Sports cards have gone virtual, and in a big way

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SILVER SPRING, Md. — Maybe the Luka Doncic rookie basketball card that recently sold at auction for a record $4.6 million was a bit rich for your blood. Perhaps you’d be interested in a more affordable alternative — say, a virtual card of the Dallas Mavericks forward recently listed for a mere $150,000?

Not long ago, there’s no way you’d plunk down even $1.50 for a digital image that could be copied for free. But sports trading cards have gone convincingly digital, complete with rare collector’s items and the adrenaline rush of opening a fresh pack — minus the stale, shattered plank of powdery bubblegum you might remember from childhood.

These digital cards, dubbed “moments,” appear on screen as spinning, floating digital cubes that each feature a video highlight of an NBA player. They sprang into existence just five months ago, after the Canadian tech startup Dapper Labs convinced the NBA that it could not only prevent cheap — well, free — knock-offs, it could help the NBA make a few bucks in the process.

Dapper announced Tuesday that it had secured $305 million in new private funding from a group that includes former NBA great Michael Jordan and more than a dozen current players. The company said the new round of funding will help it expand its NFT and blockchain products to other sports leagues and a wide range of businesses.

What makes all this possible is a clever use of the cryptocurrency technology called blockchain, which allows the creation of permanent certificates of ownership that can’t be copied or deleted. It’s the same technique that recently allowed the artist known as Beeple to sell a digital work for almost $70 million.

Most moments — typically ones in heavy circulation — cost around $20 and often below $10. Of course, the biggest transactions — a LeBron James dunk recently went for $210,000 — get the most attention. Despite some early tech hiccups, the NBA says it is “thrilled” with the response from fans, who bombard the Top Shot website every time new packs of cards drop.

Each such pack drop injects thousands of new cards into the market, offering buyers an affordable way to add to their collections. The cheapest packs have three “common” cards and cost $9. More expensive packs with more and rarer cards can cost almost $1,000.

Fans halfway around the world are setting their alarms in the middle of the night just to get in line for a chance to buy a pack. Videos of the flashy pack openings are logging tens of thousands of views all over YouTube. Even NBA players are getting in on the action.

“I’m not going to lie, it makes me feel like I’m a kid again,” Orlando Magic guard Terrence Ross said. “At lunch, at school trading NBA cards — it’s fun.”

Since the beta went live in October, Top Shot says it has registered more than 800,000 users and rung up nearly $500 million in sales. March sales should easily surpass February sales of $232 million, which was about five times January turnover.

“It’s happened really quickly,” said Dapper Labs CEO Roham Gharegozlou. “We’re sort of scrambling to keep up.”

After a year of playing games to empty arenas amid the pandemic, the NBA is ecstatic about the frenzy. Dapper Labs, the NBA and its players share a 5% fee on peer-to-peer transactions; the league also gets a cut of the pack drop sales.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told The Associated Press: “I think we’re just scratching the surface on what the potential is for blockchain to completely transform the digital collectibles industry.”

Yes, he said “blockchain.”

Each Top Shot card comes with a non-fungible token, or NFT, that confirms an item’s ownership by recording the details on a decentralized digital ledger known as the blockchain. NFTs can be used to trace an object’s digital origin, allowing one to prove ownership. It also creates a somewhat artificial scarcity that can juice a product’s value.

Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and co-author of the book “The End of Ownership,” said the NFT craze is partly a response to consumers’ genuine desire to reclaim a sense of ownership in an increasingly digital, intangible economy.

“Granted, right now, that desire is expressing itself through a seemingly frivolous and exploitative trend that, to most of us, looks irrational,” Perzanowski said.

Gharegozlou insists that Top Shot won’t end up such as Dapper’s previous project, CryptoKitties, a digital cat-breeding and trading game that saw virtual cats selling for six figures before crashing. The company said problems that plagued CryptoKitties — skyrocketing blockchain costs and the inability to control its digital inventory — aren’t an issue for Top Shot.

Dapper promotes Top Shot as both a fun hobby for collectors and an opportunity for investors. “It’s like stock market investing reimagined for fans,” according to one promotional email.

Just like anyone starting to invest in stocks, novice Top Shot investors would be wise to learn the vernacular, study the marketplace and listen to more experienced players. Because all minted cards and transactions are openly documented on the blockchain, a growing number of websites crunch that data for users to analyze before buying or selling. There are also free tutorials on the internet.

Cards are valued by several different factors, including some unique measures based on their serial numbers. Unsurprisingly, moments of the league’s best players tend to be more valuable. The rarer a moment is, the more expensive it’s likely to be. The lower the card number is in a series, the more it should fetch on the market. And if your ownership serial number happens to match the jersey number of the player featured? Ka-ching.

Dean Brostek, who runs a sports consultancy and data intelligence business in Melbourne, Australia, considers himself both a collector and investor. The 43-year-old’s interest in the NBA had waned until his teenage son picked up basketball a few years ago. Then he read about Top Shot and decided to give it a whirl.

After a few misses — some related to dealing with the 18-hour time difference in the wee hours — Brostek finally got his pack, opened it with his kids and posted the video online.

“It was really cool,” he said. “They’ve done a really nice job of creating a bit of theater.”

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Eager to build infrastructure, Biden plans to tax business

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden wants $2 trillion to reengineer America’s infrastructure and expects the nation’s corporations to pay for it.

The president travels to Pittsburgh on Wednesday to unveil what would be a hard-hatted transformation of the U.S. economy as grand in scale as the New Deal or Great Society programs that shaped the 20th century.

White House officials say the spending over eight years would generate millions of new jobs as the country shifts away from fossil fuels and combats the perils of climate change. It is also an effort to compete against the technology and public investments made by China, the world’s second-largest economy and fast gaining on the United States’ dominant position.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the plan is “about making an investment in America — not just modernizing our roads or railways or bridges but building an infrastructure of the future.”

Biden’s choice of Pittsburgh for unveiling the plan carries important economic and political resonance. He not only won Pittsburgh and its surrounding county to help secure the presidency, but he launched his campaign there in 2019. The city famed for steel mills that powered America’s industrial rise has steadily pivoted toward technology and health care, drawing in college graduates from western Pennsylvania in a sign of how economies can change.

The Democratic president’s infrastructure projects would be financed by higher corporate taxes — a trade-off that could lead to fierce resistance from the business community and thwart any attempts to work with Republicans lawmakers. Biden hopes to pass an infrastructure plan by summer, which could mean relying solely on the slim Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate.

The White House says the largest chunk of the proposal includes $621 billion for roads, bridges, public transit, electric vehicle charging stations and other transportation infrastructure. The spending would push the country away from internal combustion engines that the auto industry views as an increasingly antiquated technology.

Another $111 billion would go to replace lead water pipes and upgrade sewers. Broadband internet would blanket the country for $100 billion. Separately, $100 billion would upgrade the power grid to deliver clean electricity. Homes would get retrofitted, schools modernized, workers trained and hospitals renovated under the plan, which also seeks to strengthen U.S. manufacturing.

The new construction could keep the economy running hot, coming on the heels of Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package — economists already estimate it could push growth above 6% this year.

Separately, Biden will propose in the coming weeks a series of soft infrastructure investments in child care, family tax credits and other domestic programs, another expenditure of roughly $2 trillion to be paid for by tax hikes on wealthy individuals and families, according to people familiar with the proposal.

Funding the first $2 trillion for construction and “hard” infrastructure projects would be a hike on corporate taxes that would raise the necessary sum over 15 years and then reduce the deficit going forward, according to a White House outline of the plan. Biden would undo the signature policy achievement of the Trump administration by lifting the corporate tax rate to 28% from the 21% rate set in a 2017 overhaul.

To keep companies from shifting profits overseas to avoid taxation, a 21% global minimum tax would be imposed. The tax code would also be updated so that companies could not merge with a foreign business and avoid taxes by moving their headquarters to a tax haven. And among other provisions, it would increase IRS audits of corporations.

White House officials led by National Economic Council Director Brian Deese offered a private briefing Tuesday for top lawmakers in both parties. But key GOP and business leaders are already panning the package.

“It seems like President Biden has an insatiable appetite to spend more money and raise people’s taxes,” Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the GOP whip, said in an interview.

Scalise predicted that, if approved, the new spending and taxes would “start having a negative impact on the economy, which we’re very concerned about.”

The business community favors updating U.S. infrastructure, but it dislikes higher tax rates. An official at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who insisted on anonymity to discuss the private talks said the organization fears the proposed tax hikes could undermine the gains from new infrastructure. The Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs, would rather have infrastructure funded with user fees such as tolls.

Pittsburgh is a series of steep hills and three intersecting rivers. Its steel mills once covered the sky in enough soot that men needed to take spare white shirts to work because their button downs would turn to gray by lunch. Only last year the city, amid the coronavirus pandemic, met Environmental Protection Agency standards for air quality, even though it is increasingly the home of tech and health care workers with college degrees.

Infrastructure spending usually holds the promise of juicing economic growth, but by how much remains a subject of political debate. Commutes and shipping times could be shortened, while public health would be improved and construction jobs would bolster consumer spending.

Standard & Poor’s chief U.S. economist, Beth Ann Bovino, estimated last year that a $2.1 trillion boost in infrastructure spending could add as much as $5.7 trillion in income to the entire economy over a decade. Those kinds of analyses have led liberal Democrats in Congress such as Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal to conclude Tuesday, “The economic consensus is that infrastructure pays for itself over time.”

But the Biden administration is taking a more cautious approach than some Democrats might like. After $1.9 trillion in pandemic aid and $4 trillion in relief last year, the administration is trying to avoid raising the debt to levels that would trigger higher interest rates and make it harder to repay.

Psaki said Tuesday that Biden believes it’s “the responsible thing to do” to pay for infrastructure through taxes instead of borrowing. But the White House in its outline of the plan also couched the tax hikes as a matter of fairness, noting that 91 Fortune 500 companies paid $0 in federal corporate taxes in 2018.

Chinese Police Bust Alleged $76 Million Video Game Cheating Ring, Seize Millions in Assets

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The saying goes, “Winners never cheat, and cheaters never win,” but that’s apparently not the case. Police in Kunshan, China, say that a video game cheating ring pulled in an astonishing $76 million in subscription fees before a recent bust, the BBC reported on Tuesday.

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Hundreds attend funeral of Boulder police Officer Eric Talley, known as a quiet hero before final sacrifice

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Boulder Police Department

Boulder police Officer Eric Talley

LAFAYETTE — Before the seven-gun salute and the eulogies and the bagpipes, Boulder police Officer Eric Talley’s family stood in the wind and watched officers carefully pull his flag-draped casket from a hearse, one of his youngest sons dressed in a tiny black suit and holding the white-gloved hand of another officer.

Silence fell inside Flatirons Community Church, where hundreds of law enforcement officers from across Colorado and the country gathered Tuesday for Talley’s funeral service — eight days after he was shot and killed charging into a Boulder grocery store in response to a report of an active shooter. He was 51.

Nine others died at the King Soopers before Talley and two other officers arrived, but nobody else was shot after the officers confronted the gunman. Talley’s final sacrifice made sense for a man who was quietly heroic every day, his friends and fellow officers said at the service.

“I would argue that Officer Talley’s life was not taken — it was given,” Rev. Daniel Nolan said during the service.

The talkative father of seven lived enthusiastically and threw himself into every situation, his energy fueled by an eternal sense of optimism and a Mountain Dew habit, friends said. He was a “Stars Wars” fan who was inherently curious about the world and others.

Talley, born in Houston, loved drones and collected hundreds of board games that he brought to friends’ houses and work, charming people into playing. He was a tech guru that dozens of friends and co-workers relied on for help.

“I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to be the good friend that Eric was for me,” said Chris Turner, one of Talley’s longtime friends.

Calls and letters about Talley and the hundreds of small acts of kindness he did on the job continue to pour into the Boulder Police Department, Chief Maris Herold said. He was an excellent, caring and serious officer, she said, who left a lucrative job in technology to become an officer at the age of 41 out of a desire to serve.

Dozens of residents from Boulder and the surrounding areas also came to the funeral, though they did not know him.

“I wanted to honor him and what he did,” Boulder resident Mary Safranek said. “He makes me want to be a better person.”

Above all, friends said, he loved spending time with his wife Leah and his seven children, ages 7 to 20. Pictures displayed at the funeral showed Talley as the father he was: holding one of his newborn children asleep on his chest, holding a child on a four-wheeler, celebrating birthdays and Christmases, always with a smile in his bright blue eyes. He made sure to spend time with each child individually, Turner said, playing sports or shopping for craft supplies.

Before he died, his children wrote a poem for Talley as a Christmas present. The poem, printed inside the funeral pamphlet, was called “Our Unsung Hero” and thanked him for his love and dedication.

“May the Angels watch over you/And guard you on your way,” the last stanza reads. “May God bless and protect you/And bring you home each day.”

Herold, who lost her father at the age of 13, spoke to Talley’s children, who were seated in the front rows during the service. They will think of him every day of their lives, she said, and she hopes that his bravery in his final moments will serve as a solace.

“Your father was kind,” she said. “Your father died a hero.”

The children already are living out Talley’s teachings, said Boulder police Sgt. Adrian Drelles, Talley’s direct supervisor and friend. After Talley died in the store, Drelles and others from the department drove to his home to tell his family. Drelles was shaking as they approached, but when they arrived, the kids immediately started comforting him and the other officers.

“In the darkest hours of their lives, they made sure we were OK,” Drelles said.

At the end of the service, officers slowly folded the flag draped on his casket. They kneeled before his wife and gave it to her. Then the Boulder Police Department made its final radio call to Talley, signifying his “end of watch.”

“We have the watch from here.”

Chromebook bug could reveal location history from Guest mode

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The Samsung Galaxy Chromebook 2 seen from above and to the right. A mug sits to its left on the desk, a notebook to its right.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

A little-known behavior in Chrome OS could reveal a user’s movements through Wi-Fi logs. Leveraging Chrome OS’s Guest mode feature, the attack would require physical access to the device, but it can be executed without knowing the user’s password or having login access.

The bug was flagged to The Verge by the Committee on Liberatory Information Technology, a tech collective that includes several former Googlers.

“We are looking into this issue,” said a Google spokesperson. “In the meantime, device owners can turn off guest mode and disable the creation of new users.” Instructions for turning off Guest browsing are available here.

The bug stems from the…

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Colorado’s air quality enforcers ordered staff to relax measuring of pollution, state employees allege

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Colorado health officials responsible for controlling air pollution in the state this month ordered staff to relax their measuring of pollutants, including potentially harmful sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates, according to a whistleblower complaint filed Tuesday.

Officials in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division on March 15 ordered employees who conduct required modeling used to estimate emission levels to stop their work on these pollutants at scores of facilities that receive permits from the state, the complaint filed by the Maryland-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on behalf of three air pollution division employees contends.

These pollutants are linked to the unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone air pollution for which Colorado has been deemed a serious violator of federal health standards.

Among the whistleblowers’ allegations: a state health department modeler was ordered to falsify data on a Teller County gold mine “to ensure that no modeled violation would be reported.”

State health department officials did not respond immediately to Denver Post requests for an explanation. An agency spokeswoman said they were “working on a statement.”

The whistleblower complaint, sent to the inspector general of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, seeks an EPA performance review and audit of the state air pollution control division. The state air pollution control division relies partly on EPA funding, and penalties could include loss of funding and of the federally-designated authority for Colorado to issue permits that specify the levels of pollution that companies can emit into the atmosphere.

Letters from PEER attorneys to state health department director Jill Hunsaker Ryan, Gov. Jared Polis and four state lawmakers pointed out that disclosures made by state air pollution modeling employees are governed by the Colorado Whistleblower Protection Act, which forbids retaliation against employees for reporting legal violations. The attorneys asked to meet with Hunsaker Ryan.

State air division supervisors apparently removed a guidance document for air quality permits from a state website in March and did not issue a public notice of the policy shift.

Victims in Colorado include “everybody who breathes the air,” attorney Kevin Bell said for PEER, a national legal organization dedicated to protecting environmental whistleblowers.

“This is a breakdown in the way the government of the state is supposed to function. It makes people more likely to have health issues down the road. It also exacerbates COVID-19. And it is really remarkable that every non-supervisory state employee who worked in this unit of the air division is speaking with one voice on this issue,” Bell said.

The 14-page complaint — signed by CDPHE employees Rosendo Majano, DeVondria Reynolds and Bradley Rink — to the EPA inspector general said consequences of the health department’s adjusted permitting policy and a “culture of permitting at all costs” can be seen in the handling of specific permits.

The employees pointed to an asphalt and concrete plant, called the Martin Marietta Highway 34 Facility, located north of Denver within the area where air quality long has flunked federal health standards for ozone air pollution.

This facility “was exempted from demonstrating compliance” with pollution limits, the employees said. And an oil and gas industry facility about three miles away, called the Extraction Oil and Gas Johnson’s Corner Production Facility, which began operating in 2018, ran for a while without a permit and was exempted from compliance with federal standards, the employees said.

“It is likely that the Johnson’s Corner facility is amplifying and making worse an already existing violation with negative implications for air quality and public health. These are only two small facilities located in an area saturated with hundreds of other facilities, all inside the ozone non-attainment area, and jointly emitting thousands of tons per year of one of the main ozone precursors, NO2,” they said.

“Had these sources been permitted in compliance with regulatory requirements, the corresponding facilities would have been required to implement control measures, use better technology, or downsize their projects,” the employees said.

“This in turn would have the final effect of reducing the NO2 emissions to comply with the 1-hr NO2 NAAQS (national ambient air quality standard) and in turn reducing the formation of ozone. It is also possible that the area is so saturated that no more NO2 sources would have been permitted at all, which would have at least slowed down the continuing deterioration of the ozone problem,” the complaint said.

“Determining the actual status of the air quality in that area is part of CDPHE’s job, but that duty has been neglected for years, leading to the current crisis and the downgrading of Colorado’s NAAQS non-attainment status to ‘serious’ from ‘moderate’,” it said.

Colorado’s increasingly urbanized Front Range area that includes nine counties around Denver for years has flunked the federal air quality health standards set by the EPA. Last year,  Polis acknowledged public health concerns as federal officials reclassified Colorado as being a “serious” violator, requiring stricter enforcement of pollution limits.