a few hectares in size, he said by phone.

GOING LOCAL

To try to achieve its ambitious 7-year goal, Beijing is supporting trials of local technology across the country organised by industry group Telematics Industry Application Alliance (TIAA).

Members include state-owned tractor maker YTO Group, navigation systems producer Hwa Create and Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science & Technology Co Ltd, which helped develop the combine harvester used in the Xinghua trial along with Jiangsu University.

The next trials are slated for the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and for the hills around the southwestern city of Chongqing in the first half of this year.

Those come after a string of automated developments in the sector.

YTO developed its first driverless tractor in 2017 and is aiming to start mass production soon, depending on market demand, said Lei Jun, an executive at the firm’s technology center, without giving a more detailed timeline.

Lovol Heavy Industry Co Ltd signed a deal with Baidu in April to apply the tech giant’s Apollo automated driving system to its agricultural machinery.

“China is expected to climb the autonomous technology ladder very quickly, mainly because Chinese companies can access the local navigation satellite system, which gives them an advantage over their international peers,” said Alexious Lee, Head of China Industrial Research at Hong Kong brokerage CLSA.

He was referring to China’s ‘Beidou’ homegrown satellite navigation system, a rival to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS).

Beijing has included agricultural machinery in its ‘Made in China 2025’ campaign, meaning the vast majority of its farm equipment should be produced at home by that time.

Semi-automated technology is already fairly common on farms in places such as the United States, but fully-automated tractors and combines have yet to be mass-produced anywhere.

TOO SMALL

But with many Chinese farms still too small for a regular tractor, driverless ones that could be as high as four times more expensive at around $90,000 will be a long way out of reach for many in the short-term.

More than 90 percent of farms in China are less than 1 hectare, while in the United States nearly 90 percent are larger than 5 hectares.

“It is not about whether you have the product. It is about the entire system. It is about commercializing agriculture,” said Lee.

Although analysts and industry officials said that the underlying trend would be for farms to get larger as ongoing reforms to land rights should allow farmers to lease more space.

Sensors in equipment that help monitor crop conditions also need to be improved so that machines can adjust more quickly to different situations, said Wei Xinhua, deputy director of the school of agriculture equipment engineering at Jiangsu University.

China’s $60 billion farm machinery industry has been burdened by overcapacity and low profit-margins after a years-long subsidy scheme to promote mechanization in farming led to mass production of low-quality tractors. Analysts said it was too early to say how much the automated farming machinery sector could eventually be worth.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Automated farming machines are also useful in recording data on details such as volumes of fertilisers or other materials used in churning out crops, potentially helping farmers target consumers demanding higher-quality produce as some of that information could be included on food labels.

“Take a bowl of rice. I want to know exactly how it was planted, and how much fertilizer or pesticide was applied to it,” said Cheng at Changzhou Dongfeng.

($1 = 6.8450 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Reporting by Hallie Gu and Dominique Patton; Editing by Joseph Radford

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3 Smart Things Top Performers Do to Stand Out at Work

How do I stand out at work? originally appeared on Quora the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

The big raise. The promotion you’ve been after. The new job that accelerates your career’s momentum. These may be in your sights, but the fact is, everyone is after those same things.

Which begs the question, how do you differentiate yourself from your peers?

Everyone’s career is different, and it’s hard to make blanket statements about the exact skills that will be necessary to make an individual stand out in their industry. But over the course of a long and varied career, I’ve noticed several broad traits that high-performing employees tend to have. These aren’t specific skills that are applicable to one aspect of a job–they’re high-level abilities that set certain people apart from the crowd.

The good thing is, none of these traits are innate. They’re all learnable if you take the time to examine how they work and what you need to do to incorporate them into your life.

These are the three characteristics you can use to stand out from the crowd, even in the most competitive industries:

1. Transforming Knowledge Into Expertise

The ability to transform knowledge is a dead giveaway for employees with potential.

When I say transform knowledge, I’m talking about an ability to take some type of received information, digest it, and synthesize it into something new. For example, if a team goes to a conference and hears a lecture they really enjoy, for some, that might be the end of it. But the type of person that stands out won’t leave it at that. She’ll type up a summary of the speaker’s points and send it to colleagues who may be interested.

By creating something new with the information you receive, you’re internalizing it and gaining greater insight.

The method doesn’t really matter, either. It could be a presentation, an essay, or even a deliberate conversation with someone else that transforms the knowledge into a new model. That habit is crucial, though, because it shows a readiness to learn, grow, and find hidden connections.

2. Building A Cognitive Surplus

Everyone likes a hard worker. Bosses know these employees put in the time to get the job done, even going above and beyond the call of duty.

However, there does come a point when people may begin to wonder why this person always appears to be working so hard, for such extended periods of time. And that can actually be detrimental because the person who performs at a high level in a relaxed manner looks much more professional than the person who has to spend all night in the office.

They also have time to build up a cognitive surplus–the free time and mind space to work on complex problems or practice new skills. In fact, this behavior probably led to the level of skill where they can look so relaxed.

If you’re always working overtime and devoting all your conscious thought to your daily tasks, you’re actually missing out on opportunities to grow and stand out from the crowd. But if you can take the baseline set of skills you need for your job–Excel, SAS, Powerpoint, and beyond–and make them second nature, you’ll free up time to increase your mastery in different areas.

That cognitive surplus is what allows you to learn new skills, improve your existing abilities, and set yourself apart from other talented employees.

3. Developing A Kick

Some people naturally tend to finish strong. They know when they need that extra effort to get across the finish line or bring a project to completion. They know when they need their kick to close a deal.

Those people stand out.

This is what I like to call the “Law of Increasing Effort.” The closer you get to the finish line, the more effort you need to cross it. In fact, executing the last 20% of an endeavor often takes as much work as the original 80%.

You may have heard this term if you’re a runner–it’s called the “kick.”

Luckily, anyone can develop a kick. All it takes is a determination to put yourself in new and unfamiliar situations. Why? Because each situation is a step to new and more difficult projects, where the finish line is even harder to reach. As you succeed, you’ll begin to build a kind of career momentum. New projects aren’t as nerve-wracking or difficult because you’ve been in that uncertain realm before.

You know that all it takes is determination and a strong kick to see you to the end.

And being someone who finishes things–the type of person who wills them to completion–is exactly the type of trait that makes you stand out.

This question originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

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Furloughed Workers Are Taking Extraordinary Measures to Survive the Shutdown as it Sets New Records Every Day

The uncertainty about how long the shutdown will go on can make it difficult to impossible to find stopgap employment, as few employers are excited about taking on and potentially having to train a new worker who could be called back by Uncle Sam any day.

As a result, a number of federal agencies and even the Coast Guard have posted sad survival “tip sheets” for furloughed workers that suggest taking on babysitting gigs or having a garage sale, among other potential humiliations. 

So much for all the great benefits of a government job. 

The endless scroll is a catalog of furlough horror stories and public servants basically engaging in digital panhandling. Most have raised from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and come from all across the country. 

Whatever your feeling on the shutdown and who’s to blame, it’s pretty clear that it’s the product of a break down. This is simply not the way things are supposed to work, either in Washington, D.C. or in the homes of thousands of workers who are nothing more than innocent bystanders at a record-setting train wreck. 

Published on: Jan 14, 2019

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How Red Hat Scaled From an Unlikely Startup to a Major Global Enterprise

By the mid 90s, Microsoft ruled over the technology world. Through its Windows operating system, which ran roughly 95% of the world’s computers, it was able to leverage control over much of what other companies did and built commanding positions in productivity software and other facets of the industry.

Yet even as the tech giant was at its peak, a danger loomed. Like barbarians at the gate, hordes of developers banded together in online communities to collaborate on their own software. Unlike Microsoft’s proprietary products, nobody owned these and anybody was able to alter or customized them as they pleased.

Steve Ballmer would come to regard open source software as a cancer. Yet where the Microsoft CEO saw danger, two entrepreneurs saw an opportunity. They created a company called Red Hat that was focused wholly on the Linux open source software, a seemingly crazy idea at the time. Today, however,  it has grown into a major global enterprise. Here’s how they did it.

A Wild Idea

When Bob Young and Marc Ewing combined their efforts to create Red Hat in 1995, it seemed like an unlikely idea. Microsoft launched Windows 95 that same year and had begun its rise to dominance. It had invested billions to develop its technology and was determined to protect that investment. How could a fledgling firm with no products of its own compete?

Yet as Paul Cormier, President of Products and Technologies at Red Hat explained in a blog post, “open source is a development model, not a business model.” An open source community can develop technology, but it can’t deliver customer service, help fix the inevitable day-to-day problems that crop up or train staff. What Red Hat did was essentially transform Linux from a technology project to a technology product that customers could use with confidence.

It was also to find an unlikely ally. IBM, which had fallen from grace in part because of Microsoft’s rise, saw open source software as an opportunity to take control of its own destiny once again. It began shipping its mainframes with Linux and eventually would donate hundreds of its own patents to protect the community.

Perhaps the most important factor to the rise of open source was the Internet and the freewheeling culture it brought with it. The LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) became standard for many developers building websites. Red Hat went public in 1999 and achieved the eighth-biggest first-day gain in the history of Wall Street. It was on its way.

Scaling Up To The Enterprise

By 2000, Red Hat, when Matthew Szulik took over as CEO, Red Hat was a public company and, with the Internet already becoming a powerful force, the idea of open source software was becoming more accepted. Yet the company was still distributing its product in shrink-wrapped boxes. Clearly, it needed a new business model.

So in 2001, Szulik took a leap of faith and launched an enterprise version of Linux on a subscription basis, and “Red Hat Linux Enterprise” became its flagship product. The move proved to be enormously successful. Large businesses could now both get the benefit of using open source software, while at the same time gaining a reliable partner that could help them run it.

Yet it also meant that the company had to evolve. It was no longer a scrappy startup, but increasingly a key partner to many of the world’s most trusted brands, That meant it had to build more than technical excellence, but also to deliver great customer service and build industry expertise so that it could provide more full-scale solutions.

“As we’ve moved up the stack and closer to the application layer, we’ve become much more of a strategic partner to our customers, which has resulted in an increase in our average deal sizes,” Eric Shander, Red Hat’s CFO told me. “That also means a much more involved sales cycle, where we need more specific technical and industry expertise, which has required us to become more planning intensive around where and how we deploy our critical resources.”

“For example,” he continued, “when we’re talking to retail customers, these customers are having to actively innovate their business models and that eventually leads to IT implications. They don’t need just a stable IT environment, they need the kind of flexibility that enables agility and the ability to perform system changes rapidly to respond
to changes in the industry.”

Servicing The Cloud

By 2012, Red Hat’s customers faced a new challenge. Cloud technologies were becoming increasingly important, but as with operating systems, they didn’t want to get locked in to a single vendor. Unlike operating systems, applications delivered through the cloud are not one-size-fits-all, but need to be specifically designed for a specific business function.

“The buyer’s journey over the last five years has been for large enterprises to increasingly adopt the hybrid cloud, to match the the infrastructure to the particular needs of each application and use case,” says Mike Kelly, Red Hat’s CIO. “That means we’ve had to invest is tools to help our customers do that.”

Today, the company offers a suite of products that help manage the cloud for over 90% of Fortune 500 companies, including its OpenStack Platform, which acts as an operating system for the cloud, OpenShift, which helps manage container technologies like Docker and Kubernetes and Ansible, which helps automate basic repetitive tasks.

Still, Red Hat has stayed true to its open source roots. All of its software is available for free to anyone who wants to use it, even previously proprietary software from companies it acquires. Still the it has been able to build a fantastic business, earning almost $3 billion in revenue during the 2018 fiscal year at better than 20% margins. IBM acquired Red Hat in October for $34 billion. 

The Next Phase

The IBM deal opens up new possibilities for Red Hat. “Joining forces with IBM will provide us with a greater level of scale, resources and capabilities to accelerate the impact of open source as the basis for digital transformation and bring Red Hat to an even wider audience,” said Jim Whitehurst, CEO of the company.

In a way, the acquisition is a replay of Lou Gerstner’s early support of Linux at IBM back in the 1990’s. Much like 20 years ago, the century-old tech giant is today being threatened by powerful competitors, Amazon and Microsoft, who are dominating the cloud market. Red Hat gives it the ability to not only compete, but to preserve independence and flexibility for its enterprise clients.

Customers also seem to be excited by the possibilities. “What I’m looking for is for IBM to use Red Hat’s tools to speed up development of hybrid cloud integration which would reduce the amount of work we need to do on the back end and enable us to better serve our customers,” Tim Beerman, CTO at Ensono, a company that provides hybrid cloud services, told me.

Yet the potential may be even greater than that. With Moore’s law ending, we will need new computing architectures, such as quantum computing and neuromorphic chips, to advance the field. IBM has made long-term investments in both technologies and both will need new software to run them. Red Hat gives them a unique vehicle with which they can build an open source ecosystem to do that.

What few people realized back in the 90s was that open source software doesn’t mean the end of proprietary technologies. Rather, it provides a stable environment upon which proprietary technologies can be built. That’s the opportunity that Red Hat siezed more than two decades ago, with a new era of computing dawning, that is what lays before it today.

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Samsung, Huawei supply majority of own modem chips, Qualcomm says

SAN JOSE, Calif. (Reuters) – The two largest smart phone makers in the world supply a majority of their own modem chips to help their devices connect to wireless data networks, according to evidence presented at an antitrust trial for chip supplier Qualcomm Inc (QCOM.O).

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Qualcomm is seen during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

A trial between the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Qualcomm kicked off in a federal courtroom in California on Friday, with the regulators arguing that Qualcomm engaged in anticompetitive patent licensing practices to preserve a monopoly on modem chips. The case is being closely watched because it may shed light on the likely eventual outcome of the global legal battle between Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and Qualcomm.

Apple has alleged that Qualcomm engaged in illegal business practices, and Qualcomm in turn has alleged Apple violated its patents, scoring victories in China and Germany last month.

Qualcomm has argued its licensing practices follow long-established industry norms and that it charges broadly the same licensing rates that it had for many years before it ever started selling chips.

That has become a big market for Qualcomm, which controlled 59.6 percent of the $15.3 billion market for 4G modem chips in 2017, according to IDC’s Phil Solis, who studies mobile chips for the research firm.

But Bob Van Nest, an attorney representing Qualcomm in the case, also sought to show that Qualcomm is not dominant in the world’s two biggest handset makers.

During opening arguments, Van Nest’s presentation said that Huawei [HWT.UL] internally sources 54 percent of the modem chips it puts in its devices and gets only 22 percent of its modems from Qualcomm, with the remainder coming from other unnamed makers. Samsung (005930.KS) internally sources 52 percent of the modem chips it uses, with 38 percent from Qualcomm and the rest from other makers, according to the presentation.

Huawei and Samsung did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Also, the FTC’s case centers not on the overall modem chip market – which includes slower chips that go into cheaper handsets – but rather the market for speedy “premium” chips where Qualcomm is among the only options.

Huawei and Samsung are both large diversified technology corporations that make many other products aside from premium-priced smart phones. Huawei’s HiSilicon unit supplies the chips for its high-end phones such as its Mate and P series. Samsung’s chip division supplies processors and other components for many of its handsets and is also a dominant global supplier of memory chips beyond its own products.

The two firms are also Apple’s fiercest rivals in the market for premium smart phones costing $700 or more. Apple depends entirely on Intel Corp (INTC.O) and Qualcomm for modem chips, though the iPhones released in 2018 use Intel modems exclusively.

Technology news publication The Information last month reported here that Apple was designing its own modem chip, citing Apple job listings and a source briefed on Apple’s plans. Apple declined to comment on its plans.

For the second quarter of 2018 – the most recent figures available from IDC – Apple was the third-largest smart phone supplier by volume, with Samsung and Huawei in first and second place, respectively.

Reporting by Stephen Nellis; Editing by James Dalgleish

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The Simple Engineering That Will Keep NYC's L Train Rolling

Ever since the last of the brackish water slithered out of the Canarsie Tunnel in the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers have been bracing for the pain. Public transit officials have long warned that the water damage to the 94-year-old tunnel, full of just-as-old subway equipment, would eventually require a long, painful, deeply inconvenient rehabilitation. That’s the tunnel that runs under the East River, carrying many of the L subway train’s 400,000 daily riders from popular Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick into Manhattan.

The surgery was scheduled for April 2019, when the stretch of L train that takes New Yorkers across Manhattan and into Brooklyn was scheduled to shut down for a 15-month repair job. Ahead of what they officially deemed the “L-pocalypse,” local officials created piles of plans to ramp up bus service, encourage biking, and run new ferry routes, and everything else they could think of to keep all those commuters from taking to cars and making already bad traffic fully catastrophic.

Those plans (as well as wilder ones proposed by concerned citizens) became a lot less necessary Thursday morning, when Governor Andrew Cuomo called a surprise press conference to proclaim that no, the L train won’t close completely, and yes, it will still be fixed for the future.

The new plan for the next few years is to keep the train open and running as normal during weekdays, whilst doing repairs on nights and weekends (the details remain fuzzy). The board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway, has yet to adopt the new plan, which was proposed by a commission of half a dozen engineers based at Columbia and Cornell Universities that Cuomo assembled last month, two years after the decision was made to close the line. But the agency put out a press release Thursday afternoon saying it “accepted the recommendations.”

Curious politics are clearly at work here, but New Yorkers are unlikely to care, as long as the subway keeps running. And if it does, it’ll be thanks to two bits of subway engineering infrastructure: benchwalls and cable racking.

Let’s start with benchwalls. If the train stopped in the tunnel and you had to get out, these are the stretches of concrete, running along each wall and resembling big benches, that you’d be walking on. Facilitating emergency exits is one of their main functions—without them, you’d have to jump out of the train, onto the ground and risk hitting the third rail. Benchwalls also hold most of the goodies that make the subway work, including the power and communications cables. When workers were building the line, which started service in 1924, putting the cables in the concrete was the best way to protect them from things like hungry rats and water damage.

Over the past century, those benchwalls have started to deteriorate, a process accelerated by the flooding from Hurricane Sandy. Explaining its full shutdown plan in 2016, the MTA said the tunnel’s bench walls “must be replaced to protect the structural integrity of the two tubes [east and west] that carry trains through the tunnel.”

Replacing these things involves jackhammering away concrete, removing the rubble, replacing the cabling inside, setting new concrete, and having it dry. It’s work you can’t do overnight or on weekends, because any one section takes several days. And you can’t run trains without leaving a walkway to lead people to safety in an emergency.

The new plan involves giving those benchwalls a bit of a demotion. They’ll still be used for emergency egress, but they won’t hold the cables anymore. Instead, the L train will use a “cable racking” system, in which new power and comms lines will be strung up and attached to the sides of the tunnel, above the benchwalls. Turns out, their protective jacketing has advanced since the Prohibition Era. “We’ve had tremendous progress in materials,” says Peter Kinget, a Cornell electrical engineer who served on the panel. , If the jacketing catches fire, it doesn’t produce noxious fumes. It’s impervious to vermin and H2O, obviating the need for the concrete armor. The workers will also shore up the sections of benchwall that are crumbling with fiber reinforced polymer, Cuomo says, leaving the old, inactive cables entombed inside.

That decoupling of the benchwall’s duties is a big deal, because it makes the work much easier to execute. You can cut back service at night and on weekends (by running trains in just one of the tunnel’s twin tubes) and have workers slip underground, setting up the racks and new cables segment by segment. During normal hours, the train operates as it usually does, pulling power from the cables already in the benchwalls. Once the work is done, the MTA will switch the trains over to the new set of cords.

Cable racking has been used for new metro lines in London, Hong Kong, and the Saudi capital of Riyadh, Cuomo says. This would be its first use in the US, and the first time it’s been used to fix up an existing line.

“It’s a clever solution,” says Matt Cunningham, a civil engineer and global director of infrastructure for Canadian engineering firm IBI. It’s cheaper and easier than replacing all the cable-filled benchwalls, and it’s a proven method. “It’s going to work.”

Which brings up the unanswered question of why this idea is just surfacing now. Why not before the MTA decided on the full shutdown, then spent two years preparing for it? It makes Cuomo the politician who averted the traffic-spewing L-pocalypse—but it also makes one wonder why he didn’t come to the rescue earlier. (He’s been governor of New York since 2011.) In his press conference, he presented this as new solution, which is true if you compare it to the techniques used to build the subway in the previous century, but not if you take a slightly narrower view. “It’s not new technology that’s only now become available,” Cunningham says.

Of course, limiting service during nights and weekends to make this fix will still inflict some suffering, and the MTA has a terrible record of mismanaging this sort of operation, so any promises about deadlines or costs should be doubted. “You’re not getting a root canal on five teeth, you’re getting a root canal on three teeth,” says Allan Rutter, of Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute. “There’s gonna be pain.”

In infrastructure as well as in dental surgery, you’ve got to accept some drilling and discomfort. But less is definitely more.


More Great WIRED Stories

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It's Time to Ditch New Year's Resolutions. Do This Powerful 25-Minute Exercise Instead

I have always found new year resolutions difficult (with the exception of Woody Guthrie’s beautiful 1942 version). I prefer writing manifestos when it comes to the future.

I wrote about the Manifesto Exercise around this time last year. Denny Post, CEO of Red Robin, shared it on Facebook at the end of this year, recommending it to her friends as a different way of doing their new year resolutions. That inspired me to do mine, below, and update it with some new categories.

“Ayse Birsel authored this piece last year in INC – it’s a practical, efficient and inclusive approach to setting yourself up for the New Year!” Denny Post

The Manifesto Exercise will help you think like a designer about your work for 2019.

I recommend that you do one alone and then do it again with your team. Remember you’ll be thinking like a designer–with optimism, looking at the big picture, and with empathy for yourself (and each other, if you’re doing it with your team).

Ground rules are the same as last year: Give yourself 25 minutes total. If you run out of time, take a short break before you complete it. Speed is part of the game in that it helps you go with your gut and leaves less room for unnecessary self-judgment. Remember to do it playfully, because when we’re playful we’re like kids, fearless and open to learning by doing.

Time: 25 minutes, sometime in early January 2019.

A. DECONSTRUCT:

Map out your work life in 2018 across the following 6 categories (see my diagram and use it as a cheat-sheet). 

Note: This year I found it useful to make loose notes for my deconstruction, adding items as things popped into my head, before sitting down to do it all in one go.

1. Emotion: Start with how you feel in this moment. Then think back to how you felt in 2018 and how you want to feel in 2019. List your feelings as they come to mind in one column. 

Note: Emotions at work often run in opposite pairs–love/hate, success/failure, having a sense of purpose/feeling lost.”  

2. Information: Think about what you know about your work going into 2019. This can be your salary, the size of your team, the number of projects you’re working on. List tangible information or data in this column.

3. Constraints: What holds you back you back or limits you? Your own constraints, like procrastinating and leaving things to the last minute, and constraints that you cannot control, like budgets. 

4. Joy: What brings you joy at work? Thinking about what makes you happy will help you think about what matters to you at work and will help you to be more intentional about increasing your instances of joy.

Note: Last year Opportunity was #4. I intentionally moved it to #6, wanting you to circle through joy and gratitude (#5) first, to inspire your opportunities.

5. Gratitude: What were you grateful for in 2018? While joy is more personal, gratitude is often in relation to others. It’s about getting the relation between ourselves and others right, one of the three foundations of happiness according to Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

6. Opportunity: What are your opportunities as you start in 2019? These are things that align with your values, purpose and personal growth. They’re positive, exciting, empowering.

Tip: Try turning your constraints into opportunities (for example, as one of our clients put it, many voices and opinions can be a constraint but it is also an opportunity.)

Note: Last year #5 was Out-of-the-box Opportunity (OOBO) for big dreams and leaps, “revolutions” versus “evolutions”. This year they’re inside the Opportunity column (See my OOBO in my diagram, daring me to think big.) 

B. REFLECT:

Reflect on your deconstruction, above. Deconstruction helps you break a complex idea into its parts to make it more manageable. It visualizes your life at the cross-section of 2018 and 2019 so that you can decide what to keep, what to discard and what to change. 

Now do your own dot-voting, picking one thing that rises to the top in each column. Go with your gut. You can put a star next to it (I underlined mine in red.) These are your 6 key ingredients for 2019. 

C. WRITE YOUR MANIFESTO:

Your Manifesto is your declaration for 2019 based on the top 6 ingredients you chose above. Write it by combining them together in a paragraph:

Your Manifesto = Emotion + Information + Constraint + Joy + Gratitude + Opportunity.

Once you have your manifesto, gather your team–this can be over breakfast or lunch–to do the exercise together and to share your manifestos. Based on each other’s manifesto, talk about what you need help with, what you can do together, and who can be your mentors, mentees or an accountability partners to collaborate with to bring your vision to life in 2019.

We use this tool to shift with our clients’ mindsets from problems to opportunities, from feeling stuck to action, with great success. The process is almost mathematical in its simple formula yet vision-creating in its results. It’s a key component of Design Quotient (DQ), our practice to teach leaders how to think like a designer and imagine tomorrow based on what you know today.

Wishing you a happy and creative 2019.

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Want to Work From Home in 2019? Starting Today, You Can Get Paid $10,000 Extra to Do It. (There's Just 1 Catch)

Perhaps you’ve been thinking that 2019 is the year that you’ll finally do it: You’ll take control of your destiny and do what’s required so that you can work from home.

Of course, it’s not as if most people who work for someone else can just flick a switch and suddenly have the right to work from home. They have to negotiate with their employers, make their case, and act.

But, if you’ve been on the fence about doing it, one U.S. state might have just the impetus you need to make the jump: $10,000 for up to 1,000 people who can show that they work from home for an out-of-state company.

I wrote about this when the Vermont government first approved the program, but now it’s finally here: One of the requirements is that you have to move to Vermont after January 1, 2019, since the government didn’t want to pay people who were already going to live there and work from home anyway.

But that day is finally here today (assuming you’re reading this on the day it was published): New Year’s Day, 2019).

Beyond that, the restrictions seem pretty easy to comply with, assuming you truly and legitimately are working remotely from an out of state company. You have to:

  • be a full-time employee of a business “with its domicile or primary place of business” outside Vermont
  • perform “the majority of…employment duties remotely from a home office or a co-working space located in the state”
  • demonstrate qualifying expenses

In theory, the payment is supposed to reimburse you for the cost of moving to the Green Mountain State (you’ll have to learn that nickname if you’re going to live there). And note that you can actually work from a co-working space, not only out of your house.

That last point seems like a good idea if you’re going to move to a new state; many of us meet people through work, but you’d otherwise literally be working alone and from  home. It turns out there are at least 19 co-working spaces in Vermont, spread around a state of only 625,000 people. 

That last number — the population of only 625,000 — mostly explains why the state is doing this to begin with.

That, combined with the fact that the population is aging, and that the tax base is dwindling. (There’s a similar program now for people who want to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, by the way).

So what can you expect if you move to Vermont? In short: a relatively exercise-conscious, healthy living state with a high intelligence and a quaint New England standoffishness, apparently. Over the past year we’ve seen that it’s:

Oh, and it’s cold in the winter–but beautiful almost all year round.

If you’re thinking about it, I’d recommend visiting now or in February, so you’ll see if you’re really the kind of person who can thrive in that climate. 

Then check out the fine print — including being aware of just how many people wind up qualifying — and get ready to apply.

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One Simple Way to Experience Less Drama in 2019

Anyone who’s serious about success understands this truth: the people in your circles determine your trajectory. It seems like a simple concept, but it can seem remarkably difficult to curate the people you spend time with, considering your family members and people you work with can seem like factors outside of your control. But according to Ivan Misner, Stewart Emery and Rick Sapio, authors of Who’s in Your Room? The Secret to Creating Your Best Life, you’re the only one who can ensure that the people you spend time with are positive influences.

Your life is one room

The mind trick they put forth is this: Imagine that your entire life is lived in one very large room (as big as an auditorium) and its one door only leads in. Everyone who comes into your life can never leave. Of course, in real life people do come and go, but when it comes to your psyche, everyone who enters “your room” leaves a permanent imprint which affects your daily experience.

Think about your positive and negative emotional states

The book’s authors suggest thinking about the times when you’ve experienced harshness and anger, as well as when you’ve felt love and kindness. Who are the people playing into these states? Even if you can’t remove someone from “your room,” being aware of how people influence you can help when it comes to setting boundaries.

Create an imaginary doorman who screens the people who want to come into your room

First, though, you need to identify the key values your doorman needs to be aware of. Then, when people ask something of you, you can mentally discuss the matter with your doorman who will remind you of your list of values so you can commit or decline accordingly.

Get better at saying no

You can do this gently by telling someone you don’t have the time or expertise to do a good job. You can also point them in the direction of another person who could perform better than yourself. Or, offer a different solution.

Increase the number of mentors in your room

The authors suggest creating a two-column list. On one side name all the people who are positive forces in your life and enhance it personally, professionally or spiritually. In the other column identify at least one thing you can do to fortify each of these relationships, whether it means spending more quality time with the person or inviting him or her to lunch or coffee. “Then pick up the phone, send the email, or attend the social gathering,” they write. “Take steps today to strengthen your relationships with mentors by engaging them and, when appropriate, expressing the value they have in your life.”

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Got a McDonald's or Burger King Coupon? Here's the Smart, Surprising Thing to Do With It. (You Only Have 3 Days)

This is a story about a smaller restaurant chain trolling McDonald’s, Burger King, and other giants of the business. And it’s kind of brilliant. Before the details, a quick explanation.

The fast food industry is a smart and fun one to follow no matter what business you’re in, and for two big reasons.

First, there’s the pure scale. Make a menu change at McDonald’s for example, and you’re upending the routines of hundreds of thousands of hungry Americans. You can learn a lot just by watching how they develop and test new products.

But second, there’s the marketing.

Think of McDonald’s, which spends $2 billion a year on marketing and ads. That’s half the entire value of its much smaller competitor, Wendy’s. It’s an incredible chance just to unpack what they do, and figure out why they think that various ideas will work.

Which brings us to some shoot-the-moon marketing campaigns that can actually turn the big chains’ efforts on their heads.

The only catch? You had to place the order from a McDonald’s restaurant. (Technically, just being within 600 feet was close enough to trigger the offer.)

Of course, Burger King isn’t small; just smaller than McDonald’s. But it shows how if you’re creative, you can use a competitor’s strength–in that case the fact that there are roughly twice as many McDonald’s in the U.S. than there are Burger King locations–to your advantage.

But what if you don’t have 1.7 million Twitter followers and a full time social media marketing operation, like Burger King, to get word of your deal out.?

What if you don’t even have a mobile app (or a burning desire to get people to download your app, which is what the Burger King promotion and so many others these days are all about)?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Smoothie King.

Again: not exactly tiny, although very small compared to McDonald’s and Burger King. Smoothie King has close to 800 stores, heavily concentrated in warmer weather parts of the country.

It’s privately held, and even if you’ve never tried it, you might recognize the name from the $40 million naming deal it has for the NBA New Orleans Pelicans home arena (“Smoothie King Center“).

Now, like its bigger competitors, Smoothie King also has a rewards app, and it’s launched a contest to try to incentivize people to download and use it. (The “Change-a-Meal Challenge.”)  

But what attracted me to this whole thing is how Smoothie King is kicking off its promotion: By letting you use any coupon from any other fast food restaurant — McDonald’s or Burger King included — at Smoothie King.

It’s good for only one day, New Year’s Eve, and regardless of the competitor’s coupon’s value, it gets you $2 off a smoothie at Smoothie King on December 31.

And in truth, I don’t know how many people would take advantage of it. But that doesn’t really matter in a way; what matters in this social media age is whether you can find a truthful, fun way to troll your competitors and turn their strengths to your advangage.

As a marketing strategy, I think it’s brilliant.

As for the Smoothies, well, I don’t know. I’m writing this from New Hampshire, and it looks like the nearest Smoothie King would be a three hour drive away. You’ll have to let me know in the comments.

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2019 Is The Year Of A New Economic Expansion Record

I will say, flat out, that I didn’t think December would be a down month, and it is shaping up to be the worst December since 1931. Needless to say, the economic environment today is very different than the time of the Great Depression, so the parallels are difficult to draw, despite the similarity of the stock market performance. Based on the latest consensus estimates from Factset, EPS growth for the S&P 500 is going to be 20.6% in 2018 with another 7.9% in 2019, along with 5.3% revenue growth to boot. If the S&P 500 ends 2019 where it is today, that would mean that share prices would have failed to respond to a compounded EPS growth rate of over 30% in two years (1.206 x 1.079 = 1.301).

If the economy is still growing in the second half of 2019, this will become the longest economic expansion in the history of the United States. I think it will continue for all of 2019. This means that, with a growing economy and growing earnings, this latest selloff is unlikely to be the start of a bear market.

My 2018 annual prediction – that the U.S. dollar would rally in 2018 – has worked out well, despite a very poor performance in the first quarter (for my full prediction, see December 18, 2017 Marketwatch article “Ivan Martchev’s 2018 predictions: Gold will sink, and the dollar will rally”). It needs to be noted that the dollar is up a lot more against emerging markets currencies than the old U.S. Dollar Index, which contains only developed market currencies. This more notable outperformance against emerging markets currencies for the dollar is likely to persist in 2019.

Recessions do not start with unemployment at a 49-year low of 3.7% (charted, below) and the economy growing at around 3%. Before a recession can start, the economy needs to slow, and the unemployment rate needs to stop falling and begin turning higher because of the economic slowdown. That takes time.

UnemploymentRate.png

Graphs are for illustrative and discussion purposes only. Please read important disclosures at the end of this commentary.

While a slowdown is likely to begin in 2019, the recession will most likely happen in 2020 or 2021.

Can the Stock Market Go Down in a Good Economy?

Yes, a stock market can go down in a good economy, as it is has been doing recently. For a protracted bear market, we need to see a shrinkage in earnings per share for the S&P 500 Index. The more the EPS for the Index shrinks, the more the index goes down. This happened in the recessions of 2001 and 2008

In the year 2000, the stock market was overvalued but it took a while for the air to come out of the bubble before it bottomed in March 2003. In the year 2007, the financial system almost blew up with unregulated mortgage lending and repackaging of no-documentation loans into fascinating securities with oxymoronic names for AAA-rated sub-prime CDOs. The 1929 and 2008 declines were most similar, as they had to do with financial system leverage and cascading losses as the leverage was unwinding. Unfortunately, there were also serious mistakes on the fiscal side (tariffs that caused a collapse in global trade) and monetary front (tightening that caused banks to fail) in the 1930s. The 1974 decline was due to a big oil price shock.

While there is monetary tightening at present, it is not being done in a weak economy. And where tariffs are concerned, they are, so far, being used as a negotiating tactic. The Trump administration would argue that there has been progress on the trade front with Canada, Mexico, South Korea and even with the European Union, so this does not seem to be a full-blown global trade war, at least for now.

The most extreme example of the stock market going down in a good economy would be 1987.

DJIAversusFundsRate.png

The 1987 market was the new Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s trial by fire, where he felt compelled to jump in with a few interest rate cuts, the same way he cut interest rates after the market sold off 25% in August and September of 1998 at the tail end of the Asian Crisis and the Russian sovereign debt default. Regrettably, the fortitude displayed by the famous Time magazine cover (below), dubbed “The Committee To Save The World,” is hopelessly missing at this very moment.

TimeMagazine.jpg

I think the present volatility of the stock market is not due to the hiking of the fed funds rate alone, but also to the more disruptive overall quantitative tightening, which demonstrates itself via the rising Fed balance sheet runoff rate, which went from $20 billion in January to the present $50 billion/month rate.

BalanceSheetVersusDJIA.png

Letting bonds mature (and not reinvesting the proceeds) also results in large repurchase agreement activity, which sucks excess reserves out of the financial system. Sucking electronic cash out of the financial system may be the simplest possible explanation as to why the stock market is doing what it is doing. (Enterprising minds are urged to carefully read the paper “The Federal Reserve’s Balance Sheet and Earnings: A Primer and Projections” by Fed economists Seth Carpenter, Jane Ihrig, Elizabeth Klee, Daniel Quinn, and Alexander Boote. There are other similar papers available from the Federal Reserve.)

ExcessReserves.png

In my experience, sharp selloffs in a good economy tend to reverse themselves as the economy keeps growing and so does the earnings-per-share (EPS) for major stock market indexes like the S&P 500. Some of those “good economy” sharp selloffs – as in 1987 and 1997 – required active government intervention in order to stabilize the market, while others took care of themselves.

Still, in the present uncharted territory of quantitative tightening, I would have felt a lot better if Gary Cohn were the Fed Chairman. He ran a large investment management organization (Goldman Sachs Asset Management) and had extensive experience as a trader before becoming an executive and a CEO-in-waiting. One certainly needs a lot of theoretical experience to be a successful Fed Chairman, like Ben Bernanke proved, but in the situation that we have now, practical experience would also count for a lot.

Disclosure: *Navellier may hold securities in one or more investment strategies offered to its clients.

Disclaimer: Please click here for important disclosures located in the “About” section of the Navellier & Associates profile that accompany this article.

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Ready, headset, go: Retailers racing ahead with VR for staff training

The circa 5,000 virtual reality (VR) videos viewed over two weeks by Costa Coffee staff, looking to understand how best to prepare the company’s Christmas drinks range, highlight the appetite for learning in the organisation using this technology.

That is the view of Laura Chapman, head of learning at Costa, who says festive-themed training videos were not mandatory for its workforce, but they really captured the imagination of its people at this busy time of year.

“It’s still early days for us, but feedback show us teams are motivated to learn this way,” she says, commenting on the recent introduction to over 1,500 Costa stores of Google Cardboard headsets and associated tools, enabling teams to access 360-degree footage of coffee-making tips and techniques.

The move was announced at the end of October, and was primarily a way of helping induct new staff in the ways and methods of Costa baristas ahead of the busy Christmas trading period. However, it’s a platform that can be used for training all year round.

Chapman says the VR element is embedded into what she describes as an already comprehensive training programme, and currently includes tips on how to make an Americano or the Black Forest Hot Chocolate which appears on the menu in December.

And as consumers continue to seek out more compelling experiences, expertise and different types of engagement during a trip to a retail or food and beverage outlet, there are several ways the Costa VR staff training tool is catering for these demands by preparing staff accordingly.

“We have a high volume of millennials in the workforce, so we wanted to be able to provide an engaging and innovative way of training them, one which would really excite them to learn,” says Chapman.

“The VR 360 videos we currently have provide a wider insight into the coffee growing process with footage of coffee plantations in Peru along with sneak peaks inside our state of the art roastery and coffee lab in Basildon.

“In addition to this, we also feature drinks tutorials on our key products, so teams can learn faster by immersing themselves in a real-life environment.”

Walmart is another big retail business that is well under way with its use of VR for operational gain. Facebook-owned Oculus Go VR headsets are being used by the grocer’s staff across the US, with the STRIVR-created content teaching people about technology and compliance, and aiding soft skill development like empathy and customer service.

To indicate the scale of the technology’s usage, the plan is for four VR headsets in every Walmart “supercenter”, and two units to every neighbourhood market and discount store. In total, the retailer says 17,000+ headsets are in use at Walmart today.

VR training must run deep

Ed Greig, chief disruptor at Deloitte, agrees that some of the best cases of VR usage in retail are around staff training.

“If you want to change the behaviour of your staff, that’s something you can do with VR in a way you couldn’t do with text-based e-learning,” he says.

“Some organisations are still using paper-based learning, and these are organisations that in other areas are very technical, but VR can enhance this process.”

Greig backs VR’s ability to improve the soft skills of store associates to align them with company values or to provide a platform for helping more senior staff improve management and empathy, but ultimately he sees the biggest gains for retailers coming from its wider deployment by human resources departments.

Wider recruitment

He acknowledges the idea of VR being used as a staff training tool has opened up conversations with Deloitte clients about their wider recruitment and subsequent learning strategy. As retailers embark on widescale digital transformation, he sees VR playing a central role in improving store design, supply chain operations, and general processes.

“Our motto is ‘fall in love with the problem not the solution’,” says Greig.

“There is a real danger with a new tech like VR and the subsequent modifications to that tech that people can fall in love with the solution [and forget why they need it in their businesses]. If you’re going to use VR, it should be about reshaping your entire learning strategy and how you look to develop people throughout the organisation.”

“It’s really effective when it’s used as part of the recruitment process, providing a consistency of experience for employees right from the first moment they have contact with a certain company,” he says.

“If retailers can nail that, it gives them a whole load of additional time where they’ve got people thinking about their brand values, and they can hit the ground running once they’re on the team.”

In a future internet of things (IoT) environment, Greig predicts multiple ways VR could play a part in the “digital twin” process, where a retailer’s physical premises are effectively digitally cloned. One can imagine staff using VR in this format to remotely change a retail store’s lighting or signage setting in real time, he asserts.

VR as standalone entertainment

VR is cropping up in various guises across retail, be it Virgin Holidays using Google Cardboard in stores to help customers experience locations before they book them, or Tommy Hilfiger kitting out global flagships with WeMakeVR-loaded SamsungGear devices to showcase its catwalk shows to in-store visitors.

But some of the most impactful uses of it revolve around creating an event out of VR technology. At Westfield Stratford City in 2016, Samsung ran an in-shopping-centre pop-up, enabling around a quarter of a million people to try out its Gear VR to experience roller coaster rides in North America or holidays in remote destinations.

Judging by that success, it is perhaps clear why ImmotionVR, a company that designs content for VR and operates simulators in public places around the UK, is continuing to scale its business based on a similar cinematic-like premise.

With 12 locations across the country, including at Manchester’s Arndale Centre, Birmingham’s Star City, Intu Derby, and most recently, Wembley’s London Designer Outlet, the company is creating theme-park-like, family-friendly experiences starting from £5 in shopping centres around the UK.

Martin Higginson, CEO of Immotion Group, says his company is looking to help the wider retail industry not by selling it VR technology as an internal solution, but by setting up its simulators and VR installations deep within retail – in the aisles of shopping centres or in locations left behind by collapsed or down-sizing retail chains.

“We’re focused on delivering an out-of-home experience,” he says.

“Currently shopping in general needs to bring theatre, because without that retail will wither on the vine. The high street and shopping malls need to change and start creating more theatre be it additional dining spaces, VR or something else; there needs to be a unique mix that creates a ‘theme park’ within shopping centres.”

Incentivising shopping mall visits

Higginson argues that venues from ImmotionVR, which creates its own content from its Manchester studios and offers VR experiences covering scenarios ranging from roller coaster rides to swimming with sharks off the coast of Tonga, can give families an added incentive to visit a shopping mall.

There is also a focus within the business on providing VR-enabled destinations for work parties and educational trips for schoolchildren.

“We want to create Disneyland in Westfield or Lakeside, or wherever – shopping centre owners have massive challenges with the likes of House of Fraser and Debenhams going through turmoil,” he says.

“We can bring experiences to shopping centres and fill them with guests throughout the week, helping malls become leisure destinations rather than venues for straight-out shopping.”

Higginson also argues the continued growth of his brand will open up VR to the mainstream. As a result, the tech might become more widely used in the home and in the workplace. In short, society could be about to see more of it in its various forms.

Costa and Walmart are clearly on the start of their VR journeys, but the staff engagement it has resulted in, and – in the case of Walmart – the rapid extended roll-out of the technology to date, suggests further exploration and usage is imminent.

VR roll-out a reality

Walmart announced in September that its VR technology was set to be accessible for all employee training across its entire US store portfolio, following initial usage solely for staff development in Walmart Academies. More than one million Walmart associates will now receive the same level of training as those in the academies, the retailer said.

Meanwhile, all of Costa’s fully owned stores – as opposed to its franchise and concession partners – have a Google Cardboard headset that allows staff to experience VR. And Chapman acknowledges the business is looking to make them available to its partnerships and international stores, while additional ideas for its usage keep arising.

“We could provide ‘on-the-job’ experiences to potential candidates so they get an idea as to what it’s like working in one of our stores,” she says.

“The coffee growing process and following the coffee journey from bean to cup is also something that we feel would be useful for inductions for everyone in the Costa family both among our store teams and in our support centre.”

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