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Newsletter: California Inc.: Fasten your seat belt — Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ is here

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“Ready Player One,” a geekfest of a novel with a cult following, gets the big-screen treatment as director Steven Spielberg explores the book’s virtual-reality world.
(Jaap Buitendijk)

Welcome to California Inc., the weekly newsletter of the L.A. Times Business Section.

I’m Business columnist David Lazarus, and here’s a rundown of upcoming stories this week and the highlights of last week.

Investors are hoping for calmer seas after stocks suffered their worst week in two years amid the Facebook scandal and concerns about an escalating trade war with China. The biggest damage to portfolios came Thursday when the Dow Jones industrial average plunged more than 700 points, followed by a 425-point fall the next day.

LOOKING AHEAD

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Meet Skynet: NVIDIA’s GPU Technology Conference takes place Monday through Thursday at San Jose’s McEnery Convention Center. The event, sponsored by a leading maker of graphics hardware, is billed as a top forum for developments in artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Store sales: The weekly measure of comparable-store sales at chain stores, discounters and department stores will be released Tuesday. The so-called Redbook survey showed last week that same-store sales were up 3.2% over year-ago levels at 20 of the largest U.S. chain retailers despite continued pressure from online competition.

Jobless claims: Weekly unemployment claims will be released Thursday. Last week we learned that the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose, with initial claims for state unemployment benefits increasing by 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 229,000 for the week ended March 17. Still, the labor market remains exceptionally tight.

Thrill ride: “Ready Player One” hits theaters Thursday. Based on the popular Ernest Cline novel, the big-budget, effects-laden film from director Steven Spielberg may give a boost to the nascent virtual-reality headset industry. But its commercial prospects are uncertain, with a projected opening weekend of about $50 million.

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No trading: The stock market will be closed for Good Friday.

THE AGENDA

Monday’s Business section features a book excerpt recounting the challenges Elon Musk faced in getting SpaceX off the ground. “We had to be super scrappy,” Musk said. “If we did it the standard way, we would have run out of money. For many years, we were week to week on cash flow, within weeks of running out of money. It definitely creates a mind-set of smart spending. Be scrappy or die: Those were our two options.”

STORY LINES

Here are some of the other stories that ran in the Times Business section in recent days that we’re continuing to follow:

Facebook uproar: The revelation that a political consulting firm with ties to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign gained access to the personal data of millions of Facebook users mushroomed into the biggest scandal ever to hit the social network. The furor prompted a public apology by founder Mark Zuckerberg amid demands he testify before lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic. A #DeleteFacebook movement also gained some traction on social media.

Trade war: After President Trump announced tariffs on about $50 billion worth of Chinese goods, China announced it would impose retaliatory import tariffs on 128 U.S. products. The goods amount to $3 billion and include staples such as California wines, fruits and almonds. The tit-for-tat moves also follow enactment of the White House’s previously announced tariffs on steel and aluminum.

Brakes on: A self-driving Uber car that struck and killed a pedestrian on a dark road in Phoenix this month was the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle. Initial reports said the woman jumped out in front of the Volvo SUV, but dashcam video indicated she was walking across the road and the vehicle appeared to take no evasive action. The accident prompted Uber and at least one carmaker to halt testing autonomous vehicles on public roadways.

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Toy saga: The Toys R Us bankruptcy took an unexpected turn when L.A. toy mogul Isaac Larian said he was leading a campaign to save more than half of the 735 Toys R Us domestic stores slated for closure. Larian, chief of Bratz maker MGA Entertainment, said he and other investors had pledged $200 million and hoped to raise an additional $800 million through crowdfunding to rescue the stores, which toy makers view as a crucial sales channel.

Fade out: After a last-ditch effort to sell itself failed, Weinstein Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. The once-formidable entertainment company brought down by the lengthy harassment and sexual assault scandal involving co-founder Harvey Weinstein had less than $500,000 in cash before seeking protection from creditors.

WHAT WE’RE READING

And some recent stories from other publications that caught our eye:

Taxing question: The New York Times takes up the intriguing question of how you tax cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. “Cryptocurrencies are tax-unfriendly by design. Many of the early adopters of bitcoin were libertarians and anarchists who were drawn to the technology’s stateless, decentralized nature.”

New school: The Atlantic serves up a lesson on the latest education revolution. “Schools are moving toward a model of continuous, lifelong learning in order to meet the needs of today’s economy.”

Something fishy: Wired reports on how a “soft” robotic fish invented by MIT aims to save the world’s oceans. “Future versions would use machine vision to lock onto individual fish and follow them around, all without raising suspicion.”

Big impact: From the New Yorker, an appreciation of Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” which “launched the environmental movement; provoked the passage of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act (both 1972); and led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970.”

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Digital cops: Bloomberg wonders whether the Facebook scandal illustrates why it’s time for yet another federal agency — this one focused on data protection: “What’s been unfolding for a while now is a rolling catastrophe so obvious we forget it’s happening. Private data are spilling out of banks, credit-rating providers, email providers, and social networks and ending up everywhere.”

SPARE CHANGE

This is pretty great: The Wall Street Journal delves into the emerging trend of rail buffs restoring old train cars (with an emphasis on Old World luxury) and then hitching them to Amtrak trains. “Owners pay Amtrak $2.90 per mile, plus additional fees for services. Add the expenses of crew and connection transportation, and a cross-country trip can cost tens of thousands of dollars.”

For the latest money news, go to www.latimes.com/business. Mad props to Laurence Darmiento and Scott J. Wilson for helping put this thing together.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the Business section.


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