New Evidence Could Blow Open the Uber/Waymo Self-Driving Lawsuit

Today, after three weeks of legal hemming and hawing, the Northern District of California finally made public a potentially key piece of evidence in the rollicking, roiling, rolling trade secrets lawsuit between self-driving Alphabet spinoff Waymo and ridehailing company Uber.

That evidence is the Jacobs Letter, a 37-page rundown of truly outrageous allegations about Uber’s business practices, put to paper by the lawyer for former Uber employee Ric Jacobs. Originally sent to Uber’s lawyers as part of a dispute between the company and Jacobs, it’s now at the center of Uber’s legal fight with Waymo. Whoops.

And while the letter’s contents most definitely have not been proven true, they include some tremendous new assertions: that former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick himself directed trade theft; that the company employed spies to trail competitors’ executives; that it illegally recorded a call with employees about sexual assault allegations; and that it used a meme-filled slideshow to teach employees how to hide implicating documents from nosy lawyers.

So we—like you, presumably—have a few questions.

Back up. What’s this whole Uber-Waymo thing anyway?

In February, Waymo sued Uber for trade secret theft. It alleged longtime Google engineer Anthony Levandowski secretly downloaded thousands of files, resigned, and used the ill-gotten intellectual property to start his own self-driving truck company, Otto. Uber bought Otto in August 2016 (for a reported $680 million) and put Levandowski in charge of all its autonomous driving efforts. Waymo argues that Uber knew Levandowski had stolen its IP, then used that info to accelerate its own R&D.

After months of discovery, the case was supposed to go to trial in early December, wrapping up in time for holiday hot chocolates and trips to European snow chalets (for the lawyers, probably). Instead, in late November, the US Attorney’s Office made the very unusual move of sending William Alsup, the judge overseeing this case, a new piece of evidence. (Legal experts speculate the government lawyers did this as a sort of courtesy, because Alsup had flagged the trade secrets theft case for them back in May—another unusual move. The US Attorney’s Office confirmed this week it’s investigating the case.)

How true is this letter?

Who knows? An Uber spokesperson writes: “While we haven’t substantiated all the claims in this letter—and, importantly, any related to Waymo—our new leadership has made clear that going forward we will compete honestly and fairly, on the strength of our ideas and technology.”

Earlier this month, new Uber head lawyer Tony West told the company security team there was “no place” for competitor surveillance at Uber, and that anyone involved in that kind of shady behavior should “stop it now.”

During pretrial hearings a few weeks ago, Jacobs took the stand and walked back some of the claims in the letter, including the allegation that an Uber team stole trade secrets from Waymo. “I don’t stand by that statement,” he said, explaining that his lawyer had written the letter, and that he had reviewed it in a rush while on vacation.

Who is Ric Jacobs?

Ric Jacobs is a former Uber global threat operations employee who left the company this spring, after telling top Uber execs he was uncomfortable with his team’s ethically and legally dubious practices. The document portrays him as a whistleblower.

Uber says that’s not true, and its employees testified Jacobs was demoted for performance issues, resigned after he was caught downloading documents, then used trumped-up charges to extract a big payout in “consulting fees” on his way out the door—$4.5 million, plus another $3 million for his lawyer. Is Jacobs an extortionist? Would Uber pay that much to a bad actor? The letter only tells his side of the story.

What did Uber’s shadowy Strategic Services Group and Marketplace Analytics team actually do?

The letter says the Strategic Services Group was made of spies who allegedly handled human intelligence collection and stole data and info from competitors. It says Market Analytics members acquired trade secrets, competitive intelligence, code, and details on the operations of competitors’ apps—sometimes directly at the behest of then-CEO Travis Kalanick.

The letter also recounts some very sketchy (and, remember, alleged) fraud-like espionage behavior. Jacobs’ lawyer writes that SSG infiltrated Facebook groups and WhatsApp group messages for anti-Uber protestors, Uber drivers, and taxi operators. It alleges the Market Analytics team remotely accessed confidential corporate communications from a competitor, impersonated rider and drivers on the competitors’ platforms, and used the competitors’ data to “steal” drivers and riders for its own service. This sounds like—but is not necessarily—a reference to Uber’s “Hell” project, which used secret software to track rival Lyft’s drivers. (That program is reportedly being investigated by the FBI). The letter also alleges Uber stole a taxi driver database containing 35,000 records.

Did Uber surveil competitors?

During a pretrial hearing this month, one Uber employee testified that a vendor had passed along a taped conversation between executives at Didi Chuxing and Grab (Uber competitors from China and Singapore, respectively). The letter describes a similar (but maybe not identical?) situation, wherein, at the personal direction of Kalanick, “multiple surveillance teams infiltrated private-event spaces at hotel and conference facilities” where executives were staying, to record private conversations.

Does Uber really have an active mole within a competitor’s ranks?

Quoth the letter: “To date, Jacobs is aware Uber still benefits from at least on well-place [sic] [human intelligence] source with access to [REDACTED] executives and their collective knowledge of [REDACTED] on-going business practices.” Yeesh.

Did Uber hide stuff from legal proceedings on purpose?

The Jacobs letter details a complex system of shielding documents from eventual lawsuits, using forwarding techniques and strategic marks on draft documents to assert attorney-client privilege. It also alleges Uber employees used non-attributable devices, wiped clean after each use, and ephemeral messaging apps like Wickr and Telegram to communicate about things they’d rather not have regulators and lawyers see. (Experts note there are perfectly good reasons to use such devices and anonymizing techniques.) The letter says one Uber official trained the company’s autonomous driving unit to “impede, obstruct or influence the investigation of several ongoing lawsuits against Uber.”

Is anyone here working pro bone-o?

The letter alleges an Uber employee “developed a training using innocuous legal examples and the ‘lawyer dog’ meme to produce a slide deck that taught the ThreatOps team how to utilize attorney-client privilege to impede discovery.”

Did Uber actually wiretap an employee?

Among the creepiest allegations: Uber did not tell employees it was recording them during a call about the sexual harassment allegations. Recording a phone call without the consent of all parties involved is illegal in California.

What did Uber have nailed to its wall?

“Like a ‘scalp’ collected, the Market Analytics team proudly has a [REDACTED] nailed to the wall in their workplace to signify their successful theft of [REDACTED] trade secrets,” the letter says. Twitter’s best guess: a pink Lyft mustache.

Does the Jacobs Letter even matter?

Again, it’s unclear whether any of these allegations are true, or why Jacobs had his lawyer write the letter in the first place. Still, Waymo will undoubtedly use the details here to argue Uber had established protocols to conceal its alleged trade secrets theft.

Whatever the truth, the letter will have an immediate effect: The court has found Uber should have definitely turned over this 37-pager during the discovery process. And that’s a problem.

“To use a legal term, Uber is in deep doo-doo,” says Peter Toren, a federal prosecutor who specializes in trade secret litigation. “Judge Alsup is not going to be pleased with this at all.”

Alsup already has already been very impatient with Uber’s lawyers. Now, he could impose monetary sanctions on Uber, charging them court costs and/or Waymo’s bills associated with the trial delay, which could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. He could also allow the Waymo team to draw “adverse inferences” from Uber’s omission—to argue that, because Uber couldn’t produce ephemeral messages and hid documents, it’s fair for the jury to assume that they were filled with nefarious dealings.

Finally, the Jacobs letter could be used to supplement other lawsuits in the galaxy of those filed against Uber—or to launch entirely new ones. “To the extent that somebody now has a cause of action they may not have had before, it gives them evidence,” says Toren. Waymo lawyers are not the only ones reading the Jacobs letter. And they won’t be the only ones with questions.


More Uber, Waymo Problems

Data integration is one thing the cloud makes worse

One, enterprises have too many decisions to make. Two, it’s difficult to find success with complex data integration. Those are the two main excuses I hear these days, as enterprises move to the cloud. Whatever the justification, the lack of attention to data integration is beginning to cause some real damage. 

So, what went wrong? Enterprises have so much coming at them that they don’t think about every approach and technology that they need to think about. Security, management, monitoring, and governance are getting the attention they need, but data integration has fallen off the radar screen.

A byproduct of this behavior? More data silos. We all know that data silos are bad, but we seem to be building more data silos—not only on premises but in the public cloud. 

Data silos by themselves are not bad if they are integrated with other data silos. This means that as one silo is updated, the other silos are aware of the update and can immediately exchange information. 

The idea is that you need a “single source of truth” for data, using an old Oracle phrase. A single record of a customer, inventory, sales, or other information you want to track. 

But without a data integration strategy and technology, a single source of data truth is not possible. Systems become islands of automation unto themselves, and it doesn’t matter if they are in the public cloud or not.

The cloud makes many things better, but it makes data integration worse. Indeed, as you migrate applications and data to the cloud, as well as build new applications and databases, chances are you’re forgetting about data integration. 

The result is a far-diminished value of the systems you use, because the data is redundant and out of sync. Enterprise IT should treat data as a single consistent resource that can span all systems and platforms, both cloud and noncloud. If you overlook this aspect, you won’t find the business value you’re seeking. 

Alphabet's X sells new wireless internet tech to Indian state

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s X research division said on Thursday that India’s Andhra Pradesh state government would buy its newly developed technology that has the potential to provide high-speed wireless internet to millions of people without laying cable.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the agreement, which begins next year, would see 2,000 boxes installed as far as 20 kilometers (12 miles) apart on posts and roofs to bring a fast internet connection to populated areas. The idea is to create a new backbone to supply service to cellphone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots, endpoints that users would then access.

The agreement is an outgrowth of X’s Project Loon, which on several occasions has beamed cellphone service to Earth from a network of large balloons. The balloons link directly to smartphones but are meant for rural areas with a low population density, according to X.

Alphabet, which owns Google, and other online service providers view increasing internet accessibility in developing countries as crucial to maintaining their fast-growing businesses.

Andhra Pradesh, a southeastern coastal state with 53 million people, had nearly 15 million high-speed internet subscribers as of last December, according to a report by India’s telecom regulator. The state wants to connect an additional 12 million households by 2019, Alphabet said.

X plans to deploy free space optical technology, which transmits data through light beams at up to 20 gigabits per second between the rooftop boxes. There would be enough bandwidth for thousands of people to browse the Web simultaneously through the same cellphone tower, X said.

Researchers have said such systems hold promise in areas where linking cellphone towers to a wired connection is expensive and difficult. But the technology has not taken off because poor weather or misalignment between the boxes can weaken the connection.

Baris Erkmen, who is leading the effort inside X, said his team is “piloting a new approach” to overcome the challenges, but he did not specify the software and hardware advancements.

X plans to have a small team based in Andhra Pradesh next year to help roll out the technology.

Reporting by Paresh Dave, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

??Mirai? ?Botnet?: 3 Men Plead Guilty to Cybercrimes

Three men have pleaded guilty to charges related to the widespread Mirai botnet cyberattack in Oct. 2016 that took down various Internet services and websites.

The Justice Department said Wednesday that the three men—Paras Jha, Josiah White, and Dalton Norman—created what’s known as a botnet, a collection of computers used to covertly carry out commands without the knowledge of their owners.

The men, all in their early 20s, were able to spread the so-called Mirai malware onto Internet-connected devices like routers and wireless cameras so they could take control of them. The men then used those web-connected devices to flood online services like Internet-monitoring firm Dyn with so much traffic that they would slow or go offline.

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One of the men, Jha, plead guilty to also launching a botnet attack on Rutgers University where he was a student, which took down the school’s computer network. Jha’s guilty plea confirmed an earlier report by cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebbs, who wrote an article in Jan. 2017 tracing the Mirai botnet attacks to Jha and White.

A lawyer representing Jha said he is remorseful and “accepts full responsibility for his actions.”

Rakuten eyeing entry into Japan's mobile carrier market: source

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese online retailer Rakuten Inc plans to join a government auction for wireless spectrum to be held in January, potentially becoming the country’s fourth major wireless carrier, a source briefed on the matter said on Thursday.

A woman pushing a pram walks in front of a Rakuten Cafe store at a shopping district in Tokyo August 4, 2014. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

The source declined to be identified because the talks are private.

Japan’s mobile carrier market is currently dominated by NTT Docomo Inc, KDDI Corp and SoftBank Group.

The Nikkei business daily, which reported on the plan on Thursday, said Rakuten would raise 600 billion yen ($5.3 billion) by 2025 to invest in base stations and other infrastructure.

Rakuten said in a statement that while it was true it is weighing entry into the mobile carrier market, media reports on the matter were not something announced by the company.

Rakuten shares were down 1.7 percent in early trade. The benchmark Nikkei average was flat.

($1 = 112.6300 yen)

Reporting by Yoshiyasu Shida and Thomas Wilson; Writing by Makiko Yamazaki; Editing by Stephen Coates

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Ex-Trump aide Carter Page tells court to stop AT&T Time Warner deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page argued in court papers on Tuesday that AT&T Inc (T.N) should not be permitted to buy CNN parent Time Warner Inc (TWX.N) because there was a risk it would lead to “recklessness” in journalism.

FILE PHOTO – One-time advisor of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump Carter Page addresses the audience during a presentation in Moscow, Russia, December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Page, whose contacts with Russia have been under scrutiny by Congress and a special counsel, made his argument in a friend-of-the-court brief that the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has yet to accept.

Trump criticized the deal on the campaign trail last year and has repeatedly attacked the reporting of Time Warner’s CNN news network.

Page said in an interview with Reuters that he had not been in contact with the White House about the filing.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued AT&T in November to block its $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner, saying the deal could raise prices for rivals and pay-TV subscribers while hampering the development of online video. A trial is set for March 19.

FILE PHOTO – The AT&T logo is pictured during the Forbes Forum 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico, September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Both AT&T and the Justice Department declined to comment.

“This market power concentrated in the hands of a few dominant mega corporate telecommunications-media conglomerates encourages extreme levels of journalistic recklessness and impropriety since it allocates considerable resources to the media outlets under their control,” Page said in the court papers.

Page, who traveled to Russia twice in 2016, has testified to congressional committees investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. In that testimony and elsewhere, he has argued that he has been the subject of unfair and inaccurate media coverage.

As an example of what he said was media abuse, Page criticized Yahoo, which is owned by Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N), for publishing what he called a “highly misleading” story in September 2016 regarding U.S. intelligence officials probing Trump’s ties to Russia.

Page, who described himself as a “junior, unpaid, informal adviser” to the Trump campaign, also argued that it would provide an incentive for the big media outlets to exclude viewpoints it does not like.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Britain urged to prosecute social media firms over online abuse

LONDON (Reuters) – Social media companies should face prosecution for failing to remove racist and extremist material from their websites, according to a report by an influential committee.

FILE PHOTO – A picture illustration shows a Facebook logo reflected in a person’s eye, in Zenica, March 13, 2015.REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Prime Minister Theresa May’s ethics watchdog recommends introducing laws to shift the liability for illegal content onto social media firms and calls for them to do more to take down intimidatory content.

Social media companies currently do not have liability for the content on their sites, even when it is illegal, the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life said.

The recommendations form part of the conclusions of an inquiry into intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates in an election campaign this year.

“The widespread use of social media has been the most significant factor accelerating and enabling intimidatory behavior in recent years,” the report said.

“The committee is deeply concerned about the limited engagement of the social media companies in tackling these issues.”

While the report said intimidation in public life is an old problem, the scale and intensity of intimidation is now posing a threat to Britain’s democracy.

FILE PHOTO – People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo

The report found that women, ethnic minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political candidates are disproportionately likely to be the targets of intimidation.

The committee heard how racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and anti-Semitic abuse is putting off some candidates from standing for public office.

Platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are criticized for failing to remove abusive material posted online even after they were notified.

FILE PHOTO – A 3D-printed YouTube icon is seen in front of a displayed YouTube logo in this illustration taken October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Ilustration

The committee said it was “surprised and concerned” Google, Facebook and Twitter do not collect data on the material they take down.

“The companies’ failure to collect this data seems extraordinary given that they thrive on data collection,” the report said. “It would appear to demonstrate that they do not prioritize addressing this issue of online intimidation.”

Twitter said in a statement it has announced several updates to its platform aimed at cutting down on abusive content and it is taking action on 10 times the number of abusive accounts every day compared to the same time last year.

YouTube declined to comment, while Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Many politicians have become more vocal about the abuse they face after Labour’s Jo Cox, a 41-year-old mother of two young children, was shot and repeatedly stabbed a week before Britain’s Brexit referendum last year.

Reporting By Andrew MacAskill; editing by Stephen Addison

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Crispr Therapeutics Plans to Launch Its First Clinical Trial in 2018

In late 2012, French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier approached a handful of American scientists about starting a company, a Crispr company. They included UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna, George Church at Harvard University, and his former postdoc Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute—the brightest stars in the then-tiny field of Crispr research. Back then barely 100 papers had been published on the little-known guided DNA-cutting system. It certainly hadn’t attracted any money. But Charpentier thought that was about to change, and to simplify the process of intellectual property, she suggested the scientists team up.

It was a noble idea. But it wasn’t to be. Over the next year, as the science got stronger and VCs came sniffing, any hope of unity withered up and washed away, carried on a billion-dollar tide of investment. In the end, Crispr’s leading luminaries formed three companies—Caribou Biosciences, Editas Medicine, and Crispr Therapeutics—to take what they had done in their labs and use it to cure human disease. For nearly five years the “big three’ Crispr biotechs have been promising precise gene therapy solutions to inherited genetic conditions. And now, one of them says it’s ready to test the idea on people.

Last week, Charpentier’s company, Crispr Therapeutics, announced it has asked regulators in Europe for permission to trial a cure for the disease beta thalassemia. The study, testing a genetic tweak to the stem cells that make red blood cells, could begin as soon as next year. The company also plans to file an investigational new drug application with the Food and Drug Administration to treat sickle cell disease in the US within the first few months of 2018. The company, which is co-located in Zug, Switzerland and Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the timing is just a matter of bandwidth, as they file the same data with regulators on two different continents.

Both diseases stem from mutations in a single gene (HBB) that provides instructions for making a protein called beta-globin, a subunit of hemoglobin that binds oxygen and delivers it to tissues throughout the body via red blood cells. One kind of mutation leads to poor production of hemoglobin; another creates abnormal beta-globin structures, causing red blood cells to distort into a crescent or “sickle” shape. Both can cause anemia, repeated infections, and waves of pain. Crispr Therapeutics has developed a way to hit them both with a single treatment.

It works not by targeting HBB, but by boosting expression of a different gene—one that makes fetal hemoglobin. Everyone is born with fetal hemoglobin; it’s how cells transport oxygen between mother and child in the womb. But by six months your body puts the brakes on making fetal hemoglobin and switches over to the adult form. All Crispr Therapeutics’ treatment does is take the brakes off.

From a blood draw, scientists separate out a patient’s hematopoietic stem cells—the ones that make red blood cells. Then, in a petri dish, they zap ‘em with a bit of electricity, allowing the Crispr components to go into the cells and turn on the fetal hemoglobin gene. To make room for the new, edited stem cells, doctors destroy the patient’s existing bone marrow cells with radiation or high doses of chemo drugs. Within a week after infusion, the new cells find their way to their home in the bone marrow and start making red blood cells carrying fetal hemoglobin.

According to company data from human cell and animal studies presented at the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting in Atlanta on Sunday, the treatment results in high editing efficiency, with more than 80 percent of the stem cells carrying at least one edited copy of the gene that turns on fetal hemoglobin production; enough to boost expression levels to 40 percent. Newly minted Crispr Therapeutics CEO Sam Kulkarni says that’s more than enough to ameliorate symptoms and reduce or even eliminate the need for transfusions for beta-thalassemia and sickle cell patients. Previous research has shown that even a small change in the percentage of stem cells that produce healthy red blood cells can have a positive effect on a person with sickle cell diseases.

“I think it’s a momentous occasion for us, but also for the field in general,” says Kulkarni. “Just three years ago we were talking about Crispr-based treatments as sci-fi fantasy, but here we are.”

It was around this time last year that Chinese scientists first used Crispr in humans—to treat an aggressive lung cancer as part of a clinical trial in Chengdu, in Sichuan province. Since then, immunologists at the University of Pennsylvania have begun enrolling terminal cancer patients in the first US Crispr trial—an attempt to turbo-charge T cells so they can better target tumors. But no one has yet used Crispr to fix a genetic disease.

Crispr Therapeutics rival Editas was once the frontrunner for correcting heritable mutations. The company had previously announced it would do gene editing in patients with a rare eye disorder called Leber congenital amaurosis as soon as this year. But executives decided in May to push back the study to mid-2018, after running into production problems for one of the elements it needs to deliver its gene-editing payload. Intellia Therapeutics—the company Caribou co-founded and provided an exclusive Crispr license to commercialize human gene and cell therapies—is still testing its lead therapy in primates and isn’t expecting its first foray into the clinic until at least 2019. All the jockeying to the clinic line isn’t just about bragging rights; being first could be a big boon to building out a business, and a proper pipeline.

Clinical Crispr applications have matured much faster than some of the other, older gene editing technologies. Sangamo Therapeutics has been working on DNA-cutting tool called zinc fingers since its founding in 1995. In November, more than two decades later, doctors finally injected the tool along with billions of copies of a corrective gene into a 44-year-old man named Brian Madeux, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder called Hunter syndrome. He was the first patient to receive the treatment in the first-ever in vivo human gene editing study. Despite the arrival of newer, more efficient tools like Crispr, Sangamo has stayed focused on zinc fingers because the company says they’re safer, with less likelihood of unwanted genetic consequences.

It’s true that Crispr has a bit of an “off-target” problem, though the extent of that problem is still up for debate. Just on Monday, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that genetic variation between patients may affect the efficacy and safety of Crispr-based treatments enough to warrant custom treatments. All of that means Crispr companies will have to work that much harder to prove to regulators that their treatments are safe enough to put in real people—and to prove to patients that participating in trials is worth the risk. Kulkarni says they looked at 6,000 sites in the genome and saw zero off-target effects. But it’ll be up to the FDA and the European Medicines Agency to say whether that’s good enough to send Crispr to the clinic.

As the Southern California Fires Rage, a Boeing 747 Joins the Fight

The largest and most destructive fire burning in California continues to grow, consuming dry brush as it races not just through but across the canyons north of Los Angeles. Strong winds and dry conditions mean flames can leap large distances, prompting thousands to evacuate their homes. The Thomas Fire has now spread from Ventura County into Santa Barbara County, burning up 230,000 acres—an area larger than New York City and Boston combined. The out of control blaze is on track to become one of the largest in California history.

So firefighters are using the largest tools they have to tackle it, including one that’s more than 200 feet long, and does its work from just 200 feet above the ground.

“We avoid flying through smoke at all costs, but you can smell the fire 200 miles out, even at 20,000 feet,” says Marcos Valdez, one of the pilots of the Global Supertanker, a Boeing 747 modified to fight the fiercest of fires. The jumbo jet can drop 19,200 gallons of fire retardant liquid per trip, nearly double the capacity of the next largest air tanker, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Fully stocked, the plane weighs in at 660,000 pounds, comfortably under its 870,000-pound max takeoff weight.

Step inside (which you can do in the interactive 3-D model below) and you’ll see that the upper floor looks pretty normal, with the cockpit and a few seats. Head down the stairs to the main floor, though, and you’ll see the key changes its owner, Global Supertanker LLC, made when it converted the Japan Airlines passenger plane to a firefighter in 2016: In what looks like the interior of a submarine, you’ll find eight cylindrical white tanks in two rows.

Holding the fire suppressant liquid in separate tanks means the 747, aka The Spirit of John Muir, can make up to eight segmented drops on multiple small fires, or put down a solid two miles of fire line, to try to protect property or contain a fire. The liquid drops through a big hose, through a series of manhole-cover-sized circular nozzles under the plane, near the back. (If you use the “Dollhouse” view on the 3-D model, you can see some of that detail on the very lower deck.)

The plane is based in Colorado Springs, but its owner contracts it out to fire agencies in need. This week it’s flying out of Sacramento, in the northern part of the state. That’s because it can carry so much flame retardant that picking it up in Southern California wouldn’t leave enough for the smaller aerial firefighters. Plus, with a 600-mph cruise speed, it can reach the perimeter of the Thomas fire in just 38 minutes.

The 747 and other fixed wing aircraft sat out the early days of the fight against these fires, because high wind speeds would have blown their liquid retardant unpredictably off course. Though the pink stuff won’t damage people or property (good news for this guy), pilots make an effort to avoid dumping it on firefighters on the ground. The 747 can actually lay such a long line of retardant that it can be used to draw a line to safety for people trapped in a “burn-over” situation, where flames threaten to engulf them.

When the Supertanker reaches a fire, it doesn’t just drop down and fire away. The whole operation is a carefully orchestrated affair. Valdez, the pilot, starts by flying at 1,000 feet up, watching a “show me” flight by a lead plane, usually a Rockwell OV-10 Bronco or Beechcraft King Air. That has likely been in the air for hours, and directs each tanker aircraft exactly where to make its drops, pointing out hazards like power lines or tall rocks over the radio. “They’re using signals like ‘Start at this tree that’s split,’ ‘Fly on the right flank of the fire,’ and ‘I want to you stop at this rock that looks like a bear,’” Valdez says.

Then Valdez pushes the yoke forward until he and his crew are flying 200 to 300 feet above the ground—in a jet whose wingspan is just over 200 feet. Valdez plays down the terror, comparing it to driving next to a concrete barrier down the center of a highway. You know it’s there, and that one wrong move could kill you, but you just keep your heading and your cool.

The whole drop is over in 10 minutes, and then it’s time to head back to Sacramento, making for a two-hour roundtrip. On Friday, the Supertanker performed three drops on the Thomas fire—each gratefully received by the firefighters trying to stop the flames reaching more property, and people.


Fire Storm

Early Thanksgiving/Black Friday Data Reports Suggest Strong Retail Sales

Thanksgiving has passed and the holiday shopping season has officially begun. Though many consumers started shopping earlier in the month, Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales are some of the first indications of how retailers will fare this holiday season. The reports and analyses are still being produced, but initial figures on Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales are encouraging.

According to the annual International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) Thanksgiving Weekend Shopping Report, more than 145 million adults spent time at malls and shopping centers and estimated spending, on average, $377.50. In addition to all the gift buying, venues for dining and entertainment also benefited from an added $78.70 in sales per adult.

The vast majority of consumers (87 percent) shoppers took advantage of in-store and online purchasing on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Not only were there a lot of people shopping, nearly three out of four (74 percent) Thanksgiving/Black Friday shoppers spent the same or more than in 2016.

The news was especially good for brick and mortar retailers. ICSC estimates that 75 percent of all spending was captured by retailers with a physical presence. This doesn’t mean that people weren’t shopping online. However, retailers like Walmart, Best Buy and other physical stores with online components fared better their online-only competitors.

The data clearly shows the benefits of having an online store for small business owners with a physical location. While it may be too late for a business to setup a full ecommerce website from scratch between now and Christmas, there are some things current website owners can do to make their site more appealing to holiday shoppers. For example, having a way to buy online and pick up in-store has extra benefits. The ICSC survey found that 69 percent of those purchasing online and picking up in-store (click & collect) made an additional in store purchase

“Thanksgiving Weekend is a great indicator for what will be a holiday season full of spending, as we are seeing a very positive consumer sentiment and willingness to spend,” said Tom McGee, President and CEO of ICSC. “Shopping centers across the country should feel very optimistic about the season ahead. While the shopping season is longer this year, it’s not coming at the expense of the most popular shopping day of the year.”

Now that Black Friday has passed and Cyber Monday is here, businesses need to finalize their plans for December. It’s important that promotions in December meet the expectations of consumers. The ICSC data suggests that retailers will need to be as generous or more so than they were for Black Friday.

Three out of five (60 percent) consumers anticipate similar deals/promotions to the ones they saw this weekend. And more than one in four (28 percent) consumers said they think the deals/promotions in December will be better than what was found over the past weekend. Only 12 percent of consumers assume that December deals/promotions won’t be as good as the ones they saw on Black Friday.

Since deals and sales are some of the greatest motivators for consumers during the holiday season, business owners need to make sure their site prominently features their best deals and that these are also advertised heavily in search and social media campaigns.

For more recent data about creating a better holiday marketing campaign, read this article on last minute shoppers.