Alexi McCammond
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Move over, LeBron: Robots are coming for basketball

Amy Sancetta / AP

LeBron James made 67% of his 531 attempted free throws during the 2016 season. If only he had BallBot, a robotic basketball launcher that gets (almost) every one in. This new robot debuts today at the "Hoop Curves" exhibit in NYC.

Geva Patz of the National Museum of Mathematics began creating this robotic basketball technology back in 2010, when "the technical requirements were really pushing the limits of what could be done," he told NYT.

How it works: Exhibit visitors take a shot as light sensors and cameras record the data ("height, angle, and velocity"), ultimately storing it in a computer. The data is translated into stats and a visual to show how you can improve your shot before trying again using the BallBot. Then, a basketball is launched from the robot after the user adjusts the various knobs and pushes the foot pedal.

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Congressional Black Caucus rejects Trump's WH invite

Andrew Harnik / AP

The Congressional Black Caucus has denied President Trump's invitation to the White House, approximately one week after Omarosa Manigault, a WH aide and former participant on The Apprentice, sent the invite. "Through an objective assessment, we have seen no evidence that your Administration acted on our calls for action, and we have in fact witnessed steps that will hurt the Black community," the letter stated.

Don't forget: When the CBC met with Trump in March, they presented him with a 130-page document outlining policies "to advance Black families in the 21st Century." The letter argued that these calls to actions and requests for discussions "fell on deaf ears."

The letter explicitly cites AG Jeff Sessions' decision "to accelerate the failed war on drugs," Betsy DeVos's decision to cut HBCU funding and scaling back civil rights investigations in schools, and the eight attempts to communicate with Trump since January that have thus far gone ignored.

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Bitcoin is no longer the most promising digital currency

Kin Cheung / AP

Bitcoin has been leading the digital currency market, doubling in value since the beginning of 2017. But now, Ether (another digital currency hosted on the platform Ethereum) is quickly surpassing Bitcoin: As of Monday, Ether units were worth "82 percent as much as all the Bitcoin in existence," per NYT. For context, Ether was worth just 5% of Bitcoin's value at the start of the year.

Why it matters: Although individual investors are typically the ones buying Bitcoin and Ether, the recent spikes in value for both suggest a wave of interest and investment in digital currency that could make it more mainstream.

Battle lines: Ether has received backing from companies like JP Morgan Chase and Microsoft. but it's far from becoming a mainstream currency platform, despite its meteoric 4,600% increase in value this year. Meanwhile, Bitcoin has been puncturing the e-commerce market, with companies like Expedia and Overstock.com accepting the digital currency.

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Meet Bob Mueller's team tackling the Russia probe

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is leading the Russia investigation and, most recently, the investigation into whether President Trump obstructed justice. Suffice to say, he's taking the matter seriously, as evidenced by the team of lawyers he has quietly hired over the past few weeks to help him.

Between the lines: The people he's hired don't just look tough on paper — they're legal experts with unique, complementary strengths who have fought and investigated crime all around the world. Their expertise suggests how Mueller views this investigation and the direction in which he is hoping to take it.

The original team started as just three lawyers (plus Mueller) who all once worked at the law firm WilmerHale, where Mueller has worked since his 2013 departure from the FBI. Meet the full investigation dream team:

Aaron Zebley, Mueller's chief of staff when he was FBI director

  • Zebley was an elite FBI agent for 7 years in the Counterterrorism Division
  • He was instrumental in tracking down dangerous Al Qaeda members back in 1999
  • He then became a prosecutor and one of Mueller's go-to confidants
  • He was part of the I-49 team: a small group of FBI agents based in NYC who were actively searching for Osama Bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks

James Quarles III, former Watergate investigator

  • A litigator and a partner at WilmerHale, where he started in 1975. He runs the DC office of the firm
  • He served as an assistant special prosecutor for the Watergate investigation
  • During that investigation, Quarles focused on campaign finance research — something that will certainly be called upon throughout the Russia investigation, particularly after the FBI issued subpoenas for financial disclosures from Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort
  • He has argued cases in front of the Supreme Court

Jeannie Rhee, former deputy attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel

  • Rhee was senior adviser to former Attornery General Eric Holder for two years
  • She advised him and the WH on "constitutional, statutory and regulatory issues regarding criminal law, criminal procedure, executive privilege, civil rights and national security," according to WilmerHale.
  • She tried more than 30 cases when she served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the D.C. Attorney's Office
  • She rejoined WilmerHale as a partner in the Litigation/Controversy Department where she advised "clients who are the subject of government investigations" regarding "white-collar criminal investigations, False Claims Act allegations and securities enforcement matters."
  • In 2015, Rhee represented Hillary Clinton in a case about her private email server, according to Politico.

Andrew Weissmann, DOJ criminal fraud section chief

  • He was Mueller's one-time general counsel
  • Previously led the fraud unit at the DOJ
  • Weismann oversaw the Enron Task Force in the early 2000s, investigating the failed energy company
  • From 1991 to 2002, Weissmann handled cases against various crime families in NY as part of his work in the office of the U.S. Attorney for New York's Eastern District
  • He worked at a law firm where he focused on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, securities fraud, and other issues.

Michael Dreeben, DOJ's deputy solicitor general

  • Dreeben currently serves in the Justice Department, overseeing its criminal docket before the Supreme Court and handling its appellate cases
  • He has argued more than 100 cases in front of the Supreme Court
  • He was a deputy in the Office of the Solicitor General
  • He's been heralded as "1 of the top legal & appellate minds at DOJ in modern times," and has been called "the most brilliant and most knowledgeable federal criminal lawyer in America—period."

Lisa Page, an experienced DOJ trial attorney

  • There has been no official announcement from the special counsel about Page, but WIRED notes Mueller has reached out to her
  • Her investigatory expertise: organized crime cases, money laundering, and one particularly relevant case where she partnered with Hungary's FBI task force to investigate European organized crime.
  • Note: Her work in Hungary is what led to the ongoing money laundering case against Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian leader who was once business partners with Paul Manafort.
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Look to the Industrial Revolution for how machines will lower wages

AP Photo/Arcadia Publishing

People worry that automation will drastically affect wages for those humans who manage to keep their jobs, and that's fair: it took more than 1.5 centuries for workers' wages to recover after the Industrial Revolution, per The Economist.

The introduction of machines and tools created a significant demand for unskilled labor (it rose from 20% of the workforce to 39% from 1700 to 1850). Machines either pushed craftsmen out of the labor market completely, or encouraged employers to decrease their workers' wages. The Economist cites this exact situation in which wages fell drastically in the early 1800s, not recovering until 1960.

Why it matters: That's a long time for wages to recover, and machines have become increasingly advanced since 1960. Most of them, at least in some industries like manufacturing, are introduced to eliminate the need for workers or, ultimately, they alter the way employers think about workers' wages in an age where cost-effective and time-saving machines are becoming ubiquitous.

One recent example: GE's recently introduced vision inspection system, as my colleague Chris Matthews reported. In theory, machines can help workers become more productive, and productivity leads to higher wages — but that's not the case. Machines like this one at GE actually reduce the need for workers — especially those who are typically paid between $20 and $40 per hour in this field.

One quick thing: Harvard economist Ken Rogoff told The Economist that "as the wage premium for a particular group of workers rises, firms will have a greater incentive to replace them."

Note: For every one robot created, three to five jobs are lost. (More on that in our "Almost Now" video here.) What's more, for every robot added per 1,000 employees, their wages would decrease by 0.25 to 0.5%, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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Rural Americans are more worried about culture than economy

Ed Andrieski / AP

A new WashPost/Kaiser Family Foundation poll revealed a telling truth about Americans: those living in rural areas are concerned about the economy, but they're more worried about the country's shifting culture and demographics.

Shot: "Rural residents are nearly three times as likely (42 percent) as people in cities (16 percent) to say that immigrants are a burden on the country," WashPost notes.

Chaser: "Rural voters who lament their community's job prospects report supporting Trump by 14 percentage points more than Clinton, but Trump's support was about twice that margin — 30 points — among voters who say their community's job opportunities are excellent or good."

Why it matters: Many have thought that economic concerns among rural Americans with fewer job opportunities drove them to elect Trump. This poll challenges that, highlighting their deeper concerns are about accepting diversity, particularly immigrants, and feeling like the federal government favors urban Americans.

What they're saying: "They're not paying taxes like Americans are. They're getting stuff handed to them," said Larry E. Redding, a retired canning factory employee, to WashPost. "Free rent, and they're driving better vehicles than I'm driving and everything else."

Bottom line: The unemployment rate in rural areas is only slightly worse than in urban areas (5.3% to 4.8%, respectively), yet a shrinking workforce and low wages keep many rural residents living in poverty. Those economic worries seem to be projected onto urban residents, particularly minorities and those with "a pretty liberal opinion," according to one poll respondent.

  • 56% of rural residents believe the government disproportionately helps urban residents
  • Rural whites are 14 percentage points less likely to say they think "blacks and Hispanics losing out because of preferences for whites" is a bigger issue than the reverse.
  • 78% of Republicans in rural areas said they believe Christian values are under attack
The Trump effect, in one fascinating stat from the poll: 50% of rural residents said they believe Trump respects them, while 48% said he doesn't — this challenges the commonly held idea that Trump gives his base voters a sense of being relatable, divorced from the typical political elite in Washington.
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Trump admin. changing civil rights investigations

Evan Vucci / AP

The Education Department, headed by Betsy DeVos, announced yesterday it will change the requirements for investigations into civil rights violations at universities and public schools, NYT reports.

Why this matters: Obama's administration increased the department's efforts to investigate these cases, requiring they be resolved within 180 days. Furthermore, 11.2% of undergrad and grad students experience sexual assault on campus, according to data from RAINN — scaling back investigations would thwart students' efforts to seek justice after experiencing harassment, whether based on race or sex.

What's changing: The Ed. Dept.'s Office of Civil Rights regional offices will not have to alert Washington department officials of "all highly sensitive complaints on issues such as the disproportionate disciplining of minority students and the mishandling of sexual assaults on college campuses," per NYT. Additionally, the requirement that officials expand their investigations to better identify issues at a systemic level, as well as identify "whole classes of victims" will now be limited.

Why it's changing: Obama's policies resulted in schools overhauling various policies and addressing these issues head on, which received complaints from some department officials because they were "understaffed and struggling to meet the department's stated goal of closing cases within 180 days," NYT notes.

DeVos has previously said she is "not going to be issuing any decrees" regarding civil rights violations, particularly those she thinks should be left to the courts or Congress. She has denounced discrimination of any types, but this move will change the way civil rights violations are investigated in a way that might make it more difficult for students and officials to get the solutions they want.

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Guilty verdict in text-assisted suicide sets a new precedent

John Wilcox / AP

Two Massachusetts teenagers were texting when one of them expressed his willingness to take his own life. And when Conrad Roy III called his girlfriend Michelle Carter, now 20, right before he did, she encouraged him to go through with it. Subsequent text messages from Carter revealed she didn't tell him not to do it, nor did she contact anyone else — including his parents. Carter was convicted with involuntary manslaughter yesterday for her cell phone communications with her friend, per NYT, and it set a legal precedent.

Why it matters: This manslaughter charge, brought upon someone who wasn't physically there when another took his life, raises the question of whether words or social media comments can be grounds for murder convictions moving forward.

What they're saying: "Will the next case be a Facebook posting in which someone is encouraged to commit a crime?" Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge and Harvard Law professor, told NYT.

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Amazon is buying Whole Foods

AP

Amazon is buying Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, a substantial broadening of its push into brick-and-mortar retail and fast-delivery.

Why it matters: This is yet another way the e-commerce giant is breaking into the physical space and taking over brick-and-mortar stores — which they previously argued were obsolete. And this further helps Amazon tap into the grocery market, which earns significantly more money than the e-grocery markets.

The big picture:

  • This is aimed beyond the Wal-Mart crowd: The acquisition comes as Amazon ventures into the grocery business, including quick localized delivery. The Whole Foods acquisition suggests that Amazon is aiming not at Wal-Mart's main customers, but to capture a space that Wal-Mart — the biggest brick-and-mortar retailer on the planet — doesn't much penetrate: the high-end grocery shoppers worried about health, and not so much what the food costs.
  • One big question: Will Amazon now sell Whole Foods products online via Amazon Fresh? Rona Nell, an Amazon spokesperson, previously told Axios that Amazon "works with a variety of vendors and farmers to source our selection" of groceries, which they now make available at their physical AmazonFresh pickup stores.
  • Competing interests: Whole Foods already has one-hour delivery, and Amazon has recently increased its grocery delivery services to as quickly as 15 minutes via their AmazonFresh stores. It will be interesting to see how Amazon leverages Whole Foods' delivery service and whether that will ultimately make Amazon's physical grocery stores (currently only in Seattle) less necessary.

The M&A angle:

  • History: Amazon has long had interest in this category, having invested $42.5 million in 1999 for a 35% stake in something called HomeGrocer.com. That business was ultimately sold to dotcom darling Webvan, which later went bust.
  • Stock slump: Shares of Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco, Sprout Farmers and Supervalu all got hammered at the open this morning. Also unclear what this means for the much-delayed IPO for private equity-owned Albertsons, which had been reportedly interested in making its own Whole Foods bid.
  • Unicorn angle: This cannot be good news for on-demand grocery delivery company Instacart, which actually has an investment from Whole Foods, particularly if Amazon begins selling Whole Foods products via Amazon Fresh.
  • Tough talk: Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey recently referred to activist investor Jana Partners as "greedy bastards who just wanted the company sold. Looks like Jana gets its wish, although Mackey will remain as CEO.
  • Go deeper: Why Amazon isn't likely to face a competitor for Whole Foods.

What to watch for: Wal-Mart's response — the two companies have already been in a death grip, and now Wal-Mart will have to make a similar business deal to continue competing, specifically in the grocery market. And just after Amazon's news broke, it was announced that Wal-Mart is buying Bonobos for $310 million.

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Alex Jones releases secretly-recorded audio of Megyn Kelly

AP

Megyn Kelly's highly-anticipated interview with Alex Jones is set to air this Sunday, but last night Jones (the far-right host of InfoWars.com) released audio recordings of their pre-interview calls that could complicate things for Kelly, per The Daily Beast.

One quick thing: Jones' issues with Kelly's interview seems to focus on the promo trailer only, not the actual interview, which hasn't aired yet. That could include the bits from their conversation that Jones believes were purposely left out, but we won't know until Sunday.

The promo teaser for their NBC interview, Jones argues, is misleading about their conversation. He has made multiple controversial claims and conspiracy theories about events like the Sandy Hook shooting, but he said that Kelly didn't include a crucial part of their talk in this trailer — ultimately contradicting her reassurance to Jones:

"If I ask you about any controversy, you'll have the chance to address it fully. We won't cut you in a way that is going to take out the heart of your explanation or the real substance of it."

Why it matters: Kelly just started her new job at NBC and this Sunday's interview will be only her second show with the network. She's already received backlash for giving Jones more exposure on a primetime network, and families of Sandy Hook victims are urging NBC to drop the interview all together.

What they're saying: An NBC spokesperson tells Axios: "Despite Alex Jones' efforts to distract from and ultimately prevent the airing of our report, we remain committed to giving viewers context and insight into a controversial and polarizing figure, how he relates to the president of the United States and influences others, and to getting this serious story right."

Money quote:

"I'm not looking to portray you as some kind of boogeyman," Kelly says at one point to Jones. "The craziest thing of all would be if some people who have this insane version of you in their heads came away saying, 'You know what? I see the dad in him. I see the guy who loves those kids and is more complex than we have been led to believe.'"

One big question: Was it even legal for Jones to privately record their phone conversations, especially across state lines? "I've never done this in 22 years, I've never recorded another journalist, but I knew it was a fraud, that it was a lie," Jones said.