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The biggest impact of the Gates divorce may have nothing to do with the Gates Foundation

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A divorce is typically a private matter that affects a family, with little consequence for the public at large.

But the split between Bill and Melinda Gates could have far-reaching consequences for global health and American life because they are the country’s biggest charitable donors — a sign, as sure as any, of just how central a role billionaire philanthropists play in our society.

In the immediate aftermath of the surprise announcement, everyone from critics of billionaires to former Gates Foundation executives was grasping for explanations about what this could mean for the world’s most important philanthropy. To some, the divorce suggested that major strategic changes could emerge in the years to come, with entire nonprofit sectors and hundreds of billions of dollars hanging in the balance. To others, the Gates’s divorce was not that dissimilar from any other couple’s — a reflection of the ironclad legal commitments they already made, and the family’s stated commitment to work together.

“I think the real story here is not the divorce itself having an impact, but the reaction the public had to the news,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, a University of Michigan professor who has studied the Gates Foundation closely. “There was widespread fear and anxiety on behalf of the foundation’s current grantees, which in and of itself illuminates the extent to which the Gates’s actions cause ripple effects in the rest of the philanthropic sector.”

The anxiety surrounding the Gates divorce isn’t surprising when you consider what happened when Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott announced their split in 2019. While we didn’t know it at the time, the philanthropic world ended up transformed by their $36 billion divorce settlement. What’s different with this Seattle tech billionaire divorce is that we know that this deal will reverberate in the world of mega-charity in some way or another because of their track record as major donors.

Bill and Melinda Gates created a charitable trust that today manages about $50 billion on behalf of the Foundation — that money is donated irrevocably and cannot be redirected. But there is another estimated $150 billion or so of Gates wealth that currently sits outside the Foundation’s walls, a sum that presumably will be split between the couple in a to-be-announced divorce settlement.

Now that the money is up to their individual — rather than collective — whims, it is possible that the fortune could end up funding different work than it would have previously. When the Gateses jump-started the Giving Pledge a decade ago, the couple wrote that they “had committed the vast majority of our assets to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” We don’t know whether that will still be the case after the divorce.

So in some ways, the bigger story is the money that has yet to be apportioned to the Gates Foundation and currently sits at places like Cascade Investments, the Gates family’s personal investment shop.

This money, Gates insiders speculate, theoretically might have gone to the Gates Foundation over the next few decades, but now it might go to outfits like Pivotal Ventures, Melinda Gates’s personal investment company focused on gender equality; or to Gates Ventures, her husband’s investment shop.

One former Gates Foundation executive, granted anonymity to offer a candid view, wondered whether Melinda Gates, over time, would focus more of her energy on Pivotal and less on their jointly run foundation.

The Gates Foundation itself is presenting a calm face: The $50 billion philanthropy said that both Bill and Melinda Gates would remain trustees of the foundation. “They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues, and set the organization’s overall direction,” a spokesman told Recode.

But while that may be true now, divorces are complicated, and even an initially amicable split can turn acrimonious or tense with time. So it’s impossible to know how exactly the next few years, or decades, will go.

“Even if they’re both clearly leading the foundation, I don’t see any scenario where it’s not going to turn into the things he cares about and the things she cares about,” said another former exec, who described there as already being a “massive, complex field of landmines between the foundation, Pivotal, and Gates Ventures.”

Even people who used to work closely with the Gates couple disagree with one another about how the divorce might affect the foundation. Asked how big a deal this would be for the Gates Foundation, on a scale of 1 to 10, one former executive pegged it with at least a 7. Another prior Gates aide gave it a 3. A third was even more bullish, saying that when it comes to the program, the impact would be a 0 or a 1.

Big changes could come, said one insider, but only once the Gateses are no longer preoccupied with what is sure to be a complex legal process. In the meantime, at least, some of the former executives predict that internal day-to-day matters could grow more paralyzed if the pair ends up struggling to cooperate, especially for people like Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman, who will have to manage the board.

But when it comes to the nonprofits themselves that depend on the Foundation’s largesse? There may be anxiety, but less drama than meets the eye.

And when it comes to the Gates orbit? The dominant feeling is a sullen dolefulness for their mentors.

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String of satellites baffles residents, bugs astronomers

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A string of lights that lobbed across the night sky in parts of the United States over three nights earlier this week had callers frantically calling TV stations from Texas to Wisconsin and speculating that a fleet of UFOs was coming

PHILADELPHIA — A string of lights that lobbed across the night sky in parts of the U.S. on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday had some people wondering if a fleet of UFOs was coming, but it had others— mostly amateur stargazers and professional astronomers— lamenting the industrialization of space.

The train of lights was actually a series of relatively low-flying satellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX as part of its Starlink internet service earlier this week. Callers swamped TV stations from Texas to Wisconsin reporting the lights and musing about UFOs.

An email to a spokesman for SpaceX was not returned Saturday, but astronomy experts said the number of lights in quick succession and their distance from Earth made them easily identifiable as Starlink satellites for those who are used to seeing them.

“The way you can tell they are Starlink satellites is they are like a string of pearls, these lights travelling in the same basic orbit, one right after the other,” said Dr. Richard Fienberg, press officer for the American Astronomical Society.

Fienberg said the satellites that are being launched in large groups called constellations string together when they orbit, especially right after launching. The strings get smaller as time goes on.

This month, SpaceX has already launched dozens of satellites. It is all part of a plan to bridge the digital divide and bring internet access to underserved areas of the world, with SpaceX tentatively scheduled to launch another 120 satellites later in the month. Overall, the company has sent about 1,500 satellites into orbit and has asked for permission to launch thousands more.

But prior to recent years, there were maybe a few hundred satellites total orbiting Earth, mostly visible as individual lights moving across the sky, Fienberg said. The other handful of companies that are planning to or have launched the satellite constellations have not launched recently and largely pushed them into orbit at a farther distance from Earth, he said.

Fienberg’s group as well as others that represent both professional and amateur stargazers don’t love the proliferation of satellites that can obscure scientific data and ruin a clear night of watching the universe. The International Astronomical Union issued a statement in July 2019 noting concern about the multiple satellite launches.

“The organisation, in general, embraces the principle of a dark and radio-quiet sky as not only essential to advancing our understanding of the Universe of which we are a part, but also as a resource for all humanity and for the protection of nocturnal wildlife,” the union’s representatives wrote. They noted that light reflection can interfere with astronomical research, but the radio-waves can also cause problems for specialized research equipment such as those that captured the first images of a black hole.

Fienberg said there is no real regulation of light pollution from satellites, but SpaceX has voluntarily worked to mitigate that by creating visors that dampen the satellites’ reflection of sunlight. They’ve made significant progress in just two years, he said, but many hope that the satellites will some day be at such a low magnitude that they will not be visible to the naked eye even at dusk or dawn.

Fienberg noted a massive telescope being built in Chile, costing millions of dollars and a decade of planning. The telescope will capture a huge swath of the sky in the Southern hemisphere and take continual pictures to record a sort of movie that will show the universe changing. Because of its size, nearly eight meters across, the massive telescope could also lead to the discovery of dimmer objects in the night sky, he said.

The plan is for the telescope to start recording in 2023. And with plans for thousands of satellites, Fienberg said it’s hard to imagine that they won’t cause issues with the data since there’s no way to correct for their lights and know what amount of light should be emitted from any dimmer objects behind the path of the satellites, which could also create ghost images in the data.

“We’re talking with companies now and hoping to continue to make progress, and potentially by the time it goes into operation, have tools and techniques to correct for the lights and perhaps fainter satellites,” Fienberg said. “We can’t say this is wrong and you have to stop because the point is to provide internet access to the whole globe. It’s an admirable goal, that we would support, if it didn’t mean giving up something else… the night sky.”

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Tesla Cybertruck hits New York ahead of Elon Musk’s SNL hosting appearance

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Tesla, SpaceX and Boring Company honcho Elon Musk isn’t the only tech-world curiosity stirring up New York this weekend. It seems the soon-to-be SNL host has been joined by the Tesla Cybertruck (or at least a prototype of it).

The notorious Armageddon-ready e-pickup, which starred in a viral demo-gone-wrong in 2019, appears in a video tweeted out Saturday by Tesla. The brief clip shows the vehicle rolling past the Radio City Music Hall (doesn’t look like any Rockettes were injured during the stunt — or any rockets either, for that matter).

Twitter user Eric Rihlman also tweeted out footage of the Cybertruck, and he posted a still shot of the pickup making its way through Times Square on Friday night, along with a comment about the “Blade Runner vibes” he felt on witnessing the spectacle.

That tweet got a rise out of Musk himself, who replied, “Great pic.” (On Friday, Musk had tweeted that the prototype would be visiting New York.)

Musk of course is scheduled to host Saturday Night Live tonight, where, he’s said, there’s “no telling” what he’ll do. Here’s how to watch, as well as what to know about the comments that Musk, his fans, and SNL cast members have made about his role as host.

As for the Tesla Cybertruck, it’s supposed to launch sometime this year. But in April, Musk made it sound like that may not be happening.


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How to watch Technoking Elon Musk on SNL

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Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is hosting Saturday Night Live this week. He’s coming in fresh from Wednesday’s successful Starship prototype landing but also on the heels of recent customer complaints about Tesla’s Solar Roof costs and last month’s deadly Tesla crash. If you have the desire to spend part of your Saturday finding out if the self-proclaimed Technoking makes a good comedy show host, here are the details.

Update: NBC announced Saturday afternoon that the show would be live-streamed internationally for the first time. The link for people to watch outside of the US is here.

How do I watch?

SNL airs on NBC, and it’s available to watch on the NBC website if you have a cable login. It will also be available on other live TV streaming services like Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, and Fubo TV.

If you don’t catch it live, SNL episodes are available on Hulu and Peacock the next day.

When does it start?

It starts at 11:30PM ET on May 8th, which is — you guessed it — Saturday night.

What will happen?

Miley Cyrus will be performing. Beyond that, who knows! Perhaps Musk will make a bunch of references to Dogecoin, do a skit where he re-creates the faces he pulled while smoking weed, or joke about rockets catching fire. Maybe his Twitter charisma won’t quite carry over, or maybe he’ll shock us with a surprisingly good delivery of a witty monologue. It remains to be seen, but either way, I’m sure we’ll hear all about it on Twitter.

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