Is it time for big in-person events again? Organizers are divided.

Some big events are delaying their return to in-person gatherings, but the organizers of CES, the Winter Olympics and the Australian Open have decided it’s time to gather in person again.

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The organizers of CES said the show must go on, in person, this year.Credit…Patrick T. Fallon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After going virtual last year, CES, a mega-conference in Las Vegas that’s the traditional launchpad for many of the tech industry’s latest gadgets, is trying to make a comeback. The trade show kicks off on Wednesday, with an estimated 2,200 exhibitors set to show up in person.

But with the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus surging, scores of major tech companies are still presenting mostly virtually.

It’s a sign that decisions to hold big in-person events at this phase of the pandemic remain far from clear-cut, the DealBook newsletter reports. Yet the organizers of CES — like those of the Winter Olympics and the Australian Open, which are set to begin soon — have decided it’s time to gather in person again.

Canceling the show would “hurt thousands of smaller companies, entrepreneurs and innovators” who depend on the show to introduce their products, Gary Shapiro, the chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association, the trade group that organizes CES, wrote in an opinion column in The Las Vegas Review-Journal. (The conference is also important for Las Vegas, which reaped an estimated $291 million from spending tied to it in 2020.) Mr. Shapiro noted that the conference had embraced pandemic protections like requiring attendees to be fully vaccinated and masked while on the show floor, and that testing was readily available.

But many large companies have chosen to attend remotely, including Amazon, AMD, AT&T, General Motors, Google, Intel, Lenovo, Meta, Nvidia, Pinterest, T-Mobile and Twitter. That will leave “big gaps on the show floor,” Mr. Shapiro said. And CES will end a day early, in what the organizers said was a concession to safety.

Other big events are delaying their return to in-person gatherings. Organizers of the Grammys are reportedly considering delaying this month’s music awards show, while the World Economic Forum postponed its annual confab in Davos, Switzerland, which was set to take place this month.

So is it safe to hold live in-person events again? Omicron cases appear to be less severe than cases from previous variants, and vaccines and new treatments are becoming available. More governments are also edging toward managing, not containing, the coronavirus, and are increasingly reluctant to reimpose restrictions. That could mean that a return to regular mass gatherings in some places may not be far-off.

Kenichiro Yoshida, Sony’s chief, with the company’s prototype electric SUV on Tuesday.Credit…Alex Wong/Getty Images

TOKYO — Sony announced on Tuesday that it was establishing a subsidiary devoted to transportation, taking it a step closer to entering the fiercely competitive electric car market.

The Japanese electronics and entertainment giant unveiled a prototype electric car last year and has begun road-testing the vehicle in Europe.

Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sony chief’s, Kenichiro Yoshida, unveiled a new version of the vehicle, a sleek S.U.V. that would, among other things, allow passengers to play video games made for the company’s PlayStation 5 console.

“We are exploring a commercial launch of Sony’s EV,” Mr. Yoshida said, referring to the electric vehicle. Sony will establish the new company this spring, he added.

Japan is a world leader in automotive manufacturing, but its companies have been slow to enter the small but rapidly growing electric car market. They have largely ceded the field to companies like Tesla even as traditional competitors in the United States and Europe have pledged to go all-electric in the coming decades.

Last month, Toyota announced that it would make a major investment in battery-electric vehicles and significantly expand its lineup of the automobiles in an effort to catch up with other companies offering alternatives to gasoline-powered cars.

Tech companies like Alphabet, Google’s parent company; Apple; and Baidu, the Chinese internet search company, have expressed interest in entering the market, hoping to bring their strength in fields like artificial intelligence to a consumer product that is becoming increasingly digital, online and software-oriented.

Electric cars have fewer components and are easier to manufacture than vehicles with internal-combustion engines, but these companies still face a challenging path to bringing vehicles to market.

The Dixie Fire raging in Plumas County, Calif., last July. Credit…Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

California fire investigators on Tuesday pinned the blame for the Dixie Fire — the second largest blaze in the state’s history — on equipment owned by Pacific Gas & Electric and referred the case to prosecutors.

The Dixie Fire burned more than 963,000 acres in the Northern California areas of Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Shasta and Tehama Counties in July, destroying 1,329 buildings and damaging 95 others. The cause, investigators determined, was a tree that came into contact with PG&E’s power lines near the Cresta Dam about 100 miles north of Sacramento.

Investigators at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, referred their findings to the Butte County district attorney, who previously brought charges against PG&E for the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed scores of people and destroyed the town of Paradise.

In that case, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of illegally setting a fire. The utility also agreed to pay $3.5 million in fines as part of the criminal plea.

In a statement in response to Cal Fire’s determination, PG&E said the tree that fell struck equipment that was functioning properly. “This tree was one of more than eight million trees within strike distance to PG&E lines,” the utility said. “Regardless of today’s finding, we will continue to be tenacious in our efforts to stop fire ignitions from our equipment and to ensure that everyone and everything is always safe.”

PG&E also has charges pending in Shasta County, where the district attorney has charged the utility with manslaughter, along with other felonies and misdemeanors in connection with the Zogg Fire, which burned more than 56,000 acres and destroyed 204 buildings near Redding.

Since 2017, PG&E has been the focus of the state’s extreme wildfires that have been made worse by climate change. The company has taken numerous steps to prevent wildfires, including installing weather stations and cameras. The utility also has resorted to the extreme measure of cutting off power, sometimes to millions of people for days.

After PG&E amassed $30 billion in liability from the wildfires caused by its equipment, the utility sought bankruptcy protection in January 2019. The company exited from bankruptcy in July 2020, promising to work to prevent further wildfires. Victims of the fires have continued to seek compensation for their losses that became part of the company’s bankruptcy plan.

The Dixie Fire — among at least three fires last year that were suspected of being caused by PG&E’s equipment — underscored the lingering threat of wildfires caused by utility equipment.

Quentin Tarantino is pushing ahead with auctions of NFTs associated with his handwritten screenplay of ‘Pulp Fiction,’ despite a pending lawsuit.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

When Quentin Tarantino and the movie studio Miramax agreed on the rights to “Pulp Fiction” in the early 1990s, cryptocurrency didn’t exist. Now, Mr. Tarantino is courting controversy — with a crypto twist — over ownership of the cult movie’s script that could set a legal precedent for intellectual property rights.

On Wednesday, the director announced auctions of nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, associated with his original handwritten screenplay, despite a pending lawsuit by Miramax.

Mr. Tarantino has been thwarted before. In November, after he announced plans for an auction, Miramax sued, claiming breach of contract and various intellectual property violations. In December, the director’s lawyers denied the accusations, but the sales did not proceed.

A hearing to schedule the lawsuit’s next steps is set for February, according to the court docket. Mr. Tarantino’s latest plans to sell the NFTs this month could prompt Miramax to demand an emergency block of the auctions until the legal issues are resolved.

NFTs are chunks of code associated with images, sound or video files, recorded on the blockchain — think of them as digital certificates of authenticity. Miramax’s lawyers argue that NFTs are unique (“nonfungible” is in the name, after all). Mr. Tarantino’s legal team argues that he is merely reproducing copies of his original script, a right he reserved.

How these tokens compare with old forms of creative expression is unclear.

“Someone could mint hundreds or thousands of unique NFTs linked to the same creative work, kind of like printing many copies of a book,” said Frank Gerratana, an intellectual property expert at Mintz in Boston. In that sense, although each NFT has its own unique identifier on a blockchain, they may not be considered distinct.

This question is likely to come up again, Mr. Gerratana said, given growing interest in cryptocurrencies. Whoever wins this fight may forever mark the law.

Founded in 2017, OpenSea was created as a kind of marketplace for allowing people to buy and sell so-called nonfungible tokens, or NFTs.Credit…Tada Images/Shutterstock

OpenSea, one of the most talked about blockchain start-ups in Silicon Valley, said on Tuesday that it had raised $300 million in new venture capital, making it the latest company to cash in on a rush to fund cryptocurrency start-ups.

The new round of funding, led by the investment firms Paradigm and Coatue Management, brings the start-up’s valuation to a staggering $13.3 billion just four years after it was founded. OpenSea previously raised more than $100 million from a host of investors, including the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz and the actor Ashton Kutcher, according to data provided by the company.

Founded in 2017, OpenSea was created as a marketplace for people to buy and sell so-called NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, which are unique pieces of digital code backed by blockchain technology.

NFT items can vary, but the most popular tokens are pieces of digital art created by artists who list their pieces for auction on the OpenSea site, similar to listing on eBay. Winning bids can sometimes reach hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Ethereum, a popular cryptocurrency and blockchain technology connected to most kinds of NFTs.

As crypto-focused start-ups have grown more popular in recent months, OpenSea has become the central place for enthusiasts to trade NFTs. That has attracted the attention of investors who are keen to place increasingly large bets on the busy cryptocurrency space.

More than $3 billion in private investment went into NFT companies in 2021, according to data compiled by PitchBook, a firm that tracks private investments. Overall, investors poured more than $28 billion into cryptocurrency and NFT start-ups around the world last year, PitchBook said.

“In 2021, the world woke up to the potential of NFTs to unlock utility and economic empowerment across a vast set of industries, communities and creative categories,” said Devin Finzer, one of the founders and the chief executive of OpenSea. “Our vision is to be the destination for these new open digital economies to thrive.”

Still, many cryptocurrency critics think the frenzy around NFTs and blockchain technology is a fad, plagued by questionable activity. Last week, there was a brief controversy surrounding OpenSea after one of its patrons claimed that $2.2 million worth of NFTs had been stolen from him. (OpenSea later froze the stolen assets and prohibited the items from being traded on its site.)

Those worries have not stopped technologists. Start-ups focused on cryptocurrencies and NFTs are recruiting droves of employees from big tech companies like Meta, Google and Amazon, luring them with the promise of working on new — and potentially lucrative — technologies. Last year, Brian Roberts, the former chief financial officer at Lyft, left the ride-hailing company to join OpenSea as its first chief financial officer. The company also recently hired Shiva Rajaraman, a former vice president of commerce for Meta, as its vice president of product.

The company said it plans to use the new funding to add to its more than 90 employees, while doubling the size of its trust and safety team. The company also plans to invest heavily in product development to make its blockchain technology more accessible to mainstream consumers, and will soon launch a grant program to support creators and blockchain builders in the NFT space.

News that OpenSea was seeking funding was earlier reported by the tech newsletter Newcomer.

A direct current conversion facility in Blyth, England, provides a landing point for a new cable stretching from Norway.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

A growing web of undersea electrical cables is binding Britain’s vital power system and its clean energy aspirations to Europe.

The longest and most powerful of these cables was recently laid across the North Sea, from a hydroelectric plant in Norway’s rugged mountains to Blyth, an industrial port in northeast England, The New York Times’s Stanley Reed reports.

Completed last year, it stretches 450 miles, roughly the distance from New York to Toronto. The twin cables, each about five inches in diameter, can carry enough power for nearly 1.5 million homes.

The idea is to use the cable to balance the two nations’ power systems and take advantage of differences between them. In the broadest terms, Britain wants to tap into Norway’s often abundant hydropower, while the Norwegians will be able to benefit from surges of electricity from British wind farms that might otherwise be wasted.

The rapid growth of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, whose output varies with the breeze and sunshine, makes such sharing increasingly essential, experts say. These cables connecting one nation’s grid to another, known as interconnectors, allow Europe and other regions to operate like a much larger and more diverse power system that can use surpluses of electricity in one area to offset shortages in others.

Linking one nation’s power grid with another’s is considered essential as more electricity is generated from solar and wind. READ MORE

“Mega corporations would rather pass higher costs on to consumers than cut into their profits,” Senator Sherrod Brown has said.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Inflation remains rapid as the economy enters 2022, and Democrats have begun pointing to a new culprit for the high and lasting price increases: Greedy corporations.

Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and the White House spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, have been among those pointing to excessive profits in certain industries as one thing jacking up costs for consumers. They don’t blame overall inflation on price-gouging businesses — but the implication is that higher prices are partly the product of corporate opportunism, Jeanna Smialek reports for The New York Times.

The explanation for inflation is the latest in a string Democrats have offered since price gains shot up to uncomfortably high levels last year. It is partly grounded in economic reality, partly in political necessity: Rising prices are burdening and unsettling consumers, making them a liability for a party with a tenuous hold on congressional control headed into 2022 midterm elections.

As consumers feel the pinch of higher prices for food, gas and household goods, it’s creating a political messaging problem for Democrats. Lawmakers and the White House had initially argued that fast inflation was a sign that airfares and hotel rates were bouncing back and would fade quickly, but supply chain snarls and booming consumer demand for goods kept them elevated throughout 2021. More recently, price pressures have begun to broaden to service categories, like rent, in which increases tend to be long-lasting — and as wages climb swiftly, it raises the possibility that companies will keep lifting prices to cover their costs.

As inflation proves stubbornly sticky, administration officials and prominent lawmakers have refined their message to focus more blame on corporations, especially those in concentrated industries with a handful of powerful firms, like meat processing or gas.

“Profits at the biggest U.S. companies shot above $3 trillion this year, and the margins keep growing,” Mr. Brown, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said during a recent hearing. “Mega corporations would rather pass higher costs on to consumers than cut into their profits.”

Ms. Warren has pointed to robust corporate profits as a sign that companies are partly to blame for rising costs.

“Corporations are exploiting the pandemic to gouge consumers with higher prices on everyday essentials, from milk to gasoline,” she posted on Twitter on Nov. 26. “American families shouldn’t be bankrolling corporate America’s record-high profits.”

Politicians are placing more blame on greedy companies as prices stay high, but booming consumer demand is enabling firms to charge more. READ MORE

In Raleigh, N.C., Johnny Hackett Jr.’s temporary pop-up, the Black Friday Market, did so well that he signed a five-year lease.Credit…Eamon Queeney for The New York Times

The rash of storefront vacancies in the pandemic taught landlords to be more flexible with retail tenants. Some cut longtime tenants slack, waiving rents or entering into revenue-sharing agreements. To entice new tenants, they reduced rates, offered free rent and agreed to customize spaces.

Then there are the stopgap measures — anything to keep the space occupied, reports Jane Margolies for The New York Times.

To bring in some revenue, some landlords have given storefront windows over to digital advertising.

Others are allowing their empty windows to be filled with artwork — efforts that generate good will and make vacant spaces look less bleak.

And some welcomed pop-up retailers, hoping to bring life to languishing ground-floor spaces.

Pop-ups might not earn as much from the arrangements, but at least some revenue was coming in. And the deals often involve quick licensing agreements, rather than more complicated leases, and no outlay for capital expenses. Plus, there’s always the chance that a pop-up may become a permanent tenant.

In North Carolina, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance started two pop-up programs to address storefront vacancies and help local businesses. Early last year, the organization began matching landlords with entrepreneurs.

In the fall of 2020, the organization helped place Johnny Hackett Jr. in a storefront in a prominent building owned by Empire Properties for three months at a reduced rate.

Mr. Hackett paid $3,000 a month to open Black Friday Market, carrying art, apparel and other wares from dozens of Black vendors. The store did so well that Mr. Hackett signed a five-year lease at a monthly rent of $4,500.

“You just need to roll a little bit with a tenant you think is solid and in the long run is good for the community,” said Greg Hatem, Empire’s founder and managing partner.

The retail industry was bouncing back, but the Omicron variant of the coronavirus may throw a wrench in its recovery. READ MORE

Macy’s began requesting the vaccination status of employees on Tuesday, a sign it was preparing for a potential mandate of vaccinations or weekly testing ahead of a special Supreme Court hearing about such rules on Friday. In a memo sent to employees that was obtained by The New York Times, the retailer — which also owns Bloomingdale’s and Bluemercury — told workers in the United States to upload their vaccination statuses to a third-party platform by Jan. 16 “regardless of whether you work in a store, a supply chain facility, an office, or are remote/hybrid.” The company also said it might require proof of negative tests to be uploaded to the same system starting on Feb. 16.

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has requested that Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, respond to questions about his communications with former President Donald J. Trump and his staff in the days surrounding the riot. In a letter on Tuesday, the committee asked for Mr. Hannity’s voluntary cooperation, meaning that the host has not received a formal subpoena. The letter detailed a series of text messages between the conservative media star and senior officials in the Trump White House, illustrating Mr. Hannity’s unusually elevated role as an outside adviser to the administration.

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